Monday, June 21, 2010

Freak Show by James St. James.

Dear James St. James,

To be honest the Club Kids were a little before my time so I don't know a lot about you guys and what you did, I just know that you were a Club Kid, and you partied a lot, and were somehow famous for it. All I really know is that I love your book Freak Show and I love that you wrote it because I don't know if anyone else could have written a book about a teenage drag queen suffering through high school like you did. And you did it really well. I was continually impressed.

You had me laughing OUT LOUD within the first few pages, and let's be honest darling I hardly ever laugh out loud while reading. I hardly laugh out loud when something really funny happens on TV. I am a laughing-in-my-head type person I think, but this Billy Bloom character you created is just freaking hilarious. And sad, too. Let's talk about how sad he was, at parts, but how he covered it all up with fabulousness, with increasingly ridiculous outfits and schemes, by increasingly separating himself from his humdrum Abercombie & Fitch straightie classmates. Because what else can a drag queen in high school do? I have to say I thought at parts that the ALL CAPS PURPOSELY DRAMATIC STATEMENTS and the over the top sassiness would eventually get a little, well, over the top. And I can see how it would for many (most?) people, people who haven't watched Paris is Burning multiple times, people who aren't in general in love with the gayness. But, really, I loved it the whole time.

Billy Bloom was so goshdarn FABULOUS and entertaining all the time, even after being beaten to a pulp by his classmates, but there were moments when he got to the heart of things. Like here, when the apple of his eye, the beautiful quarterback and town hero Flip Kelly, is cursing himself for not getting to school in time before Billy's beatdown by the homophobe Bernie:

"My godamned car wouldn't start!" he rasped.
"Stupid, goddamned car! Stupid, goddamned car!" he repeated angrily, and pounded his thigh--a flawed response, I thought, as he seemed to be missing the entire point of "Stupid, goddamned Bernie! Stupid, goddamned Bernie!" or even: "Stupid, goddamned homophobia! Stupid, goddamned homophobia."

I have to say that during the last half of the book I felt like the homecoming campaign which occurred (don't want to give away too much) was maybe a little didactic, or preachy; we had already kind of gotten the gay-rights mantra. Although, to continue being honest, I feel like being 'didactic' or 'preachy' are terms I've heard a lot in literary criticism circles and so I use them to sound like I too can be critical, when really most of the time, at least when it comes to kids and young adult lit, I fervently agree with everything that is being preached and moreover feel it really needs to be preached, and people like you preach it so well. SoIreallydon'thaveaproblemwithit. Really I think I felt a little anxious during that whole section because I just missed Flip. I love me a good love story, and I loved that empty-headed, gorgeous, golden-hearted Flip Kelly. Billy and Flip's friendship felt remarkably well-developed. I felt like their dialogues and behavior around each other were some of the most natural and believable teenage friendship story lines I've ever read, gay or straight, and when Flip just wasn't there for awhile Billy and the story didn't feel complete. You know?

Overall, I'm sure this book would inspire lots of offended, incredulous parents, and lots of offended, incredulous kids too. But for as many right-wing kids there are who might hate it, there are countless fabulous young people out there who have been waiting for a book like this to be written. So, as someone who wants to look out for those young people, I thank you. You are doing important work, James St. James. I also really like saying your name, James St. James.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

August & Everything After.

I wanted the ocean to cover over me
I wanna sink slowly without getting wet
And maybe someday I won't be so lonely
And I'll walk on water every chance I get.

What I have to say about Counting Crows really cannot be confined to one post, and when I think about the album that really made my angsty teenage heart burst into pieces it'd be Recovering the Satellites but I'm not ready to go there yet; we have to start at the beginning, with August & Everything After. Holy crap, okay, where do I begin. This may seem silly, and in honesty I think these days Adam Duritz is somewhat of an asshat, and even though I continued to buy them, the albums after these two don't mean much to me with the exception of one or two gems here and there--like Up All Night on 2002's exceptionally mediocre Hard Candy, holy crap is Up All Night one of my favorite songs ever--but trying to describe the impact of these two albums on my psyche when I was growing up almost seems overwhelming. It seems melodramatic but that's the whole point; everything about the inside of my head and heart was melodramatic at the time, and Adam Duritz's lyrics fit perfectly in tune with me, they seemed beautiful and poetic and wonderful and yes yes yes, everything I wanted, he was singing to me, me, me!

This album is full of terrifically depressing tunes. Let's start with Round Here. Holy crap, this was the FIRST SINGLE off of this album. This makes no sense. This song is depressing as hell. But it was popular! Played on the radio a lot! 1990's, I miss you. I am fully convinced this song could never be on the radio today. This also starts off the album, and includes some of the most brilliant lyrics of the whole thing. Such as: And in between the moon and you, the angels get a better view of the crumbling difference between wrong and right. Oh man. Swoon. That is good stuff. I have no idea what it means, it just sounds so pretty. Also, although not completely related since it is technically a different album, I later also became enamored with a TEN MINUTE version of Round Here included on their 1998 live album Across a Wire. The last five minutes or so of this version is Duritz rambling on somewhat like a crazy person, which of course I eat right up, but it includes some lyrical adjustments and additions to the song which seem particularly angry and desperate. My favorites go like so:

She said did you think that you were dreaming? I said no.
She said did you think that you were dreaming? I said no.
She said did you think that you were dreaming? I said, sometimes, I don't know.

She says, can't you see me? Can't you see my walls tumbling down, can't you see my walls crumbling down, and can't you see my sun stopped spinning 'round, and can't you see that sky turn black and brown, and can't you see that moon go flashing 'round, and can't you see me? And can't you see me? And can't you see me? No.

She says, I'm sick and tired of life, well, EVERYBODY'S SICK AND TIRED OF SOMETHING.

Ayiyi, the agony, the drama! I love you so much!

Past Round Here, the truly truly depressing tunes include Perfect Blue Buildings, Ghost Train, and Raining in Baltimore. The latter is pretty much four minutes of Duritz moaning that he needs a rain coat. And Ghost Train includes the super cheery refrain, Love is a ghost train rumbling through the darkness; love is a ghost train howling on the radio. Thanks for the optimism, dude.

And then. And then and then and then. There is Anna Begins. This is one of those songs one becomes possessive of, that surpasses all others; this song wrapped itself around the hearts of many other struggling teenage girls I knew. You try to tell yourself the things you try to tell yourself to make yourself forget. It is just lovely, I think, full of sorrow and little hints of anger at this Anna person, but then the chorus is somewhat light, airy, buoyant with acceptance and a little bit of hope and letting go. She's talking in her sleep, it's keeping me awake, and Anna begins to toss and turn. And every word is nonsense, but I understand, and oh Lord, I'm not ready for this sort of thing. And on my CD player I'd hit repeat, repeat, repeat.

And amidst all this heaviness, this yearning and this loneliness that coats so much of this album, there are the rays of sunshine: Mr. Jones, Rain King, and A Murder of One. Mr. Jones, is, of course, really a song about being lonely too, but it still has the capability of feeling good to belt out drunkenly at karaoke, and that playful chorus, and so it has that going for it. What a good, solid pop hit; I'll never get sick of it. Rain King, alternately, really might be the only truly happy song on the album, where it sounds joyous and the lyrics are actually joyous too. I belong anywhere but in between: there is no better mantra for the teenager, the one who feels in between pretty much all the time. 'Cause I've been here before and I deserve a little more. Yes, yes, yes, I do, I do.

It must be clear by now that I take the music I listened to when I was in middle school & high school rather seriously. But it's because I never took music more seriously than I did then; I would literally lay in my room and do nothing but listen to these CD's over and over and over, and I want to verbalize why that's so important. It's on the tip of my tongue to say they helped me find myself or discover who I was or some typical hoo-ha like that, and normally I wouldn't be opposed to spewing typical hoo-ha like that, but I don't think the person I discovered when I was 16 is necessarily the person I am. Which may be an obvious point, but still. I over-sentimentalize that period of my life because I always think I knew myself so well, but I know myself much better than I ever did then. I think I was just able to sink into myself more then. Laying on my bed, doing nothing but listening to music for hours: I don't do that now because I don't have the time. Even if I did have the time, I'd have so much other stuff to think about running through my head that I'd probably just end up stressed out that I was wasting time I could be productive. My point is, I feel so strongly about this music because I needed it at the time, because it allowed me to be so deeply and pointedly selfish. I don't listen to this music much anymore, but when I hear a song or an album every now and then I feel grateful because just a little bit, by just a few inches, the real world recedes a bit and I'm comforted by reclining a bit inside of myself again, secure in my good, old, melodramatic heart.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Chris Crutcher.

True story: this guy is awesome. I first heard of him awhile ago through Sam, my childrens-and-young-adult-book-reading hero, and I randomly chose Athletic Shorts and Chinese Handcuffs to read and immediately loved him. Recently for a school project I did on him I wanted to read as many more of his recent books as I could, but with other reading projects and schoolwork piling up on me, only had time to cram in The Sledding Hill and his autobiography, King of the Mild Frontier. He has written a crapload of other books for young people, though, and each of the books I have read have only made me more determined to read more. I knew I would particularly like his autobiography when in the first few pages it made me laugh with this, when discussing a mirror he broke as a child as a result of a terrific temper:

Subsequently, when [my father]'d see me heating up, he'd point to it and ask one of those questions to which adults never really want an answer: "Are you proud of that?"
"No," I lied, my bottom lip stuck out so far he could have pulled it over my forehead. Of course I was proud of it; I'd had to slam it three times to get it to break.

Crutcher writes about every awful and/or controversial thing that could possibly happen to teenagers you could think of. Death, sexual assault, physical and/or emotional abuse, homosexuality, depression, censorship, religion, etc., etc. These are topics which are covered in much of young adult literature, and although I love young adult literature, let me tell ya, the angst can be a bit much sometimes. But with Crutcher's books, not only does he include hints of a really nice wry sense of humor which help soften the blow, but he just writes with an honesty and a sensibility that seems natural, that seems real, that flows. Truth is, the way Crutcher writes is the way I would want to write if I ever write young adult lit. Every other paragraph or so my mind is thinking, "Yes! Totally! Yeah! Completely!" What he writes about pisses some people off, but what he writes also makes a whole bunch of sense to a bunch of other people. Like me.

Sports also play a big role in most of his books, and I love this for multiple reasons beyond my late-coming appreciation of sports in general. First of all they make his books good 'guy' books, and the teenage world is always always in need of good guy books. Seriously, always. Secondly, I know from my own experience that the empty-headed jock high school stereotype is a stereotype for good reason a lot of the time. But at the same time, that whole popular-dumb-jock versus the emotionally-and-intellectually-complex social outcast high school dichotomy has really gotta go. Crutcher paints pictures of characters who use sports as an escape and a release, who play sports while they're also dealing with horrible shit in their lives, who are jocks who are also as thoughtful, vulnerable, and confused as the rest of us. These characters are just as true to life, and as important to read about, as the football players who really are just jerk faces. And what really makes me like Crutcher is his background: not only does he have a background in education, but he has also spent years as a family and child therapist. In short, almost every character he writes about is a story he's actually witnessed. He writes because he really cares about kids. His stories and his characters are important, because they're real.

Accordingly, because they're real and parents and grown ups don't like reality sometimes, every single book he's written has been challenged and/or banned somewhere or other. He is a huge, huge advocate against censorship to a real badass degree. In addition to making a ton of speaking appearances in general each year, he often personally visits schools where his books have been banned. Badass. In his autobiography he touches on the bad-word issue when he discusses a toddler named Allie he met through his work once, whose first cheerful words she ever greeted him with were, "Fuckershit." He didn't know what to do except for laugh, and she laughed too; her caseworker later explained to him that she had heard those words so frequently from her mom and stepfather that they were her way to gauge her trust in people: if people laughed when she said it, they were in her comfort zone; if they got upset or mad, she closed them off. He explains:

If I took those words away from her, she would have no way to test the waters, and though it's a pretty astonishing thing to hear roll off the tongue of a four-year-old, it would be nothing short of disrespectful to take away the language she needed to express her world. If I am to make characters real, I have to treat them with that same respect, and I have to be willing to tell stories about the ruggedness of their lives. Anything less is far more disrespectful than the use of those really meaningless words in print; disrespectful to the character, to the reader, and to the author. So anytime I get a character just right, find that spot where language and circumstance and character merge to tell some rough truth, I thank Allie. And because of her, I never back off the truth as I see it, or the language required to tell it.

Right on, Chris. Right fucking on.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Vinny T's.

So Allie Yantz totally ruined both Kathy's and my day today when she texted us to inform us that Vinny T's was closed. As in, Vinny T's, delicious Boston family-style Italian restaurant chain. As in, the Vinny T's on Boylston Street, since we were ALREADY heartbroken last year when we visited Boston for the Marathon and discovered that the Vinny T's in Brookline, the one we most often frequented, was closed and replaced by some BBQ place or something. After a quick venture onto their website, it looks like they have a few other locations in the outskirts/the 'burbs of Boston, and I am too lazy to do further research to determine whether they are still open or not, but it matters not since there are no longer any IN Boston and the chain is called Vinny T's OF BOSTON, for cripes' sake. Anyway, anyway. Talking about it is making me angsty, so let's talk about the good times.
  • I feel like Kathy and I frequented the Brookline Vinny T's, off of the C-line on Beacon Ave at the Tappan Street stop across from the Star Market, somewhat often in the beginnings of our relationship five years ago. We always shared the spaghetti and meatballs, as shown above, and every time we said to each other, "Spaghetti and meatballs, really? It's so boring," and then we got it again, because it was good.
  • That bread with the whole roasted garlic clove sitting in a big dish of olive oil!
  • The walnut, pear, & gorgonzola salad. Applebee's, and probably an assortment of other restaurants, have this same salad, but it don't matter, baby, because Vinny T's was better.
  • How Steve Lewis always always called it "Vinny Testa's."
  • Speaking of Steve Lewis, when we ate outside at the Back Bay/Boylston Street one in the summer of 2006 when Steve's sister Erin came into town.
  • Speaking of the summer of 2006, when Steve, Sam, Kim, Cliff, and Kathy and myself ate at the Brookline one for our "triple date."
  • Still speaking of 2006, I also believe we had a big graduation dinner there with a bunch of our families--Sam's, Kim's, Kathy's, mine? maybe?--after we graduated from Emerson College. Or maybe it was lunch. My memory is apparently shaky on this one, but I'm sure it was an important meal, as the meal after you graduate from college inevitably is. Or something.
  • How absolutely humong-o the take-out portions were.
  • Getting a chocolate chip cannoli for dessert, which of course could never come close to the chocolate chip cannoli's from Mike's, but still, anywhere where it is even possible to get a chocolate chip cannoli for dessert is pretty special. Come to think of it, I have not eaten a chocolate chip cannoli, or been at an establishment where I could, since moving to Oregon.
  • That time in 2009 when we visited Boston for the Marathon and were devastated by the Brookline Vinny T's being closed, but so instead met Allie Yantz for dinner at the Boylston Street one, and were completely surprised by John Tee showing up, who is awesome, and it was awesome.
Their fancy-ish-yet-casual atmosphere and huge family-style portions also made me think recently when wedding brainstorming that it would be a great place to have a rehearsal dinner with our families when our wedding crashes Boston in 2012. But, GUESS NOT, now. Way to ruin our wedding, Weak Economy. Way - to - go.

R.I.P. Vinny T's of Boston: sometimewheneveritwasfounded - 2010.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Flipping the calendar to a new month.

Similar to checking the mail, changing the calendar to a new month is one of those small things that fill me with a private, giddy feeling of joy, something I look forward to, something that in its small way makes life worth living. Really, there is not a more hopeful act one can accomplish on a Tuesday morning than changing the calendar, to realize that somehow, miraculously, and once again, you have survived another month of life. Whether it was a good month, or a bad month, for that one eentsy teensy moment, you, and the universe, are triumphant.