March 2007May 2007 


4 posts from April 2007

Apr 30 2007
Illinois Death Trip Comments (3)


I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. I don’t know what’s causing it to be a matter of concern—I’m not even sure it is a matter of concern. Maybe it’s just that it’s something worth considering.

For the past year or so I’ve found myself puzzling out death, trying to picture what will happen. What I’ve come up with instead of answers are metaphors. Death could be just another part of life, similar to sleep. Sometimes, as I drift off to sleep, I find myself wondering if this is what it will feel like to die—an overwhelming urge to be still, to close one’s eyes, to relinquish waking control. If so, maybe, against all odds, death isn’t an end, but a transition. Maybe there is some vague degree of consciousness, similar to dreaming.

Even if death is an ultimate cessation, I still wonder if our need to sleep every day is some kind of natural preparation for an eventual dirt nap.

If death is an ending, I can envision it as the culmination of a long, wearying journey. I think about a person walking down an endless hall that gets darker and darker, more claustrophobic. He eventually tires, slowing to a crawl, finally becoming still. No more progress. Others will pass him and forget him soon enough, and in turn meet the same fate and be forgotten themselves despite there being so much more hall to travel; such a shame to have the desire and determination without the energy. Death as a failure to continue, a defeat.


Very recently, death has crossed my mind for specific reasons.

First, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Joan Didion’s The Year Of Magical Thinking. I’m late to this, I know, considering Vanessa Redgrave is already Broadwaying it. But I knew nothing of the content of the book until I began reading it. It’s a shockingly naked catalog of grief and mourning, of life and death, as told by a wife and mother whose daughter is on the verge of dying from septic shock when her husband suddenly does die from a massive cardiac event. It’s not just a story; it happened. The fact that it happened to people whose survivor is as uniquely gifted at expressing her feelings as Didion is is the only bright side in an incredibly sad book.

Didion_2I love the book. It’s not morbid, it’s about morbidity. I admire that Didion (pictured) is able to write about things that threaten to destroy her; it’s a case where being too close is being exactly close enough. It’s heart-breaking, but heart-breaking at least reminds you you have a heart in the first place. It's also insightful to the point that it feels like a crash course in dealing with something that will happen around all of us and, eventually, to all of us.

It’s a hard sell for some readers. I discovered this on Amazon, where some reviewers deemed it “boring” or—the worst thing any work of art can be called in our happy-go-lucky culture—“depressing.” One monster even wrote that she disliked the book because she found the narrator “unlikeable.” Ridiculous things to take the time to write about a woman honestly attempting to make sense of the lowest or highest common denominator for every human being who’s ever lived. But maybe people say these things because they can’t handle the truth, because it’s easier to play dumb than to play dead.

Sc0004cf53_2As I read the book, which I can’t recommend highly enough, I planned a trip to Chicago to see my mother and sister and yet it was Chicago that reached out to me first. I received an e-mail a couple of nights before I left from a woman I’d known there over 15 years ago, before I moved to New York. I’d known her as a fabulous, exotic type who could be trusted to dress flamboyantly and accompany her gay brother to a club. I dated her gay brother (pictured) and had a lot of affection for him, a bright, mysterious young guy who shared some important experiences with me, and who I stopped seeing only because I left the area. In that way, we never truly broke up, just separated.

The e-mail I received from his sister was to inform me he’d died that day. It took me completely by surprise. You sometimes forget people’s lives continue on even when you’re not in the room, and so do their deaths. When I gently inquired as to what had happened—“Was this as much of a surprise to you as it is to me?”—she replied that he’d been drinking himself to death for many years. “He could not seem to accept or forgive himself. Thank you for remembering him.”

Remembering him was not a courtesy for me, it was a given, but I knew what she meant and was touched, humbled even, that she’d decided to inform me—on the day it happened, no less. I was haunted by what she told me because I could not connect alcoholism with the person I’d known, let alone a persistent, self-destructive death wish. I also could not guess what it was he did not like about himself—homosexuality seemed an unlikely cause. Somehow, I felt this was all I needed to know, and all I was going to know, so I asked no more questions.


In Chicago, I stayed in a friend’s absolutely beautiful home, a duplex with a lake view in a historical building. I stayed in a serenely unadorned guest room painted white. At night, I would lie in the bed and stare at the moonlight that created the borders of the window and feel like I was floating, wondering if this was in any way a parallel for the loss of consciousness, or even of death itself.

Walking around the city, I visited my agent, who told me a famous writer I’d once worked with and who was one of her star clients had been told he had terminal cancer and was expected to die at any moment. Img_0315_2This was exactly what happened to her former boss, my former agent. Thinking of him making arrangements not for his death but for what would happen after he had died made me more openly curious about the end of our time on earth than ever. I remember when my former agent—a beneficent mentor and good friend—found out she would die. I spoke to her on the phone and told her I was so sorry to hear the news. “Don’t you be sorry,” she urged in a girlish voice. Then she asked to see me. I flew in within a few weeks, but arrived the day after she lost consciousness. We held her hand in the hospital and reminisced with or to her, watching her brow furrow (could she hear?) even as she was unable to close her mouth. She died the following day, which seemed impossible. (Pictured is a cookbook manuscript she had once been working on, a life souvenir.)


Walking along the beach (yes, Chicago has them) in the unseasonal 80-degree weather, I discovered it must be a tradition to memorialize late loved ones with graffiti on the cement walkways. Seeing the child-like scrawlings and odes to “Mom” and “Dad,” I wondered if there were people out there who might critique them as boring or depressing. These same people will be stifling yawns as The Grim Reaper hugs them close.


I know there are people who want to die, but I can’t understand them. In the car on the way to the airport to get home, I called my grandmother, 90 and still living alone quite handily. She told me how her pastor son, my uncle, had to accompany a woman to the “boondocks of Canada” to identify the body of her husband, a suicide. Death is such an expected eventuality that we’re all a bit obsessed with tales that challenge any of our expectations—suicides, murders, freak health collapses, previously unguessed personal failings...all will keep just about any of us rapt, maybe also because they are potentially autobiographies.

I’d like to say I live each day as if it were my last, but the reality is I—and most people—live each day as if it were the first day of the rest of my life, like I have time to burn so I burn it without a care in the world. Maybe the best thing to take from my recent fixation on death is putting that angst to good use. What gives death its greatest power over us is the fear that we lived the wrong way, missed out.

I think the least we should take from our shared expectation of death is to resolve to let that expectation inform how we live.

(The title for this post was inspired by this book.)

Apr 16 2007
From Boy To Man: BC B.C. Comments (8)

BoykulturwritingMy original, handwritten Boykultur manuscript circa 1992.

Following is an entire timeline of my creation of Boy Culture, the novel that became the current film. I’m laying it out once and for all because I have a terrible, terrible memory (one that often suggests wrong details rather than simply blanking) and I am constantly asked about these details and have probably given a million little versions.

Sc000b4c9c_3It's only funny until some boy gets hurt.

Spurring me on is that I recently had the pleasure of being e-interviewed by Matt Zakosek for my alma Sc000b425bmater's school newspaper, The Chicago Maroon. (That always reminds me of Bugs Bunny saying, “What a maroon!”) Like me, he's gay, a product or survivor of U of C, named Matt and a writer. Can't ask for a more sympathetic interviewer. Matt asked me tons of things relating to the creation of the Boy Culture novel, since my original short story on which I'd based it was written at the U of C, used to get into a very tough short-story course with the legendary Richard Stern, published in a short-lived campus art mag (published by my roommate) and expanded into a novella that served as my thesis to graduate.

His great interview is here.

Mapppo_2The Mapplethorpe postcard I had in my room in 1989 to announce I was gay.

M80sHe's going to kill me for not finding the time to do this until 10 minutes after it was published, but I spent part of the weekend rummaging in my art and writing bins in search of the original story, which I scanned and will share here along with photos from the period and drawings I made during the 1989 to 1994 period leading up to the novel’s publication. Like this one, of me with a Grandma Rettenmund said, "Oh, no, not with your beautiful face!" I hadn't been aware of any beautiful face. I was unconvinced. But, hedging my bets, I shaved.

Sc00162440My dorm room, where Mr. Goodbar could be found, and outside my fab dorm, the Shoreland.

BoyzroomWhen I was a junior (aka 20), I had to submit a story to be considered for the Stern class, so overnight I wrote a piece that felt very radical to me and incorporated a lot of my resentment for the school's all-work-and-no-gay atmosphere. (Two years earlier, I had impulsively chosen The Breakfast Club as the piece of art that most affected my life when writing my admissions essay, so I'd found shooting from the hip quite effective at a school known for Sc000b62e7academic fanaticism.) I based the story on a classmate’s comment that an intimate friend of his from high school—a straight guy—had turned tricks back home. I had been thinking for some time about what kinds of tricks your mind might play on you if you were privy to the hypocritical double lives of people around you, and if you were the type of person prone to crossing lines just to see what it felt like on the other side. When I met this Midwest hustler, he had no personality at all—he was a blank.

I wanted to fill in the blank.

89Me in 1989, at home and working for late lit agent Jane Jordan Browne.

BsoyThe submission, "Straight Story," got me into the class...but then I had to show up and actually read the thing, including all the anger and sex and profanity. I was scared to death, but I read it with gusto, acting out the parts. The class was impressed...or stunned? Professor Stern was a huge supporter and that was a lot to take in, but I appreciated it even when he eventually said the story had a schoolboy whimsy to it. One of my classmates observed that it was brave for me to do something so autobiographical (I guess the first-person is persuasive!) and also so "sociopathic."

Grat1Campus confidential.

Sometime after I received Professor Stern's notes, in the fall of 1989, I allowed the story to be published in Gratuitous U of C B&W Art. This artsy journal was put together by my third-year roommate, Austin Nichols, and featured contributions from all my best university buddies, JJ Fenza, Tony Breed (my other roomie), Anne Stevens and possibly some more.

AustinLiterary lion Austin Nichols (right) and me (in "BOTTOM" tee). It was Halloween.

When my story came out, people were shocked (to the extent that it was even read) by "Straight Story," which I'd coyly signed "J.O." I clearly recall a good friend of my best friend talking to us about this horrible, vulgar story and wondering aloud who could have written it. I took pleasure in telling him I was J.O.—he looked at me like I'd just farted. Loudly.

Next, I decided to turn the story into a novella for my senior thesis. I had all my friends read my expansion 1st_draft_to_strierand give their advice (they’re thanked in my kooky acknowledgments, along with a certain guy “who’s forgotten me by now”). Settling on a title-less draft, I worked with Richard Strier, who'd taught a Samuel Pepys class I took (I think!). It was scary finding someone who'd work with you on your thesis, so I think I chose him because I had some experience with him. I probably had to beg. By the time I was handed off to Stuart Tave, I had gone with True Confessions Of A Working Boy as my new title. I have to confess I don't remember any of my interactions with the esteemed Mr. Tave beyond the notes I've maybe my experience with him was better than hers—’cuz bad stuff I remember.

My thesis was accepted and I graduated in January of 1991.

I’ve been asked about which books may have influenced me in writing my first novel. My memory is hazy about which gay-themed novels I would have read by the time the novella was completed, but I know I’d read Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story and his other works. That one grabbed me because I found it at the U of C bookstore and flipped it open to a scene about “cornholing.” As base as it sounds at first, just the experience of seeing that writers did not have to put on airs in order to communicate essential truths was highly influential. I think I also read Faggots by Larry Kramer, which I want to re-read. I was fascinated and repulsed by it. I remember being influenced by Kramer’s no-holds-barred criticisms of the gay community, and realized it was okay to create a work that was not 100% rah-rah.

There were other novels I would liken mine to or would somehow link to my understanding of the genre I Sc000aee83_2was writing in, but they didn’t cross my path until much later, when I would have been finalizing the full novel—or even after I’d finished it! I immediately think of Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From The Dance, George Whitmore’s The Confessions Of Danny Slocum (which I found at Housing Works well after my novel was a done deal), Ken Siman’s Pizza Face (so underrated), The Irreversible Decline Of Eddie Sockett by John Weir and the works of Christopher Bram (in particular Surprising Myself)—Christopher and Michael Bronski would later kindly take me for lunch to the Bright Food Shop in Chelsea once I was published, making me feel like a literary superstar. (CONTINUED)

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Apr 12 2007
Deuce Comments (2)

Playbill_deuceMatch point.

Terrence McNally could get anything produced on Broadway, but that doesn't mean he should.

In the case of his latest, the Michael Blakemore-directed Deuce, I would not go so far as to say this tennis-themed show is a double fault. It's more of a frustrating deuce itself—great exercise for two women at the top of their game that nonetheless struggles to produce a win.

Celeste Holm going backstage, fans waiting and the ladies emerging to sign.

F5abb574370a4bd18b55fa93c86edc1bI got tickets for tonight, the very first preview, and was hoping to be wowed. Quadruple Tony winner Angela Lansbury is returning to Broadway for the first time since the ill-fated revival of Mame almost 25 years ago, and Marian Seldes is one of our most distinguished living theatre actresses. Along with a sensational pedigree, the show was said to be about living-legend doubles champions reunited after many years, so I was expecting a lot of tension and verbal volleys culminating with one or the other figuratively jumping over the net in victory.

Instead, the show revealed itself to be an easy-to-watch if somewhat static snapshot of two old friends and athletic partners conversing about their past glories, disappointments and personal entanglements with relaxed detachment. Where I had hoped for a terse, wrenching tournament, I got a genial exhibition match.

Img_0003_3Love this busy picture of the theatre from a distance.

The setting ensures a show that can’t sustain an intermission (it was about 90 minutes straight through)—the women are reunited as the special guests of a championship match, relegated to history, to watching from boxed seats as younger women slug it out in the game that made them famous and defined their lives together and apart. It’s a wonderful premise, one rich with possibilities that go largely unplumbed.

Both actresses are terrific at creating characters from dialogue that, like the play itself, is too literal to truly capture interest. As Midge Barker, Seldes has an arch self-containment tempered with streaks of practical good humor. She might seem prissy at first, but she has her secrets, as when she fantasizes about throwing her old partner for a loop, reminding us that she’s more than just half of a pair.

Img_0007The Seldes wall of fame outside the Music Box Theatre.

Lansbury—looking lovely and only occasionally muffing lines to no great consequence—has the showier role. Leona “Lee” Mullen ‘didn’t used to be a fashion plate so much as a dish’ and has strong opinions on the game of tennis, the usefulness of feminism and her own shortcomings, all of which she punctuates with well-placed “goddamns.”

Img_0009_2And also, the Lansbury wall of fame.

If the actresses are spectacular, their interaction is no spectacle. Instead, the play has the too-easy feel of reminiscing, something Lee abhors. At one point, Lee says to Midge, “You didn’t marry down—you married a son of a bitch.” It’s a line that should be spiked with the dual meaning of a reassurance and a barely suppressed put-down, but when it’s delivered it’s neither—it’s simply a statement of fact.

Complicating matters, and getting in the way, Joanna P. Adler and Brian Haley appear as one-dimensional sports announcers, whose obnoxious narration of the match seems to be meant to reveal how far the game has sunk and how clueless the younger set is about the innerworkings of the older set’s minds. The characters are not needed and bring the proceedings to a screeching halt every time they chime in. Veteran Michael Mulheren appears as a lifelong tennis fan in one touching scene, but it quickly degenerates into a sort of dry history lesson as the women thumb through his inherited autograph book. His other appearances undermine the visual impact of the women we’ve come to see.

I think Deuce could be vastly improved if it were what its title implies—a two-woman show.

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Apr 11 2007
Divine Intervention Comments (1)

Divvy_2The long shadow of death, borrowed respectfully from here.

The only person more surprised than I was by Divine's death was probably Divine himself. The most Posterparadisepictureshocking thing to me was that it happened and days went by without my knowing about it. It was before I owned a computer, before I spent most of my waking hours on the ’Net, while I was working and studying at The University Of Chicago, the white capital of black Hyde Park. The racial imbalance was particularly odd considering I had a Divine poster on my wall from a controversial South African gig he'd done—I never realized that till way later, but I felt guilty in retrospect (the best kind of guilt because it's over quicker).

John_waters_divine_std_2They scared me to death, I loved them to death.

I'd gotten into Divine out of nowhere. Late in high school, I rented the scandalous VHS videos of Pink Flamingos and Polyester and Female Trouble and watched, rapt, alone, as crazy people did crazy things on camera with no regard for how their peers would react or how future employers might judge this behavior. I didn't exactly think the funny parts were all that funny and the chicken sex made me pity the fowl, but I found them fascinating and important, enough so that when I discovered Divine albums available as imports at a dinky record store in Flint, Michigan, I bought them. I think I liked Divine's Warholian anti-music even more than his Warholian anti-movies, in which he nonetheless gave legitimate performances.

P11120knxv4_2By the time Hairspray was coming out, I was not as into Divine as I was into Madonna, but he was a fave. I could be wrong, but I believe I saw Hairspray with my friend and co-worker Sandra before he died. All I know is that I came in to work one day (I think it must've been a Monday?) and Sandra said, "Sorry about your friend, Divine." I had no idea. I was shocked that Divine died, and that I was so uncharacteristically disconnected I hadn't heard about it for days. I felt like a settler being told by a breathless rider that Lincoln had been shot two weeks earlier.

Divine_casket_2Divine exit.

I think Divine had just been on the cover of Interview, which I morbidly saved. Actually, isn't all celebrity collecting morbid? Even if the star is alive, you're acting as if they've passed. Speaking of morbid hording, I went back to my dorm and dug through newspapers in the recycling room to find Divine's tiny obituary, which used his birth name and a crappy movie still. Jan Clayton had gotten more of the star treatment years earlier, and who the hell had she been?

Waters_dirtydivine"Dirty Divine" by John Waters (2000).

Sexyrexy_2At this time, I used to read the freebie gay papers in Chicago, and was hooked on Rex Wockner's compulsively readable round-ups of gay-related news. They were very much like what Andy Towle's Towleroad is today. Eerily, Rex seems to look the same as he did 15+ years ago (see side by side comparison), and has posted this cool Q&A with Divine, which I found via Joe.My.God. It might be Divine's last-ever interview. It's so timely, especially this passage:


Fuck you, Bette Midler.

But besides that potshot, look how Divine recognized his role was to entertain, and yet cringed at the idea of denying who he was. Today's scaredy-cat gay celebs could learn a lot from Divine. It's ironic, but the big sissy had more balls than almost any gay figures I can think of today and I'd gladly swap a Jodie Foster or an Anderson Cooper or that ass who's taking over Divine's most famous role to have Divine back, enjoying his success and existing as an example of just how satisfying being fearlessly out can be.

"You think you're a man, but you're only a boy," Divine would tell them (including Jodie).