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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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Light in Darkness

Yes, all of you hyper-logical types, we get it: New Year’s Day is an arbitrarily chosen re-starting point. I have attempted to kill this buzz myself, but I’ve come to realize it’s not necessary. New Year’s is plenty dull on its own. As with my birthday, I’m left feeling a day older and, having bought into the idea that something major will happen, I end up a little more melacholy than usual once the champagne buzz wears off.

But I like the opportunity for a collective reboot. If I’m going to get my hopes up but feel underwhelmed, it’s nice not to have to do it alone. Last year I broke my own pattern of not making resolutions by resolving not to over-enforce my goal-setting, especially with writing projects. The idea was that I would determine very minimal goals on a daily and weekly basis, and they would be so minimal that I couldn’t help but fulfill them. The short version:

I resolve to treat myself well and hold myself accountable.

The plan was conveniently loosey-goosey. If I failed to follow through, I’d only hurt myself. Honestly, who was going to care if I never wrote? I would berate myself, a few of my writing friends would encourage me, but it’s not as if I had an editor breathing down my neck. To keep writing, what I need more than anything is to strike a balance of nudges and guilt, and that can only be found in the midst of things.

As those of you who know me or have read this blog know, 2011 provided a few significant life-gets-in-the-way events. Some illness. Some death. A wedding. Like the really bad first draft of a real-life novel. All of that was done by mid-October. Looking to December 31 as the end of this year’s story, the denouement has been long. I’ve felt like a Sondheim character searching/waiting for the great lesson.

The gift of the denouement has been a long visit from my mother. She came in early October for the wedding and decided to extend her visit. I swear this is okay with my husband–in fact, he’s the one who’s encouraged it. She didn’t want to go back to her house and experience the first Thanksgiving and Christmas without her husband, my father. My sister’s family lives nearby and have been able to take care of her house, so why not? Our hope was that through avoidance the great lesson would sneak up on us, and that is more or less what has happened. We’ve found light in darkness, the true reason for the season.

Her presence hasn’t interrupted my writing. To the contrary: she inspires. The events of the year had already done that, but not in the ways I assumed they would. I ultimately wrote more than I thought I would last January. My writing energy went where I needed it. I had to write through grief as a way of lifting rubble off of me. I wrote posts and poems–new material that has energized me. Even though I wrote for myself, others appreciated what I wrote. Without having any of my work formally published, I experienced what it means to be read.

Progress on revising my novel slowed a bit, but I didn’t stop. Somehow I’m ending this arbitrarily defined year having almost finished the second draft of my novel, and I feel more driven than ever to continue the journey to having it published. More important, I confronted obstacles by writing. My heart broke, so with words I patched it up and continue to alternate between dwelling and moving on. It wasn’t quite a journey to the underworld, but it wasn’t completely not that. And since I’m the one writing this story, I’m going to say I’ve nailed the ending. Once the buzz wears off, I’ll get over myself and begin again.

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My Wedding Vows

Yesterday, I married my partner of almost 17 years, Doug Powers, in a brief, wonderful ceremony at the Hillcrest Manor in Corning, New York. I have plenty to say about the experience, of course, but for now, I just want to share the vows I made to Doug with all of our friends and family who wanted to be there. We are now the Powers-Black family.

As you know, Doug, I kind of resent this whole exercise of seeking societal approval of our relationship. For nearly seventeen years, we’ve persevered with no government support and little support from civilization’s other structures.

I didn’t need society’s permission to fall in love with you within seconds of meeting you, nor did I need society’s permission to tell you how I felt only two weeks later. When you warned me not to make you choose between your love of theatre and your love of me, I got a life and worked hard to become less smothering. By being with you, I have discovered a more independent and fulfilled version of myself.

So I’m tempted to vow that I’ll keep doing what I’ve been doing. Society may assume I’ve spent all this time as your very long-term fiancee, just waiting to get started, but you and I know better. However, experience as your husband-all-but-in-name tells me it’s not that easy. We must constantly work at this thing called Us. And, knocking the chip off my shoulder, how can I not acknowledge the support we have received from family and friends? This moment provides us with an opportunity to go public even more than we have, to brag about what we have together, and to risk making our mistakes with others watching.

Despite all we’ve done to push past obstacles, we’ve obeyed societal expectation to avoid “flaunting” our love. As closeted gay kids, we learned to be careful when others were watching. We’ve carried that caution through our first relationships and into the home we’ve made together. Too often, we stop short of saying we love each other or even asking about each other’s day. Although we’ve assumed we can take each other for granted, there’s a gap between us that, however slight it may be, has been an insurmountable emptiness. I promise to dive in and pull you into the emptiness, too, so we come to see it for what it is: openness whose possibilities we determine for ourselves.

I can’t imagine what it would be like not to adore you. I still thrill at the sight of you when I run into you at work, and I’m so relieved when you come home at the end of the day. I’m strong and could make it on my own, but the point of this commitment is that I choose to be with you.

Reading my vows to Doug.

No, I didn't memorize them.

End of The(ir) World

I’ve allowed myself to get sucked into Rapture-mocking. It’s fun, and, I mean, what do I have to lose? If it actually happens at 6pm today, I was going to hell anyway. If it doesn’t happen, then my dinner plans at 7:15pm are a go, and I can share a see-it-didn’t happen toast with them, although we’ll likely have better things to discuss.

Meanwhile, to get in the spirit, I’m doing what everyone else seems to be doing: posting songs that allude to or center on the end of the world or, more generally, on endings. There are some great ones. My favorite is Matt Alber’s straightforwardly titled “End of the World,” which uses the ending as a simile. Major conflict and change threaten his relationship, but isn’t the staying together worth the struggle, he asks. Isn’t the struggle simply part of life and love?

While I’m sure Alber invites anyone to put her-/himself in the persona’s place, he’s gay, and in the video he does a gorgeous slow dance with a man. Unashamed, public displays of affection between men is the kind of “sign” that Rapturites believe indicates the end of the world is near, as does increased acceptance of LGBT people. Their exclusionary beliefs on earth will be justified when they rise and co-mingle with Jesus and the dead, or some version of that.

It won’t be the end of The World, just the end of their world. As more of us queer folks reveal who we are (actors, athletes, solders–oh my!), and as the people who love us openly accept us, the vicious lies fundamentalists tell about us lose power. Sure, we’re as humanly sex-obsessed as heterosexual people, but we also long for tenderness. We enjoy a slow dance, a dip punctuated by a sweet kiss. Some people have been obsessing about terrible ends. My people long for happy beginnings.

Standing on Larry Kramer’s Lawn

In a very recent interview to promote the revival of his play The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer accuses young gay men today of not caring about their history. Thomas Rogers challenges Kramer’s suggestion that lack of concern for history is unique to this generation, and offers his own experience to indicate that youth’s ignorance isn’t necessarily willful.

What’s surprising is that Kramer, who has a history of accusing people they don’t care about gay history, seems to get Rogers’ message, and the interview becomes an interesting and (kind of) endearing conversation about such macro-yet-micro topics as marriage equality and the difficulty older gay men face finding sex partners. And there’s a fascinating exchange about Kramer’s ongoing feud with Ed Koch, who lives in his building. Clearly, Kramer holds grudges, and it’s hard not to wonder how much of his famous anger stems from his personality rather than injustice. But I sense there’s more to him, that maybe he’s not simply shouting at the youth of today (read: anyone younger than he is) to get off his lawn.

The problem with gay men today, Kramer and Rogers come to agree, is that we currently lack a widespread life-or-death problem like HIV/AIDS was in the early 80s. Kramer remarks that there was a “special glow of importance” during that time, and Rogers says that, after seeing Kramer’s play, he felt a “perverse nostalgia for those early AIDS years [I] never lived through. They were obviously utterly terrifying and filled with sadness, but there’s also something appealing about having this galvanizing issue to unite gay men. We don’t have that as much now.”

This kind of myth is common and powerful, and not just in the LGBT community: Once upon a time, our group (pick any group) had a common enemy, and we united to fight it/them. We worked hard. We didn’t fight among ourselves. Life was beautiful then, but now, we’re a mess. The distance created by elapsed time or lack of firsthand experience really fucks with people’s depth perception.

I have some firsthand knowledge of those days that time hasn’t let me forget. I remember a lot of confusion and pain. We worried about stopping the spread of infection, although we weren’t sure that HIV was really the cause of AIDS. We resented that no one in the mainstream seemed to give a shit about the disease until kids became infected through transfusions.

Those of us not at the head of the movement who hadn’t had the resources and/or cowardice to flee mid-size cities or rural areas, lacked the “special glow of importance” Kramer recalls. We just wanted to keep our friends from dying. We wanted the luxury of taking them for granted rather than savoring every mundane moment in case it was the last.

Far from there being a glow, we lived in a shadow of suspicion of everyone, straight and queer, as if no amount of prophylaxis or abstinence would prevent us from contracting the disease. We struggled to push away the belief that we were worthless faggots who deserved to die. Continue reading

“Ooo-They’re-Gay” Jokes Are Still Cutting-Edge 1980s Comedy

I overheard an offensive-to-me joke–that ole chestnut about insulting two presumably heterosexual men by insinuating they’re a couple. It’s the kind of “humor” that closet cases and straight people who are insecure about their own relationships use to feel better about themselves, blending the ick factor with a dash of gay panic. I do remember that shit seemed fresh in the locker room back in junior high, and did my best to laugh along. (My time in the junior high locker room was all about trying but failing to cover what made me ashamed.)

Instead of simply fuming about the latest telling of this joke, I got a chance to respond directly and in writing. Having some time to puzzle over the situation was helpful, as it usually is for how my brain processes information. I’m all for bringing the funny, and people have a right to say what they want. I’m even open to being the butt of a joke that’s actually funny. (Ha! I just said “butt.”) But when your tired words and ideas enter my airspace, prepare to engage. Free speech is about as multi-player as you can get.

The topic is important to plenty of people other than me in this age of openly pursued “bromances,” which are decidedly “no-homo” in contrast to civil unions or marriages, but not as “no-homo” as plain ole friendship. Gay panic seems to be cooling into gay anxiety, for some, at least. I encourage them to get help with that cultural shit. I probably wouldn’t be alive if I hadn’t.

For what it’s worth, I offer the bulk of my letter here, without identifiers, to inspire, entertain, infuriate, and/or bore my dear readers. Or pick a verb of your very own. Continue reading

Today in Personal History: A Sparkle, A Glow

On October 28, 1994, I met Doug. There was a cast party at the house where he was staying. I didn’t know him, but somehow we started talking.

He kept asking me to tell him jokes, but I’ve never been good at remembering the set-ups to any punchlines I know. As I kept drawing blanks, he was the one who came up with the jokes. And he did impressions of people he knew, most of whom I still haven’t met 16 years later.

I can’t say that I’ve never laughed harder, because as funny as he was (and is), and as much fun as I had, I was seriously smitten in a giddy, heart-a-flutter, weak-in-the-knees kind of way. I kept worrying that our time together would end and I’d never see him again.

I felt a kind of happiness that I can’t describe except by telling you he’s the only person who has inspired me to feel exactly that way. The intensity of that feeling seems to have faded, but just when I think it will never be as strong as it was on that first night, there it is again, as keen as ever.

Over the course of that first very long-yet-short conversation, we shared any tedious bit of information that might prevent the night from ending too soon. We wanted to keep talking, but as the morning sun filled the living room, we couldn’t deny that we were exhausted and needed sleep. We lay next to each other on the futon, fully clothed, and the only potentially scandalous thing I’d done with him was fall in love too quickly.

Regardless of the label others might put on our relationship now or in the future–commitment, civil union, marriage–we’re partners. I like what that word connotes about what we give to each other and what we get from being together. I’ve become more myself by being with him. And, of course, he is my sweetheart, and I am his. We hold these truths to be self-evident.

Want to Help LGBTQ Youth? Act Like a Grown-up.

I’m not a fan of Dan Savage. He seems like one of those celebrities who’s trying to prove something to himself but feels compelled to work things out in public. He makes provocative, unsubstantiated, and sometimes just cruelly ignorant statements, such as, “You can have too much sex. It is possible–gay people proved it in the 70s–to literally fuck yourself to death.” Comments like this one cause me to cringe every time he’s chosen to be the go-to gay pundit. With misinformed friends like him, who needs enemies?

Although he’s got no sympathy for old, dead queens, he’s apparently got a soft spot for LGBTQ youth. His latest effort, “It Gets Better,” is a YouTube channel where those of us who have survived and thrived can upload videos to encourage LGBTQ youth to persevere. To get things rolling, Savage posted a video of his partner and him talking about their individual experiences of being bullied before they met and building a family. They seem like a pleasant couple, but the video is self-indulgent and so boring I had to turn it off about halfway through, but if one kid finds some hope in it, it’s worth the effort. And presumably Savage’s celebrity will draw enough interest that there will be something for everyone on the “It Gets Better” channel.

It’s a nice idea, although ironic, given Savage’s recent use of a trans slur to attack a politician. But Savage deserves a nice word or two for this effort. But it’s important to acknowledge a collection of outreach videos aren’t going to do much to address this enormous problem. Kids need someone in their lives to stand next to them and guide them to the light at the end of the cliché.

Sadly, LGBTQ youth continue to feel great shame as they try to come out. Ellen and Will and Grace haven’t made things that much better for them. Various studies indicate that 1/4 to 1/3 of LGBTQ youth have attempted suicide.

Supporting LGBTQ youth should be the central issue in our movement. Fighting for equal rights in our personal lives and the workplace is important–definitely–and youth need to feel assured they’ll achieve equality as part of “the system,” not in spite of mainstream culture working against them. But we must keep people alive and help them feel empowered, not ashamed, so they’re equipped to stand up for themselves.

Yes, a lot of us who are adults now managed to hold on, day after day. But how many of us are still fighting the overwhelming feeling of shame that did almost kill some of us? In fact, some LGBTQ adults still feel such isolation and don’t feel safe to come out to certain people in their lives. Do we really believe it’s okay for our youth to suffer like we did/do? We may believe they watch the DADT and marriage equality battles and feel encouraged by the rights they’ll get to enjoy. However, that time is a long way off for them. And knowing that we’re not exactly winning right now probably doesn’t bolster their spirits as slurs and fists are thrown at them and friends and family turn backs on them.

LGBTQ youth need the adults in their lives to act like grown-ups. So if you’re already fighting for our rights, don’t forget to help the kids you know and support the efforts already set up to help them. The Ali Forney Center provides housing to homeless LGBTQ youth in New York City. The Trevor Project provides suicide prevention services, including a national hotline. And PFLAG, GLSEN, and The Matthew Shepard Foundation offer a wide range of national and community-based educational services to promote acceptance.

Build on these important efforts, whether you use the information they provide to help one kid or decide to start similar services in your own community. LGBTQ youth aren’t waiting for Dan Savage or some other celebrity to come and give them hugs. They need to know that people in their lives care about them. Don’t know any queer youth, you say? Then challenge the homophobic messages coming from the people in your community. Standing up to individuals you know can be scarier than marching past strangers in the street. Doing the little things is a bigger deal than you may realize.

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