(You’re Gone But) Always in My Heart

The late Joan Didion famously said we tell ourselves stories in order to live. I’ve parsed the statement any number of times–it’s most commonly taken to mean that it’s important we tell stories of the human experience (the good, the bad, the mediocre and all the varieties in between) to better understand ourselves, our society and culture. I had never read Didion myself until several years ago; of course I knew who she was and what she had written–although if asked before reading her work, I would have only been able to name Play It as It Lays, which I still haven’t read. One of my co-workers had a library copy of her Miami in his officer a few years ago, and I idly picked it up when I was in his office. He recommended very strongly that I read Didion, and so it was with Miami I started; the opening line (Havana dreams come to dust in Miami) sold me on the book. I enjoyed it, and went on to read other works of hers: A Book of Common Prayer, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and After Henry, among others. I loved the way she wrote; that the complexity of her work came from her poetic use of language and words rather than on complicated sentences. It was reading Didion’s essays (and Laura Lippman’s) that made me start thinking about writing essays myself; I started one trying to use a similar style to Didion–which was interesting–but think it’s rather more important to stick to my own voice, for better or for worse; there was only one Didion, and there should only be the one.

As I was being interviewed the other night I was talking about my re-education; about having to unlearn and relearn things from when I was a kid. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately; part of it was turning sixty this past year, part of it was writing two books back-to-back that are sort of based in my own personal history–so remembering what Alabama and Kansas were like for me meant exploring a lot of my past, reliving and rehashing it with the perspective of time having passed and with a coldly sober, unemotional eye. I remembered, as I was talking about the Lost Cause and other American mythology we are taught as children (Washington and the cherry tree; Honest Abe the rail-splitter; and so many other Americans of the past we have deified) , the Didion quote and found a new meaning in it. When I was a child, I remember that in the South, for some reason, my cousins and their friends and the adults never would refer to someone as a liar; etiquette, perhaps, or politeness being behind this oddity. What they said instead of saying you were lying was “Oh, you’re telling stories.” If someone was a liar, you’d say “he tells stories.”

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Given this weird rural Southern thing about “telling stories”, this can be reinterpreted as we tell ourselves lies in order to live–and it all falls into place, because we do tell lies to ourselves in order to live with ourselves, within this culture, within this society. Never has this been more evident than is this strange battle the right has started about Critical Race Theory–which wasn’t being taught in any American public school below the collegiate level. If there’s nothing in American history that we should be ashamed of, why is there so much opposition to the truth? Why are we taught lies in order that we may live?

The war cry of the white Southerners who want to keep their monuments to white supremacy and treason has been “Heritage not hate!” But the heritage is hate, which was the entire point of Bury Me in Shadows. You cannot have it both ways: you cannot celebrate a history of treason against the United States, while claiming to be “more patriotic” that other Americans who do not celebrate the killing of American soldiers (ask Jane Fonda about how posing on an enemy gun goes over). The bare facts of the matter are that some (not all) of the states where it was legal to enslave people were afraid they would lose their right to enslave people, and as such they decided they were better off starting their own country. They wanted a war they couldn’t possibly win, and the fact that it didn’t end quickly has more to do with the incompetence of the Union generals and their political ambitions (there are reasons there are no statues of George McLellan anywhere to be found) than the righteousness of the Confederate cause and the brilliant leadership of Robert E. Lee. They abhor Sherman as a war criminal (“he waged war on civilians!” Um, we also firebombed Dresden during the second world war, and what were Nagasaki and Hiroshima if not the obliteration with atomic weapons of civilian populations? Sherman said “war is hell”–you cannot start a war and then complain about how the other side chooses to fight it.). They claim it had nothing to do with slavery and everything to do with “states’ rights”…when the reality is the only state right they were concerned about was the right to enslave people–they certainly wanted the federal government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act against the wills of the free states, didn’t they? Their end game in Congress and the courts was to force the federal government to permit enslavement in every state of the union and every territory; this was the crux of the Dred Scott Decision of the Supreme Court, which more than anything else set the stage for the war.

If there’s nothing terrible about the actual history, why so much fear around the truth?

We tell ourselves lies in order to live.

If the truth is too terrible to be faced, then it absolutely needs to be.

There’s nothing quite so romantic as a lost cause, is there? Whether it’s the Jacobites in England with their toasts to “the King across the water”; the emigres from the French Revolution; or the Confederacy, losing sides inevitably always romanticize their defeat and the loss of a better world their victory would have created. An entire industry has developed in this country around the mythology of the Lost Cause; how could it not when one of the most successful American films of all time portrays the Lost Cause so sympathetically? The opening epigram of Gone with the Wind reads “There once was a land of Cavaliers and cotton fields known as the Old South…” And yet the movie depicts an incredibly classist society, predicated on the enslavement of Africans; the entire idea behind the founding of this country was the elimination of class distinctions–the equality of all.

But even Margaret Mitchell, when asked if the Tara in the movie was how she pictured it as she wrote about it, scoffed and said, “Tara was a farm.”

And not everyone in the old South was rich or owned a plantation. Not everyone was an enslaver, and not everyone was on board with the Lost Cause. But we rarely hear about the Southerners who fought on the Union side in the war; we never hear about Southerners who were abolitionists; and we never hear about the atrocities inflicted on those loyalist Southerners by the rebels, either.

And speaking of war crimes, what about Andersonville?

We tell ourselves lies in order to live.

We cannot celebrate our achievements without acknowledging our failures. It is far worse to not learn from a mistake than making the mistake in the first place. It is not unpatriotic to look at our history, culture, and society critically, to examine and evaluate how we are failing to live up to the ideals upon which our country was founded. The Founding Fathers were not mythical gods of infallibility; they were all too human, with all the concomitant jealousies, pettiness, arrogance and ego that comes with it. They were, for one thing, mostly unable to conceive of a society where women and non-white people were deserving of equality under the law. But they also knew they were not perfect, which was why they created a system that could adapt to the changing tides of history.

George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is something I think about every day. I also love the George Bernard Shaw quote, “What we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.

We need to stop telling ourselves lies. The truth might seem to be too much to be faced; it might be ugly and hideous and shameful…but it will also set us free.

Never Again

One of the many Youtube wormholes I have fallen down since the pandemic descended upon on our world has been the magical journey of the music reaction video. I didn’t know this was even a thing–I think it was Twins the New Trend’s reaction video to the Carpenters that went viral was when I actually learned this is something people not only do, but can make money from (O magical world of the Internet! Is there anything that can’t be monetized?) but this led me to, thanks to Youtube suggestions, other young people or music specialists (vocal coaches, etc.) reacting to older music they’ve not heard before, or from artists they may recognize the name of but not their music.

Needless to say, seeing these young people discover, appreciate, and love Fleetwood Mac (and Stevie Nicks) is not only a lot of fun but also is an unneeded justification of my nearly life-long love of the band. The Rumours album is probably my favorite album of all time; and since it was released (and I discovered it) when I was in high school in Kansas, Rumours is always linked in my mind to not only high school but to Kansas in particular. I didn’t have an 8-track player in my car when I was in high school–I never even had a car of any kind with the capacity to do anything other than play the radio until 1991–but radio was a major player back in those days, and I of course had other friends who did have 8 track or cassette players in their cars… Rumours was pretty much owned by everyone (as was Hotel California by the Eagles and Boston’s debut album) and so it was often heard in cars, played loudly, as it drove way over the speed limit down country roads.

But watching these people discover the Mac, and listening to and enjoying their music for the first time (despite my devotion to Stevie and all things Stevie, my favorite Mac song will always be “Go Your Own Way”) has taken me down that pleasant road of nostalgia and memory…which came somewhat in handy as I wrote #shedeservedit aka the Kansas Book. I based Liberty Center geographically on Emporia, Kansas; but I have not set foot in Emporia since I left one snowy February night in 1981 so I had to rely a lot on memories. I did use Google Earth to revisit, in case my faulty memory was wrong about where a street was or how the grid the city was laid out on precisely was laid out–where was the Catholic cemetery, where was the college campus, where was the park down by the waterfall–but since I was also fictionalizing everything, it was more of a guideline than anything else; it was easier for me to picture it all in my head that way rather than making it all up from scratch. (I also got the name Liberty Center, and used it, as a tribute to Philip Roth and his novel When She Was Good; I’d gone through many many iterations of names for that town throughout the years, but Liberty Center was just too perfect not to use)

And yes, I listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac while I was writing the book. While Hotel California and Boston can both take me back to Kansas if I listen to them, Fleetwood Mac’s first three albums with Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk) definitely do it almost from the first chord (if I am writing, of course–I am also realizing as I write this and think it through that I need to write an essay about my lifelong fandom of Fleetwood Mac, and how their music has always inspired me with my writing and creativity as well as connected with me emotionally).

Although, interestingly enough, the first time I ever published fiction about Kansas–my short story “Promises in Every Star”–it was actually inspired by another band, ’til Tuesday. But that’s a story for another time.

Music has always been important to my writing process–back in the days of CD’s, I used to put five in the stereo and hit shuffle whenever I started writing, trying to make them all from the same artist or at least similar artists–and I’ve noticed that recently I don’t listen to music quite as much as I used to when I write, and have been thinking that maybe I need to go back to that process. I rediscovered my love of writing after a long burnt out period by using journals to record ideas and random thoughts and things again–going back to my roots, as it were–and so maybe music is something I need to add back into my writing experience, especially since I am coming down to crunch time with the new book.

I’m working at home today–there’s data entry to do and condoms packs to make, as always–and then of course tomorrow is our paid holiday for New Year’s, so I can spend that day writing and cleaning and running errands and so forth. I need to pick up a prescription today, so will probably do that at some point (I think the pharmacy will be closed tomorrow, since its in one of our buildings and they do get holidays as well) and also will need to do a deep dive into my email inbox and get some things done around here.

And that’s my cue to head into the spice mines. Have a lovely New Year’s Eve Eve!

I Want a Guy

Wednesday morning and I am having no small bit of trouble shaking off the shackles of Morpheus this morning. First I didn’t want to get out of bed (even considered hitting snooze a third time) and now as I sit here with the dark pressing against my windows and my first cup of coffee not really doing it for me the way I would have hoped, I do worry about waking up and getting out of the house and on my way to the office this morning. Traffic has been light to non-existent this week (last week as well; the holidays thing, without a doubt), so my blood pressure hasn’t gone up at all on the drives into the office recently. I know I should probably do some Blatant Self-Promotion this morning but it’s going to have to wait until tomorrow, methinks; I am not sure if my mind is clear and unfogged enough to talk about rape and/or sexual assault this morning, let alone toxic masculinity–about which I have oh so many thoughts. Instead, I will freeform this morning’s entry while I keep swilling my coffee, hoping the cobwebs will clear and I can get a clear and present grasp of my reality this morning.

We’ll see how that goes, won’t we?

We are finally on the final season of Gossip Girl–I’ll have to go back and check to see when precisely we embarked on this binge journey, but it feels like it’s been most of the month of December, if not longer; probably longer, because we got started watching the sequel series and only turned on the original when it took a break and we had to wait for new episodes; and I think that was back in November, if I am not mistaken. (And yes, a quick search of my Facebook page shows that we were, indeed, already watching the OG Gossip Girl before Thanksgiving, so we’ve been watching for well over a month, which is wonderful. I miss the days when television shows had over twenty episodes per season.) The show is winding down–the final season is only ten episodes (!)–but I also think this final season’s entire purpose was to wrap everything up and end the show. I’ll miss it when it’s finished, but it’s also time to get back into watching everything else we were watching–we still need to finish The Sinner–and I suspect we will be done with Gossip Girl this weekend so we will need to find new things to watch, as well as remembering the things we’d started but not finished in the meantime.

Such an exciting post today, am I right?

It rained overnight–it actually started raining shortly after Paul left the house for the gym–and so this morning it’s cool and humid, which is weird and causes condensation and the fogging up of car windows. I’ve been working pretty consistently on the book every day–it’s a mess, but it’s getting done, which means the clean-up work before it’s turned in is going to be mind-numbing, stressful and exhausting, if exhilarating at the same time. I do enjoy writing every day–I don’t know why it, like going to the gym, is always viewed as an odious chore that I have to force myself to do every day; it really makes little to no sense. It does make one tend to wonder–I love going to the gym, I love writing; they are two of my favorite things to do (reading and sleeping being the other two) and yet I always have to make myself do it. I don’t know why I resist doing things that give me pleasure–lately, I’ve also been having to make myself read, which I never thought would happen.

Go figure.

But work on the book is proceeding apace–editing and revising is going to be an incredibly stressful nightmare, but I can worry about that later–and I am pleased, very pleased. I am being highly productive, which is nice to know that I can still do, and i just wish I could remember that if I was this productive every step of the way, I could get a lot more done. But then the lazies set in and all bets are off.

So, what can I say that would be blatant self-promotion? Not really sure, to be honest. This is probably one of the darkest books I’ve ever written, although I am sure there are parts in it that are funny that I didn’t plan (I rarely intend to be funny; it’s always unintentional, but at least I am laughed with for the most part rather than laughed at) that way.

Liberty Center is, as I have often mentioned, based geographically on Emporia, the county seat of Lyon County, Kansas, which is where we lived from 1976-1981. We didn’t actually live in Emporia; we lived seven miles northwest of Emporia–I don’t remember what the road was that led to our little town was officially called, but I know we called it the Americus Road and the road was where the old Katy Railroad line used to run; that may also be incorrect but that was what I was told. Americus was one of the larger towns in Lyon County (Emporia had over twenty-five thousand, I believe; Americus was 952), and I used to catch the school bus at the Americus Grade School (which had previously served as the high school until it was closed and folded into consolidated high school sixteen miles northeast, Northern Heights High School) and it seemed to always take forever to get to school every morning. This was a significant cultural shock for me, as we had lived in a rather populous suburb of Chicago the previous four years and before that, in the city itself on the south side, near Lawndale. We also went from having three networks and several locals on the television to only having CBS from the Kansas City affiliate (we were able to get cable within the first year we lived there; so we went back to having access to the networks and other cable channels–CNN, ESPN, etc. in their early days–while everyone else I went to school with still only had access to that CBS station….this was the period when my mom watched the CBS soaps; once the cable came on she switched to ABC in the mid-to-late 70’s heydays of General Hospital/All My Children (which were the soaps I watched when on break from school in Illinois). It was weird and uncomfortable switching high schools between my sophomore and junior years, but at the same time I saw it as getting a new start, where no one knew that I had been bullied, belittled, and mocked for the last four years for being (choose one) queer fairy faggot homo queen girly-boy femme etc. (This did eventually happen at my small high school but not really in any significant way until the second semester of my senior year.)

And it was actually a good experience for me, in all honesty. I did much better in school there, got started writing actual fiction, had my mind opened to a lot of new authors and genres in my English classes, and learned a lot–my suburban high school was simply not structured to work well for a student like me, with my attention deficit disorders and so forth. There’s really not been anywhere I lived that didn’t benefit me in some way–there was good and bad everywhere–but when the time and opportunity to move away came, it was past time. I needed to get out of Kansas, I needed to get away from there…and while the next chapter of my life was to become dramatically changed and reshaped into something other than what I was expecting when we moved, there was no way of knowing that was going to happen. In February 1981 when I boarded a night train to California, I had no access to the New York Times or anywhere I could get anything remotely considered news of interest for not straight people, and so I didn’t see the small pieces about the “strange cancer” that was only affecting gay men in New York…but it would be on my radar soon enough.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines.

Pretty Baby

Tuesday morning and the year continues to wind down in the inimitable way that every year does, with a whimper rather than a bang, like the last of the helium escaping from the leaky balloon.

My new book will be out in sixteen days; slightly more than two weeks. Those who preordered from my publisher (as well as those who requested ARC’s–advance review copies)will be getting them within a few days, actually, which is panic-inducing as well as more than a little bit terrifying. I am not so certain that I am more nervous about the release of this book than I have been around the release of any others in my past, or if this is the same nervous condition I always experience when a book is about to be released with my name (or whatever name I chose to use at the time I signed the contract) on the spine. I don’t remember; I am not certain if that is symptomatic of me aging or if it’s some kind of protective thing the brain does to spare my psyche; much as how one forgets how painful a teeth cleaning or a blood draw is between the last time it was done and the next time such things are scheduled; if we don’t forget how awful or painful or uncomfortable those experiences actually are, we would most likely never schedule another. (It is most fortunate that it will be years before I need another colonoscopy; that is an experience I would prefer to never live through another time, quite frankly.)

But I am nervous about the book. This one, as I have mentioned tirelessly (tiresomely?) takes on a societal and cultural problem for which I have no solution–well, that’s not entirely true, I always have a solution, but it’s never one people are willing to actually adopt–but it’s also kind of shameful that it has actually taken me so long to address this actual social problem; it’s also kind of shameful for me to admit that it took me so long to realize it was actually a problem. I mean, I knew intellectually it was, but I never realized how extant and/or extreme the problem actually was until the last decade or so. Now I am hyper-aware of sexual assault and it’s plainer, but just as ugly sibling, sexual harassment.

When I became aware that I was different from other boys–from other males–I also became aware of strange disparities that caused some cognitive dissonance in my young, unformed mind; why is sexual expertise, and experience, for men something to be lauded and applauded while the same thing is a source of shame for women?

This never made sense to me; how could men get experience and expertise without women? Why was one thing something to be admired in one gender but must be shamed in the other? In order for men to get the “conquests” and “experience” they needed to be admired and respected (the word that so often pops up in older books is “cocksman,” a word I loathed when I first read it and still do to this day), there had to be women to accommodate those needs and desires…which, I guess, was my first introduction to the “madonna/whore” concept. Societal expectations on women were, frankly, ridiculous; they were supposed to be pure and chaste while at the same time doing nothing to inspire passion or desire in a man; to not attract his attention this way; in other words, if a man became overcome with desire to the point that he stopped listening to a woman telling him to stop…it was her fault, not his; men were clearly slaves to their own passions, while women needed to always keep theirs in check, or else.

Boys, after all, will be boys.

I knew the word rape before I actually knew what it meant–from reading history; barbarian hordes and invading armies inevitably “raped and pillaged.” There was the very famous story, part of the founding myth of Rome involving the “rape of the Sabine women”; I think that was around the time where I began thinking rape meant abduction. The 1970’s, and the burgeoning women’s movement, brought with it a discussion of rape into the public sphere; how it actually affected women and how the judicial system essentially punished women for daring to accuse a man of forcing himself on her; this was the horror known as stranger rape, which belied the sad truth that most sexual assaults inevitably are ones where the assailant and the victim knew each other: aka date rape.

Usually, when the subject was brought up on a daytime soap, it was a date rape situation; star-crossed lovers being kept apart for one reason or another until the man at some point becomes carried away and forces himself on his “true love” against her wishes. This played out on Days of Our Lives–later, and more notoriously, on General Hospital and as late as the 1990’s on One Life to Live (ironically, the story as depicted on One Life to Live was brutal and honest and horrible; the storyline went off the rails later as the lead rapist became redeemed and an anti-hero star of the show).

Rape was often used as a plot device in romance novels (horrifying, isn’t it?); who can ever forget the night Rhett get drunk and in his jealous rage rapes Scarlett in Gone with the Wind–which is also the first time in her life she actually enjoys sexual relations with a man? What precisely is the message being sent here to the readers?

One of the things that struck me the most about the Marysville and Steubenville cases–besides the horrific similarities–was the reaction of the girls in the towns about what happened. Rather than feeling solidarity with the victims–and realizing there but for the grace of God go I–the general reaction was the opposite: the victims deserved what happened to them. There are few crimes where the automatic default is to blame the victim–in fact, outside of sexual assault/harassment I can’t think of any–and the level of blaming and shaming in both of these cases was appalling. Steubenville, the more famous of the two cases, resulted in convictions (and notoriously several reporters editorializing the “waste” of the lives of the convicted rapists; my sympathy is with the victims, frankly); no charges were ever filed in the Marysville case, and the victim, Daisy Coleman, eventually committed suicide (that was still years in the future when I first started writing my book).

I couldn’t get past it. I tried to think about it in terms of my own sister: what if this had happened to MY sister? My niece? My mom?

And the hashtag from Marysville haunted my mind: #shedeservedit.

I knew the hashtag was going to be my title, and that I was going to change the Kansas book one last time; my quarterback was still going to disappear at the beginning, but the story wasn’t going to solely be about that. My fictional town already had a decades-long successful high school football program and was already dying economically; with a growing addiction epidemic and declining population as employment possibilities also dried up. And with all that success, with the town’s identity entirely subsumed by its high school football team (ironically, the Trojans), it stood to reason that the town would rally behind its team and the players–and woe be to anyone who stood against any of the team’s abuses.

But…the question remained: could a man–even a gay one, or especially a gay one–write such a book? Was it my place to do so? Was writing this book an attempt to atone for not being aware of the problem for so fucking long? Could I approach it with the proper amount of sensitivity?

I guess there’s nothing left for me to do than wait and see, I suppose. I have my author copies, ARC’s are going out, and soon those who want to read it will be reading it.

And on that cheery note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a happy Tuesday, Constant Reader.

Carol of the Bells

Well, I am officially on Christmas holiday. No working at home this Thursday; I do have some errands to run and I am hoping–really hoping–that once I return from these errands I won’t have to go outside for anything other than going to the gym over the next few days. I also am hoping to be incredibly productive: to get some writing, cleaning and organizing done; and some serious and intense reading. Here’s hoping!

Huzzah!

This cold snap (go ahead and sneer, all those who live north of I-10) has been wonderful for my sleep. I slept well again last night and thus feel very well-rested this morning. There’s just something about a warm, comfortable bed and piles of blankets that make sleeping much better for me. (The problem in places that get super cold is that I never want to get out of the bed–well, one of many problems I have with cold weather.) As I mentioned, I have some errands to run today and other than that, this is a free day at home for me, and I hope to use my time wisely. I never did pay the bills yesterday–they aren’t due until next week at any rate–so I should probably go ahead and get that out of the way at some point today or tomorrow; I also need to get some things from the store and pick up the mail, and let’s face it; today will be better to do that than any other day this weekend. The book continues apace; it’s halfway done now and hopefully by the end of the weekend will be much deeper into it and closer to being finished. Huzzah!

So, back to the blatant self-promotion. Part of the reason I am so bad at self-promotion is because promotion, in theory, is about beating the drum and shouting your name from the rooftops and trying to engage people into being interested in buying, or at least thinking about buying, your latest book. I tend to constantly question myself about everything–was this my place to write this book; could I have done a better job of it; and so on. I hate begging people to review my books, let alone read them; and of course I am never comfortable bragging about myself or feeling secure in myself and with my work (that “humility” part of my upbringing) that I inevitably always default to self-deprecation, which is also self-defeating, which is also a part of my own personal psychosis that I need to either control or cure myself from–it’s hard to be successful when you are constantly undermining yourself.

One of the major difficulties about writing for teenagers is that, well, I don’t really know any. I do remember being a teenager–the best advice someone gave me while writing my first y/a many years ago was “just remember everything is the end of the world to them”–but the world is dramatically different for teens today than it was back in the Pleistocene era when I was one. (So much for “write what you know,” right?) But I don’t think the emotional lives of teenagers are any different than they used to be; sure, they grew up with the Internet and smart phones and communicating through apps become obsolete and passé between first and second drafts–and trying to decipher the abbreviations and emojis and so forth would need Champollion and the Rosetta Stone–but being a teenager today, with it’s technological differences, doesn’t mean their interior lives have changed that much. Sure, the bullying and it happening on-line are significantly different than it was when I was a teenager–I am so glad we didn’t have social media and smart phones when I was in high school–but like I said, trying to be accurate about the apps they use to communicate can quickly date your book, so I try to leave as much of that out of them as possible. One of the things I absolutely hated about young adult/juvenile fiction when I actually was one myself was it never seemed real to me; the characters weren’t anyone I actually knew–I remember one book where the teenagers were into Gilbert & Sullivan and this was completely alien to me. There also seemed to be a sort of Hayes-like code for these books; and while I know that the 1970’s was also a period of change and more explosive topics for books for kids (Judy Blume, anyone?), the vast majority of books targeted at me didn’t interest me. I also always hated preachy books; and so avoided ones that dealt with “controversial” topics because they inevitably had A Very Valuable Lesson to Teach, something I try to avoid when I myself am writing about something controversial.

Following the stories of what happened in Steubenville and Marysville, and other stories like the Stanford Rapist and this recent one about the kid who was drugging and raping girls on Long Island and will serve no time, deeply offended my own personal sense of justice, fairness, and equality. As a gay man who has been directly discriminated against as well as passively (the micro-aggressions and daily reminders from a culture and society riddled with systemic homophobia are endless), I never like to see other people treated unfairly, either individually or as a group. For many years, I was so focused on homophobia and concern about HIV/AIDS that I basically had tunnel vision and was unable to see how what I experienced personally and as a part of a minority group extrapolated to other marginalized groups. This was partly because I was raised in a society where that marginalization was the norm; my gender and skin shielded me from it for the most part and the loss of privilege experienced as a result of my own sexuality was outrageous in some ways to my sense of justice and fairness, therefore that was the priority of any and all activism from me.

But as I slowly undid the conditioning and lessons of my childhood, and given the reckoning triggered by the aforementioned cases as well as the #metoo and #timesup movements, I felt toxic masculinity and its companion rape culture needed to be something I addressed in my writing. I started with some short stories–“The Silky Veils of Ardor” for one, and “This Town” for another–all the while the Kansas book was being developed and worked on in the background and around other contacted manuscripts. Homophobia is, after all, deeply rooted in toxic masculinity; and I began to realize how interconnected all forms of discrimination are; what theorists refer to as ‘Intersectionality.’ I’ve always, after all, written about homophobia and discrimination of some sort, so why not expand myself and where I am mentally, extrapolate everything I’ve experienced to other similar situations and issues involving other marginalized groups? The Diversity Project I’ve embarked on over the past few years, reading other voices that are non-white, has broadened my mind in so many ways that I wish had not been necessary, and I am rather resentful that my own education was so narrow and so exclusionary. But at least I am aware of its failures, and my own that resulted from this lack; although it can be frustrating from time to time to see something much more clearly that I should have always been conditioned to see clearly; and I hate that I had on blinders that I wasn’t aware I was wearing.

I am trying to do better. I am trying to be better. And I am getting better at noticing defaults that are problematic, that are a result of the cultural and societal conditioning of my childhood and most of the first half of my life that it took me far too long to start questioning.

And you now see why I am so shitty at self-promotion.

Christmas Won’t Be The Same Without You

I did not want to get up this morning.

A quick look at today’s temperature–it is currently forty-eight degrees–explains it. It is chilly in the Lost Apartment this morning, and my heavy blankets felt all too marvelous for me to want to get out from underneath them when the alarm began it’s insistent cacophony far too early this morning for my tastes, quite frankly. The first day of winter looms nigh this week–perhaps even today or tomorrow–and then we’re in for the cold spells of winter in southeastern Louisiana, I would presume.

It’s weird–since Christmas is this weekend I only have my three days of work in the office this week, and then I have a four-day holiday. The holiday will be spent, of course, trying to get back on schedule with everything–I had a semi-productive day yesterday, and that productivity needs to continue today–but as my coffee kicks in I am also not tired, I am finding; more like I was groggy and didn’t want to come fully awake just yet. The stiff soreness in my shoulders also isn’t there this morning, so perhaps after work tomorrow I can actually return to the gym and start easing my way back into working out again. Yay? Yay.

I spent some time with Vivien Chien’s delightful Death by Dumpling yesterday, which is also an immersive experience into an Asian business center in Cleveland; which is interesting. I know we have a rather nice-sized Asian immigrant community in New Orleans–there was a section along Canal Street that was once our Chinatown–and there are a lot of Vietnamese families in New Orleans East (Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse explored the New Orleans Vietnamese community)–yet another part of New Orleans’ rich and varied culture/community/history I’ve never touched on in my work. The lovely thing about New Orleans is you can never ever run out of things to research, explore and write about here; the sad thing about New Orleans is realizing there is so much that it’s incredibly humbling; I always kind of laugh to myself when I hear myself being described as a “New Orleans expert”–please. There’s so little that I actually do know as opposed to the actuality; I am always realizing how little I do know about the city and its history and culture.

I also spent some time writing on the book yesterday, and it is beginning to really take shape nicely. If I can maintain a decent schedule on it, I should be able to finish on time–which will be just in time to head to New York next month, barring the trip getting canceled for one reason or another (please please please let that not happen again). I also managed to get the promo recordings done–I hate, as I have mentioned, hearing and seeing myself on recordings, so I can’t rewatch them to see if they are any good or not–but maybe I should start recording myself doing readings from my books and stories as promotional materials? I don’t know, it’s hard for me to imagine that succeeding, but…is that part of the self-destructive mentality that is rooted in my deeply felt Imposter Syndrome, or is that a valid critique of me, my attempts to promote myself and my career, and that very really sense that no one cares whether you do or you don’t?

Heavy thoughts this morning on my second cup of coffee, right?

But at least I got an email this morning from one of the places I recorded a video for–a brief read of “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy”, from The Only One in the World–and Narrelle Harris, the very kind editor, seemed to have really liked it, so there’s that part going for me this morning. Yay, I think?

I also got the cover artwork for one of these anthologies I have a story in–Cupid Shot Me, Valentine’s Day gay crime stories, and that is the book that “This Thing of Darkness” is going to be revised/edited for (I made a note on my list of stories/manuscripts due this morning to note that this is the one due on January 10th)–and it’s pretty cool. I do love landing short stories, wherever I can. I hate that the short story market isn’t as strong as it used to be; even writing gay erotica was a nice supplemental income back in the days before everyone began truly using the internet to scratch their porn itches…remember the days of porn videos, either renting or buying for the exorbitant price of $89.95? The bargain bins of gay porn videos that had been remaindered? I’ve never pretended not to have written gay porn (or erotica, whichever makes you feel better about it), but it has been a hot minute since I’ve actually written or read any. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever again–there’s some gay noir I want to do that needs to be lusty, sweaty and erotic–but for now…it’s certainly not in my immediate future or in my plans for what I need to get done over the next two months.

And on that note, tis perhaps time for me to head into ye olde spice mines. There’s a lot I have to get done before the holidays this weekend.

Have an awesome Monday, Constant Reader!

Johnny Are You Queer?

I have been wanting to rewatch Johnny Tremain for quite some time now.

When Disney Plus went live, the first thing I did (after subscribing) was search for it there; I did this at least once every two weeks since the service launched, to no avail. I would look for it on Amazon Prime, Netflix, everywhere; whenever I would sign up for yet another streaming service I would look for it. I never quite understood–and still don’t–why Disney Plus doesn’t have it; but the other day at work I realized I hadn’t looked for it for a while, so signed into Disney Plus on my browser: nope. Oh might as well give Amazon Prime a try, I thought, although Disney not having one of its own properties while another streaming service had it was, I thought, highly unlikely.

And yet, there it was: to rent or buy. I didn’t want to buy it, and I really hate paying to rent to stream something when I already pay for far too many streaming services (I really need to get past the mentality of subscribing when I want to watch something when it’s far cheaper in the long run to merely rent the movie or show), but I’v been wanting to rewatch this movie for years and there it finally was; so I did, and rewatched it yesterday whilst making my daily allotment of condom packs.

I also remembered, when I found the film, that Johnny Tremain was my gateway drug to not only my lifelong interest in American history–which eventually led to an interest in history in general. We had an assembly at my elementary school to watch the movie, and I saw it again when it aired on The Wonderful World of Disney (it may even have still been Disney’s Wonderful World of Color). I eventually read the book, which I got from a Scholastic Book Fair, and it became a treasured favorite. I also recognized, before rewatching the movie as a sixty-year-old, that it was a Disney film aimed for kids made in the 1950’s during the Red Scare when we were all living under the shadow of the mushroom cloud; Walt himself was, among many other things, a deeply conservative pro-America anti-Communist homophobe, and given all those things, it was going to most likely be–if looked at with a cold, judgmental, independent eye–a barely disguised propaganda film. (I am also curious to reread the book; since it was published in 1943, during the height of the second world war, it was also probably pro-American propaganda, when all the country needed to be united to believe that we were fighting evil to make the world a better place, and since American democracy was the be-all end-all…you see what I mean?)

I mean, once you recognize and identify Lost Cause mythology as an ideation to perpetrate and protect white supremacy, it’s also relatively easy to start reexamining all of American history and see the mythology that has been built up around the founding and creation of the country, as well as the deification of the Founding Fathers.

But while I was researching the book and movie the other day, I also came across a paper–queer theory–by Dr. Frank Henderson at Furman University that essentially reexamines the text of the novel from a queer perspective looking for subtext: the piece is titled “Could Johnny Tremain Be Gay? Reinterpretation as a Subversive Act” and was published in the Journal of Homosexuality (I read the abstract, and an article about it, rather than paying $40 to access the actual paper and read it; seriously, how do academics research if this stuff is so expensive? I will probably try to track a copy down through the library; which I guess, actually, is what academics do), and it gave me some pause for thought. I do remember that Johnny was more bratty and selfish in the book than he was in the movie (I remember being startled by this when I read the book the first time) and he literally had nothing but disdain for Cilla or any other girl in the book (which, at the time, was part and parcel of that weird societal norm or belief that prepubescent boys think girls are icky and don’t like them or want anything to do with them–again, very odd in a heteronormative culture) but when he becomes friends with Rab, an older boy involved with the Sons of Liberty, he almost idol-worships the older boy and allows himself to forget his innate selfishness and get involved with something bigger than himself–the revolutionary thinking that led Boston to revolt in the first place. That can be read, as Dr. Henderson states, as a queer relationship between the boys, and that Johnny could be read as queer. I seriously doubt that was what Esther Forbes was thinking when she wrote the book–the book was meant for boys and there was, as I said, that weird “boys don’t like girls” norm for a very long time (it certainly was a consistent theme in Disney productions aimed at boys; same with the Hardy Boys book and other mystery/adventure series aimed at boys from the time). This was in theory erased from the film…but I’m not entirely sure it was.

First of all, there’s absolutely no question that Hal Stalmaster, who played Johnny but never really worked much afterwards, mostly guesting on television shows, was a stunningly beautiful young man.

He also wasn’t a very good actor, but the heavy-handed direction of any Disney live-action film aimed at kids for a very long time didn’t inspire the best work from the cast (Mary Poppins, of course, being an exception).

The young actor who played Rab was also ridiculously good looking–and turned out to be a younger Richard Beymer (billed as Dick) who would go on to play Tony in West Side Story and later, Twin Peaks–and they certainly had more chemistry together than Johnny had with Cilla, who was turned into a love interest of sorts, with him giving her a quick peck on the cheek (their only intimacy) as he runs through the streets of Boston with the news that the British would be leaving Boston “by sea”.

The movie was very typical Americana–so yes, propaganda–which sterilized and cleaned up the period in Boston before the outbreak of the war, with rather stiff pronouncements about ideals and principles and freedom and the rights of man and liberties and tyranny–all the patriotic buzzwords cast about by people who want to silence those who don’t agree with them–without any real explanation of what that means.

And yet, as oversimplified and “cleaned up” as this is made to be in the movie, it’s still effective–it’s very stirring to think about the nerve of the American rebels, doing something practically unheard of in history–not just defying their king (there was a long history of rebellions against the worst abuses of kingship throughout the centuries; just the century before the British actually beheaded their king and did without one for eleven or so years; 150 years before Louis XVI went to the guillotine in Paris) but defying the might of the most powerful and richest empire the world had ever seen. It’s hard not to think about–although everyone in this movie is a revolutionary, all Bostonians except for the villains, and the villainous American loyalists are actually worse than the British military themselves–what that period must have been like to live through; the divided loyalties, the betrayal of neighbor by neighbor, spies and treachery and murders. (I’d love to write a historical mystery set in Boston during this period, actually.)

It’s not a bad movie, but it’s also not a great one; and it certainly does its part in upholding the mythology created about the American revolution.

And yes, this could easily be yet another essay.

Deck the Halls

Christmas Eve is a week from today. How did this happen?

Not that I mind seeing this year coming to an end, but who knows if 2022 will be any better? I’ve always had that issue before with people being thrilled and/or happy that a year is coming to an end: the change of a calendar day doesn’t really mean a fresh start, or an “out with the old in with the new” reboot of any kind; it’s just another day. I know, it’s just symbolic, but people always seem to take it seriously. I hate to be the Debbie Downer raining on anyone’s parade, but…then again, it’s never stopped me before.

I have a lot to do today, and this morning, despite a good night’s sleep and feeling very rested, I am also feeling rather un-motivated. The coffee should help, of course–that’s what it’s for, isn’t it?–so hopefully by the time I have finished a second or third cup my brain should be clearing up and I should be raring to go. One can hope, at any rate. I did watch Johnny Tremain yesterday at long last, and I was right about some things and wrong about others; I did look for some of the queer reading of the story that I read about in an article I ran across while looking for the movie the other day–it’s there if you look for it–so now of course I want to take some time at some point and reread the book (and yes, I am thinking there’s an essay in there for me to write someday; I really need to start writing these essays that I think up else they will never get done). It’s been a very long time since I read the book, so I am not certain whether I am remembering the book itself or the film. Still, I should reread the book at any rate.

I have also picked out my book to read for the weekend–and have definitely landed on Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien. I kind of want to see the new Spider-man movie, No Way Home, but I am not sure that I really want to be sitting in a movie theater in the suburbs right now with a crowd of people with questionable vaccination status. I’ve been vaccinated and boosted, but at the same time I’d rather not become a carrier, even if I only get mildly sick from an infection. I am excited to read it, to be honest; I am really enjoying this trip I am taking down Cozy Lane, and of course I am saving the latest Donna Andrews as a Christmas treat for myself next weekend. I’ve not picked out my watching for today’s condom packing adventures yet–there’s a plethora of things to choose from, and I did spend some time looking at what’s new on several of the streaming services last night, but there’s such an overabundance it’s difficult to choose anything. I also need to figure out what I’ve agreed to write and when it is due; I think I’ve agreed to do any number of things and so of course I need to compile a detailed to-do list so I can work my through it. And of course, the house needs cleaning and organizing as it always does. Heavy sigh. I really need to let go of the self-defeating mentality that the insane standard of cleanliness ingrained into my head by my mother is not achievable to anyone with three full-time jobs and stop beating myself up over it, seriously.

And the good news this morning is that my shoulders don’t feel sore at all anymore, so I think the strain has finally healed, so I can go back to the gym this weekend. Huzzah! I would also like to take a walk around the Garden District after sunset at some point so I can take pictures of the Christmas decorations, but there just never seems to be enough time in the day to get everything done.

I had a lovely evening last night hanging out with friends I’d not seen before Hurricane Ida; it was lovely catching up, talking about books and writing and TV shows we’ve watched and getting caught up in general with everything. It was also really fun to laugh really long and hard again–something that’s been missing in my life for far too long, or at least has become too much of a rarity since the World Closed Down. I think we are all kind of missing out on joy, if that makes sense? Paul and I have already made up our minds to try to enjoy ourselves as much as we can in 2022–which is the only kind of resolution I can get on board with; I think maybe if we all decided to spend as much time as possible in 2022 finding joy in life and the world–well, maybe things could turn around. I am tired myself of all the darkness and bad news and the constant gloom and doom that seems to be our world and our existence now. So, even if the face on insurmountable odds, I am determined to remain cheerful and happy and to always try to find the joy in things. As Ted Lasso says, “be curious, not judgmental.”

And there’s really so much to be curious about!

And on that note, as the coffee begins to kick in, I am heading into the spice mines. Y’all have a lovely day, you hear? And happy Friday, Constant Reader–hope you have a lovely weekend.

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

So, over the weekend I finished watching Chapelwaite.

What a terrific series this is!

When I started watching, I must admit I wasn’t compelled to continue watching past episode one. The story it’s based on (“Jerusalem’s Lot,” the only original story written for Stephen King’s collection Night Shift) was never one of my favorites, and I remembered it primarily as an epistolary story that never really got anywhere, if that makes sense–it really was just the letters of a man who was losing his mind, trying to get to the bottom of the weirdness going on in his inherited home, Chapelwaite, and there was something about “the worm” and so on. King described it as “Lovecraftian” in his seminal work on horror, Danse Macabre; and I had never gotten into Lovecraft, so I always figured I was missing something in the story because of that, and never revisited it. The first episode moved kind of slowly, as first episodes are often wont to do, and it did inspire me to reread the story–which I liked a lot more on a reread. But the episode started too slowly for Paul, and so we abandoned the show. A friend recommended it highly–“stick with it, it really picks up” so during my condom packing duties last week I started again with episode 2.

Very glad I did; and I really need to remember the truism that one should always give a show at least two episodes before abandoning it–unless that first episode is really and truly terrible (I’m looking at you, I Know What You Did Last Summer). Chapelwaite’s first episode was not terrible; but it was a very slow burn to set up the story. One thing I did greatly appreciate with how this show was done and cast was how the main character, Charles Boone (played perfectly by Adrien Brody), was more fleshed out and developed than he was in the short story. In the story, no mention was made of any spouse or children for him; his only family was the cousins who lived at Chapelwaite. The show gave him a Pacific Islander wife–who was already dead when the show opened, and three children, Honor, Loa, and Tane. In the show Boone was a whaler who lived at sea with his wife and children; the much-loved wife died of tuberculosis, and the younger daughter has rickets, so one of her legs is in a brace. The children are quickly seen as outsiders because of their mixed race heritage in the small town of Preacher’s Corners, the nearest town to the house; it isn’t just the mixed race children that are the source of the animus of the townspeople toward the Boone family. The Boones are blamed for a mysterious “illness” that infects and gradually kills the villagers; no one really knows what causes the illness or how to combat it effectively.

Charles is soon having weird visions, and hearing rats–or something–scratching within the walls of the house. An exterminator finds nothing in the walls, no signs of rats or mice or anything, which makes Charles think he might be going insane. He also engages Rebecca–who is not your run-of-the-mill nineteenth century young woman in small village in Maine. Rebecca has ambitions and desires of her own–to escape Preacher’s Corners, to become a writer, and she has been educated; so she comes to Chapelwaite to tutor the children and get them up to speed. Of course, the other children at the school are horrific to the Boone children, just as most of the adults are horrible to Charles. (Rebecca is played perfectly by Emily Hampshire, better known as Stevie on Schitt’s Creek, and the range she has is clear in this role; which is as far from Stevie as she could possibly get.)

But once the show starts rolling–as Charles and Rebecca and the children begin to find out what is really going on at Chapelwaite, and in the nearby abandoned town of Jerusalem’s Lot–it just keeps picking up speed. It is also truly Gothic in tone and feel; beautifully filmed and shot and the cast is perfect in their roles.

Highly recommended; one of the best King adaptations I’ve seen.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

I woke up this morning to the news that Anne Rice died last night.

She was an enormous influence on me and my life, for any number of reasons. It was her book The Witching Hour that made me realize that I needed to come to New Orleans, that awakened my connection to the city that was maybe always there in my head yet was dormant; I cannot precisely place what it was about that book that opened the connection necessary in my head to know that New Orleans was where I belonged. There was just something about that book, the way she wrote about the city and its magic, that drew me here. The weekend of my thirty-third birthday I came to New Orleans, and it was the first time I ever felt connected to a place, that I had finally found the place where I belonged, where–if and when I were to move there–all of my dreams would come true. Her love of the city where she was born and grew up comes through so powerfully in The Witching Hour, and the book remains one of my favorites to this day. The friend I stayed with that weekend–knowing how much I loved the book–took me on a drive around the city and through the Garden District, and pulled up the house at the corner of First and Chestnut. “This,” he said with a big smile, “is where she lives. Do you recognize the house?”

I got out of the car, dumbfounded. The home of the Mayfair witches was real. It was on the corner of First and Chestnut, just as she wrote in the book. There was the massive live oak in the front yard. There was Dierdre’s porch, just off to the side of the front gallery of the house. There was the pool in the side yard. There was the window from which Antha fell to her death.

I did what any number of fans and tourists did, of course; posed for a picture by the front gate. That picture–all of the pictures from that weekend–were lost over the years and many moves, from apartment to apartment in Tampa, from Tampa to Minneapolis, from Minneapolis to New Orleans, when I finally, at long last, was able to move home to the city I loved…where, as I suspected when I read The Witching Hour, all of my dreams came true.

Eight years after we moved here, I lived through a horrible nightmare. One night on Memorial Day weekend, Paul and I had gone to the Quarter for a book launch party and then went out for a few drinks. We ran into another friend at one bar but I wanted to go dancing. Paul stayed behind with the friend, said he’d catch a cab home, and off I went. I came home and he wasn’t there. I went to bed…and woke up later that morning to a phone call that no one ever wants to get. Paul had been attacked by a group of homophobic thugs and beaten, badly. Had it not happened directly across the street from the Verti Marte, the two college students who had stopped there to get something to eat on their way home from work wouldn’t have seen it happen, and run out screaming at them. The monsters escaped, but had those girls not taken action, he most likely would have beaten far worse, perhaps (probably)killed.

I don’t remember much, really, of that day or the next few weeks. I do remember how kind people were, and how much support I received.

But what I really remember is how the crime was mishandled by the homophobic cops who were called to the scene–the girls told me all about when they called (and to this day, I regret never getting their names)–and as a result, the possibility that the attackers would be caught and punished evaporated. It didn’t make the Times-Picayune for several days–the timing is very unclear to me to this day; those days are jumbled and unclear in my mind–but I will never forget that Mrs. Rice made a public statement about what happened, and she also went on all the news channels in New Orleans to talk about what happened, and offered a reward.

And one night, after I got home from the hospital, I decided to tackle the monumental task of thanking people, who had reached out, who’d offered help, who were holding fundraisers, etc. etc. etc. I knew Mrs. Rice’s address, but figured she would probably never see a thank you card given the amount of mail she probably received; I had always heard stories that she actually had a phone number listed in the phone book (yes, I am “look it up in the phone book” years old) and sure enough, there was a number listed. I also figured, as I dialed, that it was probably just a message line, but I had also heard that she listened to all the messages, so I thought when the recorder picked up, I would talk really fast to get everything out that I wanted to say before the beep cut me off.

But a human being answered the phone, a woman.

“Hi, I was wondering if I could leave a message for Mrs. Rice?” I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking.

“Yes, of course.”

The words started tumbling out of me. I said who I was and who Paul was, and that I wanted to say thank you to her for offering a reward, for her public statement, and how much it meant to me, to both of us, that probably the most famous person in New Orleans would do that for total strangers. My voice broke a couple of times, my eyes filled with tears a couple of times, and I had to stop to take a breath every once in a while. When I finally finished, the woman on the other end of the line said, very kindly, “Well, of course. It was the least I could do.”

I was stunned. I was talking to Anne Rice herself. I had read all the books. She was one of the reasons I had finally found home; the place where I felt I belonged–and was now, of course, questioning that; I had read all the books and enjoyed them all; she lived and wrote about one of the most beautiful houses I had ever seen and was kind of a personal touchstone for me in the city; and now, she was reminding me why New Orleans was home.

We talked for a while, actually; I know she asked about me, she asked about how he was doing, she wanted to be certain I was okay–this total stranger who had looked up her phone number and reached out just to say thank you. I don’t know how long we were on the phone, but I do know, when I finally apologized for bothering her and taking up so much of her time, she replied, “You didn’t waste my time. I’m so glad you called because I was so worried about you. And if you need anything–anything at all, please don’t hesitate to call. Hospitals and medical expenses can add up very quickly. You just let me know what hospital and I’ll take care of everything. Please take care of yourself. And please, call at any time.”

I never called again. But I’ve never forgotten that Mrs. Rice, one of the bestselling authors of the last fifty years, one of the biggest celebrities to live in New Orleans, took a personal interest in two total strangers, and did whatever she could to try to bring attention to what happened as well as try to catch the perpetrators, and how incredibly kind and gracious and caring she was to someone she’d never met, and would never meet.

I had always wanted to attend one of her signings, to thank her in person not only for everything she did in that aftermath of what happened to Paul, but for how incredibly kind and generous she was to a shaky, barely holding it together total stranger who called her out of the blue one weeknight. But it never worked out for me to do so, and now she’s gone.

RIP, Mrs. Rice, and thank you again. You were truly a great lady.