Status Update.

I had a physical this week. I didn’t even know people still went to the doctor for a “physical,” but my new G.P. (actually he’s an N.P — can an N.P. be a G.P.?) suggested a few months ago when I was there getting the new shingles vaccine that I make an appointment for a physical and I finally got around to it. Mostly because I wanted to talk to him about my chronic daily heartburn and, again, about my sleeplessness.

My N.P. is a nice young man, spends more time at the gym than he probably needs to, and has a big bushy auburn beard and a Scottish name. The last time I saw him we sort of had words — I’d gone in for the second of two shingles vaccine shots and found out when I got there that they didn’t have the shot because there was a shortage. I was short with him (“you could have called me to let me know — the only reason I’m here is for that shot”) and he was short with me (“you’re not the only one — literally all day long everyone is asking me about this shot”), but a few minutes later I apologized and then he apologized, neither of us had been having a good day. So now I feel like we’re close.

In case you’re wondering what a 21st century physical consists of, they don’t do the turn your head and cough thing any more, but they do, at least in the case of MSM (men who have sex with men), a Pap smear in your butt. I am not lying. It involves a tool that looks for all intents and purposes to be a bottlebrush. The HPV virus can cause cancer in men, too, and this test checks for cell irregularities. (TMI? I used to overshare regularly in my blog years ago, but I got out of the habit for whatever reasons. This is nothing.) He said, “you don’t have to do it today if you want to think about it, but I will ask you again.” I told him that if he was going to make me do it, I wanted to get it over with.

It was extremely unpleasant. Since I am in a monogamous marriage, I do not have to have it done again. This is why we fought so hard for gay marriage.

On the way out, I had blood drawn. I don’t have the results of the bloodwork yet, but I know he’s just going to tell me I have high cholesterol, and I’m going to say “I know.” And he’s going to say, “I’d like to start you on statin drugs,” and I’m going to say, “Mm, I don’t think I want to do that.” (Funny, just now as I’m writing I received an email from my doctor’s office telling me my LDL is in the high range (207) where they recommend statins to reduce it.)

I have gained 20 pounds in the last couple years, which I already knew because I weigh myself compulsively, but now it’s in the official record, thanks.

This summer has been stacked with anxiety and disappointment, and I’ve been depressed. Or I should say more depressed than usual — I would probably describe my baseline state as “kinda sad.” So my N.P. is glad I joined a gym (it’ll help with the depression and sleeplessness, too) and he said I should cut down on drinking, also to help with both the weight gain and sleeplessness. He also told me that, to help with the heartburn, instead of wine, which is very acidic — he said, “I can’t even drink rosé anymore, it upsets my stomach!” — that I should maybe have a martini or a vodka on the rocks with dinner. Don’t you wish you had my N.P.? Also for the heartburn he referred me to a gastroenterologist who will do an endoscopy. (My only experience of endoscopies is from a dear friend who has a pre-cancerous condition in his esophagus and has to monitor it closely and my father who recently had a severely inflamed esophagus caused by a hiatal hernia. So obviously I’m a big fan of the endoscopy.)

I do feel better, more upbeat and energetic, since I’ve been doing cardio exercise nearly every day since last week. They always tell you that’ll be the case, but I thought it was just a way to get you to do it. I’m not so weighed down by the lack of sleep, and my hips are not feeling as stiff as they had been recently.

He suggested I try melatonin for sleep. I’ve taken it the last 3 nights and noticed no difference, but I’ll stay with it for a while. He also prescribed Zantac for my heartburn, and that has helped dramatically the last 2 days. I’ve always somewhat superstitiously resisted any medication I have to take daily. It just feels like the beginning of something I don’t want to start. But I’ve been taking Zyrtec every day for a couple years now for my respiratory allergies, because it helps. I guess the distinction in my mind is whether or not the benefit of a drug is immediate and tangible. For example, I don’t want to start taking statin drugs for my cholesterol because the benefits are far less clear.

So that’s the state of my 58-year-old self. I honestly never thought I’d live this long, but life does seem to generally get better as it goes along, so I don’t mind.




Dogs are really three-legged animals with a spare.

It’s August and a couple people I follow on Facebook are in Edinburgh doing shows in the Fringe Festival, posting photos and reviews and I’m filled with envy. Have you ever been? It’s such a beautiful city and a remarkable thing the festival, a solid month jammed to the gills with small theater productions, the streets crawling with artists and fans. It’s intense, overwhelming, the best thing ever.

I was there once, in 2002, with Y’all, at the end of Y’all. Y’all at that point was severely wounded but Edinburgh kind of put us out of our misery. Edinburgh took one look at us and said, “Why do you insist on prolonging this?”

Earlier that summer or spring, after 10 years, we had decided to let things wind down, only finish up the gigs we’d booked through the fall, and then take some time off. Our relationship was crumbling, or imploding, or maybe just evaporating, and the act — who knows which caused which — was floundering, artistically and in every other way.

A generous investor had financed our trip to Edinburgh and our show there. We booked a small theater, did our standard PR push, printed flyers and posters, ticked all the boxes. The show was an hour long, a version of what we’d been doing for years. The songs, the stories.

No one came. Not literally no one, but close. We were doing something like 6 or 7 shows a week for 4 weeks in a house that held probably 75 or less, and for most shows there were fewer than 10 people in the audience, and a handful we canceled altogether because the house was empty. Our rule was always that if there were fewer people in the audience than on stage, we could cancel. It was a two-person act.

Jay and I were Y’all, and we were in a relationship with a third partner for that last year, Roger. We were barely speaking. Other than showing up at the theater every day, the three of us spent most of our time alone. It wasn’t necessarily acrimonious, we just didn’t have the energy. One of my most vivid memories is playing a short set in a variety night at a club where acts performed to promote their shows, and the monitors had some kind of delay that threw us off. On a fast song, Jay was hearing the downbeat where I was hearing the upbeat and we knew we were out of phase but couldn’t recover, and probably because we just wanted it to be over, the tempo got faster and faster until we could barely strum so fast, and the half-drunk audience just looked puzzled. (The act either right before us or after, I can’t remember, was “Puppetry of the Penis,” which is exactly what it sounds like.)

It was during that month that we decided to end it even earlier than we’d planned. We’d do our gig in New York at Dixon Place in September and then play our farewell concert on the live radio show Bound for Glory in Ithaca. So that’s what we did.

Still I’m dying to go to Edinburgh for the festival. Who knows why I would want to return to the scene of such a sad episode of my life, but I crave it. Not the sadness, the theater festival.

Back then we blogged our travels (the word blog was not invented yet, but that’s what we were doing). i wanted to find an entry from our time in Scotland but it looks like we suspended it that month. But here’s an entry from just before we left, to give you an idea of the tenor of those times. It was heavy.

Helpful info: We’re in Ann Arbor Michigan. The producers of the benefit we’re performing in put us up in a house where the owners were away when we arrived. Roger’s dog, Knavin, had been hit by a car a few months earlier and had surgery to repair his leg. We thought he was healing well, but when he hopped out of the van at this house where we stayed, the metal pin holding his leg together snapped, and he was in excruciating pain. I think everything else probably makes sense in context.

Hey friends and family!

We're in Scotland, performing in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It's not as easy as we thought it would be to keep this diary up to date from here, so there won't be a new entry until we get back at the beginning of September. Just wanted to let you know that everyone is fine. Sorry to keep you hanging about Knavin. Roger got email from his mother a couple days ago to say that Knavin just had the staples out from his surgery and he's running around and playing and eating like a horse, or at least like a very hungry dog.

The entry below is from the week before the week we left. We'll post an account of our month in Scotland when we get back. Take care!


Diary in a Box, July 28, 2002
Ann Arbor, Michigan to Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin

Sunday, July 21

In an email, the producers of the benefit asked us what we eat for breakfast, and they stocked our hosts' kitchen with soy milk, Kashi, whole grain bread, honey, an assortment of good tea, veggie burgers, sprouts, and greens.

Our hosts left a note on the kitchen counter that said, "Please be at home! We'll see you Monday or Tuesday." I assumed these people had jobs they love and children they're proud of. Their walls are full of photos and the shelves are full of books: philosophy and religion, science fiction. A very old unabridged Webster's dictionary. The bed in the guest room was made with white cotton sheets and feather pillows. No air conditioning, box fans. The air is heavy with humidity, but not uncomfortable. The air moves. The house feels open. It feels like summer a long time ago, before I grew to hate the heat and humidity.

We drove to Pease Auditorium on the Eastern Michigan University campus at noon, parked, and went in the back door. We met Jeanne, one of the producers, backstage in a maze of hallways and stairs. She introduced us to her partner Pattie, the stage manager, Robin, and some of the other volunteers, and she showed us to our dressing room. A door opposite the green room led right onto the stage where the Chenille Sisters were doing a sound check.

Last March, a few days after we were booked at the Ark, a folk music venue in Ann Arbor that's been here since the mid-sixties and which we've been trying to get a gig at since the mid-nineties, Jeanne emailed me to ask if we would perform in a benefit concert she was producing in Ypsilanti, a small town that butts up against Ann Arbor. Back up a little further. Some time ago, I'm not sure how long, Ypsilanti passed a law that made it illegal to discriminate against gay people. A neighborly thing to do. The owner of Dominos Pizza, whose headquarters are in Ypsilanti, was inconvenienced that he wouldn't be allowed to discriminate against gay people, so he funded an effort to create a law saying that not only are all laws that forbid discrimination against gay people illegal, any such laws in the past and future are also illegal. This new law is on the ballot in the November election. The citizens of Ypsilanti will vote on it. Jeanne and two other women produced this benefit concert to raise money for the organization trying to inform people why it's important to vote no to the new law.

The benefit was called the "Love Makes a Family Concert," and it seemed the audience was comprised of families, people of all ages and kids. I think all the performers were local except us. Jeanne performed a set with her band first, then us. After intermission, the Chenille Sisters sang and last was LaRon Williams, a storyteller. At the end we all sang a song together. I don't remember the name of the songwriter or the song, but the message was that we're all one family regardless of our religion or ethnicity or personality.

We missed Jeanne's set because we were getting ready to go on, and we missed part of the Chenille Sisters set because we were wolfing down some backstage food that we'd abstained from before our performance. (We don't like to be full when we sing.) There were sandwiches and brownies and lemon bars, and some other bar cookies that tasted like pecan pie. We ran out to hear their last few songs, one of which was an elaborate number with hand props and choreography that hypnotized the half dozen kids who were standing at the foot of the stage.

We saw all of LaRon Williams' set. He sat and played a finger piano between his knees -- I didn't get a close look at it, but it sounded like a finger piano -- and shook some kind of beads wrapped around his ankles to create background music while he told stories. After hearing Jay's story about his Mamaw and the earthworms, LaRon changed the characters in one of his stories to earthworms and improvised, making necessary changes as he went along.

After the show we signed CDs and books and chatted with the Chenille Sisters who were doing the same. There was a reception afterwards a short drive away on the lawn of one of the campus buildings. When we got there a local politician was making a speech. It was muggy and we were tired. We sat down next to Jeanne and Pattie. Jeanne asked if we had plans for Monday. We didn't really, except to get Knavin to the vet. She offered to show us around town, "and if you'd like to get together and play some music, I'd love that." I took a deep breath and sighed, "Mm. Yeah..." She laughed, and I said, "I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to sound so unenthusiastic. We're just so tired. And we don't know what's going on with the dog."

On the way out, we met Robin coming in. She sat down on a low brick wall and wrote down the name of her vet, a friend who owns two clinics in town. While we were talking and she was writing, a fat squirrel ran up to where we were sitting and watched us. If one of us moved, he retreated a foot or two but came back. Robin didn't see the squirrel or ignored it, but it drew Jay's and my attention and it was hard to concentrate on what Robin was saying.

I was hungry when we got home, and after all that backstage sugar I was craving salad.. I found two hearts of romaine lettuce in the fridge, washed them, and tore them into pieces. I put the lettuce in a bowl with some olives, a handful of grated parmesan, and a can of chick peas. I made dressing with the juice of half a lemon, two cloves of garlic, pressed, and olive oil (double the lemon juice). It was a lot of salad, but that was dinner. Jay watched I Love Lucy on TV. Roger made pixie pouches and I wrote for a while in my journal and then read on the screened-in porch.

I'm reading Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. It's about a season he spent as a ranger in Arches National Park in southern Utah, what was then a remote spot, before the park was developed and, from Abbey's point of view, ruined. It's a pleasure to read because the prose is beautiful, and it's one of those books that seem to change the air or the light all around me because I've learned something new about something that's been right under my nose my whole life. It's one of Roger's favorite books. I thought I should read it now, in case he takes it with him when he goes.

Before I went to bed, I went back to my journal. I typed on the porch with all the lights off except the light from my computer screen. At first it was silent, but my ears adjusted to the quiet and I started to hear the sounds of this neighborhood at night. A baby crying, teenage girls laughing, the ringing thud of a basketball bouncing on concrete, a window sliding open close by, a fan humming next door, something rustling in the bushes a few feet away.

It was warmer than last night, but breezy. I brought a white cotton blanket and a pillow from the guest bedroom down to the porch and folded the blanket in half on the couch like a sleeping bag. It was almost one o'clock and the girls laughing and the basketball I'd heard before had stopped.

Monday, July 22

Last night I had a vision of myself happy and not famous. It shocked me. That can't be me, can it? I looked closer and it was. Me.

I was half awake when Roger came out to the porch carrying Knavin, set him down, and went back inside. Last night Roger told me he planned to get up at seven and call the veterinary clinic at eight when it opened. I thought, since Knavin is in pain, the vet would want to see him right away, so I assumed it must be some time between seven and eight. I dozed. Knavin whimpered. I woke up. I found yesterday that if I softly said, "Shhhh," Knavin would stop crying. I tried it. It worked. When he stopped crying, I fell asleep and stopped "Shhhh-ing." He started crying again and I woke up. And so on. I got up, folded the blanket and went inside.

Lying down I hadn't noticed how warm and humid it was. I broke out in a sweat from the small exertion of walking from the porch to the bathroom. Lately I'm in a constant state of shock and indignation about the weather.

Monday is Y'all business day. There's less and less business to do since fall is pretty much booked and we're not looking beyond that. I took a cold shower, turned on my computer, answered some emails. Ate a bowl of cereal, made coffee. Jay and Roger went to Sam's Club to buy printer cartridges. Roger is preparing a press mailing to the Northeast. He's been printing out press kits for three days. Over a hundred packages.

When the sky got dark and two big drops of rain smacked onto the skylight over the kitchen, I hoped for a pull-out-all-the-stops thunderstorm. An all day racket. I was in the mood for it. But a half hour of heavy rain, some thunder, and a hint of a cool, fragrant afternoon pleased me enough.

Jay and Roger took Knavin to the vet at a little after 4. I made another pot of coffee. Better use that half and half before it goes bad. I sat on the screened-in porch. A blue jay lives in the back yard. He makes a buzzing clicking sound like a cicada when he flies. Either that or there's a cicada here who buzzes and clicks when the blue jay flies.

The humidity rose again until I felt like my skin was gathering moisture just by moving through the room. And then another storm, this one longer, less thunder, more rain. I ran upstairs to shut windows but too late; the corner of the bed and the carpet in front of the window in the guest room were already soaked, and there was a puddle on the bathroom floor. Rain was blowing into the porch, but the couch on the inside wall against the house was dry. I sat there and watched water gush out of the drainpipe on the corner of the neighbor's house and then skip the pipe altogether and spill up over the gutter.

The house next door has the same wide green siding I remember on the house I was born in. It's the color of patinaed bronze. Yesterday I sat here and watched the neighbor scrape mud from a path along the garage with a pink plastic toy shovel and carry it slowly, one pink shovelful at a time, to a flower bed at the base of a tree at the back of the back yard. Back and forth for at least half an hour.

Jay and Roger and Knavin got back from the vet near seven o'clock and Jeanne and Pattie and then Ayron arrived a few minutes later. Knavin won't lose his leg after all. The doctor is going to put another steel plate on his bone. He'll go into the hospital on Tuesday and have the surgery on Wednesday.

Ayron took us out to dinner with Jeanne, Pattie, and Bill, a graduate student who was one of the technical staff for the benefit concert. Ayron drove us all, except Bill who met us there, to the restaurant in her van. It was raining hard. The restaurant, called Seva, reminded me of the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York, the mother church of vegetarian cuisine, not just the menu but the decor, lots of unpainted wood. I had asparagus lasagna which was delicious but, as Pattie, who sat on my right and ordered the same thing, said, not lasagna. It was a thick layer of melted white cheese, a cheddary sauce under it, and under that a few thin stalks of asparagus, and not much pasta. I didn't pay attention to what everyone else ordered except Jay, who was on my left and had a burrito, but the plates were mostly clean when the waiter cleared them.

Someone asked, "Where are you headed from here?" This is the start of a conversation we've had many times in the last few weeks which goes something like this:

"We're playing in Chicago and northern Indiana and Wisconsin later this week."

"And then?" or sometimes just raised eyebrows and a nod.

"Then we're spending two days with Steven's family in Indiana. After that we're driving to Pennsylvania where we'll drop off the trailer at Roger's parents' house and fly to Scotland for the whole month of August.

Here we have a conversation about Scotland, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, how we got the gig, the folk festival we performed in last year on the Shetland Islands, etc.

"And in the fall we're touring the northeast, the southeast, and Texas, and then we're taking six months off."

I don't mean to say this conversation is tedious or unwelcome. I think the first questions that come to mind when people find out we live on the road are "where have you been?" and "where are you going from here?" We love sharing our experiences and plans. We write about them on the Internet for god's sake. But since we're with a new set of people every few days, there is some repetition in our conversations, and some of it gets to be almost rehearsed.

When we got back to the house where we're staying, the garage door was open, so we knew our hosts were home. We knocked on the front screen door. Cassie came to the door, wiping her mouth with a napkin. She and Ayron hugged, and Ayron introduced us. Cassie said, "Well, come in. We were just having our supper." They had driven all day from Maine where they were visiting family. Cassie's husband Corty and a friend, Martha, were at the table. Corty said, "Pull up a chair. Would you like a glass of wine?"

"That sounds great," I said. I think Roger and Jay passed.

Roger said, "I guess you met Knavin." (We'd left him sleeping on the porch when we went to dinner.)

Cassie said, "Yes. He's not doing too well huh?"

Roger told them the whole story. Cassie said, "You and Knavin can stay here as long as you need to."

I slept on the porch again. It rained hard all night.

Tuesday, July 23

Roger brought Knavin down to the porch early. Knavin's pain must be severe and constant. He hasn't stopped crying for more than a few minutes at a time since Sunday night. He circled and whimpered. I tried to sleep through it but couldn't so I got up.

The vet yesterday referred Knavin to a surgeon at a clinic about an hour away, near Detroit. Roger and Jay took Knavin there in the morning. Roger thought he would stay overnight and have the surgery Wednesday morning, but they were back a few hours later, with Knavin. It would cost over $100 for Knavin to stay at the clinic overnight, he would be in a strange place away from us, and they wouldn't be doing anything for him other than giving him pain medication that we could give him at home.

Knavin would, after all, have his leg amputated. The surgeon had given Roger two choices. She could repair Knavin's leg again with another steel plate and a bone graft. He would have to stay in a cage for three months to recover, and the low estimate was around $3,000. Or she could amputate his leg, he would heal in a few days, and the low estimate was around $1,800. The vet brought a dog, another lab, who had had a front leg amputated the day before, into the examining room to show Roger and Jay and Knavin how well he'd adjusted already. She said, "Dogs are really three-legged animals with a spare."

Knavin, despite his pain -- he cries with every breath -- has been sweet and steady, helping all of us through this.

We went to the Ark at 6 for a sound check. When we walked in, the room was dark except for stage lights, and quiet. Frank Goodman, our co-bill, met us back stage. He'd arrived early and finished his sound check. We did our sound check and found our dressing room next door to Frank's. Frank introduced us to his girlfriend, Annie Gallup, a singer/songwriter who lives here in Ann Arbor. Frank is from Nashville, but we never met him there.

By 7:45, the room seemed nearly full. The last Tuesday of every month at the Ark is "Take a Chance Tuesday." The Ark and a local booking agency sponsor the show. They present acts, like us, who don't have a following in the area. The concerts are free. The idea is that people might take a chance on an unknown act and the act has a chance to win over an audience that's predisposed to like their style of music. It seems to work. There was a good-sized crowd. Performing in that benefit on Sunday helped attendance too.

We heard bits and pieces of Frank's songs from backstage, but we were preparing for our performance so we didn't listen closely. (We've missed a lot of great live music while putting on our costumes.) The audience loved him and they were relaxed and happy when we got out there. They were a laughing crowd, loud howling, screaming, but listening. Linda and Herb, our friends from Estes Park, were in the front row. Linda's has business and family in this area and travels back and forth often. Ayron, Cassie, and Corty were behind them.

I don't remember what we had for lunch, but we had it at around noon. The day passed quickly and I didn't think to plan an early dinner or even a snack. I was famished by the time we started our set. So much so that I felt woozy about halfway through the first song, Fancy Pants, and my strumming arm felt like I was shaking a piece of rubber. I bounced back though. Sometimes extreme hunger can create a mix of relaxation and lightness of touch that makes for good performance energy. It worked Tuesday night. After the show, Roger, Jay, and I, and Bill went around the corner to the Ann Arbor Diner. Jay and Roger drove to Cassie and Corty's to check on Knavin and give him a pill. Bill and I went straight to the diner to wait.

I asked the waiter for a cup of decaf. She said, "It's instant and there are no refills. Do you still want it?"

"No, I'll have regular coffee."

When Jay and Roger got to Cassie and Corty's, they found Cassie and Martha and Ayron sitting with Knavin on the living room floor. Knavin was wrapped in blankets. While we were out Knavin had pushed the porch door open and wandered into the back yard. The door had shut behind him and he couldn't get back in. They found him lying in the wet grass shivering. Ayron heated some towels in the microwave and wrapped him up. He was snoring when Roger and Jay left.

Roger and I ate eggs and hippie hash (fried potatoes and vegetables) with toast. Jay had a Greek salad. Bill had steak and eggs. Jay and I had eaten at this smoky diner before. The first time was around 1995 when we planned a "Christmas in Indiana" tour which took us through New England and the northern Midwest in December. A blizzard followed us. Half the shows were canceled. I got the flu. We beat the storm to Ann Arbor and the weather was wintry but fine, but when we called the venue (I think it was a cafe called "Not a Cafe") for directions, they told us their sound system had been stolen the night before, so we didn't do that show either.

Wednesday, July 24

Corty and Cassie are early risers. Knavin was due at the clinic, over an hour away, at 9, so we got up at 6. Corty made scrambled eggs with cheese and chives, toast, and tea, and we all sat and ate together, except Roger who had no appetite.

At the clinic, there was another yellow lab in the waiting room. He growled and barked at Knavin. Knavin swung his tail back and forth and walked halfway to the dog to say hello but turned around and lay in front of the door, looking out. A few minutes later a technician came out. Roger asked her if he could speak to the surgeon before we left. She said she'd ask, and she led Knavin down a hallway and away. A woman in pink scrubs came out.

"Hi, I'm one of the technicians who'll be helping with the surgery today. You had a question?"

Roger said, "This may seem like an odd question, but I wanted to know if it would be possible to have the leg."

She opened her mouth, scrunched her forehead, closed her mouth.

Roger said, "I understand if it's not allowed, but I thought I'd ask."

"I don't think that's allowed. What we do is we send them to a crematorium. I can ask if the remains can be saved and sent back for you. I know they do that for people whose animals have died, but I don't know if they would do it for a leg."

"OK. Well, whatever you can do, I appreciate. Thank you."

"Someone will call when he's out of surgery."

All three of us took naps when we got home. When I woke up, Roger was typing and printing press kits at the dining table. Cassie told us she had a potluck dinner meeting at 6:30. They'd be using the porch, so we cleared our stuff from the table and couch out there, books, computers, some clothes.

Corty and the three of us were on our own for dinner. Just the guys. Corty made gin and tonics, and we sat in the living room and told family stories. Then Corty broiled a steak and sliced some mozzarella cheese. There were no tomatoes, so he sliced an avocado instead and arranged the slices on a plate with the cheese. Roger made pasta with butter, garlic, olives, and onions and a green salad, and he sliced a loaf of semolina bread.

After Cassie's meeting, her guests went home except Susan who is Martha's partner. Cassie asked Jay and me if we'd sing a song or two since Susan missed our show last night. Susan called Martha and told her to come over. We sang The Far Side Banks of Jordan, Don't Laugh, Bright Morning Stars. Roger insisted we sing The Baby Tree. Cassie got out copies of Rise Up Singing and we muddled through Moonshadow (the Cat Stevens song), Turn, Turn, Turn, and a few others.

Thursday, July 25

The trailer was parked at the curb across the street in front of Cassie and Corty's house, a fine place for it to sit until next Tuesday when Jay and I would be back to pick Roger up. But when we woke up Thursday morning, a road crew was laying asphalt on our side of the street, working their way toward us. The trailer would have to be moved so they could pave under it when they got to that side of the street. This side would be finished and the asphalt would be set enough to park the trailer on it in a few hours. We could move it while they were paving the strip down the middle of the street. But Jay and I had to leave sooner than that to get to Chicago and off the highway before rush hour.

Jay tried to back the trailer into Cassie and Corty's driveway but the hitch hit the concrete and would've dug a hole or torn the hitch off if we'd kept going up. The driveway isn't steep, but when there's an incline and then a level spot and then another incline (driveways in the city often slope up from the street to a level sidewalk and continue their grade on the other side), even if the grade is not steep, the hitch hits the ground.

Corty remembered that Chicago is on Central Time, so we got an extra hour. Cassie called her neighbor two doors down. The asphalt in front of her house was dry enough to support the trailer, so Jay moved it, we unhitched, and left for Chicago in plenty of time.

Jay switched back and forth between the alternative rock station and an oldies station. We passed a whitewashed panel truck converted into a camper. I thought of Fats Kaplin touring Europe with Tom Russell's band in a bread truck in the 80s. It was winter, and the band was lined up on a couch in the back of the truck with no heat and no seatbelts, just piles of blankets and coats. But when I looked over at the driver, he smiled and I thought, "You look happy. Can I have your life in January?"

"Amy" by Pure Prairie League came on the radio. A couple years ago, Fats was playing with the re-formed Pure Prairie League. Jay turned it up. A plastic grocery bag flew up over the car in front of the car in front of us, caught on the antenna on the car in front of us which shook it like a dog shakes a deflated basketball. The antenna released it and it sailed straight at us, then straight up, stalled, and spiraled over and behind us.

When we turned off the highway onto Lake Shore Drive, I called Dan on the cell phone. He said if we couldn't find a parking spot on the street, call him and he'd get us into the parking garage in his building. We did find a spot, right across the street. Dan lives on the block between Lake Shore Drive and the next street west, half a block from Lake Michigan.

Dan rode with us to the No Exit Cafe. He had a date, a woman he met on the Internet. I don't think he knew much about her appearance except that she was blond and small. He knew her name was Jo. Throughout our sound check and the opening act, every time the door opened all three of us turned and if it was a small woman or a blond woman we waited -- with expressions that we hoped said, "Jo?" -- for a sign. Twice, a woman smiled and walked toward our table, but as we all started to rise, she stopped short of us and hugged someone at the table in front of ours.

During our sound check, a black woman who struck me as conservatively dressed though I don't remember what she was wearing sat on a couch in front of the window, facing us. She wore glasses. She watched the whole thing, as engrossed as if it were the show, with a half-smile, "What is this?" look on her face. Believe me, I'm used to that look, but not when we're out of costume. I wonder what she was thinking? I didn't see her afterwards or I would have asked.

Scott Free, the host of what he called a "queer coffeehouse," sang three songs, anthems one, two, and three, he called them. After Scott, a writer read two or three short stories. I didn't listen closely. The settings were urban I think, fast-moving and densely populated.

Scott introduced us. The tables were full and people leaned against the bar opposite the stage, 30 people tops but it's nice to play to a full house even when it's small. While we'd been changing in the bathroom, Jo arrived. She was not blond, but she was small. She looked a little like Tori Amos, but smiled more. We did a 45-minute set, the same set we did at the Ark. Everyone faced us and listened. Piece of cake.

Jay and I and Dan and Jo went to the Heartland Cafe two blocks away for late dinner. Mostly vegetarian menu. I had a quesadilla with beans and cheese, avocado, greens, and tomatoes. Dan ordered a burrito, and Jay had a tostada. All the same stuff, just assembled differently. The Mexican entrees came with a choice of mashed potatoes or brown rice. I had potatoes, which were chunky and garlicky. Jo ordered an artichoke. She'd never eaten one before, and Jay demonstrated how to scrape the meat off the leaves with his teeth.

We all went back to Dan's apartment. This time we parked in the garage. The pipes running under the ceiling looked close to the roof of the van, but there were no signs prohibiting vans and parking garage ceilings always look closer than they are, so Jay drove in, slowly. When we passed under a garage door opener hanging from the ceiling, the roof made a soft kachunk sound like buckling metal. Jay looked up at an attendant standing 20 feet in front of us in the garage. He held up the back of his hand and wagged his fingers. Jay moved forward. A low scraping noise. Then we passed under a pipe. Another kachunk.

We went upstairs and watched a tape one of Dan's students had given him of Eddie Izzard. (Dan teaches acting students at DePaul University.) Very funny and smart and original. I was inspired and could tell that Jay was inspired. I thought, "Jay could do this. He could put together his stories and tell them in this style, this format, just stand in front of a crowd and talk." And I thought this is essentially what I want to do also. I want to include music, but I also want to tell stories alone on a stage, something along the lines of Laurie Anderson. And I don't know why I am so afraid sometimes because I have no doubt that what I have to say would be interesting, smart, and entertaining. I wouldn't take my material to comedy clubs. More likely to artsy venues, performance art places.

Friday, July 26

Dan took us to breakfast at a place called Orange. The staff were all showing their belly buttons, even the busboy. Dan said maybe their dryer was too hot. At the top of the menu it said, "If you want to build you own omelette, go to someplace with "Golden" or "Nugget" in the name. We don't do that here." There were 6 or 8 items on the menu. Jay had pancakes with berries, Dan had an omelette, and I had plain eggs with potatoes and toast.

I feel an infusion of energy here. I first felt this when I was a little boy and I'd visit my grandmother in Waukegan, Illinois. She lived downtown in an apartment. In the storefront of her building there was a candy store where she'd buy us bags of caramel corn. The Great Lakes Naval Base was in Waukegan and at night there were sailors in tight bell bottoms walking the streets in pairs and threes, some of them with girls on their arms. Grandma loved the city, the noise and people. In the morning she'd say, "Let's go out bumming," which was window shopping and lunch at "the dime store."

She told me that some people belong in the city, and I knew I was one of them. I couldn't wait to grow up and move to New York. I knew when I was 10 years old that I would live in New York. And I did love it there. But as soon as we left, and even more so when Jay and I left Nashville and started spending most of our time in nature, discovering real silence and open space and darkness, and I began to hear myself think, hear my own voice, I felt awake and whole. I thought I would never go back and live in a city again. Was that just the exhilaration that comes with a change? Was it no more than the feeling you get after you rearrange the furniture and you want to just sit and look at it, your whole new room? Would going back to the city be like rearranging the furniture again? Or would I lose that part of myself that flourishes in the silence?

Jay and I watched the last 15 minutes of the Eddie Izzard special, from the point where we'd started to doze off the night before. We left Chicago at 2:30. By 4 we were in Valparaiso. We killed 2 hours at a bookstore before we went to the Front Porch. Jane was sitting in her van eating a taco when we pulled into the parking lot behind the store.

Jay said, "Taco Bell?"

"No, Burger King. Two for 99 cents. They're really hot, which I like, but they're so hot, they make me sneeze."

"How's business?" Jay asked when we'd brought in our instruments and Jane was arranging folding chairs around the cafe tables which ring the small stage.

"Not good. A few months ago, we were talking about finding a way to end it gracefully. But things have picked up a little."

The Front Porch is a music store and a hub of creative activity in Valparaiso, Indiana, a small college town about an hour southeast of Chicago. They sell instruments, all kinds. They offer private and group lessons. (Jane said later when she was introducing us that over 400 students a week take lessons there.) And the basement is a coffeehouse-style venue. The best performers on the singer-songwriter circuit have played there since the early 90s when it opened. Jane introduces the acts and sells candy bars, little packages of cheese and crackers, coffee, and tea.

"I'm really looking forward to your music and your storytelling," Jane said. We've performed at the Front Porch a few times. We never have a very big crowd, but Chad, who does the booking, makes decisions based on the quality of the music, not the quantity of money. And Jane likes us.

Fourteen people came to the show. Two of them were fans from South Bend who travel to anywhere we play in northern Indiana. The others hadn't seen us before.

Jane arranged for us to sleep at her friend's house across the street. We usually stay at Jane's house but her son is visiting. We followed her home and she showed us into the guest room in her neighbor's house. I don't think anyone was home. I don't think anyone was home in the morning when we left either.

Saturday, July 27

It was raining hard when we woke up. We tip-toed out in case our hosts were sleeping. We knocked on Jane's porch door and walked in. Her daughter Ellie was in the kitchen and said hello. "My mother is getting dressed." Jane came down the stairs.

"Ellie is meeting a friend and they're going to Chicago for a concert. I need to drop her off at her friend's house. There are banana nut muffins in the oven. Eat slowly and I'll join you when I get back." She poured us over-sized mugs of coffee and she and Ellie vanished.

When Jane came back we talked about our plans. When we see people like Jane, whom we've known for years and whose interest in us has shaped our creative life and work, I want to tell them what's going on. But what is there to tell? The only certain plan we have is a plan to stop planning.

The country highways and even some of the freeways are flanked with tall stalks of Queen Anne's Lace. Unmowed fields are thick with it. Did you know that in the middle of each of those white lace umbrellas there is a single dark purple blossom? I like the landscape of southern Wisconsin more than any other I've been in. If I liked the climate as much, I wouldn't think twice about moving here.

Cafe Carpe opens at 5 and we pulled into town at 3. There was a sidewalk sale, so we parked and walked around downtown. All the stores had tables out front piled with things that wouldn't sell inside. It was all marked down enough to make us stop and look, but it was still a lot of stuff nobody needed or wanted. We passed Satchel, Bill and Kitty's son, walking with his friend Rob and stopped to talk. Bill and Kitty own Cafe Carpe.

When we got back to the van it was still only 4. Jay looked in the front window of the cafe. Bill was cooking and the door was unlocked, so we went in. We've played here twice before, and both Jay and I have written a lot about the place, so I won't write a lot now except to say that it's one on a list of many places, each unique but that all feel like home. Our first time here, it was December and snowy and we slept upstairs in one of several run-down rooms in a ramshackle apartment. Satchel used one of the rooms as a bedroom and band practice room. Bill and Kitty and Savannah, their daughter, were living across the street. Last summer when we were here, the upstairs was gutted and dusty with drywall and newly sanded floors. We changed amid the construction but we slept in our trailer at a campground a few miles away.

Bill said, "Have you been here since the upstairs was finished?"

"No."

"Well, come on up."

They moved some of the original walls and removed others to create an open living room and kitchen with a view through French doors of the river that runs behind the building, bathrooms, an office, and bedrooms. There was a weathered 2 by 6 across the outside of the French doors. Bill said there would be a deck there, but now it's a sheer drop-off to the back yard two stories down. Bill said, "Make yourself at home." Jay checked his email while I read.

We went downstairs at 5 and Bill made us dinner. Salads of mixed greens and vegetables with sauteed portobella mushrooms, garlic toast, and Caribbean-style vegetarian jambalaya -- Bill's recipe, with pineapple and coconut milk. After we'd eaten our salads, a man came in with a little boy maybe three or four years old. They sat next to us at the bar. Bill and Dennis, the waiter and bartender, knew this guy, a friend or regular customer. Dennis was telling him what was in the kitchen that wasn't on the menu. "We have jambalaya -- "

"Is it the real jambalaya or that girl jambalaya you had yesterday? I'm sorry. That stuff is for girls. What's it got in it? Like fruit or something? No thanks. There was this woman sitting here last night, and she asked about it and Bill brought some out for her to try to see if she liked it. I could tell by looking at her that she was the type who was going to like it. And she did."

The kitchen is at the end of the bar, and Bill had been listening. He brought our plates out to us and said, "Here's your vegetarian Caribbean-style jambalaya."

The guy slumped and blushed and said, "Oh my god. I can't believe it. I'm so embarrassed."

I said, "That's OK. We're vegetarians. We're used to people like you."

He said, "Oh god. I saw those empty plates and I thought you were done eating. I thought I was safe."

"Hey it's really OK."

He and his son got up and moved to a table.

No one came to the show. Well, not no one. Jay and I have a rule that we don't do the show if there are fewer people in the audience than on the stage. The room was empty at 8:15; the show was supposed to start at 8:30. We decided we wouldn't change into our costumes yet. We'd wait and see if anyone showed up. I wasn't optimistic. At 8:35, a man and a woman came in together, each holding a pint glass of beer. Jay and I were sitting in the stairwell next to the entrance to the listening room. They walked past us, sat down, and talked softly. At 8:50, Jay told Bill we were going to cancel the show. Bill said, "Yeah, let 'em off the hook."

I walked over to the waiting couple. "I'm sorry. We're not going to do the show tonight.

She said, "That would be really hard huh? To do a show for two people."

I said, "Yeah, for us and for you. I hope it wasn't too much trouble to get here. Did you come far?"

"He's from here. I'm from Waukesha."

The man looked past me into the middle of the room. He wanted out.

"Well, we really appreciate your coming. Sorry."

They stopped at the bar on the way out. Bill gave them their money back and chatted with them for a few minutes. Then they left.

I asked Dennis for a piece of carrot cake. Kitty makes it. She makes all the desserts I think. I have the recipe, but I haven't made it. I will as soon as I have a stationary kitchen with an oven. It's good. Jay sat down and had a piece of chocolate cake with cream cheese icing. It wasn't enough. I had a beer, a pint of a local amber ale. Jay had a pint of something darker, also local. A half hour later I was hungry again. Dennis said there was vegetarian pizza, two slices ready, just had to be warmed up. Bill makes small dense deep-dish pizzas in a rich pastry crust shaped like a bowl. The vegetarian version is stuffed with broccoli, zucchini, and onion. Before they heat it, they ladle homemade tomato sauce over the top. It's like a pizza/lasagna hybrid.

Savannah had a cold and wanted Kitty to sleep in her room with her. Bill made up his and Kitty's bed for Jay and me, and he slept on a cot in the laundry room.

Peace,
Steven

Somebody Did Something.

My LIZZIE co-writers and I are doing some housekeeping this week to get performance royalties for the LIZZIE studio album squared away. It’s all work we should have done years ago, but it’s tedious and we’ve put it off. Besides, right now the potential royalties are very small because hardly any radio or TV stations are playing the record, but it’s the kind of thing that, at some point and you can’t predict when, could be real revenue.

Which means we have to, for each song, assign percentages to each writer’s contribution. Some of these are easy. Alan wrote This Is Not Love. I wrote Why Are All These Heads Off? But then there are songs like Burn The Old Thing Up, which started as lyrics Tim wrote and handed to me. I set them to music, revising them to fit. A dozen years later, when Alan joined us he pulled apart the song and put it back together.

For songs like that, as well as many of the newer songs that we all wrote together, it was a matter of recalling memories, digging out old demos, searching emails, to recreate the process and arrive at a split that seems fair and accurate.

Part of me hates this because I so love how when you make theater everyone’s contributions send tendrils into everyone else’s and it’s often impossible in the end to see the work as anything but an organic whole. But what I have enjoyed is looking back at older versions of LIZZIE (nee Lizzie Borden). Because it’s been around a while, not just as a musical in development but as an experimental devised performance which gradually over 25 years turned into a rock opera. And WE did that.

One of the things I dug up is a video of the 1994 production at HERE Arts Center. I hadn’t seen it, didn’t know it existed. It was on a DVD with “Lizzie Borden” written on it in Tim’s scrawl in black Sharpie. As I wrote to Alan yesterday, “despite how Tim and I always say that we weren't interested in telling the story to the audience back then, I see that there IS a story, an emotional arc, it's just a very different kind of storytelling, cryptic, poetic, sensual. We decided later to make it literal, explicit. I love that this piece has been so rich as to be able to be both those things, and that that earlier thing, whatever it was, is still immanent in the new version.”

It affected me deeply watching the video, not just to get a glimpse of our younger selves, our raw energy, our potential, but witnessing again the power this piece had then to move audiences and move us — we really knew even then that it was special — and then seeing in such concrete terms the hugeness of the work the three of us have done together in the intervening years to create what we have now.

So here is a short clip. This is Somebody Will Do Something, like it was in 1994:

Temporal Vertigo.

 
Grandma Lenore and Mom, 1959.

Grandma Lenore and Mom, 1959.

 

People have always, ever since I can remember, told me that I resemble my father, and I never really saw it myself, but when FaceApp returned its “aged” photo of me, I was startled at how much it had decided I was going to look like him. My father is 85, and the photo is, to me, a dead ringer.

Later that day, my sister texted me a FaceApp photo of herself, saying, “Looks like you’re Dad and I’m Mom.” Looking at the altered photo of my sister made me suddenly short of breath for a few seconds. It was Mom. But it wasn’t exactly Mom; it was more like Mom inside my sister, looking out. (My husband saw neither my dad in the altered photo of me nor my mother in the photo of my sister.)

There’s a phenomenon called “temporal vertigo” where humans’ conception of themselves, or conception of their selves, supposedly comprises all versions of themselves at once. It’s what makes us look in the mirror and see something we think of as our “true self,” not aged, changed, damaged. It must be a psychological reaction to impermanence, a defense against decay, loss, death. Against all evidence, we insist on the notion of a persistent self because what, otherwise, would be the point of continuing?

In July, I start thinking about my mother’s death, which was 4 years ago July 31. I think about my mother’s death at other times of course, all year long, but it starts popping in my head more as the weather gets hot, and I’m sure it’s some sort of self-perpetuating thing — the more I think of it as a thing the more it is a thing — but it doesn’t help to know that because it’s going to happen anyway and I don’t have any control over it and I’m not sure I would want to stop it even if I did.

When I was a kid, my mother used to say that my grandmother’s (her mother-in-law’s) increased sadness or irritability or erratic behavior around Christmastime was because the death of Grandma’s daughter, her firstborn who died at 29, occurred in December, and even years and decades later her grief spiked annually. My recollection is that Mom was somewhat sympathetic but also impatient. She did not approve of “wallowing in it” — not just grief, but any kind of sadness or distress, emotional pain over something that you couldn’t change. And if you could change it, then stop whimpering and do it.

So I can’t help but wonder how Mom would feel about my July sadness, how a photograph of something completely unrelated, or a string of words in a book, can touch a memory like a bruise or an exposed nerve and make me cry, or worse, flip the switch in my brain that starts an inexorable ride from a sweet happy memory to memories of those last horrific days of her illness. What’s strange, and hard to articulate, is that those days are only horrific in retrospect, with some amount of intellectual distance. At the time, they were stressful and sad and I wondered every moment whether or not I had it in me, but I didn’t see a desperately ill old woman decaying before my eyes, I just saw my mother. I was just there with my mom.

I know how she’d react if she were to read this. I can hear that quick sharp exhalation and see her lips purse. What I wouldn’t give for my mother to be impatient with me right now.

 
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The Dale Peck Problem.

Here's the full text of that Dale Peck essay archived on Reddit if anyone's curious.

My Mayor Pete Problem

His claim to be the authority on what’s “edgy” because he moved to the East Village in the 90s is hilarious. The 60s or 70s I might buy, but the 90s?

God I'm sick to death of the arty-lefty-academic crowd thinking that calling someone a neoliberal or an assimilationist amounts to a meaningful critique, and that their facile talk about revolution makes them smarter than everyone else when actually it amounts to not much more than looking down their noses at people with conventional values, conventional aspirations, and conventional taste. It's like pubescent rage that the world doesn't act like they want it to act so they scream "I hate you!!" and slam their bedroom door. He has the gall to accuse someone else of being a 15-year-old?

The most fascinating thing about this pile of horse shit is that his “argument” seems to come to “Pete Buttigieg is a traitor to our people.” Um … who’s the enemy? (Also, maybe the redhead laughed at you not because you made him nervous but because you’re ridiculous.)

Post-4th Thoughts.

Strangely enough, I have long been, though I’ve had my Howard Zinn moments of feeling like the whole thing is a big fat lie, still am, a wide-eyed fan of the “American experiment,” so-called, I think because to me, as long as I was even aware of such a thing, dissent has been an essential element of that fondness. That’s my parents’ influence. They were American dreamers and they were practiced complainers.

I loved saying the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school every morning as much as or maybe even because of how I loved how it felt, or what it meant, to stay silent for the “under God” part. Dissent is integral to my feeling of loyalty, or love?, for this nation. The first speech I ever made, in high school public speaking class, was about Thoreau and civil disobedience, delivered standing in front of a large copy of the Declaration of Independence because the assignment was to use a visual aid. I have a searing memory of some kid snickering at one of my more sanctimonious lines. I blushed, because I was embarrassed and because I was in that moment flushed with a sense of the task.

I love the Puritans. I shouldn’t. I want to cry when I read about Edward Preston and Edward Mitchell, convicted in 1642 by the Plymouth Colony of “sodomitical sin,” the first American colonists persecuted for being queer. They got off easy, whipped; the penalty on the books was death.

Still, I love the Puritans, whose sole aim was to make a world exactly like they were absolutely convinced it should be. They knew that if they got it right, that if everyone would just do it the RIGHT WAY, God would favor them and their community would survive and thrive. They KNEW it. (I think anyone who’s been married can identify with that conviction. And also knows that it’s just not a way to run a household.)

Dissent is certain and essential. The Puritans’ stranglehold eventually gave way, they relented, had to, as more and more people with different and just as intractable views arrived. It happens.

Incidentally, do you know who the Puritans’ descendants are? Unitarian Universalists, the most liberal people you could imagine, who welcome congregants of all traditions or no tradition, who encourage, maybe even fetishize, dissent. I’ve never met people more certain of how to live, how to live together in community. Their example shows me that there was some kernel of rightness from the beginning, and that it takes a long time to get there.

Monoculture.

The buffet menu at the community 4th of July to-do this afternoon in the suburban neighborhood where my husband’s brother and parents live was pulled pork on hamburger buns, hot dogs and burgers, Cole slaw, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, banana pudding, and sweet tea.

There might or might not be fried chicken, or green beans boiled with bacon, but there is ALWAYS sweet tea, always pulled pork and slaw. With limited variation, this is the menu at almost every informal communal function in the Southeast. You can pretty much count on it, and there’s something reassuring about knowing what to expect, knowing what everything is. I’ve visited and lived and toured in most of the rest of the U.S. and, though of course other regions have specialties, their tradition food cultures are not, as far as I’ve ever encountered, so persistent or so ubiquitous.

Why is that?


“This is reparations.”

This story this morning about the campaign in a San Francisco school to destroy a mural depicting George Washington as a participant in the crimes of slavery and Indian genocide immediately brought to mind this other recent story about a trend toward “expunging” the court records of prosecution of homosexuals.

I don’t want to say there’s some kind of nefarious conspiracy behind the fact that the aims of these safe-space progressives are now exactly in line with the long-time aims of right-wing conservatives to erase uncomfortable elements of our nation’s history.

Here’s my theory — and I’m serious: SSPs encounter so much right-wing resistance to their efforts to create a world where no one is marginalized and persecuted, an intractable resistance that over time turns them completely around so that they’ve become fixated on creating that world in the past.

But whatever’s causing them to behave like this, they need to stop.

Victor Arnautoff’s mural in George Washington High School in San Francisco.

Victor Arnautoff’s mural in George Washington High School in San Francisco.

My Gay Canon.

I’ve wanted to do this for years, compile a subjective list of what I think are the most important books for a young gay person to read, or maybe better to say a list of the books that have been most important to me as a gay man. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few, so I reserve the right to revise the list, and as you’ll see it skews heavily toward men and books about men (I said “subjective”).

So here it is, take it for what it’s worth — My Gay Canon:

Sexual Behavior In The Human Male (Kinsey) — literally how I learned I was not alone. Found it in the DePauw University library, where my mom worked, when I was about 15. i can’t think of a more powerful instance of the emotional impact of hard data.

Word Is Out (the book based on the 1977 documentary by Peter Adair) — a dear friend in high school gave this book to me when I was 17. Looking back it was an obvious attempt to get me to come out to her, but I didn’t take the bait. Interviews with real people, not just statistics and case studies. I already loved the hippie vibe, or aesthetic, of this book and the people in it, and now I connected hippies with West Coast lefties and radical politics and, especially, with gay sexuality.

A Boy’s Own Story (Edmund White) — I don’t have quick words to describe how life-changing it was to read a book in the voice of a gay teenager. This is the beginning of my Different Light Bookstore years, when I first moved to New York and started just picking up books and reading them if they looked interesting, which always led to more books and more books. Compared to now, there weren’t a lot of “gay books,” but at A Different Light I realized there were many many more than I had realized.

City of Night (John Rechy) — anonymous sex, promiscuity, loneliness, isn’t being gay fun?

Our Lady of the Flowers (Jean Genet) — dangerous, ecstatic, all the things I wanted my life to be at 22.

The Naked Civil Servant (Quentin Crisp) — I knew who Crisp was but hadn’t read this book until maybe around 1989. I met a man in Stuyvesant Park and we’d gone to his place, which was just one small room with a shared bathroom in the hallway in a building on I think E. 4th Street. Afterwards, I was leaving, and I passed Crisp coming up the stairs as I was going down. He said a very bored hello. I thought I’d better read his book.

Urban Aboriginals: A Celebration Of Leathersexuality (Geoffrey Main) — the gay leather lifestyle’s influence on American and world culture can’t be overestimated.

Macho Sluts (Patrick Califia, nee Pat Califia) — groundbreaking lesbian erotica, which I found very hot, which maybe is not surprising since Pat, who identified as a lesbian at the time this book was written, has transitioned and is now a trans man. Anyway, sexy stories.

Christopher and His Kind (Christopher Isherwood) — Isherwood is my touchstone for everything I do as an artist. I would put all his books in my canon, but if I have to choose, I guess this is the essential one.

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Maurice (E.M. Forster) — of course. Maybe the first gay novel with a happy ending ever written.

Tales Of The City (Armistead Maupin) — I saw the BBC series in the 90s, but I didn’t read this until just a few years ago. I think I regarded it as too conventional or something when I was young. Only recently have I recognized its power and importance.

Leaves of Grass (Whitman) — the Calamus poems especially, but all of it. I read them when I’m feeling strung out and need to be moved by something beautiful.

Death In Venice (Thomas Mann) — bleak, transgressive, depressing, all my favorite things.

Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (Jonathan Ned Katz) — Everything gay in America from the 1500s to the 1970s, this book never fails to make me tear up when I open it. Just the fact that someone would undertake such a massive, comprehensive project — Katz is a hero.

The Motion Of Light In Water (Samuel R. Delany) — Delany’s memoir of his years as a young science fiction writer in the East Village of the 1960s, and his marriage to the poet Marilyn Hacker. Beautiful book.

Fun Home (Alison Bechtel) — maybe more famous in its Broadway musical adaptation, also beautiful. A story of a lesbian girl and her homosexual father, but really a story about everything. This book broke my heart.

Stuck Rubber Baby (Howard Cruse) — funny that I have 2 graphic novels on this list when I’ve probably read a total of 6 graphic novels in my whole life, but this book is important and wonderful. Connects the modern gay rights movement, and gay identity really, to the broader cultural movements of the 1960s (which, think of it, is what we’re all arguing about now as we try to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and come to some agreement about its legacy). It’s also the best kind of memoir, achingly intimate, and revealing of the world in which the personal story was lived. I love this book.

Dancer from the Dance (Andrew Holleran) — you can’t be gay and not read this book. Holleran, to my mind, is one of the very best writers of fiction of our time.

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The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds — Written but not published (or even finished) in his lifetime. This is the earliest known instance of consciously homosexual autobiography. A frank chronicle of the discovery of his same-sex attraction at a time and place (mid-19th century England) when there were barely words for it, or maybe rather when the words we now use for it originated. It’s an incredibly vivid experience of the past. Talk about time travel.

Gay New York (George Chauncey) — About gay life in New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries —  a truly amazing recent book showing that our journey toward freedom has not been linear.

Edward Carpenter: A Life Of Liberty And Love (Sheila Rowbotham) — out homosexual radical in 19th century England. Carpenter is kind of gay ground zero, and this is a wonderful biography.

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Ragged Dick (Horatio Alger) — This is probably my most unexpected pick, but it’s a proposition at the heart of the musical I’ve been working on for 2 years, that the story most associated with, you might even say the story that created, the American Dream myth, is a queer story.

Then, There.

When I was about 14, my cousin (my father’s niece) who was a few years older, in college, an aspiring poet, stopped in Indiana on her way home to Minnesota from a school trip abroad. She brought scone mix and a long cylindrical candy with “Stratford-on-Avon'“ printed down the center of it. She brought the Iron Butterfly and Jesus Christ Superstar albums. We sat around the stereo console listening to Inna Godda Da Vida, looking at each other like something from a faraway planet had landed in our living room.

My parents didn’t like her music, but they, like all of us, were taken by her worldliness, her sophistication. She had “class,” my mom and dad said.

I, in probably the most tender phaselet of my budding artist phase, fell particularly hard. For Christmas that year, she gave me a blank journal, which I filled with all my most private thoughts. It’s the first time I remember thinking that my interior life was important, that it had some value beyond me.

I wasn’t a very disciplined diarist. There are long gaps, and much of it is more philosophical musing than chronicle, but I’ve kept that book close to me my whole life. It starts with a tangle of girlfriend problems and ends shortly after I admitted in writing that I was gay. And it records, somewhat elliptically, my first sexual experience at 16.

That diary is the beating heart of my new piece, Jack. The show strays to points before it and points after but is anchored by that book and what I wrote in it.

A while ago, I shared "Now, Here,” the opening song of Jack, and now here is “Then, There,” which ends the show. Both are sung by the older Jack character, who narrates the piece, reflecting on his teen years. (Most of the other songs are sung by the teenage Jack character and others.) The older Jack sings this song to the younger Jack.

I hesitated to share this song. Like so many stories of queer lives, Jack is about, among other things, shame and reconciliation. The narrative thrust of the show is the older Jack’s quest to forgive his younger self, and I didn’t want to give away the ending. But you already knew how it would end, didn’t you?

Pride.

 
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There were several moving speeches and moments in last night’s Tony ceremony, but I was especially moved to see Mart Crowley accept the award for best revival of a play. The original production of Boys in the Band opened in 1968, a year before Stonewall, and I can’t help but think it contributed to the energy of that time and place which boiled over into the rebellion.

The recognition must be a sweet triumph for Crowley, whose play very quickly became an object of scorn by the gay community. When I was coming of queer political age in the late 70s/early 80s, I learned that Boys in the Band was the thing to hate long before I ever read it, or saw the film adaptation. Described as self-loathing, reactionary, a minstrel show of stereotypes — all reductive, unfair criticism — it’s sort of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the gay rights movement, another work that’s mischaracterized and reviled mostly, I suspect, by people who’ve never read it. Or seen it.

Boys in the Band is a play about shame, and it’s painful for us to admit that as queer people our identities are inextricably bound up with shame. But why? Our obsession with pride is an explicit reaction to shame. The fact that we can’t as a community acknowledge the importance of shame makes it nearly impossible to reckon with. What gives the movie its punch, even still, and what makes this new production so moving, is that those guys from 1968 are still us. We still grapple with all the same crap. We still live in a society that to a large extent hates us, wishes we were more like them, or would just go away. We still struggle mightily to love ourselves as we are.

That’s what I think, anyway.

This beautiful new production of Boys in the Band, its recognition as an important play, historically and still, and Matt Crowley on that stage with a Tony in his hands thanking the original cast members (many of whom did not survive the plague) made me very proud last night.

Terroir

I flew home from Indiana last night. I was with my sister’s family for a few days while my nephew had surgery.

One evening, on the way home from the hospital in Indianapolis to the suburb where they live, my brother-in-law and I (my sister stayed the night at the hospital) stopped at a grocery store for a bottle of wine, and, as we came out of the store and walked across the parking lot, the smell of the June evening brought my teenage years suddenly back to me whole. Maybe June in a lot of places smells like some combination of cut grass and tar, manure, car exhaust, tree pollen, but every place has its own particular amalgam and nothing else smells like June in Indiana.

It’s out front in my mind because I’m writing a piece about those years and that place and time, and one of the songs, called “Now, Here,” is specifically about that atmosphere, that setting. It’s the opening song, meant to set the scene. At least that’s what it is now. Who knows how these things change over the time it takes to finish and develop a musical?

I’ve always been squirrelly about sharing unfinished work, but as I get older it’s not that I’m less scared of things but that I care less about being scared. Self-mortification makes me stronger. And maybe the show will never come to fruition. LIZZIE took decades and how many of those do I have left? I feel an urge to share the work now.

Waiter!

I’ve started having restaurant dreams again after being free of them for 25 years.

Anyone who’s ever waited tables knows these dreams. Your whole section is seated at once and you’ve lost your order pad and the tables have been rearranged so you don’t know how they’re numbered. Or you walk through the dining room and someone from every table you pass asks you for something — another round of drinks, a dessert menu, the check — and you think you’ll remember them but as they accumulate you realize you’ve forgotten them all. You go in the kitchen and there are dozens of plates ready but you have no idea where they go. You run to the basement for something — what? some mustard, a bottle of wine — and you never make it back to the dining room because you’ve taken the wrong stairs or the wrong hallway and you just keep trying and trying until you wake up. Everyone you pass wants something, the cooks, the customers, the manager, the other waiters. Everyone hates you. You’re running in circles, you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re crying in the bathroom.

I waited tables for a living through the better part of my twenties, mostly hated it, was never very good at it. But it was what you did, and sometimes it could be fun, certainly much more fun than sitting in an office. It paid MUCH better than retail and even back then when rent was cheap it was a struggle to pay the bills. We’d work till midnight, then drink martini after martini at the bar around the corner, usually for free or next to it because we knew the bartenders and we were all in this together, take turns disappearing into the bathroom to snort cocaine (our pockets were STUFFED with cash!), and find ourselves at dawn in someone’s apartment who we probably didn’t even know, clammy, grinding our teeth and waiting for the drug dealer to show up because as everyone knows you don’t stop snorting cocaine until there’s no. more. cocaine. Anywhere. Or I’d end up at St. Mark’s Baths at 4 a.m. and home by sunrise feeling downright virtuous.

Sorry. That was a tangent. But sometimes I think about my early twenties and wonder, “How am I even alive?”

So, the dreams. I’ve started having them again. They continued for maybe 5 years after I left restaurant work for legal proofreading at 29, and, though I have my share of anxiety dreams they haven’t involved restaurants for a very long time. Until the last few weeks. Now I have them just about every night. Sometimes several times a night, in variations. I don’t sleep well or soundly, haven’t for years.

Life is, I don’t know, heightened lately. There’s my show headed for Broadway knock wood. My mother-in-law was recently diagnosed with cancer, and there’s no way to spin that any other way than bad. My father had a scare this week, not as serious, but he’s 85 and alone. Crazy good, crazy bad.

And now I’m having those dreams again that I’m waiting tables and failing, failing, failing.

Greencastle, Indiana, or ...

I’ve thought a lot about Sherwood Anderson as I write about the small town in Indiana, Greencastle, where I lived from age 13 to high school graduation. Anderson’s hometown, on which he based his book Winesburg Ohio, finding its portrait unflattering, more or less disowned him. (I wrote a paper in a college freshmen English class about Anderson’s play, Tea and Sympathy, arguing that it was homophobia disguised as tolerance — its message being not that people shouldn’t persecute gay boys, but that it was okay to be effeminate as long as you’re heterosexual. I wish I still had that paper. I remember the professor gave me a good grade but said he thought I wasn’t being quite fair. I stand by my argument.)

My parents left Greencastle a few years after I did — my dad found work in Muncie and they settled there. I only sustained one friendship from my teenage years. More recently, I’ve been in touch on social media with a few high school friends, and have rekindled friendships, but I don’t have any meaningful ties to that town except my memories.

I have been, and certainly was at the time, very critical of the people and culture there, but my feelings, as they’ve ripened over the years, have sweetened, and that sweetening is one of the things that motivates and underpins this new work. I like to think my portrait IS in many ways flattering, or at least fair, but to be honest, I know it will hurt some people. I mean, one of the songs is called “I Always Hated That Town In Indiana.”

Anderson changed the name of his hometown, but of course everybody knew what he was writing about. I’ve struggled since I began writing this thing, and still, with the question of whether or not to use people’s real names. The work is autobiography, it’s confessional, so it seems contrary to the spirit of it to alter the facts.

[Correction! A friend just told me that Tea and Sympathy was written by Robert Anderson, not Sherwood Anderson. So, that’s embarrassing, but my college anecdote was not germane to anything except my compulsion to follow a tangent. Anyway, enjoy the clip. After watching this trailer, I really want to watch the movie, which I’ve never seen, have only read the play and that was many years ago.]

Zero Sum Gender.

Gender is on everyone's minds now. Just in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times today, there’s an article about genital surgery on intersex babies and an article about the myth of sex hormones behind the policing of Caster Semenya’s gender.

I think about this stuff, always have. As I’m writing this autobiographical new piece, about my teenage years, I’ve been looking really closely, at least in terms of my experience, turning this notion over and over in the light, this notion of one’s gender as a part of oneself or “one’s self,” which is to say one’s own feeling about one’s gender, or gender identity (if they are not the same thing). (That was a chewy mouthful of a sentence!)

Where does it come from, this neurotic belief, against all evidence, that gender is strictly either/or? It's ancient, though not necessarily universal. For Western Christians there's Adam and Eve, and whatever older stories that story is based on. Are there any anthropologists in the house who can recommend some reading?

I did not, as a kid, feel necessarily “gendered,” except in that I felt very much like not a boy. I felt pressure to be a boy, but I felt more like a girl; still, I understood that identifying with girls, being with girls and enjoying girl things, was crossing an important line.

Then puberty brought physical evidence that in some possibly immutable way I was going to be a male person in the world. Well, and by then I think I’d thoroughly internalized the idea that life would go more smoothly if I could figure out how to do boyness, so I did, quite consciously, start to study and teach myself. Maybe all people do that at some point, consciously or not, learn a gender, I don’t know. It is something I feel like I’ve done over and over at each phase of my life. In my 20s, I learned young man-ness; in my 40s, I learned older man-ness.

I’m almost certain that if '“non-binary” had been one of the choices when I was a kid, that’s how I would have chosen to identify my gender.

Hoofers.

It’s International Dance Day. Who decides that? Well it’s a good excuse, not that I needed one, to watch a few of my favorite clips of people dancing. There are a million of them from old MGM musicals, but here’s a short one I love.

Broadway performers are demigods to me. I live in awe of what they do. Literally nothing brings me more joy than a stage full of people tap dancing.

And finally Agnes DeMille's dream ballet from Oklahoma! I've been thinking about this show a ton this season -- well I'm kind of always thinking about it if I'm honest -- but now especially with this new revival on Broadway and the fact that the Tony best musical category looks to be a contest between dark and experimental vs. classic-style musical comedy. Which is funny because Oklahoma! is the original dark and experimental but now it's the show everyone mentions when they want to share their misconceptions of classic-style musical comedy.

Everything's All Right.

I love the spring holidays. All of them. Renewal, fertility, resurrection, turning. I know a bit more about the Christian holidays and the pagan holidays because of the culture I grew up in and have traveled in. Holy week fascinates me, in the same way that Advent fascinates me, the ritual marking of days passing. It feels cosmic.

I wouldn’t say I’m not a believer. I don’t like the label “agnostic” because there are things I do know. And I don’t like the way most atheists talk about faith vs. reason, and I don’t like the way a lot of Christians equate their beliefs with faith. I don’t believe in “God” per se, but I have faith. I am a person of faith. Why would I get up in the morning if I didn’t have faith? I go to bed every night full of faith that tomorrow will come, that there will be love and beauty in the world, still.

My own beliefs regarding the nature and meaning of existence are somewhere in the sort of Emersonian Universalist camp. I believe that everything is one and is immanent within us, that our moral code comes from within, that every moment contains the universe, that intelligence, beauty, poetry, metaphor, art point to our connectedness, but that the whole project is essentially mysterious. I believe that love is all.

Anyway. It’s Holy Wednesday, for those who observe.

To use Pete's favorite word: tectonic.

 
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It’s hard to put words to how moving it is watching this. It literally took my breath away.

Most straight people have no idea what the closet is and what it does. The experience of negotiating withholding or disclosing a secret that carries such a high social risk — and not just the one big coming out, but the multitude of little daily comings out — will always be a marginal experience. It’s just math. We will always be explaining ourselves. It will always be a fact about us that we will have to, at some point, at many points, decide whether to accept the risks (of suspicion, pity, disgust, distraction, violence, etc.) and disclose (the upside being to live as a whole, integrated person in the world) or keep hidden (and remain fragmented, superficial, false, afraid). The constant vigilance is exhausting. The psychological and emotional toll of the closet shapes every relationship, every encounter, shapes our lives.

To watch, on a mainstream TV show, a viable popular candidate for president, speak so candidly and thoughtfully about this experience changes everything. Especially a candidate who is exceptional for so many reasons having nothing to do with his sexuality.

My White Knight.

The last few days’ conversations about, one, Pete Buttigieg and whether or not he’s too well-read to be elected, two, the primary candidates’ visits to Iowa, and, three, the new Broadway revival of The Music Man coming next year have distilled, in my brain, into this song.

That’s the late, great Barbara Cook singing. Hers is my favorite recording to listen to, though I’m much more familiar with Shirley Jones in the role since it’s the movie version of the show that I grew up. Also, I was a fan of hers from the Partridge Family before I connected her with these earlier classic movie musical performances.

Speaking of those performances, it’s difficult for me, even all these years later and having seen several other women in the roles, to separate my idea of Laurie in Oklahoma, or Julie in Carousel or Marian in The Music Man from Shirley Jones. Even after discovering years later that the films so bowdlerized the R&H musicals, especially in the case of Carousel, which hardly even makes sense in the film. (Not as bad as what MGM did to Babes in Arms, the film of which didn’t even retain any of the Rogers and Hart songs, or maybe one or two, I can’t remember.) Anyway, I still see Shirley Jones’s sunny face and bright soprano when I think of those characters.

On that note, even though I think this film adaptation is very good, inexplicably they rewrote this song, using parts of My White Knight but creating an entirely new swingy refrain. I like it, but I think the original is far superior.

And then there’s the much later TV movie adaptation with Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth. It’s not great, though I do like Broderick’s performance quite a bit, which is sort of slyer, drier, than Preston’s. Though he’s more youthful and cuter than Preston in the role, somehow he reads as more cynical, a more convincing criminal. I also love Chenoweth in this one. Her conception of Marian is more adult, less petulant, less prickly than Jones. But I think because her face and voice are so preternaturally pretty, the more knowing quality she brings to the performance gets a bit lost in the film’s overall too-sweet tone.

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The flurry of press about LIZZIE yesterday, and it being World Theater Day, has me reflecting. This photo is ground zero — not that my theater career is a nuclear bomb. But there is a sense that it is about to explode.

My mantra for a long time — I’ll call it my post-disillusionment period — has been, “Relax. It’s always more likely NOT to happen than to happen.” Because that is true. My favorite Buddhist lo jong mind-training slogan is, “Abandon any hope of fruition.” Pretty often people read this slogan on my arm and think it means that everything is awful so just expect the worst. It means something more like, “You don’t know how things will turn out, so don’t base your happiness and sense of well-being on a particular outcome.”

Anyway, that’s me in my first play! It was a production of The Emperor’s New Clothes, produced by Putnam County Playhouse, in the Indiana town where my family moved when I was 13. They did — and still do! — a season of 3 or 4 plays every summer: a musical, one or two straight plays, and a children’s show. I had I think one line, maybe two, and I was SERIOUS about it, and I loved that costume, which I think my mother made but I’m not sure of that.

Something I remember, more clearly than I remember anything I did in the play, is this very short scene where a “herald” comes in and announces something and the director, Nancy McFarland, set his lines to music, so he sang them instead of just speaking them. It blew my mind that one could just … do that.

 
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