Go West

Good morning, Thursday; just today and tomorrow before we slide into another delightful three day weekend. Memorial Day! Huzzah! I am always about another day off from the day job–which I completely understand that it sounds like I don’t like my day job, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I just enjoy not having to go to work more than I enjoy going to work; I’m not sure how everyone else comes down on that category, but I’d be more than willing to bet that most people prefer their days off to their days on.

I could be wrong, but I rather doubt it.

Anyway, here I am at the crack of dawn swilling down coffee and trying to get more awake and alert. I am looking at a long day of screening at both buildings (Marine in the morning, Elysian Fields in the afternoon) and right now it seems like its about a million years staring into my face. But I will persevere, and deal with the heavy traffic on the way home just after five. Tomorrow is the Friday of a long weekend, which is absolutely lovely, and my ink cartridge was delivered yesterday so I can pick it up on my way into the office tomorrow and actually start printing shit I need to print again this weekend. Yesterday was a relatively good day, despite being tired–that tired lasted again, like the day before, pretty much all day–but I managed to get my errands accomplished after work and got some organizing and straightening done in the kitchen/office area; always a plus. Paul was a little late getting home last night, but we watched an episode of The Great and then I started streaming The Story of Soaps, an ABC show about the history of the soaps–just to see if it was any good–and it was quite enjoyable; I’ll look forward to watching the rest of it this evening. I watched soaps from the time I was a kid–our babysitter in the summer watched General Hospital, One Life to Live, and Dark Shadows, which is how I got started watching them, and over the years I remained pretty (fairly) loyal to General Hospital and One Life to Live. The summer we moved to Kansas, until we got cable we only got the CBS affiliate from Kansas City, so my mom and I ended up watching the CBS shows–from The Young and the Restless through Search for Tomorrow, As the World Turns, Guiding Light, and The Edge of Night. After cable, we watched General Hospital–it was the late 1970’s by then, and everyone was watching General Hospital by that point.

It’s interesting, in some ways, that our moves–my moves–gradually went west. The suburb we moved to when we left the south side of Chicago was west; from there to Kansas, and from there to California. I started heading more and more east from California, to Houston and then to Tampa, before going north to Minneapolis and coming back south to New Orleans. I never thought about it too much, really; but it’s interesting how I’ve moved around the country and the strange pattern to it. Of course, we’ve been in New Orleans since 1996 (barring that year in Washington), and since I’ve lived here longer than I have anywhere else, I tend to think of New Orleans as home more than I’ve ever thought of the places I’ve lived previously. Granted, had we never left Chicago, I probably would think of Chicago as home, but I’ve literally only been back to Chicago maybe twice, possibly three times, since departing the area in 1975. I’ve never been back to Kansas, and I’ve been to Houston many times since I moved to Tampa–but only twice to Tampa since leaving there (I’ve actually been to Orlando quite a bit; I’d say I’ve visited Orlando more than anywhere other than Houston over the last twenty-odd years).

I tend to not write about Florida, for the most part; while I’ve written about a fictional city in California based on Fresno in the Frat Boy books (the third was set in a different fictional California city, San Felice, based on Santa Barbara), and I’ve written about the panhandle of Florida, I’ve never really based anything on, or written about, the real Tampa or a city based on it (I do have ideas for some stories set in “Bay City”); I’ve not really written about Houston, either. My fiction has always primarily been set in New Orleans, with a few books scattered about other places (Alabama, Kansas, a mountain town in California called Woodbridge) but it’s almost inevitably New Orleans I write about; which makes sense. I live here, I love it here, and I will probably die in New Orleans.

And I’m fine with that, frankly.

“Go West” is also a song I associate with New Orleans, actually. I know it was originally a Village People recording–which I actually never heard before the Pet Shop Boys covered it–but I always associate it with 1994 and when I first started coming to New Orleans; it, along with Erasure’s “Always” were the big hits of the moment that were always being played in gay bars, and I heard them both for the first time on the dance floor at the Parade on my thirty-third birthday; which was also the first time I ever did Ecstasy. So, whenever I hear “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, I always think back to that birthday and that trip to New Orleans (“Always” has the same affect, but not as intensely; I’ve never been able to find the proper dance remix the Parade used to play–and in fact, a lyric of the song, “Hold On To The Night”, became a short story I’ve never published anywhere–and haven’t even tried to revise in almost thirty years. It wasn’t a crime story; I was writing gay short stories then, about gay life in New Orleans–and no, I never published the vast majority of them (with the sole exception of “Stigmata”, which was published in an anthology that came and went very quickly), although I did adapt some of them into erotica stories and some could easily be adapted into crime stories…I know a fragment of one, I think, morphed into “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” which was published in Jerry Wheeler’s The Dirty Diner anthology, and was probably reprinted in Promises in Every Star.

I should probably pull those stories out again and see if there’s anything I can do with them,

And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines.

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You Give Love a Bad Name

Christ, what an irritating day this has been so far. I had to get something resolved, and I am glad I managed it, but it also wound up taking two hours and I am really annoyed about losing that time that I’d intended to use a LOT more productively. I am now going to try to shake it off so I can get some work done today…

…or there may be a body count.

I got very little done yesterday; I didn’t sleep well on Friday night and tossed and turned, so I was exhausted and more than a little brain dead yesterday. I did get some work done on the afterward to the short story collection, but not good work and I finally just walked away from the computer. I was also ridiculously exhausted after making groceries, so I just retired to my easy chair with my journal and my book and then did some film streaming. I rewatched an old 1980’s noir, Masquerade, starring Rob Lowe, Meg Tilly,  Kim Cattrall and Doug Savant; I’d really enjoyed the film at the time I saw it on the big screen, and wanted to see how well the movie held up. Tilly plays heiress Olivia Lawrence, sheltered and shy and worth over $200 million since her mother passed away several months before she graduated from college. Unfortunately, her “mother’s last husband”, as she calls him, has an income from the estate plus has the use of her family homes….including the one on the Hamptons, where most of the story takes place. To say they do not get along is an understatement. She becomes interested in Rob Lowe’s character, Tim Whelan, who races sailing boats and is currently employed by the wealthy Morrisons; he is also having an affair with the trophy wife, played by Kim Cattrall. Tim and Olivia meet at a party and begin a romance…only it turns out that Tim and the wicked stepfather are out for Olivia’s money. There’s a murder, a cover-up, and things keep twisting and turning and there’s another big surprise twist about two-thirds of the way through the story.

It does hold up well, and watching the movie I realized something I hadn’t realized before; a lot of the imagery I used in Timothy, how I pictured it all in my head–the estate, the beach, the water, everything–was visualized primarily through my memories of this movie. One thing I’m not quite sure that does hold up; the trope of the wimpy, mousy heiress who is married for her money; this was an extremely popular trope of romantic suspense–think Suspicion, or almost everything Victoria Holt wrote–but this was filmed as noir; which means the points of view come out on display. (So many Victoria Holt novels were built around the mousy heiress who thinks her husband married her for hr money and is trying to kill her!) My friend Rebecca Chance one said that romantic suspense was “noir for women” back in the day, which I’ve always thought was a brilliant take, and a great basis for an essay; perhaps someday I’ll write it.

We also watched a really good gay movie last night, Retake, starring Tuc Watkins (whom I remember from One Life to Live) and Devon Graye, both of whom were really quite good; and the plot, which took a while to get going, was pretty compelling, actually. I do recommend the film.

And now I need to get to work.I should have a cover reveal this week for Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories, and I also got the final acceptance of the latest version of “Silky Veils of Ardor,” which is going to appear in The Beat of Black Wings, edited by Josh Pachter. I also need to make a to-do list, and I also need to clean the fuck out of this kitchen today.

Okay back to the spice mines.

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Do What You Do

Ah, it’s only midweek and I’ve not made much progress on anything; the kitchen is a mess, and time is just slipping through my fingers on a daily basis. It’s a frustrating feeling, made even all the more frustrating because I know, even as I procrastinate, that I am going to deeply regret the procrastination the following day; and yet, I do it. I suppose this would be fodder for my therapist; why do I defeat myself all the time, or set myself up to fail? Is it a fear of failure, so if I do it to myself it won’t feel like failure?

These are the mysteries of Greg that I ponder on a daily basis.

I did work on a story yesterday, rather than the Scotty book or the website writing I’d promised to do, which I need to do, both of which I should just fucking do and get out of the way. Eye roll.  The story isn’t one I am sure about; it’s one that I originally wrote back in the late 1980s during one of my I’m going to take this writing thing seriously even though I have no idea what I’m actually doing periods when I used to write piles of short stories (rather like I have done this year already), and it’s one that I’ve always thought would work. I’ve taken a run at it again several times over the years, but at last I think I have it in a place where it will actually work. The voice is the key to this story, and I think I’m getting it right; the story itself is working itself out, but once I am finished with it this time around I need to go back and make sure I’ve got the voice right. This is, of course, not one of the stories I’m including in the collection, or the one I need to get the edits done on (of course, see what I mean about being self-defeating?), and the irony, of course, is that the edits aren’t that involved; and yet somehow I just can’t make myself do them.

Idiot.

But so it goes, and how it goes every day of my life. I am often called prolific, which always amuses me to a degree; I think of myself as lazy, because I know how much more I could get–or should be getting–done. I also know about all the time I waste, and how that time could have been used ever so much more productively.

In my own defense, however, I will say that I like this story I am working on–“Fireflies”–and I’ve always liked the story, and am glad that I am finally getting to it. I have so many story partials; so many stories that have been dancing around elusively in my brain for so long, yet whenever I try to finish them they dance away just out of the reach of my fingertips; “Fireflies” is one of those stories. It’s nice to finally be getting it finished, even though I should be working on other things. But I’ve diagnosed what’s wrong with both “Don’t Look Down” and “My Brother’s Keeper” this week; I’ve also figured out what’s wrong with “Once a Tiger” and how I can move forward with it. These are good things, really; and I am getting somewhere with the Scotty book as well with my brainstorming.

I just need to get past this feeling that Chapter Eleven is such a sloppy mess that I don’t want to even look at it again. I either need to go fix it, or move on to Chapter Twelve instead of agonizing over it like an idiot.

We started watching Shooter, a really terrific Ryan Philippe series last night; I think it was a limited series–a one-off, because I don’t really see how it could go another season. He plays one of the top Marine sharpshooter/snipers, who has retired; he is dragged back into the business by an old Marine buddy who now works for the Secret Service to figure out how someone is going to try to assassinate the president. He doesn’t realize he is being set up to take the fall for the assassination, and the conspiracy runs pretty fricking deep; but he manages to get away from the authorities and has to prove his innocence. It’s pretty good–and Ryan Philippe never disappoints. I’ve been a fan since his days as gay teenager Billy Douglas on One Life to Live back in the early nineties; and I am glad to see him keeping his career going on television now that he’s no longer in demand for film roles. He really makes a hot dad.

I also read two short stories for the Short Story Project. First up was “A Bus Ticket to Phoenix” by Willy Vlautin, from Jim Fusilli’s Crime Plus Music:

Otis woke that morning to Lenny in the bathroom yelling on the phone. It was past 11 a.m. at Winner’s Casino in Winnemucca, Nevada. Under the covers he shivered in the cold and could his breath fall out and disappear into the room. He got up to find the window open and the heat off.

He set the thermostat to high, shut the sliding glass window, and looked out to see some snow falling. It covered the van and trailer and the houses behind the motel. He stood seventy-seven years old, tall and thin with greasy brown hair. He found his clothes on the floor, dressed, and walked across the street to the casino. He used the toilet, lost five dollars on video poker, and went to the casino restaurant for breakfast.

Vlautin, the author, is a seasoned professional musician, which explains why this story rings so true and authentic, I suspect. Some old guys, professional musicians who are now getting old and have never made it big, just always managed to find work and have spent almost their entire lives on the road, are now touring with some musclebound young up and comer in country music. The crime is that their stuff keeps disappearing, with something being stolen at every stop on this tour. The singer is kind of a dick, and so is his manager…and while the crime aspect of the story isn’t it’s strength, the depiction of the lonely, melancholy life on the road–and coming to the end of your lives without ever having made it big while continuing on because you can’t do anything else, is the most poignant and powerful part of this story.

I then moved back to Ross Macdonald’s The Archer Files, for another Lew Archer story, “Wild Goose Chase.”

The plane turned in towards the shoreline and began to lose altitude. Mountains detached themselves from the blue distance. Then there was a city between the sea and the mountains, a little city made of sugar cubes. The cubes increased in size. Cars crawled like colored beetles between the buildings, and matchstick figures hustled jerkily along the white morning pavements. A few minutes later I was one of them.

The woman who had telephoned me was waiting at the airport, as she had promised. She climbed out of her Cadillac when I appeared at the entrance to the waiting room, and took a few tentative steps towards me. In spite of her height and her blondness, the dark harlequin glasses she wore have her an oddly Oriental look.

“You must be Mr. Archer.”

A man is on trial in this unnamed northern or central California city for the murder of his much older, much wealthier wife. He clearly killed her for her money, or so the prosecution would have you believe. His only defense is at the time of the murder, he was with another woman–another woman whom he will not name, despite her being his only real chance at acquittal since everyone thinks he’s guilty. It is this woman who has hired Archer, and she has her own reasons for not wanting to be named…and so as Archer goes about his investigation, another murder is committed and he finally solves the case by finding the real killer…and yet everyone involved is guilty to some degree; perhaps not legally, but at least morally. This is the kind of case where the detective needs a long hot shower after to wash the stink off; which is of course, for me as a reader, the best kind of story. (Oh, yes, all that time period racism and misogyny is on display in this story; which kind of, as always, put me off–as you can see in the above opening paragraphs of the story.)

And now, to stop procrastinating and get back to the spice mines.

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Torn between Two Lovers

The other show that Agnes Nixon created was One Life to Live, set in the Philadelphia suburb of Llanview. The show never really got quite the attention that it’s sister shows on ABC did, airing for most of its run between the better known All My Children and General Hospital, and it did veer into the weird from time to time. But when it was on its game,One Life to Live was without question one of the best shows on television.

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I can remember watching from a very early age, with our babysitter and my grandmother. The lead character was–and always remained–Victoria Lord. The show followed the classic soap set-up of two contrasting families–one rich, one poorer–but Agnes Nixon gave that classic set-up a twist. Usually, the families were large–the Hortons on Days of Our Lives being a prime example–and very WASP-y; with names like Hughes and Lowell and Matthews. The “poorer” family wasn’t really poor; it usually was more upper-middle class, with doctors and lawyers; money was never a concern. What Nixon did with One Life to Live was very different than anything else on the air. Of course, there were the Lords, filthy rich with their mansion and publishing empire–but she deliberately made the second family not only working class but ethnic–the Polish-American Woleks.

And even more shocking, one of her initial storylines was about Carla…who turned out to be a light-skinned black woman passing for white, engaged to a white man, and struggling to deal with whether she should embrace who she was or continue living a lie. For the 1960’s, this was shocking–particularly since she was engaged to a white doctor. The big reveal when the audience found out that Carla was actually black was one of the biggest plot twists ever on a daytime drama–and needless to say, didn’t play well in the deep South.

The show always took chances–some of them paid off, others didn’t. The underground city of Eterna story, the time travel story that sent Clint Buchanan back to the 1880’s–these were the things that made one roll one’s eyes.

But like I said, when the show was on, it was fucking on.

Take the character of Tina Clayton, for example. She was originally brought on as the teenaged daughter of Viki’s best friend from college, and a little loose with her morals. She left the show, only to return in the mid 1980’s older, trashier, and with a secret–she was actually Viki’s half-sister, because her mother had had an affair with VIki’s father!

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Now, one of the original big stories on the show was Viki’s mental illness–she had DID (dissociative identity disorder), or what was then called a ‘split personality.’ She would become another woman, Niki Smith. This illness was originally ‘cured’ and Viki moved on. Tina’s return, and the claims about Viki’s father, brought Niki Smith back out yet again. Tina was front and center on the show for several years, superbly played by Andrea Evans, until she left the show. The part was recast a couple of times, but Evans was so definitive it was hard for the other actresses to make the part their own.

But Erika Slezak was fantastic as Viki. She won six Emmys for the part–in no small part because of her stunning performances during the DID episodes, when she was completely believable as someone else.

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She also had amazing chemistry with another amazing actress, Robin Strasser, who played her arch-enemy and stepmother, Dorian Lord.

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The scenes when Dorian finally confronts Viki with the knowledge she’d always thought Viki knew herself–that Victor Lord had sexually abused her as a child–were stunning; they are on Youtube, if you want to take a look. That was when Viki’s mind shattered into several different characters; at least six. Amazing acting and writing.

In the early 1990’s, One Life to Live was absolutely must-watch television, at least for me, as the show took on homophobia and HIV. Viki’s youngest son Joey’s best friend Billy Douglas, played by Ryan Philippe, was thrown out by his parents for being gay.

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At the same time, a local girl named Marty Saybrooke was obsessed with Father Andrew Carpenter, an Episcopalian priest who was trying to help Billy. When Andrew rejected her advances, Marty started telling people that Andrew had actually molested Billy and that was why he was gay. Andrew’s older brother had actually BEEN gay, and died from AIDS without reconciling with their homophobic father. It was riveting to watch, as characters whom I’d watched and loved for years had to struggle with their own homophobia and biases, as well as their fear of AIDS. Watching Sloan Carpenter come to terms with the knowledge that his own fears and biases had cost him his son was powerful, and of course, in the end all was well and the truth came out and Sloan convinced Billy’s parents that loving their son–and not losing him as he had lost his own son–was most important. The storyline wrapped up with a visit to the AIDS Quilt, where the Carpenters added a panel for their lost son.

As a gay man in a homophobic world, you can only imagine how powerful that was to watch. That they actually showed the quilt was one of the most amazing things in the world to me.

But the show wasn’t done quite yet with powerful stories. Next came the gang rape of Marty Saybrooke, at a fraternity party. SPurning the advances of Todd Manning and pretty much loathed and despised by everyone in Llanview as a liar, Marty got drunk at a fraternity party–and Todd, along with two of his buddies, including a cousin of Viki’s–gang raped her in one of the fraternity dorm rooms. The rape was actually shot through an aquarium; so you could see vague movements and blurred violence, but you could hear it happening. It was incredibly horrifying, and extraordinary television and storytelling; because who would believe notorious liar Marty? Especially because she included Viki’s oldest son, Kevin, in her accusation because she was drunk–and later recanted, which threw her entire story into question.

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Susan Haskell won an Emmy for her portrayal of Marty–she would later win another for reprising the role fifteen years later.

And the show created the most terrifying villain of all in ringleader Todd Manning, superbly played by Roger Howarth (who also won an Emmy). The character was so popular they had to somehow find a way to keep him on the show–which meant rehabilitating a rapist (problematic, but that’s a subject for another time). Eventually, Todd turned out to be Viki’s half-brother, product of the continued liaison between her friend Irene and her father.

For those two stories alone–the homophobia and the gang rape–the show should never be forgotten.

It was brave and daring for its time, and incredible storytelling.

And I didn’t even mention Judith Light’s brilliance as housewife hooker Karen Wolek.

S thank you, Agnes Nixon. You were an amazing writer, and a creative genius, and your creations were some of the best television ever.

Angie Baby

Agnes Nixon died yesterday. For those of you who don’t know who she was, she created the long-running soaps One Life to Live and All My Children, among others, and worked on numerous others as well. She created two of the greatest female characters in television history–Victoria Lord on One Life to Live and Erica Kane on All My Children, both of whom made daytime legends of the actresses who played them, Erika Slezak and Susan Lucci.

I loved soaps, and it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that I stopped watching them because i needed the time to write. When I was a kid, both of my parents worked so during the summers a lady down the street watched my sister and I during the day–and she was an avid fan of General Hospital, One Life to Live, and Dark Shadows. My grandmother also worked the evening shift at American Can Company back then, and so she also watched the shows, so on days when she watched us we watched them all together. It was hard sometimes catching up, since we weren’t able to watch them during the school year (other than Dark Shadows, which we could run home from school to catch the last twenty minutes or so of), but watch them we did…and when All My Children debuted, we started watching that one because it was new–we could know everything from the very beginning. The thing that was amazing about All My Children as well, was that it had young characters featured front and center; the romantic lives of teenagers was just as important as that of its older characters. Tara, Phil, Chuck and Erica were all high school students when the show started, and there was something else odd about the adults in Pine Valley, as well. They didn’t just sit around and talk about what was going on with their lives, they also talked about the Vietnam War, protests, and opposing it. The show was actually relevant; while other soaps were insular, where nothing mattered except what was going on in the town as though the rest of the world didn’t exist, the people in Pine Valley were very aware. And both Phil and Chuck–and their families–worried they’d be drafted when they got out of high school.

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Phil eventually did wind up going to Vietnam, and was reported dead there.

The show was incredibly popular with young people–all of my friends watched it, and as the years passed, the show continued its commitment to young love. Pine Valley also had something else that most other soaps didn’t have–people of color. In the early 1980’s, there were two parallel star-crossed love stories featuring teens–Greg and Jenny, who were white, and Jesse and Angie, who were black. Both stories got equal air time, were equally important, and the young actors were incredibly compelling. There was also a teen villainess, Liza Colby, played by Marcy Walker, who was also fantastic.

Greg and Jenny:
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Angie and Jesse:

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The despicable Liza:

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Kim Delaney, who would go on to prime time success, left the show shortly after she and Greg were finally, after years of heartbreak, obstacles, and separation, married; the show decided not to recast but to kill her off.

It was devastating.

In college, everyone would gather around television sets in the lounges to watch All My Children ; when Jenny flatlined I remember everyone in the lounge gasped in disbelief; some people actually started crying. Years later, I mentioned to a friend “if someone ever tells you they used to watch All My Children , and you ask them when they stopped watching, they will tell you they stopped watching when Jenny died.”

The show did eventually recover from killing off Jenny, but it took a while.

Over the years, the show created incredible characters played by exceptional actors; Sarah Michelle Gellar’s big break came as Kendall on the show; a young actress who not only could hold her own against Susan Lucci but was a villainess you also felt compassion for. She played Kendall, the daughter no one knew Erica had; the product of a rape when she was thirteen that she gave away, and Kendall turned up as a teenager. The scenes between Erica and Kendall, when Erica tried to explain why she could never love her because she would always see Kendall and remember the rape, were incredibly powerful; Sarah Michelle Gellar would win an Emmy for those scenes, and I never understood why Lucci did not. (Lucci, of course, was nominated a billion times and only won once; it became a running joke for Lucci–the irony being she became much more famous for not winning than any of the women who won did; and when she did finally win, it was national news and she was on every magazine cover on the newsstands.)

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Kelly Ripa also got her big break on All My Children , as Adam Chandler’s illegitimate daughter Haley.

One of the other things that made the show special was it wasn’t afraid to be funny; it was more than just unrelenting melodrama and sobbing. One moment your heart would be breaking over Donna’s grief over her child dying in a fire and the next you’d be laughing at the antics of Opal Gardner. All My Children never was afraid to be funny. (One of the greatest characters on the show was villainess Janet–“Janet from another planet”–who did horrible things but at the same time was incredibly funny.)

And of course, there was Erica Kane. You can’t talk about All My Children without talking about Erica. When asked once if she would ever leave the show, Susan Lucci replied, “Why would I? Where else would I get to play Scarlett O’Hara every day?” Erica started out as a bitch on the show–a young teen villainess– but in the skillful hands of the perfect actress for the part and a talented writer who showed the character in all of her confusing complexity, Erica became the center of the show, and was always the star. Erica wanted to be loved, but she also wanted to be rich and famous and successful–and didn’t want to get all of those things by marrying a rich man; she wanted to get them herself. And that drive, Erica’s drive, I think, was what made her such a beloved character. She did things the wrong way, she lied and manipulated, but the disaster that was her personal life never stopped her from getting all the things out of life that she wanted–and when her deceptions once again destroyed her personal life, she always wiped away the tears and repeated her mantra: “I can do anything. I’m Erica Kane.”

And of course, Erica had daytime’s first (and one of the few) abortions.

The show always dealt, like it did with abortion and Vietnam, social issues. It had daytime’s first lesbian character, dealt with HIV/AIDS, had a gay character and addressed homophobia, and of course, Erica’s daughter Bianca became daytime’s first main character to be a lesbian…and to have as troubled, dramatic, and fascinating love life as any of the straight characters.

I could probably write an entire book about All My Children . I learned a lot from the show, about writing, how to plot a murder mystery (the show had some of the best murder mysteries on daytime), and how to create a complicated character.

RIP, Ms. Nixon. I’ll talk about One Life to Live tomorrow.