Always

Would you look at that–somehow it’s Friday again. How did that happen? Where did this week go?

I literally have no idea. It seems like just yesterday I woke up on Monday morning, tired, and dreading facing the week. And yet, like everything, it has come to its inevitable end and here I am on Friday morning, awake  yet still sleepy and hoping to have enough coffee to get my ready for the day. Yesterday’s errands, which consumed my entire day like Pac-man eating his way through the maze, have to be concluded this morning, which means another drive out to Harahan and then back to Uptown before I can (hurray?) head into the office for a shorter day than usual. My Fridays recently got another hour added to them, but that’s fine. I don’t mind Fridays–primarily because it is, after all, Friday–and then this afternoon when I’m finished for the day I can come home to my comfortable easy chair and watch mindless television for the rest of the night if I so desire, or read, or clean, or whatever it is I need to get done today. I have some other errands I’ll probably run on Sunday, and other than that I am going to try to spend the weekend resting and recuperating and trying to get a firm grip on everything that I’ve let slide over the last month or so–and there’s quite a bit.

And yes, I am not in the least bit excited about it. It’s daunting, and terrifying, and scary, but I have to get caught up. I don’t have a choice. I have to.

While daunting–waking up, for example, to over a hundred new emails in my inbox–I refuse steadfastly to be daunted. I am inevitably always behind on most things, and somehow manage to always get everything done without having a breakdown of sorts–mini-ones, yes, but not major ones–and I know it’s more about me getting physically rested and allowing my brain to roam free. I was so tired last night after all of yesterday’s running around I wasn’t able to do much of anything other than finish Rob Hart’s superb The Warehouse and watch a movie on Amazon Prime last night before retiring to bed. (There will be more on The Warehouse later, as well as on the film–Giant Little Ones, which was very well-done and well-acted and interesting; I am sure there are people who will take issue with the plot and what happens during the course of the film, but at the same time its exploration of male teenage sexuality, homophobia, and the fall-out from teenage sexuality was highly original and nothing I’ve ever seen before; which isn’t easy to do with a film.) I also slept really well last night but was untimely ripped from bed by the alarm, as we have to drive out, as I said, to Harahan in a few moments and then I’ll be running around all morning before going to the office, which means today will probably be another one of those ‘too tired to function’ evenings to look forward to. The kitchen is a mess–I made pho on Wednesday night, which always results in a mess–and yesterday I just didn’t have the energy or wherewithall to do anything about it.

Of course, all the running around this morning means I’ll probably be back up to over one hundred emails by the time I am able to check them again, but there it is, you know?

I also continue to read Lords of Misrule, and just finished the “Who Killa Da Chief?” chapter, about the murder of the police chief, the scapegoating of Sicilian immigrants for the murder, their trial and acquittal, and of course the lynch mob that followed. The darkness of New Orleans never ceases to amaze and interest me. This crime was explored also in Empire of Sin, but it’s always nice to get other perspectives, and I think there’s a story somewhere buried inside this loathsome piece of the city’s history. It’s also strange to ever think of the French Quarter being called “Little Italy” and being filled with Italian immigrants loathed by the rest of the city; there are some Italian restaurants still there, of course, and there’s probably some truth to the legend that the gay bars and bath houses were originally owned by the local Mafia. (There’s a story in there as well; the Mafia generally did own gay bars in major cities, back in the day, and those bars were probably used for money-laundering.) Lou Berney’s brilliant November Road briefly touched on the mob history of New Orleans; I have a memoir somewhere written by a purported New Orleans mob figure that I can’t wait to read.

And on that note, looks like Paul is ready to head out, so I am going to bring this to a close. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader, and talk to you soon.

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Dueling Banjos

Writing about the rural Deep South is difficult.

I’m from the deep south, yes, but I didn’t grow up there. I spent a lot of time there, my parents were Southern, and so a lot of my values and mind-view for a number of years were patterned in the Southern mindset. I draw from my memories of summers in the rural backwoods of the mid-central-western part of the state, about seventy miles from the Mississippi state line or so, but there are also so many attitudes and mentalities and stereotypes and tropes about the rural Deep South that it is easy to become lazy and fall into those. I am trying very hard not to do that, but as I said, it’s hard. Stereotypes and tropes exist for a reason, after all–they weren’t created from nothing; there’s always a core kernel of truth in them, whatever they’ve become once the seeds were planted–but the key is to burrow into them to dig out the core kernel of truth to build upon, so you’re telling the truth. But I worry, as I continue to excavate into this book, that I am relying on negative tropes and stereotypes.

I think I was thirteen when Deliverance was released; we saw it at the drive-in, which was something my parents loved to do with us when we were kids. I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on in the movie–it was the kind of macho bullshit I loathed as a child, a loathing that has only somewhat lessened as an adult, so I stopped paying attention to it and I think I may have even dozed off. But I did see the scene early in the movie which has forever cemented into people’s minds a link between the backwoods South and redneck morons–“Dueling Banjos.” The open notes of the song are all that is needed to reference a joke about passing from civilization into the land of the uneducated, probably inbred, backwoods hillbillies; it has come to symbolize moonshine-makin’, overalls-wearin’, cousin-marryin’, dangerous rural Southern people. I’ve made the joke myself from time to time–driving through the Southern countryside at night, “You can almost hear the banjo notes, can’t you?”

Deliverance and “Dueling Banjos” are such a part of our zeitgeist and popular culture that the book and film have become kind of shorthand Southern references–even for people who don’t know the origins of the references. I’ve never read the book, but I bought a copy a few years ago because I heard one of the references in something–a talk show, a book, a film, a television show; I don’t remember which–but I thought it was time for me to read the book and possibly watch the film in its entirety; that there was a possibly an essay in both about masculinity, rape culture, and the American male. (For those of you who don’t know, many male-on-male rape jokes were born directly of Deliverance.) I never did get around to reading the book or watching the movie; to be honest, I’d completely forgotten about them and the essay idea until recently. I also never got around to reading the book because I’d heard bad things about James Dickey, who wrote the novel. Dickey was primarily a poet, and considered one of the better American ones of the second half of the twentieth century by the Academy, and Deliverance was his only novel. I knew people who knew Dickey, and the reports back on him were terribly unpleasant, if not surprisingly so. (American letters has produced some horrific examples of toxic masculinity with its iconic, deified authors.)

Southern people are masters at grievance; they’ve been aggrieved for quite some time now–probably as far back as when the rumblings in the northern states began against slavery.  Everything is always someone else’s fault; even that language from the 1960’s came back to haunt Alabama during the special election to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate: “outside agitators.” That was always a favorite fallback of Southern white supremacy; people of color in the South were perfectly happy with the way things were set up, with not voting or having opportunities, and being segregated away from white people, until “outside agitators” stirred them up against their kind, genial white overlords. Outside agitation goes all the way back to slavery; Southern politicians and leaders railed against “Yankee agitation on the slavery issue.” It’s all there, in black and white, in the history books–if you know what to look for.

The politics of race in the South have always been problematic, but nothing is more irritating to me than white apologia fiction set in the South; in which the white people aren’t racists; those nasty lower class white trash people are the real racists, not the educated whites. I’ve seen this in any number of books and it never ceases to irritate me when I come across it; this historical revision that relieves the guilt of Southern white people is kind of like, as my friend Victoria says, how after the Second World War  no Germans had really been Nazis and everyone in France was a resistance fighter.

Bitch, please.

I guess all those southern white civil rights activists were working undercover, because they sure weren’t public in their opposition. (And yes, I know–not all Southern white people; but I sure don’t see any white faces in any of the footage from the civil rights marches and school integrations that weren’t in military uniform…or certainly not as many as novels and fictions would have us believe.) To Kill a Mockingbird is problematic to me in that I don’t believe for a minute that the sheriff and the cops in Maycomb, Alabama, were worried about the rednecks from the county lynching Tom Robinson and gathering up some of the good white people from town to defend the jail; history shows that the police were often Klansmen, or at least more sympathetic to the cause of white supremacy than they were to civil rights. That scene, while powerful, doesn’t ring true to me–it again divides Southern whites into the educated professionals and the uneducated racist rednecks, and I am not certain of the accuracy. The publication of Go Set a Watchman upset a lot of fans of the original work with its depiction of Atticus as a segregationist; they felt betrayed that the heroic white champion of racial tolerance and justice from Mockingbird was turned into a segregationist…but it was honest and real and rang true to me.

And seriously, I highly recommend anyone interested in looking at how Southern white people viewed civil rights during the 1960’s dig up The Klansman by William Bradford Huie.

This is, of course, part of the problem I am having with writing this first draft of a book set in the rural South that deals, in part, with issues of race in the modern rural South. I don’t want to be heavy-handed, nor do I want this to be another oh look another white person discovers how terrible racism is book, nor do I want it to be another “white savior” book; there are plenty of those already. But I also want to be honest; and how does one do that? There are always going to be those who criticize such a book for failing, or trying too hard, or some such. Southern racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny do exist, and having an openly gay teenager with roots in Alabama spend the summer there helping take care of his dying grandmother, while dealing with some other issues that arise during his visit, seems like a good lens to view all of these things through.

Or at least, seems to be one, at any rate.

I think this is one of the reasons I am having so much trouble writing this book and getting this draft done; I am so worried about being offensive or crossing some line as well as wanting to do it well and do it right that I am overthinking everything, and it’s like I have this incredible overwhelming sense of confidence about my abilities as a writer. But I am going to press on, all the while worrying…but I must needs remember: I can always fix everything in future drafts.

Part of my goals for the weekend are to finish writing a promised essay, to get three chapters of the book written, and to finish reading Steph Cha’s amazing Your House Will Pay. I also need to reread everything I’ve written for Bury Me in Shadows, and make notes as I go.

Heavy thoughts for a Friday morning, Constant Reader.

And now back to the spice mines.

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I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby

I wrote twenty-three hundred and sixty-six words yesterday; a rather precise amount, I admit, but I am rather proud of them, as I’ve not written anything new in nearly two weeks, I think.

It was also new, nothing do with any of the many works in progress I am in the midst of; it was one of those things where the idea came to me, and I knew how to write the chapter, so I sat down and I did lest I forget it. I also wanted to see if I could get the voice right, the tone, and all of that. I think it kind of works, but I am going to let it sit for a moment or two (or weeks) and see what I think of it then.

It’s the first chapter of Chlorine, which is a start. Probably not what I needed to be writing or working on, but

I do want to get back to the WIP–and I’m not really sure why I keep calling it that. Why am I superstitious about sharing the title of this book? I like the title, and I believe I have even mentioned it before. I originally had the idea a million years ago, when I was a little boy. My grandmother–the not sane one–used to love to tell me stories about the past; she always swore on the Bible the stories were true, but I’ve long suspected that most of them were invented or stories she read somewhere–she did like to read, and encouraged both my sister and I to also read. I never wrote the stories she told me down, but I do remember bits and pieces of them, and one of those bits and pieces became a short story I wrote in college called “Ruins.” I wrote it as a ghost story, weaving what I remembered from my grandmother’s story into a modern-day story in a fictional county based on the one my family is from (I also planned to do a lot of writing about this fictional county when I was in college…I have published some work about the county; it’s where Scotty’s sorta-nephew Taylor is from and where Frank’s sister lives. It’s where my main character from Dark Tide  was from, and also where “Smalltown Boy” was set, along with various other short stories, like “Son of a Preacher Man”…so I’m using some of those old ideas today. There are also any number of short stories in some form of completion set there, and the current WIP is, of course, set there). I always thought “Ruins” (still unpublished) could be expanded into a pretty decent novel, and that’s what I am currently working on, have been for the last few months. I no longer call it “Ruins”–that title has already been used multiple times for a novel, and why invite comparison–but when I needed a new title, I wanted something more poetic. I started looking through poems (can you imagine? I know so little about poetry it’s staggering) and wanted something Barbara Michaels-ish. I decided to riff on her title Be Buried in the Rain, which is from a poem, and then a lyric from The Band Perry’s song “If I Die Young” stuck in my head, and I started using that as the title, Bury Me in Satin. But that didn’t really work or fit, and it evolved into Bury Me in Shadows, which had the right creepy, spooky, Gothic feel to it that I wanted, that I am trying to get in the book. It’s a ghost story of sorts, it’s set in the woods of rural central-western Alabama, and there’s a ruin of a plantation back in the woods, which an archaeological team from the University of Alabama has started excavating. There’s a legend about the “lost boys” around the ruins; two boys who disappeared during the Civil War. I’m also working rural drug addiction into it, as well as the Klan, and racism and homophobia. It’s a lot, and it has to been done correctly, in order to get the points across that I want to make in the book. This is why it’s been such a slog, really. I am trying to make points about important topics without sounding too preachy-teachy, while trying to weave in an interesting story, all told from the point of view of a rather intelligent gay teenager from Chicago, who has to spend the summer in Alabama being the point person for the family while his grandmother, who has had several strokes, dies in her own crumbling Victorian style home from the late nineteenth century, and then the archaeologists discover the skeleton of a young man. Is he one of the lost boys from the Civil War, or is there something more sinister going on back in the woods?

I’m trying to write about race sensitively, without giving offense. I am trying to be conscious of my own internalized prejudices and bigotries, which is sadly a life-long process of deprogramming. (But that’s a subject for another time.) But I am hopeful that my own keen editorial eye will catch things in the editing process, and there’s also going to be my editor’s eyes on it. So, hopefully it won’t turn out to be yet another sad white person’s attempt to deal with race that turns out to be problematic.

I am also writing it in a style different than what I usually use–first person present tense, and it’s obvious when I reread chapters I’ve written that it’s not my default; I slip into the past tense very easily and naturally and because I’m so used to writing that way it’s easy for me to miss things in the wrong tense.

I’m up early because today returns normality to my life; this is my first work week that won’t be disrupted this month. First it was a brief vacation, and of course last week was disrupted by Barry. I got very little accomplished over the last few days–storm disruptions make it very hard to focus or get anything done, frankly; as you wait for the storm you don’t want to start anything in case you lose power suddenly, plus there’s the weird tension of waiting for the unexpected. When I walked to Touro to get my car yesterday and run by the grocery store, it was strange; the city was still deserted and lifeless. There were a few cars out driving but not the usual amount of people out and about on a Sunday, even in the rain. I actually think we got more rain yesterday than we did from the storm on Saturday, frankly. I was soaked by the time I got to the car–$21 is a very low price to pay to keep your car safe, to be honest–and of course, everything at the grocery store was on sale because it was old and ripe; I got a great deal on two enormous smooth avocados, and there were still some Creole tomatoes out, but the grocery store was still depleted from people stocking up for the storm. I came home, we got caught up on Animal Kingdom, and last night we watched The Spy Who Dumped Me, a cute comedy starring Mila Kunis and Kate MacKinnon. I love both women, and they worked very well together, and the plot was clever and funny enough to hold my attention, but it could have been better–but it was mostly the charisma of the two women, and their chemistry together, that made the film enjoyable.

So, wish me well on my first full week of work this month. It’s gray and drizzly outside my windows this fair morning; I’m hoping my shoes have dried out from yesterday as well. (note to self: order new shoes, you’re due.)

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

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Playground in My Mind

Wednesday morning, and the week is now on its downward slope into the weekend. Paul is going to visit his mother on Monday for a week; I am going on vacation myself starting a week from today through the following Monday–basically a long weekend around the 4th of July. With Paul absent, I am hoping to get a lot–as always–done.

We’ll see how that goes. My track record isn’t the best, after all. But in fairness to myself, I do–frequently–overestimate what I can get done when I am home by myself. But last night I managed another three thousand (terrible) words on the WIP–even though I’ve recognized that this is a story draft, I still wince at how awkward the scenes are and so forth, but the plot is moving forward and I think once I have it all down on paper and it holds together, I can actually make this into something truly terrific. Of course I’m absolutely terrified I am going to put a foot down wrong or something along those lines; it’s a very tight rope one walks when writing about race and homophobia in the South, particularly when one is white–it’s very easy to go wrong, and when one had always benefited from the systemic racism of our society and culture, when one has to retrain and unlearn so much…I’m always worried something will slip through, unnoticed and unrecognized…but I’m also not certain that my work gets enough attention from the world at large to merit a call-out Twitter-storm of fury, either.

There was an interesting discussion on Facebook the other day about sensitivity readers, and whether they are necessary; and what, if any, compensation is due them for reading the work in question. Should it be a professional courtesy, done as a favor and for the greater good, or is not compensating the sensitivity reader for their time and expertise another form of exploitation and devaluing not only their personhood but their experience? I’m hesitant to ask anyone to read my work as a sensitivity reader because I do believe people should be paid for expertise; the biggest mistake made on this issue was branding them as sensitivity readers–the term should be sensitivity editors. Editors, you see, get paid to read manuscripts and find problems, mistakes, errors, things to be corrected; the sense is that readers do it for free, because who gets paid to read? Readers are fans, editors are professionals; the terminology here has been wrong from the get-go (words matter, people!) and this is why the question has arisen in the first place. I can’t afford to pay someone to be a sensitivity editor for me; and I am not the kind of person who likes asking others for favors (the only thing worse than asking for a favor is asking for money), and I certainly would never ask someone to read an entire manuscript for free to give me advice and input. (I have, however, done this before; but I didn’t ask, I merely accepted when other authors have offered to read something for me–and yes, full disclosure, I probably hinted a lot until they offered. Yes, I am a capital H Hypocrite. I will come right out and ask someone to read a short story to get their input; I do this for others as well, so it’s kind of a circle-of-life kind of thing.)  I personally am not terribly comfortable being a sensitivity editor for other writers, to be completely honest; I cannot speak for the entire LGBTQ+ community and say with authority “no one will find this offensive” because my own level of offense is pretty low, and remember, I have been accused of writing gay stereotypes more than once.

So, how could I possibly be a sensitivity editor?

I am also reluctant to ask people for blurbs because I am aware that I am asking for an enormous favor; reading a manuscript takes time–time that could be spent doing something more beneficial to the person being asked–and usually, it’s an electronic file and I, for one, hate reading electronic files….I’m not big on reading print outs, either, to be honest. I don’t want to spend any more time staring at a screen–be it a monitor, a reading device, or a phone–than I already do, which is quite a lot.

Heavy heaving sigh.

This entry sure wound up all over the place, didn’t it?

It’s very strange, because as a gay man, I often get included in discussions about institutional diversity; I served on the board of Mystery Writers of America for four years (which I did specifically to try to make the organization more open to diversity–it was more open than I thought it was when I joined, frankly, and I’m not certain I had much of an impact there but it certainly was an enormous boon to me, personally and professionally); I currently serve on the Bouchercon board (which I joined for that reason and also to assist with the production of the anthologies); and of course, I write the diversity column for the Sisters in Crime quarterly. So, diversity is on my mind a lot; it’s also why I chose to start the Diversity Project this year–alas, I am not reading as much this year as I have in previous years, burn out from being an Edgar judge last year I suspect–but I also cannot escape the fact I am white, with all the privilege that entails; if I were straight I’d have hit the American jackpot, you know: white straight cisgender male. (Which, of course, is infuriating to hear the  you chose to be gay bleatings of homophobes; why would anyone deliberately choose a more difficult path in life, particularly a more difficult path to being a published writer, which is fucking hard enough already as it is?)

I like to think my status as outside-the-status-quo, oh-so-close-but-not-quite-hitting-the-privilege-grand-slam, has made me more empathetic and sympathetic than I would be had I hit the grand slam; but I also believe in the butterfly effect; me being straight would have changed, certainly my life, but would have also dramatically altered the lives of everyone around me, and the ripples would have continued to flow outward from there.

I like my life, thank you very much, and I am most grateful for it.

And today’s three thousand words aren’t going to write themselves, so I’d best get back to it.

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Be Tender With My Love

Saturday morning, and how is your weekend so far, Constant Reader? Mine is going just fine, thank you for asking–you’re always so thoughtful.

I woke up early this morning–I’d just planned on sleeping until I woke up, and boom! There I was wide awake at seven thirty this morning, so I just rolled with it and got out of bed and decided to start the day.  Yesterday afternoon was kind of lovely; as I said yesterday I spent the afternoon backing up devices, cleaning, doing the laundry, that sort of thing, while trying to cleanse my mind and prepare myself for the next chapter of the WIP. There’s also still some cleaning and straightening up to do, and later I have to go pick up a book at Garden District and my prescriptions from CVS. After that I intend to come home and read or write or clean for the rest of the day.

I started watching Good Omens last night, and rather enjoyed it. Paul didn’t care for it, so it’s something I’ll have to watch on my own, and then we watched another episode of Killing Eve, which has gone into a whole new level. I daresay this second season is even better than the first? The primary thing I love about this show is it constantly surprises me; I never have the slightest clue which direction the story is going to go next, which I absolutely love. There’s nothing better than a completely unpredictable show, you know? This is why I loved Game of Thrones and Dead to Me so much; why I continue to enjoy How to Get Away with Murder, which no longer even makes any logical sense, but is just a wonderfully over-the-top campy soap opera now. (I am also aware that a lot of people have stopped watching Murder for that very reason; but I’ve always enjoyed soaps so I don’t have a problem with it–I also remember that Melrose Place became a lot more fun once it stopped trying to be realistic and went full-on over-the-top)

I also want to work on a couple of proposals this weekend, and I’d love to send some more of my short stories out into the world. I have a couple that I think might be ready to go out; but it’s difficult, as I’ve said before, since my short stories tend to be crime stories that aren’t necessarily mysteries. Writing a mystery short story is incredibly difficult, of course; I’ve tried it a few times and I’m not certain I had any success with it. But I do think there may be some stories I have on hand that might be ready to be sent out into the world, and the worst thing that could happen would be they say no, right? And no doesn’t mean I suck, of course, it just means the story wasn’t right for that particular medium.

It’s also Pride Month, today being the first day of it, and lately I’ve been seeing (and sharing some of the) posts about the history of Pride, or “pictures from this city’s pride in this year” and one of the things that strikes me as I look at photos from pride celebrations in the 70’s or 80’s or 90’s is how overwhelmingly white and male the pictures are; which is kind of a sobering thought. Where are the gays of color, where are the lesbians, where are the transpeople? One of the problems we have as a community is that we are a microcosm of the society at large; so the queer community comes with its own racial/misogynist baggage carried over from the bigger society. And while progress has been made in the right direction within our community, we do still have a long way to go.

I often doubt, as I am wont to do about anything to do with me being a writer, my ability to tell stories about race, misogyny, and homophobia well; without being preachy, without being over the top, without making out those who believe in those things cardboard cutout villains with no redeeming qualities. Can a racist or a sexist or a homophobe have any good qualities? And therein lies the rub. No matter how much of a good person someone with any of all of those qualities might be, I don’t think their good qualities can outweigh the bad ones, quite frankly. “I’m glad you rescue dogs. Unfortunately, your commitment to the belief that (fill in the blank) are secondary citizens not entitled to full and equal protection under the law negates the good you do.”

Ava DuVarnay’s seminal mini-series about the Central Park 5, When They See Us, has been released and is apparently wrenching. I know I need to watch it, but I am resistant to it because I know it’s going to expose some horrific things, and from everything I’ve seen or heard it is a wrenching experience. But I do think it’s important, and not watching would serve to only make me even more complicit in systemic racism; I consider this to be yet another step in my ongoing re-education on the subject of race in America.

I’m also hearing good things about Chernobyl, which Paul also doesn’t want to watch.

And now back to the spice mines.

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True Colors

I wrote this entry two years ago, in the wake of the Pulse shootings.

06/16/16

The phone ringing woke me up that morning.

I sometimes wonder if that is when my aversion to the telephone really began; I’ve always blame my dislike of telephones on jobs that involved a headset and taking phone calls. But I can remember, before that Sunday morning, always answering the phone; I never screened calls. I always checked the voice mail the moment I got home and called people back right away. Now, the ringing of the telephone, any phone, grates on my nerves and tears at my subconscious. So maybe that was it; I cannot say for sure because my memory is foggy and I’ve learned, far too many times, that my memory has lied to me.

But the phone was ringing as I woke up, and as I started to sit up in bed I seemed to recall hearing it ringing earlier, in my sleep; aware of it but too asleep to get out of bed. But this time it woke me, and as I considered ignoring it and going back to sleep, I noticed on the alarm clock that it was nine in the morning…

…and Paul wasn’t home.

As I put on my glasses and slipped my shoes on and ran over to the phone, I remember the number on the caller ID was one I didn’t recognize; UNKNOWN CALLER with no number. I picked it up and said “Hello?”

“Is this Greg?” asked a very small, quivering female voice.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this but Paul is on his way to the emergency room at Charity Hospital,” she went on.

I sat down in the desk chair and listened to her tell me the story, hiccuping and crying and trying to keep her voice steady. I listened, not entirely sure this was really happening to me, hoping that I was asleep and this was a bad dream, as she told me how she and her roommate, both waitresses, had gotten off work and decided to stop by Verti Mart and get something to eat on their way home from work. They were on bicycles, and they were both college students, I think she said at Tulane. She told me how they were standing at the counter, deciding on their order, when they saw a lone guy walking by himself on the sidewalk across the street. As they watched, a white van pulled up to the corner, five guys jumped out and attacked the guy, punching and kicking him and screaming at him even after he went down. Her friend shouted at the store clerk to call the police and the two girls, college students, ran outside screaming. The guys jumped back in the van and took off….with the girls getting on their bicycles and chasing after them, trying to get their license plate number, to no avail. When they finally realized they weren’t going to get close enough to seem the plate number, they went back and stayed with him until the police and the ambulance came.

“He just kept saying you have to call Greg, please call Greg,” she said, finally starting to sob. “I’m so so sorry, I don’t know if he’s okay. I just know they took him to Charity Hospital, and he told me the number to call, he made me promise I’d call.”

I said thank you, thank you very much, and didn’t think to get her name or her phone number or any of her information, which I regret to this day.

I hung up the phone, and knew I had to get to the hospital.

I know at some point as I brushed my teeth and put on clothes, I was aware that I was going into shock. It was the first time in my life I’d ever heard my heartbeat in my ears, and I had no peripheral vision, and I couldn’t really hear anything. It was a very very strange feeling; I don’t remember every feeling that way before, or experiencing anything like it (I may have, but as I said earlier, my memory lies to me). I was shaking, and I knew I couldn’t drive.

So I called my best friend, who answered the phone the way he always did whenever I called him, cheerfully, “Hey whore!”

“Um, I need a favor. Paul’s at the emergency room and I don’t think I can drive. Can you come pick me up and take me?”

“I’ll be right there.” He hung up.

Charity Hospital was enormous. It’s still there, even though it’s not longer open. It became, of course, notorious after Hurricane Katrina, but before then, it was one of the top trauma centers and training hospitals for emergency trauma in the country. I vaguely remember sitting there in the emergency room waiting area, on those hard wooden benches that were so like church pews, while people were being brought in and rushed past, as other people sat there around us, worried, crying, some screaming every once in a while in pain while they waited to be taken in to see a doctor. It was surreal, and again it felt like something I wasn’t actually experiencing but was happening to someone else. I felt like I was out of my own body, watching.

And then finally they called my name.

A nurse led me back into the triage area, I guess it was called, I don’t know. On television emergency rooms always seem to be big rooms with sheets or dividers up separating the areas, but at Charity they actually had rooms. As the nurse led me back, she told me they were about to take him into surgery, and the surgeons would explain everything to me before I was taken in to see him.

All this time I didn’t know what was going on, and had been hoping it was something minor; a broken arm, a concussion, ribs, something where I’d be able to take him home.

Surgery. They were taking him in to surgery.

“He’s been given pain medication so he’s also going to be kind of out of it,” she said gently, and I will never forget her squeezing my arm when she said it.

She led me to a door–it was big and wooden and there was one of those small windows set into it at about eye level, with crisscrossing mesh wires set in the glass, where two men in scrubs were waiting for me.

In a low voice one of them, who had a Japanese last name, explained to me that he had sustained a lot of cuts and bruises but nothing serious; they had examined him and there was no concussion or internal damage. “But his eye–” he hesitated for a moment. “His eye was damaged.”

“His eye?”

The nurse was holding my arm still and she gave it another squeeze.

“Think of the eye like a grape,” he said softly. “If you put a lot of pressure on one side of a grape, it will explode out the back side. That’s what has happened to his eye. We’re going to try to save it.”

I think my knees buckled a little bit at this point, both in horror and relief; relief that it wasn’t something life-threatening, horror that his eye may have been destroyed.

The doctor also took me by both arms and looked me in the face. “He wants to see you. But you need to be prepared. It looks really bad. The surgery will also take a couple of hours. Once we take him in, you should just go home and relax, take care of things. Waiting here won’t do you any good, and just come back in a couple of hours. We’re going to take very good care of him, but if we’re able to save his eye, the recovery is going to take a really long time…and the psychological trauma can take even longer. You’re going to have to be strong for him.”

I nodded, and the nurse led me inside. Paul was lying on a hospital bed and when he saw me he just kept saying, over and over again, in a broken voice, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”

My heart broke. His eye…even now I can’t describe what that looked like. He was covered in dried blood. I just kept saying it was okay, everything was going to be okay, and then it was time for them to take him into surgery.

I felt so helpless. It was the most horrible feeling in the world, when someone you love is suffering and in pain and there’s nothing you can do to make it better.

The nurse handed me a clear plastic ziploc bag with his clothes and shoes inside of them.

They were soaked in blood.

I had Mark take me home. I don’t really remember the drive back home, I don’t really remember anything. I know that I didn’t break down until I was safely inside my apartment, and I sat on the couch for a really long time holding the bag of bloody clothes before I remembered that, no matter how much I wanted to wallow in it, I had to be strong.

I had to call his mother.

I had to call his boss.

I had to let friends know what was happening.

I know I did all of those things, but I don’t remember that afternoon very much. I just know that I kept calling Charity Hospital to find out if he was out of surgery but every time I called, I went into a nightmarish phone tree that I couldn’t figure out how to navigate, and finally I called a cab and went back.

Charity Hospital was enormous, as I said before, but one of the things that was really strange was I wasn’t able to find a reception desk, anything, anywhere, where I could find someone, anyone, to tell me anything.

There were phones in some places where you ostensibly could call for information, but a recording answered and I was too upset, too numb, to be able to figure out their phone tree system inside the hospital anymore than I had been able to at home.

I wandered around Charity Hospital looking for anyone for what seemed like hours.

Finally, I just sat down on the floor near an elevator bank, buried my face in my arms, and started sobbing in frustration and grief and pain.

Then someone knelt beside me and asked, in a very kind voice, if I was okay.

It was a nurse, a young African-American man with braids, and I sobbed out that my partner had surgery and I didn’t know where he was and I didn’t know how to find him and I couldn’t find anyone to ask.

He got me up, took me to a lounge, bought me a bottle of Coke from the machine there, dried my eyes, and made some calls. “He’s still in surgery,” he finally said, sitting next to me again. “I can take you up to the waiting room for that surgery. I’m so sorry.”

And he did, and he talked to the nurses on the floor, who came and checked in with me every half hour, making sure I was okay, making sure the television in the waiting room was on something I didn’t mind watching, or asking me if there was something else I’d rather watch.

They were so unbelievably kind.

This was before everything changed, you know, when I’d heard horror stories about how gay couples weren’t allowed to see each other in hospitals and how badly we were treated.

This was Charity Hospital in a state so red it practically glowed; yes, it was New Orleans, but it was also a city where my partner had just been beaten badly for the crime of walking while gay.

And they couldn’t have been nicer to me.

Finally, at ten o’clock, a nurse came to tell me he was now in the recovery ward, and she took me to see him. His head was bandaged but they’d cleaned off all the blood. He had tubes hooked up to him and monitors, but he was breathing, he was asleep.

I leaned over and kissed his forehead.

The recovery ward nurse told me I could stay if I wanted to, but she added that I’d be better off going home and sleeping in my own bed. “He’s going to need you to be rested and strong for him,” she said, rubbing my arm, “and so you’re going to need to make sure you take care of yourself. Will you promise me that? That you’ll take care of yourself? Because he’s going to need you.”

I nodded. “I don’t want to lose him again.”

She gave me her card, and wrote her cell phone number on the back. “I will call you and let you know where we’ve moved him, once he’s ready to be moved out of here. But you keep this card, and if you have any questions or anything to worry about, you call me any time. I’m so sorry you couldn’t find him earlier.”

I sat with him about an hour, and then I went home in a cab.

It was the longest and definitely one of the worst, days of my life.

I have never told this story publicly before, and I do not tell it now to try to make the Orlando tragedy about me. But what happened last Sunday wounded me very deeply, and dredged up a lot of these memories. As I tried to avoid social media, the news, etc., as much as possible–but you never really can–because of the arguing, the nastiness, the absolute viciousness, the attempts to erase the sexuality of the victims, and so on…I started thinking about what I personally have been through.

Paul wasn’t saved by a ‘good guy with a gun,’ he was saved by two brave college students–girls--who saw something wrong happening and did something about it even though those five assholes could have turned violence on them.

Two girls whose names I never knew, but to whom I will always be grateful.

And I also realized that in not telling my story of that awful day, that I was also being complicit. Complicit in not letting people know what it’s like to be gay in America, even in a tolerant city like New Orleans: that we are always at risk, we are always looking over our shoulder, we never can feel truly safe.

Ever since that day I have always, always made sure I was aware of my surroundings, of who was where and doing what. I observe and I watch, no matter what else I am doing, when I am out in public. I do it in the grocery store; I do it in the CVS; I do it when I am walking in the Quarter.

Tonight I have to go do bar testing, and it’s Pride Weekend in New Orleans. I’m not afraid; I have never been afraid. Being aware that you’re a target doesn’t make you afraid, but it means you just have to always pay attention and never let your guard down.

I never wrote about that day because Paul was the victim, not I; because it was Paul’s story to tell rather than mine. But I also realized that it is also my story.

The recovery for both of us from that day took a long time to heal, both physically and mentally. Reading the news reports about Orlando, paying attention to what was going, what had happened, the grief, made me realize that it’s still there, buried deep inside my soul.

My life changed that day. I changed. I am aware of some of the ways I’ve changed, but at the same time I also know I’ve changed in ways that even I may not be aware of. I didn’t write this for sympathy. I didn’t write this to try to make the tragedy about me. My heart breaks for everyone in Orlando. Even now when I run across things on my feed, stories of the survivors, stories of the dead, I can start crying again–so I try to limit my time on social media.

Orlando made us all change, I think. I think for the first time many people realized, maybe just a little bit, of what we as LGBTQ Americans go through, experience, on a daily basis; what it is like for us to live in a society and a culture where some people want us to die and celebrate our deaths.

Maybe things can change now. As I said the other day, I always try to make sense of the senseless; hope that things happen for a reason.

I just hope that those who died so horribly last Sunday morning, those whose last hours of life went from happiness and celebration to horror and fear–I hope that their deaths will mean something to this country, that their awful deaths weren’t just another statistic.

They are all at peace now.

May they never be forgotten.

I am posting this picture of two of the victims, a loving couple who hoped to be married but whose families will now bury them together, in a happier time, so that I, too, will never forget.

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May none of you ever be forgotten.

Out of Touch

As a general rule, my blog is something that I simply sit down and write while I drink my morning coffee and wake up in the morning. It’s part of my waking up process, so not only is it unfiltered, it’s unedited; I rarely go back and reread it with an eye towards fixing mistakes, sentences where I’ve left out a word, spelling mistakes that spell check  didn’t catch as I write, etc.

But every once in a  great while, I’ll start writing a blog post and am not entirely comfortable with discussing the subject matter publicly. I’ve said things before publicly that later were removed from their proper context and thus twisted by someone with an agenda determined to make me look bad; so when I am talking about a sensitive topic, I tend to either shelve the blog post entirely, or put it aside to read over again at a later date, or post it so that only I can see it. I worry about posting things because the last thing I ever want to do is deal with an angry on-line lynch mob, or say something that, taken out of context years later, will be used to bludgeon me; lynch mobs don’t care about either context or nuance, alas, and once the torches are lit and the pitchforks hoisted, no one listens.

This has happened to me more than once, as I said, so I tend to be careful.

So, in some ways I’ve become self-censoring; but this self-censoring has also saved me a lot of stress, aggravation, and worry. I also rarely, if ever, go off on one of what my friend Jeffrey used to call my Julia Sugarbaker rants. This has helped lower my blood pressure, for one thing; I still do it, of course, I just don’t make it public anymore. My opinion on anything and everything isn’t so amazing and profound that I feel it needs to be shared because it will change minds and make the world a better place. Simply because I can speak my mind freely on-line doesn’t mean that I should. I have a right to my opinion, as does everyone, but I also have a right to keep my own counsel and I also don’t have to argue with anyone I disagree with publicly; and the reality is, I am never going to be convinced that I as a gay man am not entitled to equality; that transfolk have no right to human dignity; that women are lesser than men; or that white people by virtue of being white are somehow superior to people who are not. I also will never be convinced that people do not have the right to be seen as individuals, rather than any subgroup they might be put into by other people. There is nothing worse than being judged by preconceptions you have no control over.

As you know, Constant Reader, I’ve been engaged in something I call The Short Story Project since the beginning of the year; in which I am focusing most of my fiction reading on short stories rather than novels. I’ve not read any novels since the first of the year; I am still reading nonfiction. The reasoning behind this was twofold; because I don’t think short stories get nearly enough attention from readers, myself included, and because I have always struggled with writing them; this was, for me, a self-improvement exercise as a writer. It has helped in that regard; I have written more short stories in the first few months of this year than I have in any year since I decided to pursue this.

One of my favorite writers from the past is Ross Macdonald; he’s a favorite, but he isn’t up there with James M. Cain and John D. Macdonald and Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson and Faulkner and some others than I consider not only to be iconic but also consider to be major influences on me and my work; Ross Macdonald is an influence, but not as much as the others I named and some others unnamed as well. But I do love Ross Macdonald (I love his wife Margaret Millar more, but that’s another blog entry, methinks), and several years ago I bought a compendium called The Archer Files, in which Macdonald’s short stories, some of which were unpublished, were pulled together in one volume and the editor did some academic discussion of them.

I am still kind of processing one of his short stories; “Strangers in Town.”  I have to give Macdonald credit for writing a short story in that time period (early 1950s)  with characters who were people of color who also drove the story, but…yeah, the casual racism of the period slapped me in the face. That story today most likely would not be published as written, but it has value historically since it stands as an example of how casual and easy systemic racism was in that period. He used parts of it in the next story in The Archer Files, and it also apparently structurally was important to his novel The Ivory Grin, which I think I’ve read; I miss my old ability to recall plots and characters and details of every book that I’d read. It would be a lot more helpful now than it ever was when I retained the skill, you know? Heavy sigh.

One of the issues of this new century involves separating the art from the artist; in other words, can you enjoy art by someone whom, as a private citizen, is problematic? The best examples of this, to name merely two, are Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. I am not a fan of Allen’s art nor have I ever been; but Roman Polanski? He fled the United States to avoid jail on charges of statutory rape. Yet I love his films Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown; films I saw and enjoyed before he committed his crime.  Distaste has certainly kept me from seeing anything he has done since. But I still love those two films, and rewatch them on occasion; perhaps someday I will rewatch them to look for problematic tropes to unpack.

Likewise, other works from the American past are rife with tropes of sexism, homophobia and racism; the society and culture were sexist, racist, and homophobic; how can the art from that time not be? Yet but it’s how things were back then seems like a feeble response and defense; but I do think it’s possible to enjoy the art as long as one recognizes the presence of things which would never pass muster in today’s society and culture; there is a wonderful essay/book to be done about homophobia in crime fiction of the past, and how gay characters were seen/depicted/represented. I used to want to write that book, but I will undoubtedly never have the freedom and luxury of time to do the necessary research and writing of a book that would prove, ultimately, to have an exceptionally limited audience.

You can’t truly equate racism with homophobia; while there are similarities in oppression and bigotry, both systemic and personal, faced by the two communities, they aren’t the same thing; the differences can be, and are, as significant as the similarities. As a white gay man, I have systemic privilege of skin; unless my car has bumper stickers denoting it as belonging to a gay man I can feel relatively safe in my car from ‘driving while gay’; and while there are certainly levels of homophobia within law enforcement, just walking down the street I don’t need to be worried about being either harassed by law enforcement or profiled. Reading works, or seeing films, that are blatantly homophobic or have stereotypical queer characters who are there to be laughed at, mocked, or held in contempt, while somewhat jarring doesn’t feel the same to me as reading or seeing something current with those same metrics. I am not willing to judge a writer from the pre-Stonewall culture as harshly as I am someone from the present day; it is how things were. You cannot write a realistic novel or short story today about queer characters in the 1950’s, for example, without including homophobic characters and a certain degree of self-loathing in the queer characters themselves: they were outlaws, held in contempt by the society as a whole.

Yet Macdonald’s story bothered me; despite being written in a time when he was undoubtedly considered brave for writing characters of color who weren’t criminals or the kind of “Stepin’ Fetchit” stereotypes so prevalent in films of the time. And yet…and yet…

“Strangers in Town,” by Ross Macdonald, The Archer Files

“My son is in grave trouble,” the woman said.

I asked her to sit down, and after a moment’s hesitation she lowered her weight into the chair I placed for her. She was a large Negro woman, clothed rather tightly in a blue linen dress she had begun to outgrow. Her bosom was rising and falling with excitement, or from the effort of climbing the flight of stairs to my office. She looked no older than forty, but the hair that showed under her blue straw hat was the color of steel wool. Perspiration furred her upper lip.

“About your son?” I sat down behind my desk, the possible kinds of trouble that a Negro boy could get into in Los Angeles running like a newsreel through my head.

That last sentence! Referring to an adult young man of color as a “Negro boy”! And the story goes on with this sentence: She leaned towards me with the diffident and confiding charm of her race.

Yikes. Yup, no stereotyping going on there.

The murder victim was a “light-skinned brown woman.” Another “had straight black hair, trimmed short, and black-rimmed harlequin spectacles that gave her face an Asiatic cast.” Throughout the story, the word “Negro” is used; this is also jarring, because with all due respect, it’s the word that was used politely, rather than the other “n” word. But…no one said “African-American” back then…the police are also willing to view the murder of the light-skinned woman as a possible suicide–which would mean she’d slit her own throat; I can’t imagine anyone ever committing suicide that way–but the white cops’ willingness to believe that a woman of color could or would is also telling.

Other than these issues, it’s a good story; the way it twists and turns and moves away from the original crime and suspects makes for a great detective yarn; the cops never would have solved this, and the son of the woman who hired Archer most likely would have taken the fall for the crime. So, there’s that.

But the next story in The Archer Files, “Gone Girl”,  a different version of the same story, without the people of color, is also a much stronger story.

It was a Friday night. I was tooling home from the Mexican border in a light blue convertible and a dark blue mood. I had followed a man from Fresno to San Diego and lost him in the maze of streets in Old Town. When I picked up his trail again, it was cold. He had crossed the border, and my instructions were to go no further than the United States.

Halfway home, just above Emerald Bay, I overtook the worst driver in the world. He was driving a black fishtail Cadillac as if he were tacking a sailboat. The heavy car wove back and forth across the freeway, using two of its four lanes, and sometimes three. It was late, and I was in a hurry to get some sleep. I started to pass it on the right at a time when it was riding the double line. The Cadillac drifted towards me like an unguided missile, and forced me off the road in a screeching skid.

Rather than being hired by a mother whose son is being accused of murder, Archer now happens onto a strange situation while driving home from a case. He decides to stop for the night at a hotel, and becomes involved in another murder investigation. The basic story after this is the same, both structurally and thematically, but the casual racism is gone and it’s now about white people, and interestingly enough, not nearly so problematic as “Strangers in Town.” The second story works better as well; I’m not sure why that is; did it work better because he didn’t use the people of color, and thus without the stereotyping it worked better?

I am still processing this. As I said, I love Ross Macdonald, and his writing is extraordinary. He’s one of the greats. But what, and where, is that line?

I don’t know the answers; I don’t think anyone does, nor do I think there even is one answer. I don’t recall ever getting any racist vibe from Macdonald’s work before, but on the other hand, I may not have been looking for it, either; the subtleties of systemic prejudices aren’t always apparent at first glance, or even second. Sometimes it takes someone else to point them out.

While I can’t speak to whether racism in American art from the past should not be seen, viewed or read, I can speak, for myself, about art from our homophobic past (while recognizing they are not the same things). Seeing casual homophobia in American art from the past, while jarring, doesn’t bother me as much because that’s the way things were. I don’t think it should be glossed over, or censored out of existence; if we forget the past and how things were, we can’t make things better for the future nor can we understand not only how far we’ve come but how far we have to go; we cannot truly understand the present without understanding our past–and, for want of a better term, in stark black-and-white; we have to understand and appreciate the shades of gray.

And on THAT note, it’s back to the spice mines with me.

Here’s your Monday hunk.

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