Wednesday, December 21, 2011

23 years ago today

I’d finished my classes for the semester and my dad had come to pick me up from college for the holiday break. 1988 had been an emotional roller coaster for our family. We’d lost four family friends in a small plane crash Easter morning, my mom had undergone a radical mastectomy in October and she was just starting her first rounds of chemo before Christmas. I was in the middle of my junior year in college, and I’d finally found a major I was willing to stick with: English. But since I’d waited a full two years to admit to myself I always should have been an English major, I had a lot of catching up to do. And my first-semester courseload had been heavy.

December 21 is the winter solstice—the day of the year with the shortest amount of sunlight—but it was beautiful and sunny in Eastern Iowa that afternoon in 1988. And Dad and I had a nice chat over the 40-minute drive home. My family has always been close, so when we saw Mom standing in the driveway as we pulled up to the house, I figured she was just excited to see me.

But she was sobbing.

I assumed she’d gotten some bad news about her cancer while Dad was gone, so I jumped out of the car before it even came to a stop and I ran up to hug her. But the bad news was something entirely different: Miriam’s plane had gone down.

Miriam was a friend of mine who had spent the semester in London studying under the auspices of Syracuse University. I’d just visited her over the Thanksgiving break, and we’d had an awesome time seeing the sights, exploring the museums and taking in all the shows we could afford on our college-student budgets. Among the four we saw were Les Misérables and an extraordinary revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. Sondheim was just starting to appear on our collective radar, and we both agreed that seeing Follies together was a mountaintop experience for us to have shared over our magical week together in London.

But by December 21, I’d come home, a whole month had passed and I’d been so caught up in my finals and holiday preparations that I’d had no idea Miriam was flying back to the States that day—much less what flight she was on. Neither had my mom. But our friend Jody in Ohio did. And when the initial reports that Pan Am flight 103 had disappeared out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, started washing over the newswires, Jody had called everyone she could think of.

Mom and Dad and I raced to the family room and crowded around the TV that crisp, sunny Iowa afternoon to see what we could find out about Miriam’s plane. It was the early days of CNN and 24-hour news, so we were able to get (spotty) information right away about the mysterious crash, along with grainy images of the wreckage shining dimly in the emergency lights that were working so hard to pierce the solstice blackness six time zones away.

Over the next few months and weeks, the world came to learn about the bomb, the Libyans, the retribution, the embargoes, the bankruptcies. We cautiously wrapped our brains around the unthinkable efficiencies of global terrorism at the dawn of the Information Age. And the friends and families of the victims of the 103 bombing started experiencing the bizarre dichotomy of watching our personal tragedy play itself out on the world stage.

In the years since Miriam’s murder, I’ve befriended her parents and friends. I’ve gotten in touch with the roommates she lived with in London, none of whom had been on her plane with her that day. I’ve written pieces about my relatively removed perspective on the bombing that were published in newspapers and scholarly journals and read on NPR. And since I had been in London and had hung out with a lot of the Syracuse students a month before the bombing, I’ve actually been interviewed by the FBI.

And as I’ve grieved and matured over the last 23 years, I’ve discovered that I now tend to be efficiently emotionless when I hear about epic tragedies like the 9/11 bombings ... but I’ll still burst into tears over emotional pablum like Kodak commercials.

Twenty-three years ago today, the world learned what a volatile mix misanthropy and religion and blind nationalism can be in a global melting pot.

Twenty-three years ago today, Miriam and her fellow passengers and their families and friends learned violently and unwillingly about harsh brutalities that the rest of the world got the relative luxury of absorbing over time.

Twenty-three years ago today, I learned that the distant tragedies that so often happen to “other people” should never be observed as abstractions. I discovered that news of plane crashes and acts of terrorism that play endlessly in 24-hour newscycles can be both disturbing and strangely comforting. I learned that life is precious, that there are no guarantees, that people who waste your time are just robbing you, that small gestures can make heroic impressions, that your pain and suffering and anguish and heartbreak do not make you special, that no matter how bad it gets you should find solace in the fact that it will probably get better … or at least easier.

Twenty-three years is enough time for someone to raise a child and send him or her off into the world. Enough time for five presidential elections and four new Sondheim musicals. (Six, if you count Saturday Night and The Frogs.)

It’s enough time for a gangly, unsure college boy to cycle through four cars and five houses and six jobs and three cities and one engagement as he grows into a successful, confident (more or less) man.

It’s enough time for him to realize that the world is not fair. That bad things happen to good people. That the bad people who did them don’t always get punished. That horrible tragedy gets easier to accept over time, though it remains impossible to forget. That the hate that some people burn into your heart never entirely leaves, and that the smug, satisfied self-righteousness you feel when you finally see images of Moammar Gadhafi’s bloodied, abused corpse feels powerfully good.

I often wonder what Miriam would be if she were alive today. Famous actress? Influential journalist? Stay-at-home mom? She was among those people you just knew were going somewhere big with their lives. I’m sure that wherever the fates would have taken her, she’d be someone people knew about.

I also wonder if we would still be friends. We’d met that summer when we were singing and dancing in the shows at Darien Lake amusement park just outside Buffalo, New York. Our friendship lasted just seven months until she was murdered. I’m only barely in touch with the other friends I made at the park that summer. Miriam’s family and I aren’t in touch nearly as much as I’d like either (though her mother just published a book of Miriam's writings along with essays from people who knew and loved her, including me).

Would Miriam and I have drifted apart as well?

Since at this point I’m pretty much in control of our story, I choose to believe that by now I’d have sung in her wedding and helped her decorate her baby’s room and given her a prominent link on my blogroll and kept her on my speed dial from the moment I got my first cell phone.

And I’m pretty sure she’d have written the same story for me if our fates had been reversed.

Twenty-three years ago today was the last, devastating act in a year that had shaken my family to its core. It was the day my worldview changed from naive to guarded, from optimistic to cynical, from insular to secular. It was the day my friend Miriam was murdered.

And it was just another day for most people.

And though the world continues to spin forward—as it should—and people’s memories continue to fade—as they do—I will never forget.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Nobody thought it would be one of the kids

Nobody probably thought the Boat Crew would last this long, actually.

When four young couples from the same Cedar Rapids Lutheran church rented a houseboat and sailed up and down the Mississippi River for a long weekend in the summer of 1971, nobody probably even thought it was more than a one-time vacation.

But the couples invited more couples and did it again the next summer, and the next. Over time, a few couples came and went, but the tradition lived on summer after summer. Eventually a core group of seven couples emerged, and the Boat Crew was established … and a vital extended family was born.

Unofficially (or officially, depending on your personal opinion) the group’s name was the Mississippi River Marching and Drinking Society. But “Boat Crew” was easier to say. And less complicated to explain to the couples’ children, who were all about the age of the Boat Crew tradition itself.

As lives and careers evolved, many of the couples moved away … but everyone came back summer after summer for what had become an annual gathering of Boat Crew family with bonds as strong as any biological family.

And that family bond extended beyond the relationship between the seven couples; their children often spent the Boat Crew weekends together in one couple’s house, under the probably exhausted watch of two or three weekend-long babysitters.

Naturally, the kids developed a family bond as strong as their parents’. They were unofficial siblings in an extended family network, and they felt confident in the parental love they received from every member of the Boat Crew.

As the summers passed, the Boat Crew bond continued to grow and strengthen, especially over a developing collection of in-jokes, funny stories and traditions that became almost sacred. The most prominent tradition was Joy. It started when one couple brought a large white flag emblazoned with the word Joy in bright colors and displayed it on the ship’s mast. The flag appeared every summer, and eventually it inspired the regular exchanging of Joy-festooned knickknacks, shirts, Christmas ornaments (all collectively over the years described as "Joy shit") and even one summer little bottles of Joy dishwashing soap.

Music – an integral part of the Lutheran church where they all met – was just as important to the Boat Crew. The group contained many talented singers, and as they gathered under the stars with a guitar and a couple bottles of wine each summer, they sang hymns and folk songs and show tunes and whatever else they could think of. Their unofficial anthem was “Beautiful Savior,” which they sang together – in full, glorious harmony – on every gathering.

As the kids grew over the next four decades, the Boat Crew also started convening off-season for confirmations and graduations and weddings and grandchildren and the occasional family tragedy … and the inevitable deaths of the Boat Crew couples’ elderly parents.

And through it all, the Boat Crew became a bit of a statistical anomaly: seven couples who lived into their 50s and 60s and 70s … and stayed friends … and stayed married … and stayed alive.

As they started to retire from their jobs and prioritize grandparent obligations over Boat Crew gatherings, the group wasn’t always able to find a summer weekend that all seven couples could attend. And the “boat” part of Boat Crew became a bit of an anachronism; the summer reunions were happening now in Bed and Breakfasts overlooking the Mississippi instead of boats on the Mississippi.

And as they started to navigate the medical infirmities and physical indignities that come with age, the Boat Crew members started to contemplate their own mortality. Never ones to face life with fear or even reverence, they were realistic that eventually they were going to start dying … and they were not above having betting pools over who would go first.

But it never occurred to anyone that the first to die might not be one of the adults.

Robbie (who was now calling himself Robert but I’d known him since we were toddlers and I could never think of him as anyone but “Robbie”) was 42, pretty much right in the middle of the range of ages of the Boat Crew kids. He started getting sick two months ago, but he didn’t think it was much to worry about: just some lower back pain, fatigue and abdominal discomfort. But then the guy behind the deli counter where he went every day told him he looked yellow. And he became constipated. And on a trip home to see his parents in Iowa, he decided to see a doctor.

And that’s where he found out.

Colon cancer.

Stage 4.

Colon cancer patients at stage 4 have an 8-15% chance of being alive five years after diagnosis. And Robbie, forever the optimist, dove right into surgery and chemotherapy while his parents took care of him in their home.

But it quickly became obvious that he was losing the battle. And as he eventually slipped into a coma, his parents – buoyed by the love and calls and texts and emails of Boat Crew members across the country – kept a vigil by his bed.

And six weeks after his diagnosis – six weeks after driving himself seven hours from Chicago to his parents’ house, five weeks after walking into the doctor’s office with what he thought were just stomach pains, three weeks after cheering on friends in the Chicago Marathon via Facebook – Robbie drew his last breath, sending waves of shock and devastation throughout his extended Boat Crew family.

Robbie’s father had died of cancer 40 years ago, before the Boat Crew had been officially established. His mother and the man who eventually became her next husband had been regular Boat Crew members from nearly the beginning.

While she was still single, though, she and Robbie had taken vacations with our family a number of times, often to Adventureland amusement park in Des Moines and once on a Bicentennial road trip to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell and Washington, D.C., to see pretty much everything else associated with America’s birthplace.

Robbie and I went to different high schools and colleges, but we eventually both found our ways to Chicago. We kept seeing each other at Boat Crew gatherings, but we’d slowly drifted apart … as had many of the Boat Crew kids as we scattered about the country and built our own families.

Robbie’s parents and mine, of course, had stayed fast Boat Crew friends. And when Robbie was facing the first weeks of his cancer treatments, my parents made a trip to Des Moines to provide support.

When Robbie died last week, I was more choked up than I’d expected. We hadn’t seen each other in probably five years. And I knew that he was no longer suffering through an excruciating illness. But his death – especially as a Boat Crew kid and not an adult – was a shock to all of us … and no doubt an indescribable devastation to his parents. And it was probably the first of many more as my peers and I start to move through our 40s and beyond.

But for the first time in many years, the entire Boat Crew – along with a handful of Boat Crew kids – dropped everything in their lives and appeared at the funeral. Forever part of the family, we walked in with Robbie’s parents and biological family members and were seated right behind them. And when the congregation sang “Beautiful Savior,” the Boat Crew’s beautiful harmonies rose above the music as if to lift Robbie to whatever awaited him in the afterlife and remind him of the loving extended family he’d been a part of on earth.

His parents asked me to be one of his pall bearers, which I accepted as an honor. Escorting a fallen comrade to his grave is overwhelming – especially when we’re both so young – but I felt giving him a solemn, respectful final journey was the best gift I could give him. He was family, after all.

Monday, September 26, 2011


Like Picasso, Matisse, Pollock and a host of iconic 20th century painters, Gerhard Richter has developed a signature visual vocabulary of sometimes photorealistic images obscured to varying degrees in scrapes, blurs, flecks and pulls of wet and dry paint. Evoking at once powerful movement and misty tranquility, his works require a commitment of effort and time to absorb.

His September (2009) utilizes this technique to stunning effect. Two silvery twin towers, the tops of which disappear into monumental clouds of opaque browns and blacks, stand defiantly against horizontal winds of scrapes and streaks and blurs. The painting captures a moment of enormity with grace and respect and breathtaking radiance.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Healthcare encapsulated

She was petite, in blue dress pants and a conservative blouse with a small gym bag over her shoulder. I probably wouldn’t even have noticed her when I arrived at the pharmacy counter and stood the customary respectful distance behind her, except her conversation with the pharmacist was taking a long time. A really long time.

I tried not to listen, but her voice was taking on a panicked tone, and the more she talked, the more high-pitched and quavery – and loud – she got.

“I’ll have the money in my account on Friday when I get paid,” she told the pharmacist. “But I ran out of my medication yesterday.” She choked back whatever was welling up in her throat.

The pharmacist apologized in a tone so low I couldn’t hear what she was saying, even though she was facing me. I could tell she was deeply troubled by having to withhold medication from a patient. But I assume there are strict laws against dispensing prescriptions on store credit.

The pharmacist had already rung up a few extra items for the woman, and they were in a bag on the counter. The woman opened the bag and looked at the other things she’d intended to buy with her medication.

“How much would the total be if I didn’t buy this?” she asked as she handed back a bottle of Sprite Zero and a package of cookies. The tiny sparkle of hope in her voice belied what she, the pharmacist and probably everyone else in earshot already knew: a few dollars wouldn’t make a difference.

“That brings it down to $735,” the pharmacist said.

The woman’s shoulders slumped. She handed the pharmacist two more products from the bag as I busied myself examining the display of sharps containers and daily pill organizers on the wall next to me.


The bag was empty. And even though her back was to me, I could see the woman was trying to survive this conversation with every ounce of dignity she could muster.

There was a long, heavy pause. Then something occurred to her.

“Can I just pay for a few day’s worth? Even one day’s worth?” The hope in her voice made me silently root for a good answer from the pharmacist as I discovered you can even buy pill organizers that lock so they won’t open in your purse.

The pharmacist took a breath so deep I could hear it from my position six feet away with my head turned away from her.

“I’m sorry. That’s not how the prescription was written.”

I hadn’t realized the woman had been holding her bagged prescriptions in her hands during the entire conversation. She could have grabbed them and run, which is obviously a terrible decision. But it seemed like a viable option even to me as we all stood there.

She clutched the bag to her chest for a moment – holding whatever drugs she obviously needed as close to her body as they were going to get today – and then slowly set them on the counter and pushed them back to the pharmacist.

“I’ll be back on Friday,” she said in a resigned voice. “My paycheck usually gets deposited in my account first thing in the morning, so I’ll be here before work. You open at 7, right?”

I stepped way back and started examining the boxes of alcohol wipes that the doctor uses on your skin before giving you an injection. My attempt to give her some space worked, at least for me; I didn’t see her walk away.

But when I walked up to the pharmacist, who looked slightly ashen, I saw the woman’s empty drugstore bag on the counter. And her Sprite Zero, her cookies and her two boxes of vitamins still sitting next to the register.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Lists of things

Things I found while packing for an office move
1. A box of teabags that expired before I started working here five years ago.
2. Enough dust to knit a cowl-knit sweater.
3. My diploma from corporate-non-sexual-harassment training class. Which obviously didn’t take because I totally think you have a great rack.

Things I have done so far this summer
1. Spent a long weekend with six buddies on a private estate in upstate New York.
2. Started taking tap classes with a woman I picked up on an airplane.
3. Danced mostly naked on a Big Boy float (complete with insanely hot muscleboys in matching trunks, a corporate sponsorship, a decorating theme and an on-board deejay) in the Chicago pride parade.

Things that are apparently unavoidable
1. My trainer will tell me “watch your head” when I lean back on the decline bench press.
2. I will get more tattoos. And I’ll stop telling myself I can only get one for each marathon I finish.
3. The sink on the right in our office bathroom will always be out of hand soap.

Things that are hard to process
1. My little sister is now 40.
2. Michele Bachmann has a following.
3. People are finding value in Google+.

Things I have recently given up
1. Running marathons. All running, actually.
2. Writing blog posts, apparently. Except about once every few months.
3. All soda. But I fell off the wagon (or got back on, however the expression goes) within a month.

Things I put in my mouth every morning
1. Three medications for my growing litany of old-man maladies.
2. Three eggs scrambled with cheese and wheat toast with no-cholesterol butter and jelly.
3. My Jack3d pre-workout energy shake.

Things about me that are just not true
1. I was the first black Miss America.
2. I killed a man with my bare hands because he kept pronouncing it “fustrated.”
3. I am responsible for the destruction of marriage in the United States.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What the hell do gay people have to be proud of?

We’re proud because despite relentless persecution everywhere we turn—when organized religion viciously attacks and censures and vilifies us in the name of selective morality, when our families disown us, when our elected officials bargain away our equality for hate votes, when entire states codify our families into second-class citizenship, when our employers fire us, when our landlords evict us, when our police harass us, when our neighbors and colleagues and fellow citizens openly insult and condemn and mock and berate and even beat and kill us—we continue to survive.

We’re proud because pride is the opposite of shame—and despite what the Christian hate industry works so hard to make the world believe, there is nothing shameful about being gay.

We’re proud because—thanks to the incredible bravery shown by gay people who lived their lives openly in the decades before us—we can live our lives more and more openly at home, at work, with our families, on our blogs … and even on national television.

We’re proud because we’re slowly achieving marriage equality state by state. And even though the change is happening at a glacial pace, we’re still making it happen.

We’re proud because we are smart enough to overcome the self-loathing that our increasingly venomous, mindlessly theocratic society forces on us, and we have the power to stop its destructive cycle by fighting back and by making intelligent choices involving sex and drugs and money and relationships and the way we live our lives.

We’re proud because after all we’ve been through, the world is starting to notice and respect us and emulate the often fabulous culture we’ve assembled from the common struggles and glorious diversity of our disparate lives.

We’re proud because this weekend we’ll celebrate with drag queens, leather queens, muscle queens, attitude queens and you’d-never-know-they-were-queens queens, and together we can see through the “pride” in our parade and enjoy the underlying Pride in our parade.

Quite simply, we’re proud that we have so much to be proud of.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Key words

I crossed back into the prime numbers last week. And since 43 is kind of a wishy-washy number that has neither the young sexiness of 42 nor the august milestoniness of 45, I went home to Iowa to age quietly with my family. We celebrated by doing fun uncle things, hanging out accomplishing nothing, and eating our weight in cake and ice cream and homemade pie and pizza. For a non-remarkable-age birthday, it was remarkably fabulous.

Cancerous Moles
My birthday always means it’s time to go on my annual mole patrol at my friendly neighborhood dermatologist. Because I’m a moley person. And it just seems prudent to make sure my moles aren’t trying to kill me. Because then where would they go to grow and raise families and contribute to society? You can’t thrive on a dead body. Unless you’re a maggot. Or Maggie Gallagher. Anyway! I had a couple suspicious moles removed and biopsied in 2005, but I’ve managed to escape the dreaded mole knife since then. Until now. Because in two weeks I get to have two more moles hacked out of my dermis. But at least this time they’re not in the middle of my back (which makes replacing bandages all but impossible ); they’re almost twin moles on the lower, way-more-reachable parts of each thigh. A quick read of my blog post from 2005 reminds me that I wasn’t allowed to work out for two weeks after the last biopsies as the stitches healed. A quick check of my vanity calls bullshit on that for 2011.

Vacation Days
I have officially used up my entire allotment for the year. Well, technically not yet; since I’m not training for a marathon this summer and therefore not beholden to a draconian weekend running schedule, I’ve booked fabulous getaways from now until Labor Day, all through the weekends when I’d normally be getting up at 4:00 to pound out anywhere from 6 to 22 miles. So watch out, Rehoboth, D.C., Saugutuck, New York, Provincetown and Cedar Rapids! I’m coming to visit you this summer!

One of my vacation trips will be to my hometown for my 25th high school reunion. There’s even a Facebook page where people post nostalgia-related comments about favorite bands and local hangouts and fashion faux pas from the mid-1980s. I’m still weirdly fascinated by the fact that this group of people I knew before the Internet existed now all have email addresses and Facebook accounts. Not to mention grown children and third marriages.

I had about four more vocabulary-word-related topics I wanted to cover here as I was formulating this blog post in my head, but once I sat down to actually write it, I can’t remember what they were.

Pill Organizer
I’m now on so many old-man medications and supplements I had to break down and buy an old-man pill organizer. Here’s a picture of it open to the pills I took on my birthday last week:
Fun game for pharmacology aficionados: Guess what’s wrong with me based on the pills you see! Decoy alert: One of pills I take every morning is plain old vitamin D.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Things that Grow

$100: What is this hematoma on my arm?
Thanks to some inexpert poking by a clumsy phlebotomist (which should totally be the prequel to The Drowsy Chaperone), I have a big ugly bruise in the crook of my arm. And the damn thing keeps growing and darkening, albeit at the speed of a Palin in a spelling bee. So I’m not worried that I’m slowly dying of an internal hemorrhage.

$200: What is my belt?
Never buy a $9.99 belt from H&M. Unless you’re a contestant on The Biggest Loser and you want belt-related proof of dramatic weight loss. Because my ultra-cool belt that fit perfectly three months ago now reaches past my left hip bone as it wraps around my waist. And it makes me look like I’m playing dress-up from my daddy’s closet. My daddy’s ultra-cool-belt-containing closet, but my daddy’s closet nonetheless.

$300: What is my faith in humanity?
There is a lot to make people think humanity has hit an all-time low. To wit: Newt Gingrich. But then every morning I encounter a little glimmer of hope that could make him go away. If we were lucky. There’s an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair who parks on the same corner in the Loop every morning, right under the El tracks. Nearly everyone who walks by says hi or brings him something or drops a coin in his cup, all of which could completely counteract the Gingrich Effect. Except it doesn’t. But there’s another group of people who wave at this gentleman too. And their collective gesture alone elevates my opinion of all of humanity (except, of course, Newt). They’re the El conductors who actually slow down their trains, lean out their windows from two stories up, toot their horns and wave at the old guy. I’ve never seen it not happen as a train goes by. And I’ve always seen the gentleman sit up straighter in his wheelchair when it does, as if he’s saying Do you see that? I have the power to make the trains slow down. I’m somebody!

$400: What are my quads?
After the marathon in November, my trainer ratcheted up the brutality of our workouts about a thousandfold. And since I’m not doing any cardio, the damn workouts are working! I crossed the finish line somewhere around 190 lbs, which is an artificially low post-run weight from my normal 195ish lbs. But now, five months and no miles later, I’m tipping the scales at 218 lbs, which is 13 lbs heavier than I’ve ever been! Woot! A lot of the growth seems to be in my upper thighs and my brand-new, never-before-existed butt, which (un)fortunately means most of my jeans don’t fit anymore. And it’s not like they don’t fit just a little; they totally won’t go over my upper-leg area. It’s becoming an expensive problem to have, but it’s the welcome price of gay male vanity. Plus it totally proves my cheap $9.99 H&M belt is stretching farther than the truth as spoken by Michele Bachmann.

$500: What are my feet?
Back when I was just running 5K races, I bought running shoes in cool colors … and in my always-been-this-way-since-college 10.5 street-shoe size. Which always felt pinchy, but what did I know about how running shoes should fit? Before my first marathon, though, I got fitted for running shoes by the friendly experts at Fleet Feet (true motto: Never buy running shoes based on color) and got bumped up to a 11.5 wide shoe, since your feet tend to spread out as you pound out the miles and they need someplace to go. Now, a full eight years after that first fitting, I can barely squeeze my dogs into my regular size-10.5 street shoes. In fact, the 11.5s don’t fit so well either. My feet have actually grown to a size 12 in the last few years. Which means one thing (or maybe two, but this is a family blog): I get to buy all new shoes!

Sunday, April 03, 2011

It's our time. Permanently ink it in.

I ran my seventh (and most likely last, but never say never) marathon in November, which by my rules gave me permission to get a seventh tattoo. I'd narrowed down what I wanted to about ten different tattoo designs on five different body parts. But a great lack of focus can lead to great abundance of regret in the tattoo department. So I waited until one idea emerged in my mind as the coolest and most mandatory of all possible ideas. Because tattoos are like ice cream flavors; eventually you just know what you want. Or something like that.


Many of the ideas involved quotes from the vast Stephen Sondheim canon. I toyed with "Toward the verticals of trees" climbing up the side of my torso and "It's our time. Breathe it in." wrapping around my forearm. I'd even played with fonts and made a few templates of those ideas to tape to my body and see what I thought of them.

But I love tattoos that peek out from shirts or waistbands. And I've always thought tats on the insides of a biceps (fun fact! biceps is both singular and plural!) are hot. And it occurred to me late this week that there's a better, shorter, more impactful quote from "Our Time." And it would look awesome in a swirly, brambly, vaguely triangular shape on the inside of my biceps, where it would also have the bonus feature of peeking out from a short sleeve.

And 48 hours after the idea occurred to me, it was etched in ink on my person. And I love it:

Of course, just like with ice cream flavors, you can't stop at just one. I still needed to get my seventh dot on my bonus eighth tattoo (the master tattoo that acts as a table of contents for all my other tattoos, cataloguing them via an ingenious system of dots). Weirdly, there was already a mole kind of where the last dot was supposed to go. So this dot looks a little big. It also looks like it sits a little high, but since I can't really have it lowered I choose to think that it represents all the damn hills I had to climb in the New York City Marathon last fall. In any case, with this tattoo, my collection is complete:

And by "my collection is complete" I of course mean "I've just whetted my appetite for more tattoos." But don't tell my mom.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

ChicagoRound: Iroquois Theatre

Chicago emerged from its devastating Great Fire on October 10, 1871, after a two-day conflagration that destroyed 17,500 buildings over four square miles, left 90,000 of the city’s 300,000 inhabitants homeless and killed an impossible-to-quantify-accurately 200–300 people.

And the city immediately began rebuilding.

Thirty-two years and two months later, after rising both literally and proverbially from its ashes to reclaim its place as one of America’s most populous and vital cities, Chicago was devastated by another fire … this time in the month-old, state-of-the-art, “fireproof” Iroquois Theatre.

When it opened on November 23, 1903, the Iroquois Theatre was hailed as an architectural masterpiece and a jewel in the crown of Chicago’s theater scene. Designed in the highly ornate French baroque style, it featured grand staircases, gilded ornamentation, lush velvet curtains and a 6,300-square-foot domed auditorium with a dropped stage to improve the sightlines from every seat in the house. And though it was billed confidently as “absolutely fireproof,” the Iroquois contained almost no fire-safety features. No fire alarm. No backstage telephone. No labeled fire exits (most exits were hidden behind velvet curtains anyway). Even its supposedly fireproof asbestos curtain was made of a highly flammable wood pulp. (Less than ten years later, the “unsinkable” Titanic would succumb to a similarly overconfident hubris.)

The theater’s opening production was a touring musical pastiche called Mr. Bluebeard, which featured a 400-person cast and starred popular Vaudeville comedian Eddie Foy. It had enjoyed critical and popular success for over a month when its December 30 audience filed in on a freezing Wednesday afternoon during the break between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Since the theater’s opening had been delayed repeatedly, its owners were desperate to make up for lost revenue, so they habitually oversold the house, seating extra patrons up and down the aisles in the orchestra and balconies.

The fire started at the top of Act II when an overhead light shorted and sent sparks leaping to a nearby curtain. As the fire spread through the flylines and burning bits of scenery rained down on the stage, the actors continued soldiering through their performance, confident in their understanding that the theater was fireproof. A handful of people in the audience got nervous enough to leave, but many chose to stay in their seats (or aisles) until it became obvious the fire was not going to be contained.

And then panic set in.

The ensuing stampede up overcrowded aisles through an unfamiliar theater with hidden exits left trampled bodies everywhere. And since most of the Iroquois exit doors opened inward, the bodies piled up in front of the doors, leaving no hope of escape.

The actors, too, created their own stampede to find exits. And when they finally pried open the giant freight door on the north end of the stage, the arctic winter blast that blew into the building combined with the fiery gases above the stage to create a superheated fireball that exploded into the auditorium and incinerated everything in its path, including hundreds of people still in their seats.

Many of the people who did manage to get out of the building found themselves trapped high in the air on unfinished fire escapes. As these fire escapes got more and more crowded, people begin to fall (or jump) to their deaths in the alley below. By the time the fire was over, bodies were piled 10 deep in what is still called to this day Death Alley.

Though it was contained to one building and it burned less than an hour, the fire killed over 600 people (twice the number killed in the two-day Great Fire of 1871), shut down theaters around the world out of fire-safety concerns (leaving thousands of actors and theater employees unemployed), generated worldwide outpourings of sympathy, exposed yet another Chicago corruption scandal in the years of ensuing lawsuits, and ultimately brought about great changes in the way we respond to massive disasters and catalogue and identify disaster victims. It even inspired an Indianapolis hardware salesman named Carl Prinzler, who randomly had to miss the deadly performance, to invent what he called the Self Releasing Fire Exit Bolt once he learned that a disproportionate number of victims had died in desperate piles in front of the inward-opening exit doors with confusing European-style bascule locks. Known today as the “panic bar,” his invention—along with outward-opening exit doors—are perhaps the biggest public-safety legacy of the Iroquois disaster.

Today, the stunning Asian-baroque Oriental Theatre sits pretty much on the exact footprint of the Iroquois Theatre. A thriving part of the Broadway in Chicago theater collective, it features touring productions that play year-round to thousands upon thousands of theater patrons who largely have no idea that they’re sitting on a historic graveyard of sorts. To my knowledge there isn’t even a memorial on the property commemorating the fire.

There is a memorial about three blocks away, in Chicago’s classical-revival City Hall building. Designed by Chicago sculptor Laredo Taft, the bas-relief plaque currently sits above a glass column that houses a revolving door, so it’s both hard to see up close and hard to photograph, especially with an iPhone.

Thankfully, it’s accompanied by an eye-level plaque that explains it context and memorializes the 600 lives lost on December 30, 1903, in one of the worst theater disasters in history.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Litany of complaints

Jake never updates his blog
Jake is a lazy bitch. But writing endlessly clever, upbeat blog posts is exhausting. Fortunately, Jake has a couple complaints he’d like to air. And those things are always more fun to write about. So now he has a blog post to post!

For instance!

Bees are liars
My spring allergies have escalated in the last few years to be spring Sinus Headache Smackdowns™! I can usually manage (but never eliminate) the excruciating sinus pain and pressure through the magic of pharmaceuticals, but I’ve always been on the lookout for something more permanent … or at least more effective. A buddy of mine who’s all holistic and shit recommended last year that I buy a jar of locally grown organic honey and eat a tablespoon of it every day for a month. His theory was that I’d ingest minuscule particles of the local allergens that inflate my head like a helium-filled otter every spring and slowly build up my own natural immunity to them. So I’ve been eating a tablespoon of the stuff every day since February 1. First impression: Organic honey is hyper-sweet. Second impression: Organic honey is gross. Third impression: Organic honey doesn’t work. I just survived an epic Sinus Headache Smackdown™! that lasted more than a week, and all I have to show for it is elevated blood sugar from eating hyper-sweet honey with a damn spoon every day for over a month. On the plus side, I got my annual Sinus Headache Smackdown™! in March instead of May, so spring is probably on its way early. Woot!

Stress fractures never really leave you
I have one in each foot. They usually re-snap (or whatever the medical term is) late in every marathon season. And they let me know they’ve re-snapped via their distinctive pattern of pain across the tops of my feet. I can’t recall whether it was when I was kicking Donald “Gays don’t deserve equal rights” Trump in the face or just wearing some stiff new shoes, but I somehow managed to make that distinctive pattern of pain appear across the top of my right foot again last week. But if it was from kicking The Donald, it was totally worth it. Fucker.

Newt Gingrich is a whore
Nobody needs a lecture on the "sanctity" of marriage from a mulitply divorced adulterer, Newt.

The New Yorkers won
Like most subscribers, I let myself get a little behind on reading my New Yorker magazines. So I had a little pile here and a little pile there, all just waiting for me to re-snap a stress fracture and use my down time to sit and read and read and read until I was all caught up. But then I noticed my little piles filled two drawers in my bureau and completely hid everything on the side table by the bedroom TV. And when I finally decided they’d reached critical never-gonna-get-read mass over the weekend and I assembled them in one single pile, I discovered I had more than a yard of unread New Yorkers mocking me from every nook and cranny in our house. But no more! Two trips to the recycling bin later, I now have stronger magazine-schlepping arms and way more room in the house for other trinkets. Like my unread Newsweeks.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

10 days with glasses

Zero days with headaches! Woo-hoo!

So I survived my first week back on the four-eyes stolen-lunch-money bus, and while getting my eyes used to seeing the world through what seemed like dirty water for a few days took some getting used to, I didn’t go home from work once with a headache last week. Which is five fewer headaches than I’ve brought home in weeks past.

And since my new goggles are only for reading and computer stuff—which happens primarily at work, where I don’t think I have ever had blog-worthy party pictures taken—I tried to take a self-portrait to show you-all what I look like in rimless glasses.

Unfortunately, ambient bathroom lighting + low-quality iPhone photo technology = barely-there rimless glasses in this otherwise award-worthy self-portrait:
See that shower curtain in the background? I hung it in early December when we finished the bathroom renovation. I’ve washed and dried it three times since then. So why does it still stubbornly hold onto the fold marks from its days in its store packaging?

Speaking of cheap shit, remember the little face-clinging disposable sunglasses I got when my eyes were dilated? (You should, because the pic of me sporting them has been the only thing on my blog for the last 15 days.)

They were too cute to throw away and too weird to actually wear in public. Fortunately, we have a prisoner in our home we’re not above embarrassing with cheap costume pieces. The poor guy has been forced to wear Santa hats all through Christmas season every year … and now he’s stuck wearing cheesy cheap (like Velveeta!) sunglasses until we get bored and release him from his misery. Or until the cheap glasses pop off and roll across the floor under the couch:

Monday, February 07, 2011

Odds and ends. But mostly odds.

It’s really hard being absolutist about stuff. Well, it’s hard most of the time. For example, I think Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck serve one purpose: giving low-information citizens the emotional permission they’re looking for to stay uneducated, hostile and solipsistic. I loathe Sarah and Glenn and I can barely be civil to their followers who keep giving them a platform to spread their pseudo-intellectual cancer. And I see no gray areas in this matter. Unfortunately, as an absolutist, I see no gray areas in lots of places. For instance! My abandonment of Coke Zero. I enjoyed my last Coke Zero on January 2 (I prefer to start my self-deprivations on Mondays) and while I want to drink another Coke Zero more than I want to choke Sarah Palin with the empty cup, cheating on my resolution is tantamount to quitting it altogether. So I can’t allow myself even a tiny little sip in my withdrawal process.

I am full of gray areas regarding this blog. I clearly don’t write in it much anymore, even though deep down I really want to. But I’ve just grown lazy and complacent about it. And as an absolutist I should just abandon it altogether. But then I’ll be minding my own business at a street fair or a diner or—as was the case this weekend—a lesbian birthday and suddenly a stranger will pop up and start saying nice things to me about my writing and my weird sense of humor and how he or she really, really, really looks forward to my posts and then I think SHIT. Now I have to go write in it again. And I’ll write a few more posts and then I’ll get lazy and then I’ll think I should just shut it down and then another pesky fan will pop up and peskily say nice things about my blog and the cycle peskily starts over. Darn you, pesky fans! Darn you like a sock!

My socks are in a permanent state of wetness. Because it’s snowier here than a girl who lives with seven tiny men in the woods. And I seem to have a highly advanced sense of puddle-dar. Because I keep stepping in calf-deep piles of snow and slush and wetness and then spending the day in wet socks. And the snow here is so deep and so copious that there’s no chance it will be gone any time soon. So I’m now carrying extra socks in my gym bag everywhere I go. And while we’re on the topic of the blizzard, I quickly grew tired last week of predictable little neologisms like snowpocalypse and snowmageddon and snOMG. So I wielded my considerable blogging and Facebooking influence to get everyone to start calling the blizzard Snownadu—which is both an homage to my favorite song ever plus a nod to the fabulous disco-ball effect you get when you cover a city in almost two feet of snow. But Snownadu never took off. Which is a total snowdgedy.

The snow is extra sun-glinty when your eyes are dilated. I went to the eye doctor on Saturday for the first time in probably five years. And I stumbled out an hour later with enormous pupils and an $855 bill for a checkup and ultra-expensive new glasses (because they looked better than the cheap ones and if I’m gonna start wearing glasses post-LASIK I want to look totally badass, or at least slightly handsome). But! Enormous pupils are not the ideal accessory for a sunny day in a city blanketed by a Snownadu (see how easy that is?). So I was forced to wear temporary roll-up sunglasses (because I forgot to pack real sunglasses even though I knew I’d be dilated) in my cab ride (because I didn’t think I should drive—especially in two feet of snow—with dilated pupils) home. Unfortunately, I wasn’t too proud to take a self-portrait. Or too smart to post it on my blog:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Shoes before cruise!

The domestic partner and I decided to take this year off from gay cruises … so of course 2011 ends up being Atlantis’ 20th anniversary of cruising and of course it books the mega-hella-massive Allure of the Seas for its epic 20th anniversary cruise and of course all our friends in the known universe will be frolicking beSpeedoed on that ship next month without us.

But! Gay cruises are expensive once you factor in airfare and hotels and port adventures and glitter. We figure we’ve spent up to $3,000 each for every cruise we’ve been on – and we don’t even drink alcohol or have to carry bail money for drug busts.

So while our friends booked the best balcony rooms and stopped eating carbs and invested in new Speedo wardrobes, we stuck to our financial guns. And we’ll be landbound next weekend when they all set sail into the warm Caribbean.

Plus we’ll also be $3,000 richer than everyone else.

And there’s only one way to celebrate saving $3,000 on a cruise: spending $400 on clothes!

To assuage my disappointment in not cruising this year, I gave myself a $200 $300 $400 allowance to go hunting for some new shirts, pants and shoes that were 1) appropriate for the casual-funky-slightly-dressy sartorial look I’ve imposed on myself for work, 2) comfortable to wear and easy to wash, and 3) big enough to accommodate my slowly (very slowly) growing physique.

And thanks to the awesome deals at Filene’s Basement and Nordstrom Rack—not to mention the attitude and/or incompetence of the Puma Store employees that alienated me, the almighty consumer, into not spending $260 on their full-priced stuff—I eventually stumbled home with two pair of shoes, two pair of pants and ten (twelve? fifteen? I honestly lost count) shirts.

As usual, I wanted dressy gym shoes I could wear to the gym without looking too dressy and to work without looking too gymmy. And I found these fabulous Pumas (but not in the attitude-and/or-incompetence-riddled Puma Store) marked down to $49 from $80:

My years of brutal personal-trainer workouts and mountains of chicken breasts and gallons of protein shakes are slowly (very slowly) paying off, because I’m slowly (very slowly) growing in all the places I’d hoped I’d grow. And a lot of my short-sleeve shirts that looked merely questionable for work two years ago now look downright desperate the way the shoulder seams ride up and the sleeves barely cover my arms. So I made a point to buy (still fitted) shirts in sizes bigger than you typically find in the American Girl Store.

But! This week when I was searching online for synonyms for the word “plus” (for a client’s product-naming brainstorm! honest!), made some rude assumptions about my motives when it placed its paid advertisements on the results page:
Dear Suddenly wearing bigger shirts does not make me a big girl. I’ll thank you for keeping your interpretations of my shopping and/or word-searching habits to yourself.

While I was updating my look (and abandoning Atlantis) I also decided that the formerly-garish-but-now-grungy orange Atlantis gym bag I’ve carried around with me every day for the last four-plus years was looking kind of … um … tacky.

I leave the house at 6:00 every morning and carry my whole day in that bag—including clothes, dopp kit, protein shakes, water, pain relievers, healthful lunch, healthful snacks and reading material for the bus—so it’s a permanent part of my person. And formerly-garish-but-now-grungy orange doesn’t really match my classy, not-frat-house-dwelling personality. I wanted to find a plain black bag with no logos on it, but that’s like finding an article of the Constitution Michele Bachmann has actually read. So I settled for the bag on the right, which is significantly classier and more not-frat-house-dwelling than the formerly-garish-but-now-grungy orange thing on the left, which found a new home in the garbage can moments after posing for this picture:

So now I have two (three? I honestly lost count) weeks of cool new clothes to wear and a new bag to carry and two new pair of shoes to choose from—which means I'll embark on an exciting new sartorial adventure every morning for at least two weeks—so who needs a stupid cruise with stupid hot men in stupid Speedos on a stupid mega-hella-massive ship with live performances by stupidly hot Cheyenne Jackson? Harumph.

Friday, January 21, 2011

I sang Happy Birthday to Dolly Parton! Twice!

For realz! So I can finally cross that off my bucket list.

We went to the Chicago grand opening of 9 to 5: The Musical this week, and Dolly herself showed up, complete with a walk down a laughably short red carpet, given how close the Bank of America Theatre (née LaSalle Bank Theatre, née Shubert Theatre) is to the street and how elfin its vestibule and lobby are.

The fact that she was going to be at the show wasn’t widely publicized, so there wasn’t a massive, Dolly-worthy crowd waiting for her. Which meant one thing: more room for us to see her!

Unfortunately, that elfin vestibule gave her about 1.4 seconds to wave to the crowd on her right as she walked in … and by the time those 1.4 seconds were up she was so close to the lobby door that it looked like she wouldn’t even turn to face those of us on her left. So I panicked and took this picture of the back of her head:

Of course, the millisecond after I took the picture she turned and waved at us … as my iPhone struggled through its 17-minute process of thinking about the picture it just took. So the above picture is all I have to show Dolly and I were in the same room together … no doubt both thinking about how good I’d look in her red Best Little Whorehouse in Texas finale dress.

But! She was introduced to the audience before the show by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, who takes awkward speeches and ill-timed references to funerals to an all-time low. And when he mentioned it was her birthday, the whole audience spontaneously broke into a chorus of Happy Birthday. And since only gay men and women who can’t get dates go to musicals written by Dolly Parton, our Happy Birthday was in full harmony.

And after the show, the cast interrupted their bows to bring Dolly back up on stage, present her with a cake … and sing Happy Birthday with the audience again … this time with a full orchestra! And again with the harmony.

It was enough to drive you giddy. If you let it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Things to celebrate

1. Jury duty was a breeze on Monday
This was the third time I'd been called to jury duty in Maywood, Illinois, which is so far west it might as well be in Sarah Palin's reading library double-wide. But this time Maywood didn't look like the gang-warfare video game I recall it being. And sitting in the jury waiting room all day gave me a chance to catch up on some freelance writing. Even though I could not escape the bleatings of Let's Make a Deal and The Price is Right, which are both so stupid they make me want to kick puppies. And that "all day" two sentences ago is kind of a misnomer; all the cases that day settled out of court, so even though we potential jurors were denied the opportunity to send miscreants to the hoosegow, we all got sent home in just enough time for me to get my oil changed, run a bunch of other glamorous errands and start un-Christmasing the house. And I eventually got to use miscreants and hoosegow in my blog. Hoosegow!

2. Traffic court was everything I'd hoped for on Thursday
Aside from the fact that I had to go in the first place, I mean. I had (allegedly!) not seen a no-left-turn sign in a snowstorm way back on December 4, and the cop actually took my fucking license as though I were a third-offense drunk driver. I at least had the presence of mind to make him take my AAA card instead (fun fact: your motor club card usually works as bond when someone tries to take your license!) but I still had to go to court to get it back. I, being a lifelong hater of confrontation, was nervous as heck walking into court (so nervous, in fact, that I accidentally left my coat at the security check and had to run back to get it). But when I didn't see my license-taking cop in the courtroom (at least I didn't think I saw him; my guy was white and the three cops in court were a white guy who kind of looked like my vague memory of my cop and two black people, who I was able to eliminate as my cops through my otherwise keen observational skillz) I calmed down. Sure enough, the white cop was not my white cop, and since there were no witnesses against my (alleged!) traffic misdemeanor, all the charges were dropped and this (alleged!) miscreant didn't get sent to the hoosegow. Woot!

3. I had a good physical on Friday
The lab took eight vials of blood to monitor my hyperthyroidism and elevated prolactin and a host of other 42-year-old indignities, though. So I'm still kind of woozy in a vampire-in-the-daylight kind of way. But otherwise the doctor said I'm fabulous! (And healthy.)

4. I updated my blog template today
This new look -- which I don't like as much as the one I abandoned -- isn't really the reason I'm celebrating. But upgrading to a new Blogger template was the only way I could extricate myself from the clutches of the Echo commenting software I didn't want to use anymore ... even though it means I lost eight years' worth of comments in the process. Blogger promises me I can still access my old links, which I hope to incorporate into this layout in the near future. But in the mean time, the five of you who still read my blog can make comments again. Not that you've been doing a lot of that recently anyway. Ahem.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New Year's Resolutions

Update my blog at least once every 21 days

Figure out how to convert my commenting to Blogger
Before Blogger offered a commenting feature, I used a free commenting app called HaloScan, which last year converted to a pay program called Echo. But I get about 5 comments per post, and now Blogger offers free built-in commenting capabilities … so it seems dumb to pay for the feature. Unfortunately, Echo offers NO help in shutting off its commenting app, which seems to have hijacked the DNA of my entire blog. So the five of you who want to comment on this post are just gonna have to hold tight until I can figure everything out. Since Echo has a lock on my commenting link but not on my credit card, you can comment all you want but I can't access your comments to approve them.

Write and mail my epic holiday letter
At this point I have a Word doc that lists all the months in order from 2010. So I’m almost done.

Gain at least two pounds a month in the gym
I started the year around 205, including bad holiday weight. I was 208 this morning, which seems to be good weight. Or at least I’ve-been-very-good-in-the-food-department weight. Then again, it could have been post-intense-workout water weight. But still. 208! Woot!

Outgrow some clothes
I mean in the vain-gymrat way. In December I reached the point where some of my narrow (not skinny—I’m not that delusional) jeans clung to my quads and calves and wouldn’t fall back down to cover my ankles when I stood up. So they’re currently at the bottom of the jeans pile. And my lats (which is vain-gymratspeak for the sides of my back) have gotten so wide (but never wide enough!) that I’ve had to do the douchebag cut (armholes down to the waist) on most of my workout shirts, which were already douchebaggy because I’d cut all the sleeves off.

Stop obsessing about getting bigger in the gym

Give up soda
I haven’t had a Coke Zero (my vice of choice) since January 2. I miss it worse than John McCain misses his integrity, but this attempt to quit comes with a built-in incentive: Drinking soda seems to have become a trigger for migraines and heartburn, and I haven’t had an episode of either since I quit filling myself with delightfully fizzy adventures in processed chemicals. Late last year they (the migraines and heartburn, not the delightfully fizzy chemicals) started kicking in at least twice a month, so I’ll jump on any bandwagon that looks like it could reverse that trend.

Buy some new ChapStick®
I've been reduced to digging out the last dregs from my current tube with my masculinely short fingernails. For the last month. It's probably time to pony up another couple bucks for a fresh tube.

Judge more people
I had jury duty yesterday, so I came this close to sitting in judgment over a whole world of miscreants. Unfortunately, every trial that day settled without going to court. So I was denied my right to pass judgment and send miscreants to the hoosegow. Though it did give me the opportunity to use miscreants and hoosegow in my blog.

Volunteer more
I was so impressed with the way the Center on Halsted GLBT community center went out of its way to help us when we filmed our It Gets Better Project video marathon there last October that I took its volunteer training class so I could give something back to the center in thanks. Unfortunately, all the volunteer opportunities available so far have been during my workday or have required degrees in law or social work ... or have specified that volunteers have legible handwriting. Seriously. And as a man with the handwriting of a drunken toddler, I assume I would be laughed out any note-writing events on behalf of any nonprofit organization with even Sarah Palin standards of capability. But! I’m on the Center on Halsted email list and I keep waiting for something to pop up that I can contribute to. In the mean time, I’ve gotten myself on the marketing committees for two big GLBT events in Chicago: Lambda Legal’s Freedom to Marry event in February and TPAN’s Chicago Takes Off in March. Watch this space for details about both events. They should appear every 21 days.