Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad?

Well, it’s Sunday morning and there’s a Saints game today; I will probably ignore it, as my blood pressure and heart can’t really take it, and spend the day continuing to keep my head down and try to plough through all this work I have to get done today.

I got very little done yesterday. I had, despite the good night’s sleep and the good rest I got Friday night, it turned out my batteries were still too low for me to get anything requiring a great deal of thinking and thought done. It’s a shame, and I may not have been wise to spend the day resting and watching television and reading, but it was what my brain and my soul needed. I also refuse to beat myself up for taking me time anymore; I am too old and no longer have the energy and/or wherewithal to work constantly without taking time to refresh and recharge and revisit.

The news of course doesn’t help; the constant sense of outrage and anger at events transpiring in the world every day drains me of a lot of energy. Social media, which used to be a fun way of recharging and seeing what people are up to, has turned into a cesspool of lies, ignorance and weaponized hatred. I refuse to engage with trolls or trollish behavior; my rule of social media has always been if I won’t say it to your face I won’t say it on-line. This, of course, can be intensely problematic because I will say it right to your face. But my energies are best spent elsewhere; hearts and minds cannot be changed or altered through nasty social media battling, and I have neither the patience or energy to waste on lost souls with no capacity for reason or logic or compassion for other human beings.

So, today I am going to get cleaned up, do some chores, and I am going to focus on getting some writing/revising/editing done. I had hoped to be finished with the Scotty revision today, but the end goal of being able to turn it in by November 1 is still a distinct possibility, even by not doing any work on it yesterday. One of my primary concerns, as I may have mentioned, was the fear that I am rushing the revisions on these final chapters in an attempt to get it finished on my self-imposed deadline, and yesterday I also realized that I still have an additional three to four days to get this done by the 1st. There’s no need, absolutely no none, to revise three chapters today when I can actually manage one per day and still finish on time. Stop adding stress and pressure to your life, Gregalicious–it will be done when it is time for it to be done.

I got a copy of Joan Didion’s essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and dived into it some yesterday while football games played in the background (I have to admit I enjoyed watching Georgia do to Florida what LSU did to them; and that untimed play touchdown for the win by Kentucky over Missouri was amazing–definitely going down in Kentucky lore, which is usually about near-misses and coming close. As it happened, I thought to myself, you know, these are situations where Kentucky used to always lose. Maybe there has been a sea-change in the Bluegrass State; we will see what happens when they host Georgia next weekend). Didion is a great stylist; the way she uses words and creates sentences and paragraphs with an eye for a very telling detail is extraordinary. (I have some issues with Didion and the lens through which she sees things, but despite that lens the way she writes is exceptional. If I ever sit down and write about Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls, I will probably address them at that time.) And as with any writer who is truly terrific, reading her words made me think about my own, and gave me some thoughts.

As I said at the time, reading Bolin’s Dead Girls made me start thinking about my own essays; I’ve written quite a few over the years, and of course, as my friend Laura points out to me, my blog is essentially me writing a daily personal essay. I don’t know if I ever say anything truly earth-shattering or profound; I don’t think of myself as a great thinker, or being particularly perceptive and incisive in my points of view on many subjects. My intellect–and my ability to write essays–are still things I don’t have a lot of confidence in; thank you, public education and land grant colleges for making me insecure about these things. One of the myriad of reasons I started writing this blog back in December of 2004 on Livejournal was because I wanted to write about things no one would pay me to write about; to share my observations of the world, society, politics, and culture through the lens of a gay man in a highly homophobic world; it was also why I wrote about gay characters and themes in my fiction. My writing, by virtue of my lavender lens, is always going to be somewhat political; despite my privilege as a white man I still didn’t hit the privilege trifecta of straight white male, and while the privilege of being white male is still much better than any other variation of that, gay also negates a great deal of that.

I had originally, and always thought, that if I ever wrote about the Virginia experience, it would be an entire book, which I always jokingly called, to myself, Gay Porn Writer, because that was the way I amused myself throughout the entire banning experience–laughing about me being described in so many newspapers and angry emails and complaints as “gay porn writer Greg Herren.” Over the years since all that nonsense, and over the last few years in particular, I realized that isn’t enough material to write an entire book around, and realized I needed, if I was ever going to write about that experience, another hook. I thought about extrapolating that happening to me in 2004 with the changes in publishing and society since then; but it was always kind of amorphous. I thought maybe using that experience as a jumping off spot to talking about race, gender, and sex might be a great idea. Realizing that the Virginia experience was the basis for a personal essay, a long one, to be added to a collection of other essays I’ve written as well as others I could write, that I could write about my life and my experience and call the collection Gay Porn Writer: The Fictions of My Life was probably the best way to do this, and more workable than simply trying to piece together a non-fiction narrative about how gay work is seen as porn by so many homophobic people because the very word gay makes them think about sucking cock or butt fucking.

And I’ve written so much! I had no idea how much non-fiction I’ve actually done in my career; how many author interviews, how many book reviews and fitness columns and whatever else may have you I’ve written and published over the years.

One of the things I did do yesterday around the laziness was start writing down essay titles I remember having written in my journal, in order to start searching through files and computer drives for them, to put them all into one easily accessible folder for me in the future…which also startled me; I remembered so many, and there are probably many more that I don’t remember. But that’s one of the chores I’ve assigned myself today; start pulling those together. I know my essay from Love, Bourbon Street, about Katrina and the evacuation, is rather lengthy and would have to be the anchor to the book.

And now, back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

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Wishing on a Star

I prefer not to speak in anger, and always try not to do so. I am not always successful, to my great shame, and I am still tortured by memories of times when I let my anger get the best of me and yelled at a stranger. I will never have the opportunity to apologize to those people, and I know I ruined their day for them; they may also remember being made to feel anger of their own, or shame, or whatever bad emotion my anger caused them. I don’t like it when I lose my temper with Paul, or with friends, or with co-workers. Nothing positive ever comes of it, and I always, always feel bad afterwards; even if it was satisfying at the time.

But anger is also different from outrage, and I will speak out when I am outraged. Outrage and anger are similar but not the same; I will say things in anger I would never say when I am not angry, and will often try to contain those angry sentences to my brain. Outrage comes from a different place, a place that doesn’t burn hot, but is icy; the freezing coldness that comes from utter moral contempt. What I call my Julia Sugarbaker moments come from a place as cold as outer space; my words may be strong, my voice might even quiver with emotion, but make no mistake about it: there is no heat in my outrage.

Injustice outrages me more than anything else; the notion that fairness and decency should only be allowed to the select and denied the rest is one of my many triggers. Over the course of my life I’ve been cold in outrage far more times than I would like, far more times than I wish were necessary, far more times that I ever wanted. There were many points in my life that I thought, ah, this is it. This is the place where fairness and decency is going to kick in, and going forward things are going to be better.

Instead…on and on and on it goes, world without end, amen.

I’m tired from fighting. It seems like I’ve been fighting my entire life. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve paid for them, I’ve done stupid things and embarrassing things and things I wish I hadn’t.

But I never regret being wrong. I don’t like being wrong, but I never regret it completely.  You learn from being wrong. You grow and you change and you see life, the world, people, in a different way when you realize you’re wrong. I’ve grown and changed, I continue to grow and change, and I hope I never stop growing and changing.

But you have to want to grow and change, and one of the sadder things I’ve seen and had to grow accustomed to is seeing how many people have no desire to grow, to learn, to change. I don’t understand it. I try to wrap my mind around it but I can’t. I can’t imagine not questioning, not wondering, not researching, not learning.

I don’t ever want to stop growing and evolving. I can’t imagine wanting to stop, and resisting it stubbornly.

As a writer I tell stories. To tell stories I have to have characters, setting, place and plot  and dialogue. To write about them honestly I have to understand them, and writing sometimes is my way to try to come to understanding. I sometimes funnel my outrage and my anger into my writing as ways of divesting myself of that energy; writing is always where I go when I want to make sense of an insensible situation, a problem, something I can’t quite understand. In my stories I know my characters intimately, who they are and what they like and what they don’t like and whether they are ticklish or not and whether they know how to swim or not and why and if they can cook and if they have a clean house and do they enjoy grocery shopping. You can never know another human being as completely as you know the characters you write about.

I have always thought that my Chanse series was the darker toned one and more political by nature. I’ve tackled hate crimes and murder and homophobia and self-loathing and politics in the Chanse series. I’ve always thought of the Scotty series as fluffy and fun and entertaining; the books enjoyable entertainments for an afternoon or two at the beach and nothing more. But as I address some issues in this current Scotty manuscript, I found myself wondering is this more of a Chanse book than a Scotty? Scotty books aren’t supposed to be dark and heavy.

And then…I start remembering the previous Scotty books. The neo-Nazis allied with the far right politician in Bourbon Street Blues, and what their plan for the Southern Decadence weekend in the French Quarter was. The difficulty of being a world class athlete who has to stay in the closet and having a homophobic mother in Jackson Square Jazz. The inhumanity of the Russian mob in Mardi Gras Mambo. Religious fanaticism and the corruption of the Vietnam War in Vieux Carre Voodoo. The homophobic hysteria of the religious right over same-sex marriage in Who Dat Whodunnit. The corruption of Louisiana state politics in Baton Rouge Bingo. The horror of being tried in the court of public opinion in Garden District Gothic.

I’ve been doing it all along.

Even now, I laugh at my naivete. The Scotty series is about a gay male ex-stripper in the French Quarter whose parents are far-left progressives and is in a three way relationship with a former FBI agent and an international gun-for-hire. They took in the ex-Fed’s gay college-aged nephew after he came out to his parents and they disowned him in Baton Rouge Bingo.

When you write gay characters, tell gay stories, focus on gay themes and ideas, when you show the world what it looks like through the prism of the gay gaze, it absolutely is an act of politics, of defiance, of seeing the society mainstream heterosexual has been building since Romulus and Remus founded Rome from an outside glance.

This makes the work political. It’s very existence is political.

My existence is political. People who don’t know me hate me for simply existing, for not fitting into the world the way they want it to be. My existence challenges core beliefs for some people: those who think we should all be drones living a cookie-cutter existence in the suburbs with 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence.

But got some bad news for you folks: I ain’t going back in the closet. I’m not done fighting. I may be old and tired now, but I’m not finished.

I’ll still be fighting as they shove my body into the crematorium.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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I’d Die Without You

I have always been amazed at how uninterested Americans–particularly the ones who worship symbols like the flag, the national anthem, etc.–are in learning, and learning from, our shared history as a country.

This observation is not, by the one, a partisan one, despite my comment about American symbols; the vast majority of Americans, no matter how they fall politically, have little to no interest in our history…and thus, we are doomed to repeat it, over and over again.

Friday, as is my wont, I chose to take comfort in rereading some history; in particular, the Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court decision.

Everyone knows the name, and everyone knows what the ruling was. Historians and jurists both agree it was without question the worst Supreme Court ruling in our history, and it certainly deserves every degree of vilification it has received since it entered our collective history, if not more.

Essentially, the case was about this: Dred Scott was a slave whose owners had taken him into free states, and therefore, by living in a free state, was entitled to his freedom. The case, from beginning to end, went on for nearly twenty years. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger B, Taney, threw the case out based on these legal considerations:

  1.  Negroes could not be United States citizens, therefore they could not sue in federal courts;
  2. the laws of Illinois could not affect him in Missouri, where he now lived;
  3. his residence in Minnesota Territory north of the Missouri Compromise line could not confer freedom because the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.

The Missouri Compromise was legislation reached in attempt to settle the slavery question; Missouri was allowed into the Union as a slave state, but a line was drawn across the continent below Missouri. Anything new state or territory above the line was free; anything below slavery was legal. This ruling essentially said that slavery followed the flag, and any anti-slavery laws in states in the north did not apply to slaves brought into those states or territories.

Taney’s ruling in the first part was actually even worse than quoted above (from Robert Leckie’s The Wars of America, a really good summary of each war the United States has participated in, through Vietnam); his actual ruling said “Negroes and descendants of slaves.” There were more free people of color living in the United States than most people commonly suppose; in New Orleans, they were an entire class of society, with rules and etiquette and customs (an excellent mystery series is Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series, set in New Orleans in the 1830’s; Benjamin is a free man of color and went to medical school in Paris, but as a black man he cannot practice in the United States. Anne Rice also wrote a terrific novel about the free people of color, The Feast of All Saints). This ruling invalidated their citizenship–it might have been second-class, but it was still citizenship nonetheless. The newly elected president, James Buchanan, connived with Taney to come up with the ruling, and put pressure on other justices to agree to the ruling, thinking it would end the slavery question once and for all.

Needless to say, it did not settle the slavery question. Instead, it inflamed passions on both sides, with the almost inevitable election of Abraham Lincoln, secession, and civil war.

Taney remained chief justice until he died in 1864, and is known to history as one of our worst Supreme Court justices. The Dred Scott decision lives on in infamy, even if most people don’t really know what the case was about, what it’s background was, and what happened because of it. During the Civil War, both Lincoln and Congress not only ignored Taney but the rest of the Supreme Court as well. Lifetime appointments, you see, and pro-slavery justices appointed to appease the slave-owning southern states–they could not trust the court to be impartial–which they showed they were definitely not in the Dred Scott case–and it took decades for the court to regain its luster and credibility.

Which, of course, they proceeded to destroy again in the 1890’s with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which essentially legalized segregation. It wasn’t until Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that the arc of American justice began to bend away from racism, bigotry, and legalized discrimination.

I also had a brief moment of hilarity yesterday when I imagined what social media might have looked like (had it existed) in the 1850’s, with the abolitionists and the proslavery people fighting about the legality of owning people.

Someone had posted, about a year ago, somewhere about something about how we all need to pull together as Americans!!! The country has never been this divided!!!

The excess of unnecessary punctuation should give you an idea of where the poster fell on the political spectrum.

That was, however, one of the few times I broke my rule of “do not engage on social media” and replied, The hundreds of thousands killed in the Civil War would beg to differ with that statement.

There has always been a divide in this country; rural v. urban, rich v. poor, conservative v. progressive. Our country has never quite lived up to the lofty ideals it was founded upon; slavery was written into the Constitution, the Supreme Court ruled it legal and then later legalized segregation. Religious, gender, racial and sexuality-based bigotry continue to this day.

That divide will always be there, and sometimes it’s more rancorous than others. We are living in a particularly rancorous time; but if you look back through American history, as I tend to do, you will see that rancor and hatred between opposing opinions has always existed.

Everyone knows that George Washington, for example, had wooden teeth. But in the eighteenth century dentistry was not what it is today and dental hygiene and health was almost primitive. It was very rare for anyone past the age of forty in that time to actually keep their teeth. They all wore false teeth. Washington’s just fit him poorly, and newspapers that resisted his presidency mocked him for his bad dentures. So, George Washington’s teeth have entered American lore and everyone knows that about the first president.

As a nation, we really need to know and understand our history better.

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This Used To Be My Playground

GEAUX TIGERS!

I watched the Auburn-Washington game yesterday while I cleaned the downstairs. I did a lot of chores and errands yesterday; and also did some reorganizing and cleaning so the living room doesn’t look quite so…book hoarder-ish. 

I’m getting better about it. I’ve realized that the true value, for me, of the ebook is that if I read a book I really like and think I’ll want to hang on to for one reason or another, I can donate the hardcopy and buy the ebook; if I’m patient enough and pay enough attention to email alerts and so forth, I can usually get it at a much discounted price. I don’t feel quite so bad about buying ebooks at low sale prices as I would had I not paid full price already for a print version. So, I’m really buying the book twice.

(I also find myself taking advantages of sales on ebooks by a particular author whose books I loved and would love to revisit sometime. I have the entire canon of Mary Stewart on my iPad, and a shit ton of Phyllis Whitneys. I’m also occasionally finding books by Dorothy B. Hughes and Charlotte Armstrong and Dorothy Salisbury Davis, which is lovely; I’ve also managed to get some of Susan Howatch’s lengthy family sagas, like Penmarric, The Wheel of Fortune, and Cashelmara. There are many treasures to be found through e-retailers.)

And I also find that, once I’ve let go of the hard copy, I’m not usually all that anxious to buy the e-version. Most of the books I want to keep is because I think it might be something I’d want to write about in a broader, nonfiction sense; like a book about the Gothic romances of the 1960’s thru the 1980’s, what they were inspired by, and how they were books about women’s fears; yes, there was romance involved, but they were also about the dark side of romance. Or a lengthy essay or study about how gay men are portrayed in crime novels written by authors who aren’t gay men, like the rampant homophobia in James Ellroy’s Clandestine or the male/male relationship in James M. Cain’s Serenade or any number of gay male portrayals over the decades of American crime fiction. Then there are, of course, the nonfiction tomes, about periods of history that interest me that I hold onto because I may need them as research for a book or story idea that I have.

I also keep copies of books by my friends, and whenever a friend has an ebook sale I will always grab a copy if I can.

I still haven’t really shifted from reading hard copies to reading electronically, but I am slowly but surely getting there. Anthologies are really helpful in that way; short stories are, of course, self-contained and by definition can usually be completed in one sitting.

I also finished reading James Ziskin’s wonderful Cast the First Stone, and am now eighty percent of the way finished with my Bouchercon homework.

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Monday, February 5, 1962

Sitting at the head of runway 31R at Idlewild, the jet hummed patiently, its four turbines spinning, almost whining. The captain’s voice crackled over the public-address system to inform us that we were next in line for takeoff. I’d noticed him earlier leaning against the doorframe of the cockpit, greeting passengers as we boarded the plane. He’d given me a thorough once-over–a hungry leer I know all too well–and I averted my gaze like the good girl that I’m not.

“Welcome aboard, miss,” he’d said, compelling me to look him in the eye. He winked and flashed me a bright smile. “I hope to give you a comfortable ride.”

I surely blushed.

Now, just moments after the handsome pilot had assured us of our imminent departure, the engines roared to life, and the aircraft lurched forward from its standstill. Juddering at first as it began to move, the plane rumbled down the runway, gathering speed as it barreled toward takeoff. I craned my neck to see better through the window,  holding my breath as I gripped the armrest of my seat and grinned like a fool. I sensed the man seated next to me was rolling his eyes, but I didn’t care. Of course I’d flown before–a regional flight from LaGuardia to Albany on Mohawk Airlines, and a couple of quick hops in a single-engine Cessna with a man who was trying to impress me with his derring-do. Alas, his derring-didn’t. But this was my first-ever flight on a jet plane.

This is a terrific start to a terrific novel. The fifth book in James W. Ziskin’s highly acclaimed and award-winning Ellie Stone series, it is, alas, the first Ellie Stone I’ve read. I met the author at a Bouchercon some time back (I don’t recall which one) and of course, I’ve been aware of the awards and the acclaim, and have been accumulating the books in his series for my TBR pile, but just haven’t gotten to them yet, much to my chagrin. So while I am not a fan of reading books out of order in a series (a crime I committed earlier in my Bouchercon homework with Nadine Nettman’s wine series), I certainly didn’t have the time to go back and read the first four.

Now, of course, I am going to have to–and what a delightful prospect this is.

Ellie is a delight, for one thing. The book/series is set in 1962/early 1960’s; and Ellie is a report for the New Holland Republic, not taken terribly seriously by the men she works with or for (with the sole exception her direct editor), even though she is the best reporter and the best writer on her paper. (It kind of reminds me of Mad Men in that way.) The opening is terrific; Ziskin captures that excitement of your first jet flight in a time period where it wasn’t terribly common to fly beautifully, and using that experience to not only showcase how adventurous Ellie is but to introduce her to the new reader as well as give some of her background. She is flying out to Los Angeles to interview a local boy who’s gone out to Hollywood to be a movie star, and has recently been cast as the second male lead in one of those ubiquitous beach movies the 60’s were known for, Twistin’ at the Beach. But he hasn’t shown up for his first day of shooting on the Paramount lot, placing his job in jeopardy, and soon the producer has been murdered…and the deeper Ellie gets into her story and her search for Tony Eberle soon has her digging through the seaming, tawdrier side of the Hollywood dream and system. Saying much more would be giving away spoilers, but Ziskin’s depiction of the secretive side of Hollywood, what studios were willing to do back in the day to protect bankable stars, and what that meant to those on the seamier side of the business is heart-wrenching and heartbreaking, and sympathetically written.

I can’t wait to read more about Ellie Stone.

And now I have moved on to Thomas Pluck’s Bad Boy Boogie, the last part of my homework. LSU plays tonight (GEAUX TIGERS!), and I want to go to the gym, do some more cleaning, and do some more writing today.

So it’s back to the spice mines with me.

Your Wildest Dreams

Good morning! It’s Thursday, everyone, and with a short day at the office ahead of me and just one more day before the weekend, I am feeling good. Not as good perhaps as I should, but I slept really well last night, don’t have to be at work until later this afternoon, and I am going to even go to the gym this morning before it’s time to go to work.

I call that a winning day, don’t you?

I am reading Lori Rader-Day’s The Day I Died as prep work for my moderating duties at Bouchercon next month. I am, in case you weren’t paying attention, Constant Reader, moderating the panel highlighting the Anthony Award finalists for Best Paperback Original. After I finish Lori’s book I’ll be reading Bad Boy Boogie by Thomas Pluck, What We Reckon by Eryk Pruitt, Cast the First Stone by James Ziskin, and Uncorking a Lie by Nadine Nettmann. I’m enjoying Lori’s book–I also enjoyed the previous one of hers I’d read, Little Pretty Things, and as I’ve said before, there’s no one more fun to traverse the back roads of rural Alabama on a rainy morning with. All of these books had been in my TBR pile for quite some time, so it’s great to have an excuse to pull them out and read them.

I worked a little more on “Please Die Soon” yesterday; the story is becoming even creepier the more I work on it–although I think I may have done some overkill with it. But I am going to keep going with it, and once I am finished with the first draft I’ll figure it out in the revision process. I am also letting “A Whisper from the Graveyard” sit for a while–I know there’s some serious tweakage needed in it as well before submitting it–and I am starting to get to work on the August/September project as well. Exciting times for a Gregalicious.

And before I go to the gym this morning, I’m going to try to get the house straightened up a bit.

And while I know I’ve already talked about my story in Florida Happens (“Cold Beer No Flies”) I intend to spend the rest of this month’s focus on The Short Story Project on the stories and authors in the book, to try to whet your appetite for either preordering the book or buying it at Bouchercon. We are doing a launch for the book there on Thursday at 1; all the authors present gathering to sign and/or discuss the book and their story. And of course, it’s just easier for me to start by talking about my own.

Dane Brewer stepped out of his air-conditioned trailer, wiped sweat off his forehead and locked the door. It was early June and already unbearably hot, the humidity so thick it was hard to breathe. He was too far inland from the bay to get much of the cooling sea breeze but not so far away he couldn’t smell it. The fishy wet sea smell he was sick to death of hung in the salty air. It was omnipresent, inescapable. He trudged along the reddish-orange dirt path through towering pine trees wreathed in Spanish moss. The path was strewn with pine cones the size of his head and enormous dead pine needles the color of rust that crunched beneath his shoes. His face was dripping with sweat. He came into the clearing along the state road where a glorified Quonset hut with a tin roof stood.  It used to be a bait and tackle until its resurrection as a cheap bar. It was called My Place. It sounded cozy—the kind of place people would stop by every afternoon for a cold one after clocking out from work, before heading home.

The portable reader board parked where the parking lot met the state road read Cold Beer No Flies.

Simple, matter of fact, no pretense. No Hurricanes in fancy glasses like the touristy places littering the towns along the gulf coast. Just simple drinks served in plain glasses, ice-cold beer in bottles or cans stocked in refrigerated cases at simple prices hard-working people could afford. Tuscadega’s business was fish, and its canning plant stank of dead fish and guts and cold blood for miles. Tuscadega sat on the inside coast of a large shallow bay. The bay’s narrow mouth was crowned by a bridge barely visible from town. A long two-lane bridge across the bay led to the gold mine of the white sand beaches and green water along the Gulf Coast of Florida. Tourists didn’t flock to Tuscadega, but Tuscadega didn’t want them, either. Dreamers kept saying when land along the gulf got too expensive the bay shores would be developed, but it hadn’t and Dane doubted it ever would.

Tuscadega was just a tired old town and always would be, best he could figure it. A dead end the best and the brightest fled as soon as they were able.

 He was going to follow them one day, once he could afford it.

Towns like Tuscadega weren’t kind to people like Dane.

“Cold Beer No Flies” was originally conceived of back when I lived in Kansas, as far back as when I was a teenager. There was a bar in Emporia called My Place, which was an okay place–it had a concrete floor, just like the one in my story–and it also had one of those rolling readerboard signs along the road, and it literally read that: MY PLACE COLD BEER, NO FLIES. I always thought that was funny, and I always wanted to write a story called “Cold Beer No Flies.” I think I wrote the original first draft of the story in the 1980’s, and it languished in my files all these years. When it came to be time to write something for Florida Happens, I picked out “Cold Beer No Flies”, read the first two drafts of what I had written before, and decided to reboot the story and adapt it to the Florida setting. I’d always seen it as a noir story, and in rewriting/adapting it to fit this I needed to obviously move the setting from Kansas to Florida. I also had the bright idea to set it in the panhandle; I figured (rightly) that the majority of stories would be set in the beach communities literally the southern coasts of the state, and not many people would be moved to right about either the interior parts or the panhandle. I picked a dying, rotten little small town and placed it on a panhandle bay, similar to the little town my grandparents retired to in the early 1970’s. I also wanted to look at, and explore, what it’s like to grow up gay and working class in such a place–very redneck, very conservative, very backwards, very religious, very homophobic. The story turned out very creepy, I think, which was precisely what I was going for, and I hope you enjoy it when the time comes, Constant Reader.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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All Cried Out

Tuesday! My long day but it’s also my last day of work for nearly a week; I don’t have to go back into the office until next Tuesday! Huzzah!

I slept very well last night, thank you very much, and I am feeling energized and alive this morning! HURRAY FOR CAPPUCCINO TUESDAYS! It rained most of last night–still is raining now, but it’s that weird kind of rain where it feels all steamy outside; usually it’s not very humid when it rains. We’re also in a flash flood warning; but aren’t we always when it rains?

I started reading Lou Berney’s November Road last night and while I was only able to read two pages before I had to put it aside, it’s fucking unbelievably good. And this rain makes me want to go back to bed with my blankets and just relax, reading it and drinking coffee until I’ve devoured every word. It’s that good, people. Preorder the hell out of it.

Paul and I also started watching a Netflix animated series last night called Big Mouth. Someone recommended it to me, and I cannot for the life of me remember who it was, but it popped up on my recommendations last night and I started watching it, and OH MY GOD. It’s about junior high school kids who are going through puberty and it’s hilarious and honest and real and did I say HILARIOUS? It’s definitely not for kids, I suppose, since there’s some pretty frank talk about masturbation, menstruation, and questioning your sexuality, but it’s terrific–if you have a really off sense of humor like I do.

And now, back to the spice mines. One more chapter and this Scotty draft is FINISHED. Huzzah!

Next up for Promises in Every Star and Other Stories is my story “Unsent”:

Dear Greg,

 I hope you don’t mind I’m writing this letter. You said you didn’t mind so I’m guessing you don’t.

I wanted to thank you for being such a nice guy…it’s funny, I’ve been wanting to write this letter for a long time; I started writing you so many times and I just ended up throwing the letters away every time. I know you probably think I’m just a goof; a dumb kid who doesn’t know what he wants or needs or anything, and that’s true I guess. I don’t know what I want to do with my life….if I live through this. I just wanted to fly planes, and now I am flying them….but this is different.

I guess I was just naïve and stupid when I joined the Air Force. All I wanted to do was fly planes….it never occurred to me I’d be flying planes and killing people…pretty dumb, right?

**

He was just a boy.

He couldn’t be more than fifteen, was my first thought when he walked into Lafitte’s that Tuesday morning. There was no one in the bar besides me; it was twelve thirty. I was working the 5 a.m. till 1 shift, covering for Mike. This shift sucked. The only hope to make any kind of money was leftovers from the previous night when you start, and they’re gone by nine…..so for the last four hours of the shift it was just me and the cleaning women, and they were gone by eleven.

He stood for a few seconds in the doorway, hesitating. I looked up from wiping down the bar for the thousandth time in the last twenty minutes, and smiled to myself. I recognized the hesitation—an underage kid steeling his nerve to sit at the bar and ask for a drink. Well, kid, I said to myself, prepare to be carded.

He walked in and sat down on a bar stool right in front of me. He was cute, still with a little baby-fat in his pale freckled face. His hair was military buzzed, reddish-blonde, and his eyes gray. He was wearing a red sweater and a pair of blue jeans.

I put my rag away under the bar.”What can I do for you?” I asked.

He looked around the bar, not meeting my eyes. “A beer?”

“You got ID?”

He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a worn black wallet, pulling out a military ID which he slid across the bar to me. I picked it up. The picture was him, all right, looking maybe ten years old, innocent and young. The birth date was August 12, 1968. Yeah, well, so I was wrong about his age. “What kind of beer? A draft?”

“Yeah.” He nodded and smiled at me. His whole face lit up when he smiled, his full lips pulling back over slightly crooked, yellowed teeth. I got a plastic cup and filled it at the tap, my back to him. I placed it on a napkin. “Dollar fifty.”

He handed me two ones, and I gave him his change. He left the quarters on the bar, which I slid into my hand and tossed into my tip bucket. “Not very busy, huh?” he said, looking down at the bar, not touching the beer.

I shrugged. “Nah, we’re never busy—don’t even know why we bother being open.”

“Yeah.” He toyed with his napkin. “Do you mind talking to me? I don’t wanna be a bother.”

I laughed and gestured to the empty bar. “Not like I got anything else to do.”

This is without doubt, one of my personal favorite short stories, if not my favorite. “Unsent” was inspired by several different things: I took the title from the Alanis Morrissette song, where she is writing letters to all of her ex-lovers, which I thought might make a great concept for a short story; the heartbreaking Dixie Chicks song “Travelin’ Soldier,” which I heard for the first time on the radio driving back to New Orleans from my parents’ in Kentucky and made me cry in the car (it still makes me teary whenever I hear it; it’s one of the most heartbreaking songs ever recorded) and a memory I have of standing in the doorway at Cafe Lafitte in Exile, just before the invasion of Iraq and seeing a boy, in his Army greens, standing across the street looking at the bar with longing on his face. I kept waiting for him to cross the street and come in; but he finally just turned and walked away up Bourbon Street. Seeing him reminded me of something we so frequently forget when it comes to wars and the military; the vast majority of the young men and women out there risking life and limb are so heartbreaking young; and every death, every injury, every veteran with PTSD is such an incredible, horrible waste. And I wanted to write a story that illustrated that horrific waste. And this was, of course, during the time of don’t ask don’t tell.

When Tim and Becky asked me to write a story for Fool for Love, I remembered the idea for “Unsent” and sat down and wrote it in one sitting. When I was finished, I was exhausted, and then I simply did a quick copy edit and emailed it to them. It made them both cry, and they loved the story, but wanted something a little more…upbeat, so I wrote “Everyone Says I’ll Forget In Time” to replace it. I eventually published it elsewhere–I think Lawrence Schimel was the editor?

I love this story, and despite the fact that it’s considered erotica because there’s a sex scene in it, it’s really about love and loss and waste and lost possibilities. I’m enormously proud of this story, and it is one of the stories I remind myself of whenever I get Impostor Syndrome:   if you weren’t a good writer you could have never written something like “Unsent.”

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Nasty

I was writing notes in my journal the other day when this thought came to me : social media is actually neither. You aren’t really being social, or socializing with anyone; and it’s not really media either. If anything, it’s anti-social media, because people tend to spend their time looking at their phones and spending time on their computer on social media sites rather than actually talking to, or engaging with, actual human beings.

When I was a kid I was taught that there were three things you never discussed, at parties, dinner, bars, etc: politics, money, and religion. Your politics, your income, and your religion were no one else’s business; likewise, everyone else’s were none of mine. At the time, I was told it was simply manners; you weren’t supposed to know or care about anyone else’s politics, money or religion–nor were you supposed to hold that against them. This is why we vote in booths with a curtain closed, because our politics are supposed to be private. Likewise, so is our religion, so is our income.

The rise of social media, however, has broken down those barricades of politeness and what used to be known as minding your own business. It’s very difficult, you know, to find out someone you’ve been friends with for a very long time might hold a belief or a value that is not just not in line with your own, but might even be repugnant to you. I’ve long recognized that simply because my core values and beliefs are my own doesn’t necessarily make them right; but I have also always been willing to change my mind, to learn and grow, from talking to other people, from reading, and from occasionally questioning my beliefs and values. 

What I often find astonishing is that people not only do not want to rethink or analyze their beliefs and values, but how quickly they are to not only take offense at the very idea but also how quickly they will get defensive and immediately go on the attack. Asking for a careful reevaluation of what you believe is neither telling you you’re a horrible person nor does it mean the other person is attacking you; it simply is ‘hey, have you ever thought about it this way?’ I have often enjoyed my exchanges with friends who believe differently than I do; sometimes it has actually changed or altered my opinion in some way, even if it’s minor: I don’t understand why anyone would not be interested in personal growth, or would want to shy away from intellectual stimulation.

As a writer, I long ago realized two things: I always need to listen, and it is very rare to actually change someone’s mind in a social media exchange about anything. Social media discussions quickly descend into vitriol, condescension, and name-calling; I have the privilege of knowing people who have far higher degrees of celebrity than I can ever hope to achieve and when I see the venom and vitriol directed at them in the public sphere, it makes me recoil quite a bit. Why do people have to be so nasty? I wonder, and then of course the inevitable “what-about-isms” and “your side started it” and all of that nonsense that deflects and derails what could actually be constructive conversation is tossed aside, and beliefs and values become more deeply hardened, the brain more callused.

I have evolved on many issues throughout the course of my lifetime; many. I was raised in a society that believed many terrible things, and I was raised to believe many things that I now find abhorrent. But as a gay male who always knew he was different, even when he didn’t know what precisely it was that made him different, I had to question everything. It was hard–my teens and my twenties were horrific and I often thought about suicide–before I finally realized that the problem wasn’t me but rather the values and beliefs that had been drilled into me for as long as I remembered. Once I realized that I could reject those values and beliefs because they didn’t stand up under scrutiny, my life changed and I continued to grow and evolve and achieve all the things that I wanted in life.

This is why I find the trope that’s just the way I was raised to not only be tired but the sign of intellectual laziness; a mental atrophying that I neither understand nor sympathize with. But I also recognize that being an outsider, someone consigned by the dominant culture and society to the margins, has also created a higher sense of empathy and sympathy for the others out here on the margins; and all we are interested in, really, is being allowed to be on the actual page; why I am willing to always listen rather than react–no matter how tempting it may be to simply react.

This past week, I saw a lot of people proudly showing how mentally atrophied they were, and how much they preferred remaining in a state of atrophy rather than listen to other people. This was, of course, in regards (in this example) to the American Library Association’s unanimous vote to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, because of some racist tropes and language used in her books.  What was even more shocking was that a lot of this appeared on a list-serve for a writer’s organization I belong to whose entire purpose is to focus on diversity in literature. 

Not just atrophied brains, but ones also incapable of irony, apparently.

It wasn’t the first time something like that has exploded on the list-serve; several months ago there was a, to me, shocking outbreak of homophobia on the list. The situations weren’t the same, of course; no one had decided to change the title of an award because the person it was named after was homophobic. No, in this instance a writer had simply posted a question about a manuscript she’d submitted to her agent, who’d told her no one would publish it because of its depiction of a gay character as well as HIV. I started to reply to her, explaining precisely why her plot was problematic and also incredibly ill-informed about HIV when the list exploded with a bunch of wonderful straight white women who completely missed the point, called the agent’s remarks censorship (they most emphatically were NOT) and advised the writer that ‘she needed to find another agent who wasn’t so worried about political correctness.’

I was so horrified by these comments and remarks by writers who belong to a writer’s organization committed to diversity that I almost resigned from the organization.

Instead, I decided to keep writing my quarterly diversity column (which these women clearly never read) and keep fighting the good fight; because the marginalized never get the chance, no matter how tired we are, to just sit back and let things develop or run their course. If we want anything, if we want to move in from the margins, we have to keep fighting because they simply aren’t going to give it to us unless we make them.

And you know what? There’s still a lot of fight left in this tired old queen.

Be fucking warned.

The next story in Promises in Every Star and Other Stories is “The Pool Boy”:

I waited until I heard Jason’s car back out of the driveway before I got out of bed. I was being a coward, I knew, but I still wasn’t ready to face him with what I knew. I didn’t want to have that argument, that confrontation. I wasn’t sure I was ready yet to talk calmly and rationally. It still hurt too much. I wasn’t sure I could discuss this with him without getting angry, without saying something that shouldn’t be said, words in anger that couldn’t be taken back. I wasn’t sure I was quite ready yet to turn my back on ten years of loving and laughing and fighting, of good times and bad, of sleeping in the same bed with him and drawing comfort from the warmth of his body.

I called in sick to work. I might not have been physically ill, but I was certainly an emotional basket case. There wasn’t any way that I could help my clients in this state. Their needs and concerns and problems all seemed so unimportant, so completely pointless to me, that going in to the office was probably a bad idea. I brushed my teeth and took a shower, then put on my robe and went downstairs for a fresh pot of coffee. While I waited for it to brew I got the notice out of the bill drawer, the notice that proclaimed his guilt to the world, the indisputable proof of his guilt; that he’d betrayed me, lied to me,  ignored how I felt and did what he wanted to anyway.

Funny that a twenty dollar parking ticket could mean so much more than what it was on the surface.

I stared at it. Yes, that was Brent’s address on the ticket. The time of the offense was four thirty in the morning. The date was that weekend I’d gone home to my nephew’s wedding. Jason had been illegally parked in front of Brent’s house at four thirty in the morning while I was out of town. There was absolutely no logical explanation for Jason’s car to be there at that hour.

He was still fucking Brent. Even though we’d talked about it. Even though he’d promised me he would end it. Even though he assured me he still loved me and he didn’t love Brent.

This just happened to be the one time he was caught.

How many other times had he gone over there without me knowing, fucking Brent’s pretty little ass?

I don’t remember which anthology I wrote this for; but it was pre-Katrina, and I’ve always liked this story. It’s basically about a guy whose partner is cheating on him, has promised to stop, but he’s caught him in yet another lie. Hurt and devastated and not knowing how to deal with the whole situation (do I leave him? Do I forget it? Do I pretend I don’t know? How do I even approach discussing this with him?), he calls in sick to work and stays home…and then the pool boy shows up; a beautiful, sexy young man and yes, before long, they are hooking up…and that hook up is what heals his soul; reminds him that despite this betrayal he’s still an active, vital, attractive, sexual human being who deserves better; sexual healing, if you will.

I really like this story.

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