Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Beside the golden door

I've been thinking about my maternal grandmother a lot, this week. She was born in rural North Dakota in 1922, to immigrant Norwegian parents...but lost her mother at three, and from that point much of her childhood was scarred by tragedy, deprivation, and outright violence, abuse, and neglect. By the eighth grade, she'd exhausted the limits of the local one-room schoolhouse for farm kids. To continue her education--and it must have been largely her own idea, because certainly no one was championing her talents at home-- she'd need to move to town, Williston, to attend the high school.

I've been to Williston, both as a small child and more recently, as the oil boom has rendered it utterly unrecognizable. In the late 1930s, I don't know that there was any such thing as an emancipated minor, so my grandma had to find room and board with a series of townie families. One of these was a Syrian family.

I'm *almost* more curious about their story, now--how on earth a Syrian family landed in Depression-era bumf*ck North Dakota in the first place. Grammy didn't talk about her childhood much, understandably, and so I don't know these people's names, their faith (though I suppose they might have been part of the Syrian Christian minority, because how exponentially more difficult would it have been to be Muslim in the rural frozen north?), how they'd come west, or when.

But the fragments of fact I know are these: that a family of Syrian immigrants, whose own lives couldn't have been easy, took in a malnourished wretch of a 14-year-old and fed her. Put a roof over her head. Introduced her to pita bread, which she spoke of with great fondness (and probably to garlic and garbanzo beans, too). Taught her that dandelion greens were edible (like Katniss, you guys!). Taught her to cook (...after a fashion). Let her work it off with babysitting, and claw her way to a diploma and a future.

There were other families, I know. Other jobs, before she wrote her sister in Seattle and pleaded a toothache (a lie), begged her to wire money for a dentist, and promptly cashed it in for a train ticket the hell out of Dodge. Probably, many or most of the same things would have happened to her. The same dominoes toppling, the same butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon to lead her to Seattle, to her husband, her daughters, me. But somewhere back down the line, I owe a debt to some Syrian refugees I'll never know. They took a hungry, desperate, terrorized child into their home, and helped save her life. The only response I can live with is to pay it forward.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

All the fun we had last year

My BFF in elementary school was the coolest person I knew, a wry sophisticate permitted to use the oven by herself. She also had a finger on the pulse of comedy and culture in the wee small hours—or Army-crawled into the den to watch Late Night on the sly—and so she was the person who introduced me to David Letterman.
I couldn’t stay awake. I was famous for conking out at another girl’s slumber party at 9:30 PM, on the hostess’s mom’s bed (perhaps the only reason I didn’t wake up to my hand in warm water or my training bra in the freezer). But I gleaned some of what I was missing from BFF’s recaps: the Velcro and Alka-Seltzer suits, a guy living—living?—under the seats, someone pelting the audience with frozen peas.

It was BFF’s idea to start an epistolary campaign, appealing to Dave on a weekly basis to put us on the show. Viewer Mail! I remember the plan, though I don’t think we ever put pen to paper. Maybe it would have worked. In someone else’s retrospective this week, I witnessed a blasé thirteen-year-old playing her nose as a Stupid Human Trick. So maybe they’d have booked a pair of idiot sixth-graders from the far coast, based on their sheer, dogged persistence. Which, it turned out, we did not possess.

I’ve kept a longhand journal/diary/scrapbook of some kind since I could write in sentences. Cut from a magazine and pasted into a volume circa February 1994, unattributed, is this:

On the set one night, during a commercial break in the middle of the show, the band was playing so loudly that it was impossible for Teri Garr, one of the show’s favorite guests, to converse with Dave. When she all but shouted at him: “How are you doing?” Letterman grabbed a pad on his desk and scribbled a note that he passed back to her. The note read: “I hate myself.” When Garr tried to reassure him that he was, in fact, a wonderful guy and talented star, he grabbed the note back, underlined “I hate myself” twice, and shoved it back at her.

That hit me SO HARD, spoke to me SO LOUDLY, that I kept it. Memorized it, nearly—enough that 21 years later I could track it to its source: an excerpt from Bill Carter’s The Late Shift, about the early-90s late night wars. (I remembered that the anecdote featured Teri Garr, and looked her up in the index: score, a direct hit.)
I was 24, scrabbling at the edge of the cliff-drop to Adulthood: about to finish graduate school, about to move in with my Serious Boyfriend. I needed a real job. I owed Sallie Mae thousands upon thousands of dollars to be parceled out over a decade, an unfathomable length of time. Together, Serious Boyfriend and I had watched Letterman’s departure from NBC and his triumphant ascension on CBS. I admired Letterman, relished his twisting a thumb in the eye of the boss, the network, that had forsaken him. I found him attractive in a way I couldn’t explain to myself: so gap-toothed and goofy looking, so irritable, this smart-funny-angry man, almost as old as my father, good lord, what was I thinking? Thus, more perplexing still was the idea that I had anything in common with a Successful Celebrity Grown-up Person. Letterman was the newly anointed king. He ruled late night, from beneath the colossal marquee at the Ed Sullivan Theater—maybe someday your name will be in lights. What excuse could he have, to not want to get out of bed in the morning? Here’s part of what I wrote, under that clipping: “What can I learn from this? Other than the fact…that [at $14 million a year] David Letterman can afford a lot more and better therapy than I can.”
(Another thing we had in common, at the time: Neither I nor Letterman had started a course of antidepressants yet.)
Here’s another journal entry, September 22, 2001. I was housesitting for friends whose honeymoon trip to Paris had been canceled, ruined; they drove down the coast instead, in the first glimmer of fall, and I lay awake in their strange bed (with the flattest pillows I’d ever seen, like a pair of two manila envelopes against the headboard, how did you guys ever sleep?? and would I ever sleep again, did it matter?) and watched their television.
Monday, Letterman returned to the air, with what I still feel is one of the finest, most riveting and wrenching hours of television ever, period. He spoke honestly, with grief and rage and pride, saying he wouldn’t have come back if not for Giuliani’s urging all New Yorkers to return to work if at all possible….It was stunning, perhaps the only honest thing I’d seen on TV all week.  
His first guest, Dan Rather, crumpled into tears twice—this, after being in his anchor chair some 15 hours a day for a week. More heartbreakingly, he apologized for it: “I’m paid not to do this,” he sobbed. And twice, Dave took his hand to console him. “You’re a professional…but good Christ, you’re a human being.”  
And then, his second guest: Regis. God bless Regis, who was grating and typical and borderline tasteless, and very needed after the anguish of the first half-hour.


I already owned and loved a copy of Phil Spector’s “A Christmas Gift For You,” before the man went kookoo-bananas. I’ve grieved a couple breakups to Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” that Serious Boyfriend from graduate school among them. It’s not an anti-Christmas carol, exactly, but it turns the usual sentiment inside-out somehow. It is beautiful, that Wall of Sound orchestration: it rings like a cathedral bell. And it describes that marshmallow world from Love’s other song on the record: Holidayland, awash in sleighbells and twinkle lights and falling snow. Celebratory crowds hustle down the sidewalk rosy-cheeked and bemittened; everybody is having the best time ever…except you. Trapped in the memory of happier times. It’s a song about holiday depression.
Letterman calls it the only Christmas song worth a damn, legendary crank and depressive that he is. And that suited how I felt, the first couple years alone, watching Darlene Love belt out regret while they made it snow in the Ed Sullivan. Always the last episode before Christmas proper, the Darlene Love show periodically aired on my birthday, which added another layer of personalization to it in my head, a ritual exchanged just between us. At first I commiserated. I wept. But. Over the years, I’ve memorized the Christmas episode, a liturgy I know by heart:
  • Paul impersonates Cher singing “O Holy Night” (This year, I shouted at the TV: under a Victorian lamppost, Paul! Paul! You forgot the lamppost!)
  • Jay Thomas tells his Lone Ranger story (They’ll believe ME, citizen!), and then participates in the Holiday Quarterback Challenge to knock the meatball off the top of the Christmas tree
  • Some other hapless guest…is a good sport, basically
  • Darlene comes out and blows the doors off
Somehow the show became a purification ritual, for me. I laughed at the familiar beats, could recite it along with the television. How would they introduce Aaron Heick with that big bari sax this time—fly him in on a wire? Have him strut down the center aisle? At some point, I put seeing that episode, live, on my bucket list.

Last December, I was still jobless. I’d taken the month off from the job search; I knew that hiring managers were all on vacation themselves, and I wanted to stretch my unemployment benefits into the new year. I had a couple free hotel nights and a ridiculous amount of airline miles about to expire. I was about to turn 45. Back at the office, I’d had a different magazine clipping taped to my monitor for months, this one a quote from Amy Poehler: “I will tell you that the good news is, both personally and professionally, I have a large case of the fuck its right now.”
So I got on a plane, and I queued up outside the theater at 9:20 on a Monday morning to hand in my request for the ticket lottery. They were taping two shows that Thursday afternoon, and I’d done my research, knew one had to be the Christmas episode. Eventually they let us into the lobby (heated) and then, one by one, behind a panel to talk to the audience coordinator in the (ice-cold) foyer. (I was delighted to confirm that tiny truth myself, that Letterman keeps the joint like a meat locker.) I hinted and winked and underscored Thursday on my application, and now can’t help kicking myself just a little, woulda coulda shoulda been more blunt—because my friend David and I got Thursday tickets…for the first taping.
It was still worth it. “My” David wasn’t overinvested steeped in the traditions of the show like I am; he enjoyed himself well enough, I think, but I was on high-alert, thrilling-detail overload: How could the set be so small? How could this tiny space contain the Beatles? There’s the Christmas tree! There’s the meatball! Speared on a cheapo Empire State Building souvenir! Which pierces a pizza from next door! There’s Alan Kalter, come to warm us up! There’s Pat Farmer, sans Oprah transcript! There’s Biff Henderson! There’s a person whose job apparently is to swap Paul’s empty mug with a full one during the act break!
They led us out past the next audience, clumped in the lobby waiting for the Christmas episode. I wanted to squeeze some stranger’s arm and call them a lucky bastard, wanted to hang around somewhere between Rupert’s Hello Deli and the dumpster, see if I could hear anything. But it was colder outside than in, and I was working on what turned into a nasty sinus infection, and I didn’t want my traveling companion to think I’d lost my entire mind. I’d had my Christmas, with my extended, estranged, adopted TV family. And if it didn’t go exactly as planned? If I didn’t get everything I’d wanted? It was still pretty goddamn great. Isn’t that the point?
I don’t have a proper conclusion for this. I’m not sure who it’s, I don’t expect David Letterman to pick my blog post out of the sea of media tributes and accolades he’s racked up this month.
Another thing that’s bugging me: today, May 20, is the anniversary of my father’s death. I don’t keep track of such things, I try not to—but Mom was quick to remind me, this week. I know it’s pure coincidence. I certainly don’t equate Letterman with My Absent, Remote Father Figure. And then you put the sexual attraction factor in there and EWWW, GAAHH, WHAT IS EVEN WRONG WITH YOU. But I will admit that I am having some muddled, confusing farewell feels, tonight.
“Your whole personality has changed!” Mom told me recently—after leaving my last job, she meant. “You’re SO much happier, and more relaxed, and pleasant to be around!” I was glad that she thought so, glad that she’d noticed…and then there was a tiny part of me going “um, thanks?” It was a little left-handed, that assessment. Tell me how you really feel! How do you like me now?
But she wasn’t wrong. I have changed. I don’t, can’t know Letterman…but I feel a bit like I grew up with him. I identify with him. I too am weird, and intelligent, furious, hilarious. Moody. Fallible, and terrified of it. And, eventually, redeemed. Mellowed. A work in progress. And he was there, on the periphery of the living room, for an awful damn lot of it. Letterman’s had a profound influence on broadcasting and comedy for a generation. Maybe it sounds silly, and sentimental, to attribute my personal growth to him as well. He has also influenced a random ding-dong in the Pacific Northwest! But as Norm MacDonald noted on the show last week, the truth is not sentimental. And my truth is that I am sincerely grateful to a man I’ll never meet, who doesn’t know me from Adam, who will never scream at me via bullhorn from a sixth-story window (though a girl can dream). It has been one hell of a long, complicated, fucking funny ride, sir.
Thanks, Dave.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Conscious nonlaboring

"You need to blog the shit out of this," my friend Tortilla told me, twice in as many days. The same exact words, urgent, intense. And, well, that I can do! I am now MADE of time.

So: Thursday I got laid off, after just shy of 14 years at NerdCo. (It's not my intention to burn any bridges, plus I'm still amused by my own pseudonyms.) It was swift, not entirely unexpected, and remains a little bit surreal. They called a clump of us into a meeting, one of the larger conference rooms with banked seats; whipped through a series of HR bullet points in a slide deck (with a black background and color scheme, very Goth); and distributed our individual packets of severance and compensation info. I think it took eight minutes flat before I was back in the hallway outside my office, looking for boxes.

I've been through worse. I was laid off once before, from a retail job, and before I left the store weeping I had to submit to a search. So this was altogether more dignified. Then, too, my last period of unemployment--a month, where I actually collected unemployment!--had been just after I'd left grad school, with my oh-so-employable MFA. My student loans had come due; I had made one payment. And so I was dead broke, insurance-free, and had few skills beyond running a cash register and picking up customers' abandoned sodas and Kleenexes off the floor. I had at least abstained from any facial piercings to conform to the Draconian mall-bookstore dress code.

I job-hunted then like that was my job, in a clammy terror the entire time. And a former fellow clerk knew someone who was looking for a writer, someone to craft software training manuals. They took me on as an intern. The first day, I did not even know how to turn on my PC, had only ever mastered my third-hand Apple IIC at home. "Have you set up your email yet?" the woman in charge of onboarding me asked, and I said "No!" brightly, and then watched her like a hawk to find out where the power button was. Nearly 20 years ago, and I owe virtually my entire technical career to that moment, and to a series of lucky accidents and friend-of-a-friends.

With most of those two decades nestled in the bosom of NerdCo, I am pretty well buffered while I contemplate my next steps. I've socked away enough, established sufficient history, that I can remain calm and approach a fresh job search without the same panic I felt at 25. This feeling itself is new, something I need to get used to...but truth be told, I feel worse for my colleagues: for the others who were laid off, who have shorter career trajectories--and in most cases, little shorties to take care of, at home. And I feel for the colleagues who remain, shouldering the work left over when hundreds of us were Raptured outta there. Monday is gonna be rough.

But not for me, not in the same way. That's the trippiest part, the notion that, for a while at least, my time is my own. For two days I packed up my motley assortment of crap (vast 1960s table lamp/ Mariners bobbleheads/editing textbooks/gigantic coffee mug), gave and received hugs, gratefully accepted the immense margarita my team took me out for. My immediate manager was actually out of the US for a conference; he didn't even know what had happened until I sent out a farewell email. He called me Thursday afternoon, shocked and apologetic, and was surprised to catch me still at my desk.

"Well..." I said, looking around at the inflatable garden gnome/throw rug/favorite yo-yo/vast postcard collection I had yet to cram into boxes. "I'm still packing." My boss continued to express regret, empathy, etc. Then he said:

"Okay, well...don't do any more work on [Labyrinthine Project] or [Onerous Task], okay? You can just hand those off to me or Tortilla," he noted, utterly earnest. For a brief moment I thought about hitting the Mute button and laughing hysterically, because OH, OKAY, I WON'T. And he is either the noblest man in the world, or sweetly severely deluded, but if he thought I'd accomplished a single thing besides the packing, hugging, crying, and margarita-drinking since 11:08 AM, he was...misled. Maybe it was jet lag? At any rate, he was gracious and supportive, so I chose to find this remark hilarious, and still do. Not a bad way to go out.

That night, I had a pint of ice cream for dinner and watched three DVRed episodes of Billy on the Street--something about all that screaming was soothing, in a way I can't explain. Yesterday, I went in with Krispy, another RIF-ee, to make our final purchases of every possible thing you could put a NerdCo brand on in the company store, and then turn in our laptops and worn, raggedy corporate IDs. We went out for happy hour beer and nachos.

And then I, a legendary insomniac, came home, took a two-hour nap on the couch, and then rallied enough to move to the bed. I'm not exaggerating at all, to say that I am a terrible, terrible restless sleeper. For weeks, for years, I've lain in bed unable to shut my mind down--that little hamster running on the wheel, planning ahead to the next meeting, the next draft, the next deadline, oh god I have to set up that conference call, who has the blahblah spreadsheet, don't forget to update the database, on and on and on. And come morning, I'd be that person who hits the snooze button three, five, twelve times...or resets the alarm for twenty or thirty minutes, who tosses around sluggish and desperate, and for whom no amount of hot shower or coffee really kicked me into high gear, nine days out of ten.

Last night, I slept like a corpse. Smooth, sweet, dreamless dark, straight through til morning. I only awoke when Frankie decided, at his Swiss-accurate 7:30 on the dot, that just because we were now indigent was no excuse for his being able to see the bottom of his bowl, and could I please make with the kibble immediately, thank yew. I felt like a completely new woman. And oh, I am sure that new stress, different stressors, will surface soon enough. Eventually, I will lie awake grinding my teeth about entirely different professional challenges! But for the moment, in the moment...I am going to be just fine.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

I just wanna get some kicks

My Facebook feed lit up this week, with pictures of everybody's kiddos returning to school. Little dumplings in the primary grades. A high-school classmate's daughter, following in our footsteps as a newly-minted Garfield freshman--an effective sobering agent in case we awoke feeling remotely spry or youthful. My cousin's oldest son, launched into our 1980s football rival, Snohomish High. (I say "rival" only in the sense that we were somehow cruelly classified in the same division and had to play each other, because GHS football stunk up the joint.)

I must say, you parentals are so prepared for the Pinterest nation we live in now! Posing the kids in, say, the same spot, year to year! Giving them a little sign to hold, stating their hopes and dreams! That is actually going to really help in 30 years--they'll be able to tell what the heck is going on, and gauge their progress towards becoming a ballerina-veterinarian, or whatever.

I mean this sincerely. Not having progeny of my own, I went digging through yon family archives to see if I could find my own first-day pictures. We were much more haphazard with the photo milestones, it seems. Maybe this was due in part to the nature of real film itself? My mom's persistent inability to center a viewfinder on the scene in question meant that she'd fire off one or two weirdly composed shots AT BEST; processing was a whole 'nother order of expensive. One set of these back-to-school, September-morn prints states on the border that it was developed the following January. We were parsimonious, with our Kodak moments--it was better if you could get school-Halloween-turkey-Christmas-birthday-neighbor's litter of kittens on one roll.

At any rate, I couldn't find them all. I found enough, however, to compose a mortifying photo essay and time capsule. Dig it:


Kindergarten. I remember resenting the immense nametag and, presumably, care and feeding instructions? pinned to my left shoulder. I got my mother to pin it to the jacket, which I promptly shrugged out of and hung on the designated little peg in my similarly-labeled cubby, because what was I, a moron? I KNEW MY OWN NAME, sheesh. Room 10, Mrs. Bacon, yadda yadda, I AM HERE FOR THE EDUCATION LET'S GO.

Third grade, which would put Sis in kindergarten. Nice socks with sandals, there, Northwest Stereotype Girls. This dress came with a little red blazer, I guess so that I could easily take my look from "Highland Park Elementary" to "night" with a simple adjustment. Also, check out the rabbit ears, with which my grandpa was coordinating NASA satellites.

Fourth grade. I think this is the first year Mom was likewise working in the public schools, and as you can see we are all SUPER EXCITED by this academic development.

Look at that folder, though. No mere Pee-Chee for me: I selected that majestic mountain vista myself, y'all. This is only the very first evidence of my persistent belief that the right accessories (spiral-bound notebook/leather journal/antique desk/sleek laptop/sushi-shaped pencil erasers) will generate the greatest American novel and/or confer the PhD themselves. The globe is very intellectual-looking also.

I know there's a sixth-grade picture, lost somewhere, because I used it as a painful "thinspiration!" photo stuck on the fridge for far too long. I'd selected every element of my ensemble myself, too: white jeans, a navy-and-white-striped Oxford shirt with a Nehru collar, and brown suede platform-wedge loafers that I...might consider wearing today. Feathered hair. I weighed 113 pounds, but was angling to get back down to double-digits, because "100" was way, way too much. I was 11 years old. Oy. Ladies, girls, kids, everyone: don't do this to yourselves! If I did have a daughter, or a son, I hope that'd be the one thing I wouldn't pass on, the decades and decades of obsessing about exactly this. You're beautiful and perfect and your body is a miracle machine, full stop. Regret nothing! Except maybe the outfits!

Okay, PSA over. Eighth grade. 80s fashion was a slippery slope, and I'm afraid both Sis and I were rolling rapidly downhill at this point.

Won't someone please think of THE CHILDREN, and then STOP THEM? Is her Colonel Sanders tie worse than my twee little grosgrain-ribbon choker? My teddy-bear ski sweater? I think her hair is entirely my fault--I'd braided it, wet, the night before, to make it wavy. Later, Sis was brave enough to undergo a perm; timid, I continued to farf around instead with ribbons, barrettes, and the occasional novelty shoelace as hair accessories. I...don't know. It's a tie, in which nobody wins. Though if you look closely, you might note that my pinstriped jeans give me a slight edge. Kudos also to Mom, who's gotten a new 35mm camera so she can better capture random shadows across our squinting faces, plus a crystalline focus on the landscaping behind us.

Monday, August 25, 2014

So, so, so, so.

I'd taken a long weekend in Portland, but I couldn't kick free of my depression. All the usual remedies, the coffees and panini and okay-twist-my-arm shoe shopping, weren't doing it, and Saturday night I slumped in my room, despondent and already past vacation midpoint. In 36 hours I had to turn around and go back, pick up the threads of my stagnant life, work and commute and cleaning the bathroom, and I felt like I'd accomplished nothing.

But Michelle had this idea, to drive us out to Cannon Beach and just have some sand-and-sea times, use the long car ride to talk ourselves hoarse, flesh out exciting Big Life Plans to look forward to.

I was skeptical. The ocean seemed like an epic journey, growing up--so distant, an entire vacation plan in itself, the Oregon coast even farther afield than the gritty little sibling towns of Moclips and Pacific Beach we'd visit in Washington. It occurred to me, en route, that it had surely been nearly 30 years since I'd seen Haystack Rock, and probably 15 or more since I'd even been to the coast in my own state. With my Grammy, when she was still alive.

But it was a mere 90 minutes from Portland. And once there, I was astounded at how I'd ignored or forgotten or not taken advantage of it, this fucking extraordinary place, this natural marvel I am so, so lucky to be a few hours' drive from. The roaring surf, the limitless horizon. The salt-sticky wind in your hair. That amazing smell.

We sat in the sun on stripey towels and ate brie and bread and drank blood-orange San Pellegrino. We waded in the light-glittered water, which was cold for an instant and then perfect. We drove on a little further, down to Manzanita, and poked through shops and bought a shit-ton of saltwater taffy and olde-tyme penny candy, and gave ourselves diabetes on the way home. We grilled simple hamburgers on the deck and ate outside and took Pumpkin the hound for a walk in the sweet, balmy dusk, and it turned out to be the best day I've had in a long, long time. The day I so desperately needed. I am so, so grateful. Thank you for that again, Michelle, my friend.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Far too young and clever

I've been thinking about the late, great Casey Kasem all week, and I needed just a bit more room for my  #throwbackThursday this time.

"American Top 40" aired Sunday nights, when I was in the prime listening demographic. Six to ten p.m., or 7-11:00 maybe? My mom was still rigid about school night bedtimes, but at some point in my middle-school years I was allowed to--or figured out that I could--listen to my crappy clock radio on the lowest possible volume, while lying in bed.

I'd get misty while Casey called out the long-distance dedications. I could not wait, to have, and possibly then break up with, an Actual Boyfriend to whom I would devote the syrupy regret of a pop song. Casey Kasem willing, I'd do so in a forum broadcast to everyone in the United States. Learn from my romantic tragedy, fellow tweens! Heed my hard-earned relationship wisdom!

I rooted for my favorite songs to move up in the countdown, as if I had money riding on it. I guess in a way I did, hoping that my latest obsession would crack the top 20 and thus appear on the wall behind the cash registers at DJ's Sound City, four rows of 45s in their paper sleeves. The other bins of singles were a crapshoot, but I knew that one slat-wall would be fully stocked. The cashier could just turn 180 degrees and hand down the record. If it wasn't top-20, though, you had to wait. If you had particularly esoteric tastes, you might wait a long time. This was the 80s, luckily, already a wondrous and bizarre mishmash of pop trends, where stations on the AM band played Kenny Rogers cheek-by-jowl with Alice Cooper and the Beatles and the Knack.

But I think about it a lot, the patience that's no longer required. Was delayed gratification ever that much sweeter? (Usually, I think this after I've gone on a nostalgic iTunes binge, snapping up every crazy one-hit wonder I can think of, most of which are preeeeeety terrible.)

Anyway. Casey Kasem and "American Top 40." A primitive map, for the adolescent culture I was on the periphery of. Teenagers! Here were things that teenagers did: listened to music, bought records, affected the surge and sway of the pop charts. Casey was my guide. And, ever the straight-A student, I took notes, writing down the most thrilling countdown moments on my calendar.

I knew I'd saved one somewhere--for the calendar illustrations (vintage children's-book illustrations, if you're wondering. Nothing racy, ew! I was in 7th grade! And a nerd!). I didn't realize what an excellent anthropological document I was preserving, though. Here's April, 1983. I was thirteen.


I've always enjoyed the Oscars, though I was nonplussed by "Gandhi" winning Best Picture. "Tootsie" was my pick, and I'd evidently seen it twice, which I hope did not adversely affect my performance on that Western Hemisphere test in Social Studies. But I digress. Check out Sunday the 24th. Dexy's Midnight Runners, with their fiddles and their overalls, had hit number one--in the USA!--with "Come On, Eileen." The mildly suggestive lyrics were luckily obscured by the lead singer's incomprehensible mumbling, and so I think we even convinced my mother to buy the whole album, on cassette, from Columbia House Records and Tapes. I hope we got that one for the proverbial penny.

But I suspect I slipped out of bed to write this, to find a pen and scribble down this milestone, lest I forget. I had a babysitting job on the horizon, and I have a pretty good idea now where that cash was gonna go. It was spring, it couldn't BE any more 80s, and it was totally awesome. Thanks, Casey. Rest in peace.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

What silence equals

I don’t get it. Certainly, running the US broadcast on a multi-hour tape delay gave NBC’s editors ample opportunity to decide which parts of the Sochi Opening Ceremonies to cut—seemingly, too much of the wackadoo good stuff, like Get Lucky. And yes, speeches, welcome, thank you, swifter higher blahblah boring…but to patch together Thomas Bach’s remarks while neatly trimming his emphasis on dignity, tolerance, respect…? That can’t be sheer clumsiness. It’s got to be deliberate. Sure, Putin is a creepy dude, but is the fourth-place American television network so intimidated that they can’t bring themselves even to let someone else politely criticize his brutal, discriminatory policies?

Or are we a lot closer to them than we think?

I was a competitive figure skater as a teen. Oh, I wasn’t any good—I started too late for that. But I spent my adolescence in several mildewy local rinks, twirling and daydreaming and landing on my ass more often than not. Most of the kids I skated with were girls. Most of the coaches I knew were women. But I worked with three male coaches over the years, in summer clinics and training camps…and all three of them were gay.

Plenty has been written elsewhere, about the USFSA, the various Olympic committees, and whether they’re constantly searching for The Great Straight Hope, in men’s figure skating. I don’t have the tools or the inclination to analyze this, now, to explore why and whether gay men might be disproportionately drawn to the sport. I mean, sequins and Stravinsky don’t have some inherent magical gay-making power. And I have no idea whether the men I knew were out at the time: to their other friends, their families, out in their public lives away from the rink. Looking back, I don’t remember it being a topic of discussion, either…more of an open secret. They were gay. We all just knew, and didn’t care.

Tony taught me my first rudimentary spins, the coiled etchings of my blade on the ice like a plate of spaghetti. (Tony also lost his shit and screamed at me when, during rehearsals for the annual ice show/recital, I botched his vision, tripped, and collapsed in mortified, giggling paralysis.) Ryan was a brilliant choreographer, a prankster, a wiseass. Ryan swapped books with my mom, danced with me at somebody’s wedding. Alexi spoke English as a second language. “More slow, please,” he’d beg me, when my breakneck teen-girl blithering proved impenetrable. They were my teachers, friends, fixtures in my world. They were just people.
This was the mid-to-late 1980s. A history lesson in another disproportionate percentage: two of these stories end badly. Tony died of AIDS-related complications while I was away at college; first he vanished, then he died. I heard at roughly the same time that Ryan was sick. That’s how I was told, in that circle: a half-whisper, low tones, already too late. Someone was Sick. Ryan is…Sick. “Oh, Ryan, be careful,” my mother had blurted, once, the lone time AIDS had somehow come up in conversation. I remember that he promised that he would. Whether he was or wasn’t, I couldn’t know. Maybe it already didn’t matter. Ryan hung on, fought like hell in fact, for 17 years…but died a decade ago at 42. Younger than I am now.

I associate the “SILENCE = DEATH” message with the ACT UP movement in the same late 80s-early 90s period. I’d remembered it as both a demand for more research into HIV and AIDS, better medicine, a cure…and an exhortation not to remain silent—to protect each other by practicing safe sex, keeping everyone informed, being aware of one’s HIV status. But it turns out that, all along, it also meant being open about one’s true self, gay, straight, bi, trans…so that by calling attention to prejudice, oppression, danger, we can fight against it and root it out. From the Silence = Death Project’s manifesto: “’silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.’ The slogan thus protested both taboos around discussion of safer sex and the unwillingness of some to resist societal injustice and governmental indifference.”

This is why I’m watching the Sochi Olympics, why I couldn’t bring myself to support a boycott. Russia’s discriminatory policies and human rights violations are an offense, and they deserve—NEED—to be called out on the world stage. I’m proud and protective of the brave athletes from around the world who are willing to defy these wrongs, in whatever large or small way they can: Ashley Wagner rainbowing it up. Alexey Sobolev making Bob Costas invoke the name “Pussy Riot” on national television. Brian Boitano, realizing that saying nothing is just another form of silence.
And this is why NBC’s decision to excise those portions of the IOC President’s speech so grates upon me. Matt and Meredith spent a lot of last night’s narrative talkin’ ‘bout Putin: how these were his Games, his message, his stage…almost as if he were single-handedly pulling every cable on the floating schoolgirl, twirling inflatable onion domes, and light-up hockey players swinging from the stadium roof. Putin, Putin, Putin! But if we don’t talk about why we’re talking about Putin—or why he is intimidating, sinister, sitting up there in his box like a reptilian cyborg—then we’re silencing ourselves. We’re silencing the good people fighting for change: those who are gay, those who aren’t, all of us just people like the coaches I knew. And silence = acceptance. Silence = the continuing wait for a cure. Silence = discrimination, imprisonment, getting beaten to death on the street or trapped inside a burning nightclub. So don’t give in, don’t give up. Be loud. Shout and cheer, for your team, your athletes…and for their humanity. For everyone you and they know and love.