'The Cool Part of His Pillow' Warms Up Again

With the contract signed, I am now happy to report that 'The Cool Part of His Pillow' will be reissued by a new publisher in time for the Holidays this year.

It's quite gratifying when one's work is found to have enough value for a 2nd edition…especially after the ongoing drama at Dreamspinner Press.

For those who don’t know, Dreamspinner — an LGBTQ+ publisher — has been swamped by financial difficulties and startling management missteps, which include delaying or non-payment of royalties to dozens of their stable of authors for both Quarters #1 and #2. (Full-disclosure: after contacting them directly, I was paid.) It has also emerged that artists, proofreaders, editors, voice talent and transcirbers have also not been paid. It was a blessing in disguise that my 7-year contract with them was up in March of this year and that all publishing rights reverted back to me. Because of this financial quagmire, authors are rapidly leaving the imprint — authors with far larger fan bases than mine, like Rick Reed and Tj Klune — and rightfully demanding their rights back due to breach of contract, and many are being given different answers, or no answers, like whether they own the cover art, too, if the audiobook is outside the contract, foreign distribution, how to withdraw books for sale on Amazon, etc.

If you want a primer on how NOT to contain a crisis, Dreanmspinner Press is a case study on being tone-deaf and,arrogant, as they are now quietly blaming authors for their money difficulties. How can they remain in business if authors abandon them? If this becomes too public, no one will buy from them, and how will they ever settle what’s due to authors? It has become so sad and frustrating that a Facebook Group has sprung as emotional support to authors who have been wronged. I weigh in there occasionally and I am horrified by authors who are literally in danger of losing their home, or missing another car payment, or going without prescribed medication, because they are owed thousands of dollars. Yet Dreampsinner had the audacity to run a workshop/conference in North Florida last week, solicitng and encouraging new writers into their fold. What did THAT junket cost, and who footed the bill?

The unpaid authors.

It’s a complicated chronology and would bore the shit out of most people, but the bottom-line is this: any royalties due an author should have been escrowed and untouchable, then fully distributed per the contract. It should NOT, as they explain, have been used to “grow” the business, to broaden distribution, to explore new digital avenues. That is what THEIR profit is for, not the money due authors, nor did they ask permission to use “our money” to invest in “their company”. What they did amounts to creative theft and their contrition, from weekly E-mails to authors that contain false or vague detail, seems non-existent.

I am thrilled I was largely able to soar beyond this revolting mess and that my work is not in any way encumbered by the intricate legal implications of some of this. It was all, as they say, in the timing.

Dreamspinner Press is a speck in my rear-view mirror, growing smaller every day, and I am so happy my work — which will included ‘Bended Knee’ and my own self-published ‘Otis’ — willl live on elsewhere.

The Anti-Heroes

I am very big on mentoring. Learning at the hands of masters imparts something no textbook, seminar or dubious online course willl EVER truly teach. At every opportunity I applied for internships in college. Learning on-the-job gave me insight that was beyond compare.

Early on, I was fortunate to have two: Connie Timmons, in elementary school….Loren Myer, from 9th grade through my Senior Year, and beyond.

My last year, 6th grade, at Lincoln Elementary was presided over by Constance Timmons, and I thank the Gods she was sent to encourage me. It wasn’t as much how she negotiated a clearcut curriculum, but it was her energy and her style — some might call it eccentric — that I found madcap and unexpected. Quick to anger when it came to classroom foolishness — her admonitions could topple a brick chimney — she slid just as easily into soliloquies about theater, literature, the art of cursive writing, table manners or party attire. By example, I saw that one could carve out an identity that did not precisely conform to the prim standards of a small, stifling community. And she was young, so young, when I reflect on it, probably also finding her way in academia. She became friends with my mother and family and it’s a relationship that has endured 45 years. She inspired me then, and now, as she negotiated widowhood with grace and humor.

Loren was the groovy high school English teacher with long blonde-ish hair (it covered his ears and shirt collar) who recognized my writing ability and observatiional skills and took action. He knew I didn’t belong in a conventional classroom and so arranged for me to have private study time — in the library, or in private rooms probably intended for detention, in which I kept a daily journal and filed book reports on ANYTHING I chose to read, which included: ‘The Exorcist, ‘ Roots’, The Fan Club’, ‘Summer of ‘42’ and ‘Zelda’. He championed my writing and thought I had “what it takes”. He never spoke to me as a teenager, but as a fully-formed adult, which i was not, but I appreciated his confidence in me. Our friendship post-high school has spanned the decades. I met his fiancee, then wife, Dee, as erudite, witty and warm as he, and I have watched them raise three children to adulthood. Being assigned to his class was a gift. I began to practice my craftsmanship and I had an advocate.

With good fortune inevitably comes bad. Some are dead; some should be.

Mary Lou Goar: a useless, embittered divorceee who fuled her fury about life’s injustices upon her students. Everyone knew her realtor husband had left her for a much-younger woman, that she subsequently suffered a nervous collapse, that her return to teaching was tenuous. She favored pantsuits that appeared homemade, had a slight palsy and was cursed with a horse-like face that could not even be charitably be described as handsome. I never quite knew what her qualifications were, since the administration slid her around from the English department into History, then into our high school’s so-called Journalism courses, where she also governed the student newspaper. She is a textbook example of why tenure is a cruel joke of the educational system; her scant knowledge was rewarded with eternal opportunity to rob and or dishearten generations. She didn’t stand by the paper’s editors, often running to the schools principal — hinmself a poker-faced bully who later died at the hands of his put-upon wife — with columns or opinions she thought controversial and would plunge her into trouble or controversy. When she died, I literally applauded.

Art Levin, who was head of the Journalism department at Butler University during my attendance, 1979-1983. An arrogant, pock-marked windbag who closed his office door when the blonde Thetas of campus came to “visit”, he’s the poster child for the #MeToo movement. His credentials seemed to be based upon a short-lived position with ‘Stars and Stripes’ when in the military; none of us could ever discern much more about his actual resume as a working journalist, much less one employed to educate others. His classes were insufferable, his commentary cruel and his stewardship of the ‘Collegian’, our campus weekly newspaper, was a litany of no-shows, lest they disturb his Monday night carousing. I learned absolutely nothing from him that a $29.95 text wouldn’t have imparted, with far less bullying. So it is puzzling that one of his most devoted “older, returning Mom” students — the ones who always raised their hands when the class was essentially over to ask one more irritating question and took copiosu notes — turned out to be my first employer:

The woman was editor of ‘Indianpolis Monthly’ for way, way too long. In assigning feature stories to her editorial staff, which included me, she was more keen on currying favor with Indianapolis elite than actual profiles. She desperately wanted to move in a better social circle and the magazine, she seemed to think, could be her margic carpet into the private suites and salons and outdoor cocktail parties. This was the Indianapolis she wanted to reign in, not the one regular folks paid bills and raised kids in. Her monthly column was a me me me confessional about her sons and her lawyer husband that, while occasionally entertaining — she could turn a nifty phrase — rang as self-absorbed, yet also tinged with low self-esteem based upon some of her physical characteristics. She manipulated the position to elevate herself and had little regard for her correspondents, often rewriting what they submitted to be more favorable and charitable to her friends or people she wanted to know. I learned some very bad habits in aiming for the lowest common denominator — glib, smug, self-referential filler, which ironically served me well as I entered the 7 circles of Hell a/k/a advertising.

Marty Lave: my chief employer in the arena of advertising, an utter pig with the Ernest Borgnine smile who recounted his poor Brooklyn upbringinge as motivation to be as nasty as possible. He asked vendors to falsify invoices so he could squeeze more from billing than the traditional 15%; he paid shockingly less than the local standard to incoming employees and wondered why attrition was so high and why every employee was on an inevitable “learning curve”; he openly belittled his wispy, nasal wife, a half-assed fill-in secretary with a wedge cut whom he called “Cookie”; he watched competitors’ commercials and stole complete dialogue and thematics shamelessly; he requested that I procure a particular actress, used in a commercial, for the hot-to-trot President of our biggest client, a vocational school based in New Jersey (which I refused to do); he advised I and the other partner to not hire “fat people, because they’re hard on furniture and call in sick a lot…or Indians, because they are a drunken people…or blacks, because they steal”. This, from a Jewish man who bemoaned the prejudices hurled against him. Why did I stay? I wanted, if I could, to better the lives of employees, and I did. When he refused to dole out raises, I gave them extra vacation time. I defied him at every turn. When he one year inexplicably forbade a Christmas tree or the purchase of decor for the lobby, I went out and bought what I called a Hanukkah bush and the staff made ornaments. Yet I wasn’t always so heroic or altruistic. I sat silently as he sexually belittled Agency females, openly asking “when are you going to a hotel with me?” Someone should have said this was unacceptable. And it should have been me. Time passed and I basically outlasted everyone by blithely ignoring most of his demands, arguing furiously, screaming until my face reddened, walking out, staging sick-ins…because someone who pushes as hard as he did only understands being shoved back. His whining half-apologies were always inevitable and I would leave them on the answering machine so my partner Greg could hear his wheedling, “Bubeleh, things got outta hand, let’s put it behind us, you come back in tomorrow and we start over, okay?” I also, with great glee, got every dime I asked for upon every review. A Google search indicates he still living. I am grateful I have never had to cross paths with him again.

This blog entry reads like a settling of scores. Maybe it is. But with every hero comes villains. In every plot, victory is balanced with defeat. Everyone has the misfortune of being placed under the gresy thumb of someone who is clearly inadequate. You learn from everything, and the lesson today, and ongoing, is that you learn as much from the morally bankrupt as you take from the most bountiful buffet. What I learned from them all was what NOT to be and, for that, I am thankful. I have never been one to forgive and forget, I do not suffer fools gladly and I believe that, when you burn a bridge, you need to fill that fucking river with ash.

Fears, Confirmed

I predicted, upon the launch of this website, that I would prove myself an inattentive, if not terrible, blogger. And that has been realized.

The mumbled excuses are many. My last entry was from early December, a busy month for the biggest humbugs among us. I had one prepared, about a lousy neighbor. Everyone has a crappy person or family living nearby. Their yard is especially unkempt…they throw parties late into the night…they park rusty, unlicensed heaps with three wheels at the curb…unsupervised children routinely wander on to your property. We’ve not been exempt. We’ve dealt with inconsiderate, loud and disrepectful folks since we bought our first home, in 1986. But what we deal with now makes all others pale, because this situation also involves abject loneliness, isolation, mental health issues and what we think might be excessive use of alcohol/prescription medication. Then I decided its scope would only further exacerbate this individual’s paranoia and wretched behavior, so I decided to pour the emnity into a future short story when we are far, far away from Fort Lauderdale.

I considered writing an update on my limited-run TV series I am in the midst of, but it seemed a little vanglorious to provide a documentary look into somthing not complete, much less produced. Suffice to say it is going well. My commitment was to fully complete four episodes before submission to agents or influential people within the industry (and elaboration on what the subsequent four episodes would contain), and that goal is in sight by April 1. Its title: ‘Silver’. And, if anyone reading this should have a REMOTE contact to expedite it getting into the hands of people who actually count in the cable/streaming/premium network arena, e-mail me at RRossSS@aol.com. This is beyond the purview of my literary agent at WORDLINK, Mira Perrizo (who is shopping my novel ‘Diversionary Fires’), so it’s essentially a new foray into a new business. The constant reinvention of oneself is tiresome yet, as a writer, I embrace my own willingness to switch genres.

Then I was blindsided by a notice from Dreamspinner Press that my first novel, ‘The Cool Part of His Pillow’ (and a smaller fiction, ‘Bended Knee’) was going out-of-print at the end of March 2019. To an author this means, essentially, the death of your child. No new copies will be produced. The Amazon and B&N listings will vanish. New reviews? Unlikely, unless someone on goodreads discovers it. Its slide over the horizon is contractual, though, and not unexpected, but ends seven years of hawking, promoting, commenting and tweeting to re-boot sales of what becomes known as a “backlist” book (it’s among a poublisher’s output, but no longer new or current). Has it really been seven years? Yes. Its publication brought me great delight, awards, lovely comments. It did not make me rich. It did not propel me onto Jimmy Fallon, or NPR, or even a throwaway review in any major publication. But I know that, when I too have gone out-of-print, its spine will remain on someone’s bookshelf, some library or LGBTQ center, somewhere, and that brings me a measure of contentment. I don’t always think Dreamspinner did an exemplary job of promotion or marketing but they, too, were younger and finding their way in a niche industry, and they have grown so much since, in terms of social media and bringing their authors forward. One thing I DID learn: man, many authors in the M/M LGBTQ world are women. (For that matter, an astounding percentage of readers of gay male fiction are women. ) They write under pseudonyms, or initials that shroud gender. There is no author picture, for to do so would betray their identity. They are coy in interviews about personal detail. None of this is bad. Women should write about men as we should be equally free to write about women (although, frankly, I find it unlikely lesbian-specific publishers, who seem very contentious and antagonistic in their guidelines, would favor a man writing for their demographic). That I, as a male, stepped forward and spoke openly, makes me happy.

And now, we come to the end of March, with personal calamities, big decisions and other file folders taking center-stage: the ongoing illness of my husband’s mother; the deterioration of his father’s mental acuity; concern when my own mother cannot shake a bad cold; and looming decisions about our own future as we reach a “certain age” and where we want to spend those. Another Summer of anxious Hurricane warnings isn’t cheery but, then again, a single day in Trump’s alternate universe is angst-making. California? Maybe. Indiana? Never.

Which takes me to the final topic: a class reunion. A significant one looms and its significance has left me waffling. My graduating class has not been especially attentive in decades past. (Our 20th reunion featured impromptu gospel on a guitar and many people disgruntled or boycotting because alcohol was served, if that tells you anything about the general temperature of the small town I grew up in.) There were no five-year incremental get-togethers and, given this, the next reunion probably won’t be for another decade. It’s again being staged in that little, even smaller, town now as progress and interstates allow you to bypass it completely, a small-minded community that holds few good memories but plenty of sad and suffocating ones. Its late June announcement is marked with an attire suggestion of “business dress casual’ and already one attendee has publicly replied that jeans and a Harley T-shirt is as far as he will go. I’m not being a snot; I like my sweatpants and my bowling shirts and anyone who thinks I look homeless can kiss my formidable ass. It’s more the defiant declaration and the slightest whiff of confrontation that set off alarms in my head: “I can’t be bothered and maybe ‘ya want to fight about it?” Maybe I’m wrong. Travel plans for us at that same exact time are set, so it really isn’t on my radar. I would have to reschedule. Yet…yet…I feel a pang. People I DO want to see, I console myself, I WILL see, somehow. Why we cling to these artificial, self-created rites of passage, I do not know, but I also know that, on that night, when what remains of my class gathers and someone praises the Lord as someone else pukes his 32nd PBR into a trashcan, I will have regrets I didn’t make the effort.

Icky

I suppose I thought age would make me more tolerant, if not sympathetic, to the visual of a doddering old gay man squiring someone half, or 3/4 his age, on his atrophied arm, but it hasn’t.

Here, in Fort Lauderdale, where the average age of the gay male seems to be 72, it is so prelavent it seeems suddenly epidemic. If this bears the stink of self-righteous judgment, you should probably reach for a clothespin because, yeah, I AM judging.

In fairness, I find myself recoiling when I see an old, leathery West Palm Beach geezer in a plaid jacket kidding himself that his young, cosmetically-enhanced blonde in leopard print loves him. I mean: really? I know introspection is currently out of fashion — look at the bloated, orange imbecile that sits in the White House — but how can you not privately admit your companion is interested more in your money sack than your ball sack (which probably resembles a circa 1942 baseball mitt, run over repeatedly by a car)? Do you really, truly, believe that your new “friend” really wants to lay under or on you, that they won’t note the baggy elbows, the skin tags, the weird rashes, the blood thinner bruising and the nose hair? Do you want to be the butt of her private jokes when she does girl’s night with her other like-minded golddiggers?

But I am gay, not straight, and how the other half chooses to comport themselves is their folly. I cannot help but wince when I see someone dressed far too young — by young, I mean tight, and by tight, I mean high-waisted and low-breasted — barely lifting his sandals and snapping his dry fingers on a dance floor with his 28 year-old “protege”. I assume it’s the fingers snapping; maybe it’s a bum hip or a trick knee or a DEPEND unlatching itself.

The desperation to keep up makes me want to cry out. I watch hustlers, most of whom fall into the category of “rough trade”, latch onto the elderly at places like The Grille or Listeen (formerly known as Progress/Chardees) on Wilton Drive, and I want to go separate them with a crowbar. I understand loneliness. I get that men don’t want to surrender the idea of a sex life to the passage of time. No one wants to feel archaic, obsolete. To see them fall prey to a vampire makes me sad. To see them urged to visit an ATM outrages me.

People of a certain age are vulnerable. The phone scams, the home invasions, the recurrent funerals of friends, frightening medical crises…isn’t that enough? This melancholy is made even moreso when they might’ve lived their professional and personal life in the shadows, closeted by stigma or self-shaming, until they finally outlived their parents or siblings, moved elsewhere or retired from a factory and found the courage to come out. That we, as a society, worship youth is no surprise; I admire poreless skin and a 30” waist as much as the next leering, over-served patron. But to try and reclaim one’s past by financially supporting one as you fumble to make relevant conversation strikes me as self-defeating. You won’t feel younger; you’ll probably feel even older, and defeated, as you explain who Archie Bunker was, or why Stonewall mattered, what a diagnosis of AIDS meant or when phones were rotary.

Exposure to “younger” thinking has its merits. One of my continual complaints about where my Mother resides — a Senior community — is that she’s no longer around forward-thinking people, inquisitive minds, a hunger to learn or evolve. It has clearly affected her. Her rigidity, her intractable beliefs (some of it due to living alone and answering to no one) are being reinforced by the mumblings and discontentment of depressed, housebound, financially-insolvent individuals who find little to live for in a world they don’t understand. (They are also, mostly, frightened and angry Republicans who want a wall.) Someone twenty years my junior has walked a different journey and, if they’ve genuinely processed those passages, can broaden my own vista about life in 2018. I LIKE talking to intelligent people who were born after 1990. I Just don’t necessarily want to fuck them. And, even if I DID, I wouldn’t want to provide them lunch money.

Do I believe May-September romances exist? Yes. I’ve seen moving examples, where respect and dignity are conjoined with love and care. I also think they are the rare exception, just as I am convinced threesomes are the inevitable road to a breakup and that casual drug use leads to addiction. I just hope I never kid myself. And, as my own personal call-out to the young who target the old…I hope you come to some variant of respect for your older companion…I hope you work out your Daddy issues without decimating the final stretch of someone’s life.

White

I miss snow. There. I said it.

I could also add with a snicker, that I appreciate a good nine inches, but I won’t.

It’s late October in South Florida. It’s still touching, if not hitting with both fists, the 90’s, and I am exhausted by the extreme heat. I am sweating before I can enter a store from the parking lot. I never feel clean, especially “down there”. The house never quite cools (one of the perils of a flat roof and young trees that don’t provide enough shade). So, when I see snow falling on The Weather Channel in some state I’d rather take a public floggin than reside in, I get mad.

Know this: I do not miss wading titty-deep into snow to fetch my morning newspaper. Or the shoveling. Or the salt. Or falling (a new peril now that I am verifiably in my 50’s). Or Winter’s caked detritus encasing the lower 1/3 of my car. Watching tree branches snap under the weight of an ice storm….road slide-offs…air so cold your exhale lodges in your lungs and removes to budge…I yearn for none of those.

But I miss steady, silent snow. More, I miss the change of seasons. Florida veterans insist we have those, and I see evidence. Some foliage sheds. Lawns slow and lose their effervescent green. The average temperature will, at some point, drop, and the threat of Hurricanes will dissipate into recycled reminder footage of Michael. The sun shifts and I am again receptive to an adult beverage on our screened porch.

But it never feels like Winter. I am not unaware that is why many relocate here: to escape the darkness and extreme weather of November-March. Christmas shopping always feels off-kilter (even though, contrary to popular belief, most retail Santas don’t wear shorts or sunglasses in South Florida decor).

It’s a conundrum. Life itself is based around cycles — restfulness, resurgence, quiet, cataclysm — and it feels as though I am robbed of that dormancy. Every day should NOT be a party or at least receptive to one due to climate. Sometimes, it’s nice just “to chill”, and down here, that never seems to happen.

Straighten Him Out

As I was watching the HBO documentary ‘Jane Fonda In 5 Acts’, and her acknowledgement of her upbringing’s effect on her, I could not help but recall my own.

Mine was certainly not privileged or celebrated like the Fonda household, and by no means as dysfunctional — Henry was cold and critical and adulterous, Jane’s mother battled depression and mental illness, tried to ignore her husband’s infidelities and ultimately slit her own throat, something kept from Jane for years — but I am certainly the product of how I was raised.

Aren’t we all?

This isn’t a declaration of blame. I am not big on psychiatry that lays every phobia, neuroses and anxiety at the feet of parents who, by and large, did their best in an era/ circumstances that were a constant challenge. My own parents imprudently had me at 19, had no money, no advanced education and no newborn primer, just advice from well-meaning relatives who carried their own baggage. My paternal grandparents were humorless Germans; my grandfather beat his children mercilessly, often lining them up when he returned from time away and strapping them “just because”. I recall no embraces or kisses from them. All I could smell was their fear. They rarely answered the door and they hung thin strips of torn cloth at the sides of blinds to prevent passersby from seeing in. My maternal grandparents embraced the Baptist Church a little too strenuously and my grandmother lost her mind routinely, deciding she’d been struck lame and refusing to walk or that Satan himself was sitting cross-legged atop the television set and tempting her. She underwent electric shock in the late 1950’s and attempted suicide more than once. Yet, to me, they were loving and kind…but my mother grew up in what was essentially a sanitarium, returning from high school many times to watch her own mother literally carted away by men in white. It wasn’t the most stable environment.

And that’s what they brought forward. My parents did their level best in a modest home with modest means. We three kids were very different. Me, bookish and effeminate; the middle child, my brother, athletic and popular but troubled by self-esteem demons at a very young age; and my sister, the youngest, Daddy’s Little Girl who became an adolescent hellcat. Sometimes, my parents handled things poorly. This is not a confessional that will shock my mother, still living; I have told her so and, while pained, she grudgingly acknowledged my feelings on the topic. “We’d never raised kids before!” she exclaimed, rightfully so. I cannot second-guess their decisions, since their working class finances, a narrow mentality, my father’s reliance on alcohol as an anesthetic and a certain level of small town ignorance dictated their comportment. I have no children of my own, but I am certain I would have made my own parenting missteps, and they might have been monumental.

But, oddly, one memory bubbled up after I watched the documentary, and it concerns my mother. It’s not a suppressed or buried memory. It’s always there. I choose not to anaylyze it, like many others. I tend to compartmentalize; I visualize a series of drawers and I carefully tri-fold the unpleasant into one of them before firmly closing it. It’s a coping mechanism that works for me. Dwelling on past injustices isn’t the kind of scab I want to pick. When I do open one of those drawers, it’s on my terms.

I was 9, perhaps 10. A neighbor on the street where I grew up was large, loud and on the public dole, with three illegitimate children in a fatherless, filthy home. Wilma, in her floral housedress with the belt loops cut off, was the block’s know-it-all, although her own life was bursting to the seams with bad decisions. No one liked her, including my family, since their domicile was an eyesore even to the blind and had a collection of “rough” friends. They really weren’t welcome in our home, so it was immediately perplexing when WIlma shuffled a nephew or cousin, roughly my age, to our front porch with bad intentions. Mom invited them in. I said “hi” and shyly hung back; I preferred my bedroom, books and record player to meeting new boys with dirty knuckles.

And then, as my mother sat there, Wilma proposed we wrestle. “That’s what boys do and Rod needs to act like a boy. He prances around too much” I remember the words. I didn’t act like a boy? Prance? Like, on my tippy-toes? I didn’t play with dolls or teacups. I peed standing. Rather than defend me, to my astonishment, my mother agreed to this wrestling match. “Fight him, Rod!’ I was expected to have a rough-and-tumble with a boy I’d never met, right there, on the celery-green and sculpted living room carpet.

Suffice to say, it didn’t go well. I didn’t know workarounds when pinned and I had never twisted someone else’s arm intentionally. I came away with several rug burns and malevolent triumph in Wilma’s narrow eyes. She had proven it: I was more flower than football. I think my Mom agreed to all of this hoping that a wrestling match, something alien to me, would advance me toward behaving like a normal boy, or at least convince this neighbor with self-cut bangs that I was. I had been defeated. I was a sissy, weak and bound to be victimized my whole life. I don’t recall how I managed to leave the room but I did, and I cried in self-pity — probably a dramatic monologue into my tape recorder, as I was wont to do — at my surrender to a clear enemy. I didn’t feel safe in my house and I didn’t feel a mother’s protection. I wanted Wilma to die, and her three fat bastard brats, too.

It’s a meaningless and menial memory…maybe. This wasn’t about practicing a firm handshake, learning how to tie a tie or even a father’s birds n’ bees lecture to a son. This was about brute force, strength, winning through not wile but hurting someone until they cried “Uncle!” I bear my mother no malice. She was and is no sophisticate. Both she and my father, rather than discouraging fighting, had impressed upon me that I should always hit back. Calm discussion, a truce, those weren’t a family option. The worse thing, my father instructed, was to be “called a sonofabitch, which is an insult to your mother, and anyone who says that to you on a playground, you should hit them in the mouth, even if the school punishes you for it.” It’s like they were prepping me for a career in boxing. So my mother probably decided on-the-spot that wrestling WAS a good idea, a way to quickly bond with another boy my age. I don’t comprehend or agree with this line of thought, but hey, parents do worse damage to their kids and for all I know, the other boy was just as confused as we breathlessly rolled on the floor, our knees and elbows and chins colliding.

Watching Ms. Fonda, in her own sad but pragmatic words, bravely process how her childhood brought forth bulimia, misguided rebellion, many warped attempts to mold herself to the men in her life (and this she was still doing when married to Ted Turner) and ultimately, acceptance, I remembered that life’s long journey can be shaped by other people’s roadmaps or your own. I found my own. I ignored my Dad’s invocation to “get a skill, goddamn it, that means something, and tuck in your shirt, it’s more masculine, goddamn it” and went to college on a Journalism scholarship with scant help from them…I met a man whose smile made me happy and kept my parents at arm’s length until they understood I was happy and safe, employed and even finding a measure of succes in advertising…I never once asked for advice, because I intuited that it would be safe and no-risk and their decision for me would be to relocate my stifling hometown and live on their street.

So Jane Fonda’s story gave me permission to open one of those drawers. And now, I close it again.

Self-Destruct

There’s been a recent spate of suicides in the community I once lived in — Key West, Florida — and with those has come the rush of anger, guilt and tremendous sadness. It’s not something unique to Southernmost Florida, obviously, but the dark underbelly of living in a state of constant Summer, where everyone assumes every sunset begets a fresh party (and where many live as though it is), takes a particular toll, especially after Hurricane Irma and its devastation to the Keys. I have never seen so many suicides in such a short window of time.

I’ve had several friends kill themselves. One classmate shot himself in a Missouri telephone booth as his horrified parents listened on the other end. But, most notably, there was the older male couple, both hair stylsts of fine repute in Indianapolis, Indiana with whom Greg and I were quite friendly throoughout the late 1980’s and early 90’s. We dined with them and vacationed with them and they mentored us. They introduced us to some of the finer things in life; they always had fresh and fragrant flowers and so I did, too. They even personally took me to a wholesaler to show me the best stems. They were also the dreaded restaurant guests who made multiple Friday night reservations and would decide last-minute what was the hippest place to be seen, cancelling all of the others; they would refuse any table near the kitchen or the bathrooms. Some of it was a little precious. We weren’t celebrities or wealthy and had no right to some of those expectations, but they wanted every moment to be uncompromised, to be special, and I admired that quest for excellence. When we hosted a rather large party with them, they alerted the press and a particularly-obnoxious “society” tabloid in Indianapolis, and I bristled, asking them to rescind the invitation, which they reluctantly did. As misguided as it was, I know they meant well. They wanted the evening memorialized and for others to envy us. They loved cosmetic procedures and would show off their new chin or refreshed eyes. We drove in a fierce snowstorm to Chicago to see the tryout of a Broadway musical and NOTHING would dissuade them, not even when we witnessed trucks literally sliding off the road into ravines. They always ordered dessert and they’d send wine to our hotel room for no good reason, except to start an evening in New York off properly. They were committed to “making memories.” One of their favorite phrases was “Isn’t this perfect, guys?” And it usually was.

As time passed and others came into our life, a baseless resentment and possessiveness grew . They openly called a new male couple, younger, in our radius “friend stealers” and would not be in their presence. The relationship dwindled due to their jealousy, plus our own growing discomfort at their covetous demonstrations. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t all play in the same gay sandbox. Wasn’t it more fun for 8 or 10 to invade a party or a male strip club together? I never had a clique in high school — I was a clique of one — and the prospect of having a genuine posse was a delight to me. But they wanted no part of it. Their calls and invitations were less frequent and their comments when we were together were passive/aggressive. We became uneasy about the inevitable confrontation. Maybe it was their age. They felt threatened by our younger friends. Or they genuinely felt abandoned and wronged. We probably could have navigated it with more sensitivity, but I resented the power grab they exerted. Had they mentored or had they “groomed” us? Had I missed a hidden agenda? Ultimately, they devolved into the two handsome men in black sunglasses in a lot of framed photographs and that is where they remained, frozen in time, on bookshelves or nightstands. We were cordial, not effusive, when we saw them but I got a personal Facebook message when my novel ‘The Cool Part of His Pillow’ was released, how proud they were, how they couldn’t wait to read it.

I don’t know if they did.

Shortly after that, we got a call that they had hanged themselves, together, in their library. For one, the rope broke, and he survived, only to do the same thing, alone and this time successfully, in less than a year’s time, in that same room in the same apartment.

We were devastated. They were no longer part of our radius, but many tears were shed. What had brought them to that moment? It was too difficult to contemplate, and still is, the image of them looking at each other in nooses, ready to step off a ladder or sit down very hard. (I don’t know the precise details, and don’t care to.) Rumors, of course, flew, intimations of drugs abuse, a financial calamity, a terminal illness. A few speculated that they simply didn’t want to face the infirmities and indignities of growing older and pointed out their vanity, the Botox, the dyed hair. Their codependency was obvious. Rarely would one do anything by himself. Perhaps this was their way of departing together, although it didn’t quite work out that way. I can only imagine the survivor guilt of the one who didn’t die, their spousal pact destroyed by a length of faulty rope, and how he bided his time until friends and family looked away long enough for him to buy more rope.

I can’t looked at those framed photos now. I have, in fact, replaced them all, but they’re still there, behind the new picture in the frame, a surprise reveal that occasionally takes my breath away when I switch out photographs. At a Halloween fundraiser party. Toasting at The Royalton in New York, which set our group back almost $200. Watching fireworks from their rooftop. For me, tragedy hangs over every single one of them. If they misguidedly presumed their dramatic deaths would confer immortality or some kind of legend, they were wrong. What I see is barely-there foreshadowing of their inevitable ending and I forget the laughs, the drunken shenanigans, the comportment they taught us by example. They robbed me of joy. They muddied memory. All I see are smiles hiding their grisly, unspeakable Plan #B and another shadow in the photo: The Grim Reaper.

The suicides of late have left me numb. I wasn’t acquainted with most of them, but I know people who knew and loved them, and they are shattered. Life will never quite be the same. Sometimes, vindictiveness IS the point: “I’ll show you. You’ll be sorry.” What a legacy. For others, it’s a deep and black well of despair they cannot climb out of, and the last thing they consider is the effect on others, or they assume others wil be better off when they are gone. I am no stranger to depression. It seems to roil in my DNA. My grandmother required electric shock in the 1950’s. Other relatives in my direct bloodline have experienced great periods of disruptive “melancholy”. My own brother, who battled his own demons, died too young from an excessive reliance on pharmaceuticals. But I have never experienced misery so all-consuming I wanted to make a permanent exit. Drive toward the horizon and disappear, if just for awhile? Hell yes. But there is always something to live for. My husband. My cats. My mother. My sister and her wife. I cannot pretend to understand suicide, but I try to say the right things, not blame the departed, to recognize warnings, to sensitively steer troubled folks toward counseling and intervention…but I can never quite shake the anger, the echo of “what a waste…what a fucking waste”.

Change

The recent announcement of the closure of 'The Village Voice',  a free mainstay of activist, participatory journalism, hit hard, and it started me on a reflection why these types of things inevitably leave me melancholy and a little disoriented. I hadn't read the 'Voice' in years, and I hadn't even glanced at its online presence once the print version succumbed.

When I was at Butler University (1979-1983) and didn't have two dimes to rub together, I still managed to subscribe to 'The Village Voice'. The back pages were crammed with raunchy sex ads. I remember one rather vivid profile of a performance artist in some ratholee who literally shot yams out of her/his ass. Crammed into my too-small student mailbox, the 'Voice' represented a weekly dream: to flee the Midwest, to go to New York, to live in the Village on an alphabet-named avenue and dodge those flying yams myself, to hopefully wrap myself in the glory of advertising, or maybe theater or publishing. I never did, and now I've outlasted the paper itself.

And I think that's the bigger issue.

I'm outlasting shit I never expected to. Without fanfare, my hometown elementary school was torn down. I hadn't planned a pilgrimage of tears, but that it was suddenly and brutally subtracted left a chasm in my childhood. It's gone. It's like they salted the earth where it stood. Nothing seems to grow there. I don't know even know why they tore it down, beyond its abandonment. It couldn't have been repurposed as affordable housing? The same for a bookstore where I felt welcome and nurtured as a kid -- Carroll's Card Shop, on Main Street, on the right side of the tracks (I lived on the wrong side of the town's railroad tracks), where I would read 'Variety' every week. I don't even know why, after awhile, they got this showbiz tabloid, it since it rarely sold. I strongly suspect the kind owners, Art, Helen and Jill, got that single copy from the distributor specifically for this awkward kid with few friends who hung around all the time.  The store closed, another victim claimed by Wal-Mart. And that's another sidebar rant: the community didn't even support its own. They went for the cheaper Christmas wrapping paper, bagged cashews and the marked-down paperbacks.

Antiquated buildings get torn down. I understand that. Business that are insolvent close. I've lost a few friends along the way: self-inflicted, cancer, car accident or just general good goddamn riddance. Relatives, too -- a Dad, a brother. Pets that were cherished. As difficult as those were, I processed those losses as the grim collateral damage of living a life. But when I gleefully hurry to my specialty store in Manhattan to find it too is gone -- Coliseum Books near Columbus Circle, Applause Bookstore, the Tower Records by Lincoln Center, Footlight Records in the Village, the wildly-overpriced Colony Records in Times Square  -- I am being robbed of Chapter headings in my life. My Table of Contents is being dismantled. It's like my past is being wiped clean and the future is uncertain, because these touchstones, as you grow older, are fewer. Everything is magic in youth...a sense of wonder. A few years and the Internet and access to everything has robbed the world of newness.

Maybe that's what I mourn: that inevitable collapse of discovery. Hearing doors slam behind me is an unnerving sound because I fear that with that soundtrack, my own possibilities dwindle, too.

 

A Great Motivator

Recently, a couple of friends on FACEBOOK have earnestly lamented how hate and blame have thwarted them from moving on. They wonder if it's somehow weak to forgive wrongdoers? Did they "give in" to the person who mistreated them by forgiving them? Yet, by doing so, they continue, only will they finally heal.

I say embrace that hate. Feelings are real and rarely betray us. Accept the damage done you. Acknowledge the loathing you feel. Those people who seared themselves into your brain with their nasty deeds probably deserve your hate, and they probably won't, or didn't, change all that much. 

For me, a hate has been a great motivator. Not corrosive hate. Not the type where you seek out voodoo dolls, drive-by stalk or wish harm, disfigurement, death. Oh, I've felt that, too...that kneejerk and immature response where you daydream about car accidents, crane collapses, slow-moving-but-painful-cancer. That particular layer of hate is counter-productive; you have surrendered even more power to those individuals to bring you more harm, to your soul, to your energy, to your night's rest.

I believe in a measure of forgiveness so I CAN forget, but it is never total. Some things remain inexcusable. I was treated very badly by some people. I was mocked. Told I wouldn't achieve even a measure of what I hoped. It was predicted that I, as a gay man, could not weather some of the storms of the business world. My husband were denied our first mortgage by a man in a too-short tie who clasped his hands over an ample belly and said a relationship like ours wasn't stable.

You can strip these kinds of memories and anecdotes of their ability to pick the scabs, to put it crudely. Some turn to religion. Some chant, run marathons or turn to prescribed help -- and there's nothing wrong with that. I also try to remember that Karma, is indeed a bitch, or maybe a bastard. We're not guaranteed the glee of seeing someone get their comeuppance but I do believe meanness is a boomerang, with sharp knives. I was reminded of this just today, so I make a small detour to explain how and why:

When I lived in Key West several years ago, there was a couple who, from our first introduction, had great disdain for me. We're talking Stinkface, if I approached. I had no idea why. Maybe it was because Greg and I had some means, a lovely home and looked happy.  They just didn't like me. I once greeted the stout one at a public event with a perfunctory "It's nice to see you" and he eplied, "I know" before walking away to join his partner, who resembled a weasel. They were grasping, pretentious, showed up at the opening of an envelope and would push themselves forward in photo ops. One teltale sign about them: neither could hold a job long, even though one made sure he was always noted as a Dr. in captions. (A doctorate in what, I still do not know.) Their mouths seemed to run far ahead of their skills or work ethic.  Not surprisingly, with most bridges burned, they left Key West, to what they assured everyone was greater glory elsewhere -- Tampa, I think. And now I see on Facebook they have mounted a GoFundMe to help get their car out of the shop. The cost is $1500. The narrative they weave is a sad one of transportation and mounting storage fes, but what it tells me is they have no savings. Can't they call a friend? A family member with a credit card? 

Were they humbled, posting this for the world to see and, hopefully, contribute to? Maybe, but I doubt it. They think it's their due.

Do I take great glee in this? Nah.  Nor do I fashion into some hybrid of motivation, becuse I never felt the need to impress them. I'm not even sure it is hate I feel, although they clearly despised me. Mostly, I was mystified at their dismissal. I have enough friends and I probably don't need more, but that they so clearly didn't want to be counted among them was confusing.  

I am a great proponent that everything in my life, the most glorious times and the most miserable moments, happened for a reason, and it formed who I am as of right now. They gave me strength, mettle, determination. I became defiant...probably more than I need to be. I certainly know my cyncism, if not sarcasm, was spawned by it. The key is surviving them as they happen.

Hate can help you survive, and even prevail.

Manicure

It's curious. Since I've started painting my nails black (to be precise, it's called Lincoln Park, and it's more eggplant, with an undertone of plum beneath the black), people address my hands. Store clerks, servers, friends. Is it because the sight of a man with painted nails is that peculiar? It's 2018, right? Or is it the color against my pale hands which, of course, reflects my disposition: not quite black? Am I Severus Snape? Marilyn Manson? Do I stir a cauldron somewhere?

Honestly, I don't know how women -- or drag queens, or other men who choose to paint their nails -- do it. There's all of this cuticle nonsense, soaking and pushing and softening. Dark colors chip so easily. I find myself being overly protective of my fingers, the way women in the 50's wore hairnets to bed to insulate their curls from muss. The lady who did my nails, Lilly, actually suggested I don gloves to cook. I laughed out loud. To garden, sure. Change a car tire (if I knew how), alrighty. But to stir marinara? And then I thought: wel, maybe this polish, as it flecks off, is toxic. Bits of it among the meatballs might be carcinogenic.

Lilly also inquired this time if I wanted a pedicure. I hastily replied no and probably looked stricken. I am not a foot man. There is no toe fetish in this home. I wear sandals -- it's Florida -- but they are for comfort, not for style, and I doubt I own a pair that retailed for more than $10. I also go barefoot a lot, and my soles have the same general consistency of the asphalt they trod. My attempts to trim my toenails are haphazard, at best; some might mistaken them for being gnawed-upon by an animal. And don't get me started on my heels, cracked and thick and resembling cauliflower. I don't even think of my feet. They're just something at the end of my ankles. I am aware of them when they ache or when I get a toe spasm but, otherwise, they belong where they are, on the floor, propelling me forward.