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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.

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My Father’s Mixtape

Dad often asked, “Who’s singing this?” I could picture him on the other end of the line holding his phone out toward whatever speaker emitted the unidentified sounds, whether he was at home, in his car, or standing in the middle of a store with his arm jutting toward the ceiling.

He did this even though I usually couldn’t hear the song. Knowing his taste for what I’ll dare to describe as self-indulgent pop/rock, I could usually figure it out through some detective work. (My ability to assist declined in later years when he developed an inexplicable affection for “smooth jazz.”)

Everybody loves music–it’s a cultural cliché–but Dad’s love of music was an ongoing surprise to me. He had nearly zero musical talent and had trouble staying in tune while humming more than three notes in a row. Nevertheless, he constantly tried to make music, as if it were aural exhaust from the engine that drove him. His nasal, high-tenor doo-dee-doot-doos seemed less an expression of the music he admired than a personal soundtrack, the fully orchestrated version of which only he could hear as the protagonist of a very jolly movie.

*****

Dad bought the Flashdance soundtrack, mainly for “Maniac.” He bought Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, mainly for “Mr. Roboto.” But he liked weirder stuff, too, by which I mean pop weird stuff, specifically the pop weird stuff I liked. He of course had to take little jabs at my music before humming along (so dorky!). At least he didn’t mindlessly settle for Lionel Richie’s easy listening vibe or Laura Branigan yelling her face off. And it really did matter to me that to some extent he liked the music I lived for.

He drove me to buy Duran Duran’s monster mix of “Wild Boys” when it was released early at a record store across town. I was 14, and this exciting event occurred at midnight, but although it would have been logical to wait, I had to have that record as soon as possible or else I would surely die. As we waited in line to pay, I had to suffer his mangled pronunciation of “DOO-ran DOO-ran.” I worried the obviously very cool girls in front of us would harshly judge me, but they were busy talking about which band members were the hottest. One of them said, loud enough for the entire store to hear, “I would totally fuck John Taylor’s legs off!” My dad, distracted by his internal soundtrack, didn’t flinch.

One perfect, angst-free afternoon, he was driving us somewhere in the Celica and let me listen to Men Without Hats on cassette, and not just “Safety Dance,” but all of Rhythm of Youth. His favorite album at that time was Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). I had bragged to all three of my friends that he’d bought it for himself. He would mutter about Annie Lennox’s orange buzz cut (“I had that hair cut in high school!), but he couldn’t deny the power of that voice or the comforting beauty of analog synths as we rolled down the highway.

*****

For his visitation and memorial service, my sister, brother-in-law, and I agreed there was no damn way we would fill the service with dirges. We’d stir some emotions, perhaps, but the playlist had to consist of his favorites. Each of us selected a few songs we knew he loved. We had to include some live Frampton featuring the talk box. (I mean, duh.) But the first song we decided on was Cher’s “Believe.”

The man was seriously Cher-crazy when that song was released. He recorded her concert on HBO and sent the tape to me. My partner and I couldn’t afford premium channels, and he didn’t think we should have to miss it, assuming we’d love it as much as he did. Ironically, Cher was the first diva I ever worshipped, but by then I’d forsaken her and was all “what-has-Cher-really-done-since-Moonstruck?” I didn’t even watch his tape, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He went to his grave not knowing.

Besides, I figured that if he could put up with my school-age fascination with Cher and all those years of my Madonna mania, I could support his adorably giddy version of fandom. It wasn’t as if karaoke was a feasible means of expression for him. He probably could have carried the tune (barely), but would he have risked revealing so much of himself in front of strangers?

I came to feel honored he would let me hear him humming, which underscored so many of our moments together, moments I had thought were pointless. I felt he was letting me know the music he made was really for him, and that making it was the point.

*****

When he died, I didn’t notice it was almost six months to the day after his birthday. Only six months earlier, on January 27, he spent his birthday in the hospital, supposedly for pneumonia, but Mom thinks the doctor who looked at the x-ray could already tell it was something worse than that.

I spent half a year preparing for the aftermath I’ve been experiencing now for the subsequent half-year, unaware of this potentially meaningful bit of numerical trivia, as if I might be able to change everything if I could force the right meaning on it. All I’ve learned is that when I hear a song I think Dad would like, I should abort the phone call before pressing “send.”

A few weeks ago, I heard a voice say, “And don’t expect him to call you, either,” which was slightly yet significantly different than remembering not to call a dead man. It was like watching his casket sink into the ground again, only this time without the benefit of running on an adrenaline high.

It’s really not so bad. I’m functioning, and overall life is good. It’s painful only in the way it leaves me feeling disoriented. There are so many songs and other found inspirations I want to share with him because only he would get why they’re important to me. I consider what he might say. My best guesses feel counterfeit, overproduced. What I need more than anything, just for a while, is silence.

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Rock me like a hurricane. Or, better yet, don’t.

As Hurricane Irene weakens, disappointment spreads through social media that the storm was not more powerful and destructive. These same folks are accusing journalists and government officials of hyping the storm to win high ratings and improve their reputations.

I’m guessing the accusers do not know the few people who were killed by Irene. Apparently they haven’t even lost power, since they are able to post their whinings on Twitter and Facebook. To them, “Better safe than sorry” is probably just a tired cliché that leaves them “bored.” They want to be entertained. If the storm doesn’t do it, they’ll complain about the ineffectiveness of government and nature.

Less than a week ago, after an unusually strong earthquake rumbled through the eastern United States, the response was similar. The consensus is that it didn’t really do anything. No major damage occurred in highly populated areas, and soon a photo of  “devastation” went viral: a set of white lawn chairs, one of which is lying on its side. Worth a giggle to many, perhaps, but probably not to the people who weren’t so lucky, whose chimneys came apart or whose windshields were smashed by falling debris.

Jokes are fine, but I’m disappointed by how many citizens of the world seem incapable of realizing that things happen beyond their apartments or city blocks. If damage doesn’t happen to them or to people they know, they believe an event was “overhyped,” and they search for some dastardly reason their fun was spoiled. They feel no gratitude that, had a worse-case scenario happened, they wouldn’t have been left to wave for from their rooftops and get blamed for not having the resources to save themselves.

In case it does any good, let me take this opportunity to say to The Universe that I would be happy to feel underwhelmed by any potential disasters that may be in store for my region and/or life. Please go to great lengths to underwhelm me. And thanks, Dear Universe, for taking time to read my blog.

Starts with a Queue

We killed our satellite TV. A few weeks ago, we realized that most of the stuff we watch is available on Netflix or DVD. We even own the entire series of The Golden Girls (duh), but we’ve usually watched it when it’s on one of the networks that syndicates it, an old habit that we can break now. Actually, we have no choice now. The subscription was canceled as of Tuesday, and the signal has turned to (a subtler) noise.

In recent years, I haven’t watched much TV on my own. When I travel for work, I rarely turn on the obligatory television in my hotel room. At home, I watch what Doug watches, and when he’s out of town, I might turn it on for background noise, but I usually haven’t bothered.

After 28 years with either cable or satellite TV, I no longer have that connection with the wider world. Continue reading

A Rant about Gender in Fiction

According to an article I read yesterday, men behave a certain way, and women behave a certain way. When, as a reader of fiction, you feel a character does not behave appropriately, it’s probably a gender problem.

For example, if a male character wants a relationship more than sex, or if he shows an interest or ability to care for a child, he’s acting like a woman in a man’s body. If a female character wants sex more than a relationship, or if she cares about legacy more than the immediate gratification of dealing with children, she’s acting like a man in a woman’s body. The writer offers no evidence–from theory, practice, or anywhere else–to support her views.

I wish I could laugh at stuff like this. It’s stereotypical crap. Unfortunately, a lot of people accept it as fact. One of the commenters says that although she can’t think of examples to support the writer’s view, the article feels right. Of course, when you go by feel without ever checking in with real life, it’s easy to convince oneself that reality is as it seems. Ah, the power of fiction.

As much as I disagree with these prescriptivist assumptions about gender, what the writer gets right is that readers, editors, and publishers have expectations about how characters may behave in regard to gender. And if men are limited to certain actions and feelings, the options become more limited as other aspects of identity are revealed. For a character to embody a multi-faceted identity (gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class, and more) apparently risks overwhelming a reader. To avoid problems, some writers follow the rules by keeping their characters simple. They anticipate readers, editors, and publishing asking things like, “Why does the character’s sexual orientation (or race or religion or whatever) matter?” So they willingly create characters with only a few aspects of identity to avoid conflict. This practice resembles that of self-identified “friends of diversity” who prefer to focus on one or two categories rather than acknowledging how complexities of identity play out in an individual. 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

My 2010 Music Picks

Now that the arbitrarily defined calendar year is actually ending, I thought I’d dilute the impact of best-of lists by adding mine.

My Favorite Albums Released in 2010

  • Janelle Monáe — The ArchAndroid: She’s got a great voice, terrific style, and a fascinating vision. It’s easily the best album released this year and one of the best of the past decade. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Say You’ll Go”
  • Arcade Fire — The Suburbs: Yes, there’s some whining about the isolation of suburban life, but that’s just on the surface of this album. I love the way the lyrics make me think about growing up, the sound they’ve achieved, and that it’s as great as critics and fans hoped it would be. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Month of May”
  • of Montreal — False Priest: I still think Skeletal Lamping is thus far the oM masterpiece, but that’s like saying moist chocolate cake is superior to tiramisu. As with dessert, either will make me very happy. At the risk of overloading you with comparisons, I also think this is their most accessible album, but it’s still damn weird and damn brilliant. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Godly Intersex”
  • Stars — The Five Ghosts: It’s like a PR party hosted by ghosts. The tone is light at first, but as the festivities proceed, they experience pain that can’t be touched. Although the songs are some of the band’s most hook-driven, concise songwriting, it’s still a really lovely album. If You Only Listen to One Track: “He Dreams He’s Awake”
  • Caribou — Swim: Intricately woven electronic music that’s gorgeous and fun and modern and full of feeling. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Jamelia”
  • Robyn — Body Talk: This is smart dance music as fun as Madonna’s Confessions, but Robyn explores the yearning and pain of the club scene like I haven’t heard since Pet Shop Boys’ Nightlife. She’s got a great voice to communicate her blend of toughness and vulnerability. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Indestructible”
  • Duran Duran — All You Need Is Now: A lot of DD fans want them to sound like they did in the early 80s, and this album should make them happy. More important, it’s simply a terrific album with nine terrific tracks that capture the band’s range, from fun dance songs to strangely beautiful numbers. I wish the album were a little longer and that they’d re-record “Safe” without the inane guest performance, but otherwise, it’s a winner. If You Only Listen to One Track: “The Man Who Stole a Leopard”
  • Peter Gabriel — Scratch My Back: Gabriel interprets songs he admires according to his own dark musical vision. It’s gorgeous. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Listening Wind”
  • Massive Attack — Heligoland: As lovely and warm as Mezzanine while as challenging as 100th Window. Comforting one moment, disturbing the next, and resonant, brilliant throughout. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Girl I Love You”
  • Groove Armada — Black Light: Seems like everybody’s trying to do the early 80s sound these days and almost everybody sucks at it. Groove Armada nails it while sounding completely right-now. Maybe in thirty years Black Light will sound timeless. Or not. Who cares? It sounds good. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Not Forgotten”

The Artists I Listened to Most in 2010 (According to my Last.fm Account)

1 Pet Shop Boys
2 Stars
3 The Flaming Lips
4 Janelle Monáe
5 New Order
6 Arcade Fire
7 of Montreal
8 Air
9 Duran Duran
10 Peter Gabriel
11 Basement Jaxx
12 Goldfrapp
13 Massive Attack
14 Sade
15 Caribou
16 Animal Collective
17 Hot Chip
18 Radiohead
19 Clark
20 Ella Fitzgerald

The Queer Kids Are Alright. But They Deserve So Much Better.

As advisor to the Gender-Sexuality Alliance at my university, I have to judge when to stay out of students’ way and when to step in to advise. They do great work on their own. For example, a few years ago they decided to change the name from Gay-Straight Alliance to recognize that many students were coming out as trans and genderqueer. But when they want to host an event with a famous speaker, I can help them find funding and coordinate PR. Basically, I don’t really run anything, but I’m pretty much always available if they need help.

Following the heightened awareness of LGBTQ suicides in mainstream media, I’m more attentive if not necessarily more concerned about queer students on our campus. (I’m pretty much always already in concerned mode.) I usually observe when I attend events, although for the Coming Out Day SpeakOut, I shared a story as most everyone else did. What struck me was that my students’ experiences haven’t necessarily been better than mine. Although my mother loves me unquestionably, she said some unkind words as she adjusted to the news that I’m gay, and a generation later, parents still have trouble dealing with the news that their children are queer.

More to the point, their problem seems to be that their children aren’t heterosexual, and sharpening that point even more, there’s disappointment that their expectations for the child’s future aren’t going to be met. It’s not that parents don’t support their queer kids, but there’s a break in the support. For those of us lucky enough to have trusting relationships with our parents, it’s painful to watch them for that moment–maybe longer–and wonder if unconditional love is no longer guaranteed. Our relationships with our parents are changed forever by that experience. If all goes well, the break results in a stronger bond, as with a bone. But it was clear as I listened to my students’ stories that a few of them are still waiting to find out if their parents love them as much as they used to. Continue reading

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