On John Green, and Why I Love Him

Last night, ugliness again crept into the Twittersphere, it seems. This time, some terrible, spurious claims were made against John Green. I’m not going to link to the comments here. No doubt, you can Google them. But they were hateful enough and awful enough and WRONG enough that I felt compelled to say something this morning.

This has become, sadly, a familiar scenario where social media is concerned. There’s so much that’s terrific about the Internet: It can provide context and community. It can give visibility to those who have been marginalized. It can be an agent of social change. It can be a place for innovation and discovery. It can help kids sorting out their identities feel validated. All of this is amazing stuff.

But the Internet can also be a very ugly place, the equivalent of the worst middle school cafeteria ever—everybody camped at their tables waiting for somebody to throw the first carton of milk and the food fight to be on while people crowd around yelling, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” What was said about John was not just mean-spirited and, again, WRONG. It was damaging—and libelous. It’s actually actionable.

A long time ago, I heard someone say something I’ve never forgotten: “I choose not to define myself by the people and things I pan.” These are wise words. This is not to say that we cannot be critical or questioning. Those are necessary parts of dialogue. But we should also be thoughtful and reflective. We should examine our own motives. There is a performative aspect to the Internet that often tempts us into saying or doing things just for the hits. Dude, I’ve been there. Sometimes that’s just an innocuous, “Hey, wanna watch me down three Mountain Dews and burp out the alphabet?” But other times, it can be about taking something or somebody down or joining in when there’s a school yard pounding going on. Except in this case, the schoolyard has millions in it.

The thing is, when such constant corrosive atmosphere is maintained, it’s not just bad for the targets of that hate—John Green, Cassandra Clare, Maggie Stiefvater, etc. etc.—it’s bad for the propagators of that hate, too. It’s bad for everybody watching and listening. It’s desensitizing. To indulge in such hatred is an act of character assassination but it’s also an act of self-harm. I know that sounds like something you’d find on an inspirational cat poster, but it’s true. It’s like Hoovering up an entire bag of Doritos and washing it down with a Big Gulp. It seems delicious at the time, but later, it feels really gross, and you wish you hadn’t done it.

Today, I’m thinking about the wise words of one of my favorite writers, George Saunders, made during his commencement address at Syracuse University in which he reflects on the necessity for kindness not just for the world but for ourselves. I urge you to read it when you have a moment. http://tinyurl.com/qaaqehy

But one of my favorite parts is Saunders paraphrasing the poet Hayden Carruth who, in his beautiful late-life poem, “Testament”, says this: “Now I am almost entirely love.”

It’s a good thing to aspire to. For love is thoughtful and kind. It is corrective and honest, but never mean. And so, in that spirit, I’d like to offer an incomplete list of things I love about John Green:

  1. He’s funny. Ye gods, is the man funny. Whether it’s a quip, a vlog, a nerd exercise video , a piece of juvenilia, or the many witty-smart characters in his books, John Green is just a damned funny dude. And you know what? None of his humor is ever mean.
  2. He is genuinely kind. Not “nice.” Kind. John really cares about the welfare of others. He is thoughtful.
  3. He’s not afraid to be silly. I’m just sayin’.
  4. He’s smart. When your videos are used in high school history classes, you’re doing this whole nerd thing right. Seriously, listen to John speak. He’s dead brilliant.
  5. He has inspired an entire generation of young people to do good things in the world. Once, there was a world without Nerdfighters. What John and Hank did to create a place for young people to come together in the spirit of decreasing “world suck” is admirable and incredible. It’s the “teach a man to fish” parable in action. Thanks, John. DFTBA.
  6. He is an innovator. Many years ago, when John said he was going to make these things called “vlogs” and put them on YouTube, we all looked at him like he was the kid brother who said he was making a rocket ship in the basement. “Well, that’s nice,” we said, not quite understanding. Yeah. And then that kid brother went on to run NASA.
  7. He is always trying to evolve as a human being. It would be easy for somebody with John’s incredible success and standing to kick back and be all, “Dudes, excuse me while I go to my tailor and pick up my suit made COMPLETELY OF MONEY, HAHAHAHAHA!!!!.” But he doesn’t do that. (Mostly, he wears jeans and unassuming button-downs.) Instead, he’s always working on making himself and the world a better place. He wants to do better, to do more. When I grow up, I’d like to be more like John.
  8. He’s a wonderful writer. I don’t need to say much here about this—your local bookstore or library is full of the proof. Go. Read. Think. Bring tissues. Then share the goodness.
  9. He is extremely generous. John is always there to give a signal boost to other artists, whether on social media, in interviews, or on panels. He uses his power for good.
  10. He has great hair. You know, like Elvis. Or Einstein. If they ever make a John Green Award, it should just be hair. Golden-overlay hair. God. I’m a little misty now. John’s hair does that to me. I’m defenseless.

Truth: I freaking love John Green, unabashedly. He’s a pretty exceptional human being who delights and inspires in equal measure. I’m glad he’s in the world. Please don’t make him reconsider doing all that he does. Today, err toward love.

A Letter to My Patient Readers Awaiting LAIR OF DREAMS

Dear Lovely-and-Patient Readers,

Many of you have been asking, “Hey Libba—when is the second Diviners book, LAIR OF DREAMS, coming out? It’s been moved on the schedule so many times we have lost faith in the old gods of the book pub-scheduling universe. We have stopped leaving small plates of cheese before their effigies. We no longer sing the playful songs of patient waiting, songs taught to us by our sequel-anticipating ancestors as they camped on the shores of Robert Jordan/George R.R. Martin-land. Madness reigns, Libba! Blood and chaos in the streets! Twinkie shortages! We look into each other’s eyes, wordless, lost, for what can be said when you promised us a book in April of LAST YEAR and have managed to blow through every date since? For the love of all that’s holy, will you please stop messing with us?!”

Gentle readers, I hear you. I am sorry. I thank you for bearing with me, for being so understanding, and out of a sense of undying gratitude, I want to give you all the things made with butter: “You deserve a book from me, my plucky darlings. But in the meantime, here—have a Butter Pop™ on a stick. Also, the number for a cardiologist. Regrets are for the weak.”

So here’s the good news upfront: It is finished.[1]

No way! You cry from the streets where you have begun to set small fires and tell the rats about a story called THE DIVINERS which was started long, long ago—so long ago, you have forgotten how heavy the book was in your hands. The muscles of your arms have now atrophied.

Way, I whisper, as I fly by on roller skates, tossing glitter across a blighted landscape.[2] (I am dressed in elaborate layers of seafoam-green chiffon while I roll by, because I know how to make an entrance.) Pump some iron and ready your arm strength, my doves, because that sucker is in copyedits as I type this. And, barring some nightmarish apocalyptic scenario that sees us all drinking our urine to survive while trapped in an abandoned amusement park run by mutant clowns[3], come August, LAIR OF DREAMS will be a real, live book with an actual beginning[4], middle, and end…ish which you can find in bookstores across America—nay, the world. Even Canada[5]. Hooray! Take up the Eddas once more! Tell the rats I come anon; your sacrificial plates of cheese have been answered.

I wish the writing had gone faster. This book has been quite a crucible. And the truth is that writers are people[6], and people have lives that are, at times, less than convenient, and, at other times, downright bothersome. Sometimes, there are trials to be gotten through. At those times, all we can do is hunker down and wait for the dust storms to pass so that we can see clearly enough to do our work.

We keep at it. We keep trying. Listening. Thinking. Considering. Reconsidering. We write what we can and edit what seems false as it occurs to us, which sometimes isn’t until much later. We try to be as conscious as possible.

Ask the rats. They’ll tell you.

It’s been a long, tough haul. Thank you for your patience, faith, and cheering. I appreciate it more than you know. And I really hope you’ll enjoy LAIR OF DREAMS when it comes out IN AUGUST. FOR SURE. Unless apocalypse-mutant-clown-urine-smoothie scenario.

More fun things to come as we countdown to August! Stay tuned. And enjoy the Butter Pops.

All the best,

Libba

[1] The book, that is. I have not become Jesus.

[2] By “blighted landscape” I mean the ruin my house has become whilst I was engaged in the writing. (Also, it is unacceptable that I just used “whilst.” I am not British. This is pretentious and should not be excused.)

[3] Or, you know, whatever happens in your post-apocalyptic fantasy world.

[4] Fun fact: This book has had approximately SEVEN different opening chapters. Isn’t that DELIGHTFUL? Ha! Hahahaha! I LOVE COUNTING! IS FUN GAME! Where is my morphine? Has anyone seen my morphine?

[5] 100% true: Canadians are so nice they will let you stay in their houses and eat all their snacks and dry pasta for free! Or maybe those guys were just too embarrassed to say, “No, really, this is not the bookstore. You are in the wrong place.” It is weird that they don’t return my emails.

[6] Except for David Levithan, who has many clones. Otherwise, how could he do everything? I ask you.

Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land

This is the hardest blog I’ve ever attempted to write.

For the better part of eight months, I have been struggling under the thumb of a rather intense depression. This is a monster I’ve battled many times in my life; it is not new. Yet, this has been a particularly brutal one, and I’m not out of the woods yet.

As a writer, I try to write about everything. But it’s hard to write about depression. For one, there’s the fear that the minute you say, “I’m suffering from depression,” people will look at you funny. That they will nod at you with wincing, constipated face, place a hand on your arm and say, with all good intent, “How are you?” And your pain will war with your desire to be “normal” and not looked at funny by sympathetic people at parties. So you will answer, “Fine, thanks” while you’ll think of all the things you could say: “Partly cloudy with a strong chance of rain later?” “Mostly okay except for that silent sobbing I did on the F train this afternoon which frightened the school children.” “Well, I’m okay now but around 10 PM I could be drinking from a seemingly bottomless cup of self-loathing, so stick around if you’re into that sort of thing.” You do not want to be labeled “That Depressed Person,” which was not a show on ABC. 

Depression is hard to understand, because it is not a consistent state. Depression is rather like a virus, but like a virus, it has its manageable days and its acute, life-threatening flare-ups. You can be in a depression and still laugh at a friend’s joke or have a good night at dinner or manage low-level functioning. You grocery shop and stop to pet a puppy on the corner, talk to friends in a café, maybe write something you don’t hate. When this happens, you might examine your day for clues like reading tea leaves in a cup: Was it the egg for breakfast that made the difference? The three-mile run? You think, well, maybe this thing has moved on now. And you make no sudden moves for fear of attracting its abusive attention again. 

But other times…

 Other times, it’s as if a hole is opening inside you, wider and wider, pressing against your lungs, pushing your internal organs into unnatural places, and you cannot draw a true breath. You are breaking inside, slowly, and everything that keeps you tethered to your life, all of your normal responses, is being sucked through the hole like an airlock emptying into space. These are the times Holly Golightly called the Mean Reds.

I call it White Knuckling it.

When it’s White Knuckle Time, you will have to remind yourself to stand in the middle of the subway platform, well away from the edge.

You may find yourself on the floor of your shower, your face turned toward the wall while the water courses over your shoulders, your mouth opened in a howl that will not come.

You may find yourself on the treadmill at 5:30 a.m. running, running, running, as if you could outpace the emotional mugger at your back.

You might sit at a dinner party making small talk, hoping that you pass for normal, because you suddenly feel as if you are not in touch with the usual social paradigms.

You will not sleep. Insomnia becomes your permanent house guest, and you will wake, blinking up at the weak moonlight splayed across your ceiling like a crime scene, the very stillness of the house seemingly complicit in your guilt.

Ordinary tasks become extraordinary challenges: The laundry. Phone calls. Emails. Making food. Making decisions. Engaging in conversation. Concentration proves impossible—you stare at your computer screen and all your words feel as if they are trapped behind a curtain far too heavy to lift. Deadlines are missed. These everyday failures compound adding an element of panic to the already untenable situation.

 There is an undertow to depression. It doesn’t take you all at once. It leaves you with some false sense that you are coping. That you are in control. That you have the shore still well in sight, until, at some point, you raise your head to find yourself all alone, battered by rough seas with absolutely no idea which way you should swim.

If depression were as physically evident as, say, a broken limb or cancer, it would be easier to talk about. The pain could be marked, quantified, obvious to the observer. You would feel justified in saying, “I’m sorry that I haven’t returned your email but you can see the huge hole in the center of me, and I’m afraid it has made such dialogue impossible.” But the stigma of depression is that it comes with the sense that you shouldn’t have it to begin with. That it is self-indulgence or emotional incompetence rather than actual illness. This brings on attendant feelings of shame and self-loathing, which only exacerbate the pain, isolation, and hopelessness of the condition. “I cannot share this,” the depressed person thinks. “It is too embarrassing, too shameful.” And so, you swallow it down, until it feels that your heart is a trapped bird beating frantic wings against the pain you’ve shoved up against it.  Depression isn’t like being sad or blue or wistful. It is crippling. It is a constant whine in your head, making it hard to hear yourself think.

The other trouble is that it is often incredibly difficult to articulate the pain you feel. Words prove inadequate, and the distance they must travel from this deep well of grief and loneliness up to your mouth seems impossible to traverse. It is miles and miles of no-man’s land. How can you communicate something so without form? Depression is a vengeful ghost you see from the corner of your eye always but you know that no one else can see it. So how do you alert anyone to its presence in the room?

Sometimes, people can’t take it anymore. Whenever a suicide happens, whenever I hear of these losses—Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace, Spalding Gray, Ned Vizzini—a certain terror takes hold. They didn’t beat it, I think; they didn’t win. Perhaps it is unbeatable, after all. Resistance is futile.

 I have heard people speak of the selfishness of suicide: “How could s/he leave behind a spouse or, worse, children?” It’s hard to imagine someone committing such a terrible act, one that permanently damages those left behind. I have heard well-meaning therapists explain that this is an act of rage turned inward. I’ve spent many years in psychoanalysis. I get it. And certainly, the fact that I have a child keeps me fighting during the bad times.

But I don’t think it’s all that simple.

To these cries, to these explanations, I can only say that you cannot know unless you’ve been there. Believe me, these people do not want to die. They only want the pain to end. The pain is all-consuming. It is a pit-bull whose jaws will not let you go, and the more you struggle against it, the tighter the bite gets, the greater the pain becomes. 

Imagine that you sit, shivering and blue, in a tub of freezing water. If you were not depressed, you’d get out of the tub. But now imagine that you cannot get yourself out of the tub. Your body is weighted to the bottom with invisible stones. The sides of the tub are too high—you can’t imagine that on the other side of the tub is a floor that leads to a warm towel and an exit. You can only see the walls of the tub, closing you in. You can only feel the relentless, needle-prick torment of the icy water. You can only watch, helpless, as your fingers prune and bruise with cold, a strange mix of acute pain and numbness. And you are aware of isolation so complete that it feels as if you are an astronaut whose line has come untethered in space.  As if you have swallowed loneliness and are drowning in it, unable to cough it up and breathe again.

In this state, you can only think of how desperately you want this agony to end. You can only think of doing something, anything to stop the feeling, to keep it from overwhelming you with shame, loneliness, guilt, and bleak-gray hopelessness. This is what it is to experience depression. It is the absence of hope.

I do not want to romanticize depression. The flip side of the stigma accompanying depression is a tendency to turn it into The Ever-Popular Tortured Artist Effect, to borrow from Todd Rundgren. There is an idea that “artists” are such special snowflakes that the very air they breath injures them. This is bullshit. Again, depression is an illness, not a fashion statement. Certainly, there appears to be a large correlation between artists and depression. But I would argue that artistic expression is not a symptom of depression so much as a response to it.  I see writing as an act of resistance against an occupying enemy who means to kill me. It’s why I’m writing this now. Silence = Death, as ACT UP used to say. 

This is why there is such comfort in books and movies and music and art. Why it often saves. I have taken comfort from depressed characters like Holden Caulfield, Esther Greenwood, Jimmy from “Quadrophenia,” Harold from “Harold and Maude,” Franny Glass, and too many others to name. I have found my emotional DNA in theirs and continue to draw solace from knowing that I am not alone in these murky, hard-to-articulate feelings.

We are not alone. That’s key. 

Time and again, I am humbled by the beautiful vulnerability and resilience of human beings trying to stay on the bendable side of that all-too-human fragility. Everyone, it seems, fights a personal battle every day, one that, hopefully, leads to a greater well of compassion, empathy, and enlightenment. Once, I thought this path was about an idea I had of “self-actualization.” I imagined that this was an accomplishable goal and that it would look like a smooth, shiny fortress, something unassailable. But more and more, I’m coming to see the fallacy of that. That’s a hologram of happiness. That’s a defense against the pain of being human. It’s not about self-actualization; it’s about impermeability. To live in a keep is to retreat from the world. No. I’ve come to think that perhaps it is about the messiness of mistakes, of falling, of the bravery of unvarnished honesty, of forgiveness and love—the forgiveness and love we offer others, yes, but also the forgiveness and love we must extend to ourselves. There is no such thing as reaching the end goal of humanity. There is only the continued, imperfect striving. We are satellites sending radio signals to Earth, waiting for contact: “I hear you. Do you hear me? Over.” 

If you are, yourself, depressed right now, send a signal to someone, anyone you trust. Say the words out loud. Words have power. You are not a freak. You are not icky. You are, simply, human and in great pain. You do not “deserve” that pain. You are not less than for feeling it, and you DO deserve love and care and relief from that pain.   

If you know someone who is depressed, one of the greatest gifts you can give is to listen without judgment and to let the person know that s/he is loved simply for being.

This is not a pep talk to myself or anyone else. This is not a fucking happy face bandage on the very real torment of depression. This is the resistance fighter in me moving in the city shadows at midnight, posting notes to myself and anyone else who happens to need them to keep fighting, to strike back against the enemy. 

This is all I know to do.

This is all I know to do.

This is all I know to do.

 And if you take comfort from my words, if it helps you to feel understood in your pain, if it helps you to know you can and will get out of the tub, then I am glad.

 As for me, today, I take comfort from the last line of one of my favorite short stories, J.D. Salinger’s “For Esme with Love and Squalor,” a story I discovered during a low period in high school. If you haven’t ever read this story, well, I highly recommend it. It’s about an encounter between two lonely people in an English tearoom, an American soldier shipping off to WWII and a precocious, thirteen-year-old girl putting up a brave front after losing both parents. I won’t spoil it with further banal explanation. You really should read it for yourselves. But suffice to say that the war doesn’t go well for the soldier, who returns, broken, until he receives a letter from the now-grown Esme, which comforts him such that he is finally able to put aside the horrors of war and sleep:

“You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”

 I hope your faculties remain intact.

 As for me, I will do what I must to make my way through the miles of No-Man’s Land. And if I haven’t returned your email, I ask your forgiveness. It may be a while.

 

 

 

 

 

The story reveals itself

I’m taking a break from furious keyboard wrangling to update with progress about LAIR OF DREAMS.

My first thought is, can I still call it progress? Doesn’t feel like progress. Feels like I am eating an enormous word salad. And sometimes I say, “Yep, that avocado is good in here,” and “In retrospect, baked salmon and Reese’s peanut-butter cups have no place together in this salad. Also, I might need to vomit now.”  

As you may know from previous blogs, this book has been a bitch-and-a-half to write. I have never struggled so much or despaired so greatly. This is how it is sometimes. Typical conversations with writer friends tend to go like this:

Friend: So that tunnel thing sounds really scary.

Me: Yeah? Thanks!

Friend: So, I have to know: What’s in the tunnel?

Me: No idea.

Friend: …er, but it’s a central part of your plot.

Me: *smiling unsteadily * Uh-huh. I know.

Friend: But you don’t know what it is?

Me: Nope. Not yet. *guzzles Maalox straight from the bottle *

And so on. 

A friend of mine, a singer, always says that the voice “reveals itself.” And that is how I feel about writing novels: The story reveals itself over time. Now, it doesn’t do this magically. It does so in fits and starts, in frustratingly small increments and, occasionally, in “A-ha!” thunderclap moments. And it only does this after you’ve put in the exhausting labor, after days upon days spent sitting at your laptop or notebook, moving one sentence from page 12 to page 14 and back again, deleting whole scenes and writing new segments that finally seem to bridge the disparate ideas zipping around in your head like futuristic cars. (BTW, where are those cars we were promised? Could somebody get on that? Thanks.)

And as you write, these are always the questions: How can I make this better? How can I sew that seam tighter? How can I connect this part to that part more cohesively? How can I take this seemingly small scene between two characters and sink it more deeply into the larger thematic fabric of the novel? Am I really getting down to the grit and humanity of these characters?  Am I questioning enough, or am I still skating across the surface? How do I deal with this novel’s particular “Big Bad” storyline while also building in the architecture for various character threads and the overall story arc?

And: Am I having fun? (Honestly, that’s super important.)  

So, as I struggle to answer all of those questions, to build the architecture for books #3 and #4 while trying to maintain the integrity of book #2, I’m trying to find the patience to let the story reveal itself. And to hope that I am paying attention when it does.  

 

Give to the Living (World AIDS Day)

December 1, 2010 by libbabray

On World AIDS Day, I usually repost this blog I wrote in 2010 about losing both my father and my good friend, Norbert, to AIDS. This year, I’d also suggest that you read David Levithan’s beautiful TWO BOYS KISSING and watch the excellent documentary, HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE. And, as always, I urge you to keep fighting for equal rights for all human beings. 

One of the earliest memories I have of my dad is of him in his sober ministerial robes on Sunday mornings at Woodlawn Presbyterian Church in Corpus Christi, Texas. I wasn’t real keen on attending services as a kid. It seemed like a lot of fuss about some boring abstract idea as well as an interminable amount of time spent sitting on a hard pew while wearing scratchy dresses and pinching Mary Janes. My usually jovial father was so serious up at the pulpit that he seemed like a completely different person. So doubtful was I about this Sunday split personality that I even asked my mother, “Is Daddy always God or just on Sundays?”

As soon as the benediction had been pronounced, I would dash down the aisle and make a beeline for my dad who was positioned at the front door to greet parishioners on their way out. I’d dive under his robes and hide there, refusing to greet people, insisting that I was a ghost and, therefore, could not be seen or spoken to by anyone. (You can feel sympathy for my parents; the task of civilizing me was an enormous one that stretched over many years. There are some who would say this task was never quite accomplished.) I think that I needed to make sure that my father was in there somewhere in the folds of that “preacher costume.” I needed the comfort of him near.

He was a comforting presence. I often said that when he hugged you, you stayed hugged. Quick with a joke or a witty remark, he was outgoing and outspoken while also courtly and very much the southern gentleman. He was a staunch feminist who nevertheless insisted on walking on the outside on the street “to protect the ladies from the horses.” Sometimes he was absent-minded and excruciatingly rambly and vague, and my brother and I would roll our eyes and shout, “A verb, Senator! We need a verb,” because we were horrible children. He loved animals and could not resist the foster care urgings of his friend, Fern, whom he called, “The Puppy Pusher.” He was also a complex, secretive man who lived a double life. There was always the sense that he was holding back something in order to protect the lie he felt forced to maintain. Don’t ask, don’t tell could have been his motto.

It was on a cold morning in January, when I was fourteen, that my father, weary of at least part of the pantomime play, finally told his family the truth: He was a gay man and he and my mother had agreed to divorce. He was out to us, but he had to remain closeted in the outside world due in large part to his position within the church as editor of The Presbyterian newspaper for the Synod of the Southwest. We were entrusted with keeping his secret. From that moment on, I understood what it meant to live a double life. I understood the toll that secrecy, silence, and self-loathing can take. In this way, it’s ironic that my father’s job was in the field of journalism when he constantly buried the lede. I think he unconsciously trained me to be a writer, to feel compelled to dig up those buried truths, to bring them kicking and screaming into the light.

The first time I really remember registering AIDS was when Rock Hudson died. This was huge news then, in 1985. I worried about my dad. “You’re being careful, right?” I didn’t ask it expecting to get a response. That was too scary. It was a declarative—“Be careful”—wrapped in a rhetorical question. My dad was lovely, but he wasn’t great at taking care of himself. He had a self-destructive streak twined, I believe, to his self-loathing about being gay. Today, there are celebrity campaigns for AIDS awareness, merchandise to support the cause, splashy photo spreads. But back then, it was a very different story. It’s hard to explain the level of fear those four letters elicited. The initial federal response to AIDS was lackluster and reflected a bias. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, as it was being called, was a “gay cancer,” and the societal response seemed to be, “Serves ‘em right.” It was not a pretty moment in America.

For a time in Austin, after college graduation when I hadn’t quite figured out what I was doing with my life, I lived with one of my best friends, Ed, and his partner, Norbert. We did theatre together, forming an arts collective called SOMA, Self-Ordained Ministers of Art. It was the eighties; what can I say? Ed directed all of my plays; Norbert did the graphic design for the posters. On Sunday nights, we ate pot roast and watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” They were Lakers fans and indoctrinated me in the ways of NBA playoffs. In the fall, we hosted the Third Annual Hat Party. It was always the “third annual” and you had to wear the most ridiculous hat you could find or make. We had a Barbie Doll shrine to Nancy Sinatra. On Saturday mornings, we put on Diana Ross & the Supremes and cleaned the house according to our assigned tasks. We ate cheap Tex Mex and sat in the backyard under the carport to drink sweet tea and catch a breeze. Whenever the landlord dropped by, we had to pretend that I was Ed’s girlfriend. Yes, that old charade. I remember it, actually, as one of the happiest summers of my life.

The spring before I left for New York City, Norbert came down with what everyone thought was mono. “I don’t feel well,” he said. “Well, you have mono,” I said. “No,” he said a little anxiously. “I don’t feel…right.” Denial is an amazing coping mechanism, because of course the word AIDS crow-barred its way into my subconscious like a burglar intent on robbing my peace of mind. But I bought a new lock and went about my business. Ed and I started work on my new play, an AIDS piece, presciently, called, “Requiem A-Go-Go,” and we waited for Norbert to get better. He did not. By August, when my bags were packed for New York, Ed told me they’d gotten the diagnosis: AIDS.

This was terrifying. In 1990, AIDS was always a death sentence. Ed would send me notes from Austin, terrible notes, about Norbert’s rollercoaster deterioration. The last time I saw him, he was lying on the couch under an afghan, pale and tired and scared. “Pray for me,” he said. I said I would. I flew back to New York. By October 1992, he was gone. That summer, I took the train to Baltimore to see my father and we went to view the NAMES project AIDS quilt. In the shadow of an old church not too dissimilar to the church where I played hide-and-seek in my father’s ministerial robes, we walked around huge swaths of colorful cloth, squares bearing the names and dates of people who had died, some of them unbearably young like Norbert. “So unfair,” my father said. I didn’t realize the full weight of his statement then.

My father often sent me clippings—articles I might find interesting, Shoe cartoons, coupons to ease my way up there in the frozen north of NYC, ribald jokes. Usually, these were accompanied by the briefest of notes. So when I opened that multi-page letter in February 1995, the one that began, “Sweetheart…” I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, some premonition that all was not well. Part of me wanted to seal the letter back up. He admitted that he was HIV positive. That was a lie. He had been HIV positive for six years and kept it secret. Keeping things secret, of course, was one of his talents, a skill foisted upon him by a judging world.

What he had was full-blown AIDS, a fact I would discover in September of that year when I received a call from my brother, Stuart, out in Colorado where my father had gone to spend his retirement so he could be closer to his grandchildren. “Daddy’s in the hospital. They don’t think he’ll make it through the weekend. You need to get on a plane.” Reeling, I made the flight from New York to Denver. On the drive to Ft. Collins, my brother and I talked about music and Cowboys football, how different Colorado was from Texas, my niece and nephew. Denial is a family trait. Finally, he said, “You need to be prepared. He looks bad. Not like you remember him.” That was an understatement. My dad had Cryptosporidium, what was called “the wasting disease.” My formerly robust father had withered down to about ninety-seven pounds. I didn’t recognize him at first, and I had to stifle a gasp. When I hugged him, I could feel the bones of his spine like rosary beads. My father rebounded after his potassium came back up, something we soon discovered was part of the cruel course of the disease, the up-and-down nature of it all. For nearly three months, I stayed in Colorado, taking a leave of absence from my job to be with him.

There were things my brother and I learned: how to put together an IV of Sandostatin. What to do if he couldn’t hold down the Ensure drinks we made for him. What to put in the red plastic biohazard containers that dotted the house like some kind of dystopian home decor. When to call the doctor. We met with his hospice worker, Dorothy (oh, the irony!), who was lovely and informative and a godsend. For a week, we went about our business, and this became the new normal. I began to think we would beat this thing.

One night, we even had hamburgers at my brother’s house. It was good to watch my father, who had been a third-helpings man, eat half a burger. We were encouraged. Hopeful. On the drive back to his apartment, my father began to feel ill. Suddenly, he was vomiting violently as he tried to keep the swerving car on the road. In a panic, I tried to take the wheel. “Don’t!” My father shouted. “Don’t touch it!” And it hit me: The vomit. I had no gloves. He was afraid for me. We were on a dark road facing oncoming traffic, snow lightly falling, turning the pavement slick, and my father was at the wheel and sick. The most natural thing in the world was for me to take over. And I couldn’t. We managed to steer the car onto the shoulder and get him outside. The air was cold. My breath made small bursts of fog as I said, over and over, “It’s okay; it’s okay,” unsure of who, exactly, I was comforting. Later, when I’d helped to clean him up and put him to bed, I pulled on a pair of rubber gloves, grabbed a bucket of bleach water, a rag, paper towels and a trash bag and went out to the parking lot to clean my dad’s Toyota. The early October snow was still falling. It looked pretty in the lights from the apartment complex. I sobbed angrily while I scrubbed the mats and upholstery with bleach and dumped everything into the trash bag. I started to put the bag in the dumpster, then thought better of it. Unsure about what to do with it, I stood in the parking lot, my arms out like some misplaced, directionless scarecrow, then double-bagged it and tossed it in.

After another hospital stay, we had to move my father into the nursing home later that week. It was a cheerless place, and I fought it by decorating his room for each holiday, until finally I brought in a small tree—a real Charlie Brown mess of a thing—and put up a few ornaments and Christmas cards. On December 10th, just as a I was attending a gay men’s chorale concert in honor of him, my father, who had been in and out of consciousness for two days, turned to my brother who had just arrived, gave a small smile, said one last word, “Goodbye,” and died. The next year, they came out with the retrovirals that changed the game.

Before my father died, he stage-directed his memorial service. Really, you had to know how into organizational systems my dad was to appreciate this. This was a man who kept his take-out menus in a folder in his file cabinet under M for menus. The menus were in alphabetical order. When my brother and I had the task of taking his house apart, we found that folder and laughed till we cried. “Don’t mess them up—he’ll come back to haunt us!” Trust me, you need a laugh at such times. The funny thing was, for all his attention to detail, the man was never on time. The only time I ever missed a plane was a time I forgot to lie to my dad about the departure time.

Anyway, Dad was insistent on three things for his service: 1) He picked the music (We are real music dictators in my family) 2) It should be a celebration, not a funeral, and 3) No flowers. “What the hell would I do with a bunch of flowers? I’ll be dead. Give to the living.”

Give to the living. It’s a good mantra. I’m not big on memorializing as a general rule. What I prefer, the way in which I choose to honor both my father and my friend Norbert on World AIDS day and throughout the y ear, is by continuing to speak about and advocate for equal rights for ALL Americans. This has been a tough year to be gay in a lot of ways. The teen bullying crisis has been particularly hard to watch. I know if my dad were alive, he would be writing editorials about it. I know how both he and Norbert had to hide, and that isn’t good for anybody. That doesn’t make society stronger; it only makes it sicker, and I’ve had enough sickness to last me a lifetime, frankly.

I keep thinking back to that line I loved so much in “Milk,” where Harvey Milk says to a gay teen in crisis, “There is nothing wrong with you.” There’s nothing wrong with you. Remember that.

So today, I raise my glass and say, hey Norbert—I’ve got Diana Ross on the iPod. (I’ll explain iPods later, Norb.) Dad, wish you were here; you’d really get a kick out of my kid. And to everyone else out there, especially if you are a gay teen trying to find your way in an often hostile world, you are all right. In fact, you are fucking fabulous. There is nothing wrong with you. Silence = death, as ACT UP used to say. Make some noise. Put on the biggest hat you can find, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re not welcome at the party.

On this day, let’s remember to keep fighting and to honor the dead who can no longer raise their voices by refusing to silence our own.

Haunted at 17

Yours Truly at 17 in the library

Yours Truly at 17 in the library

 

As I try to wrestle my revision of LAIR OF DREAMS to the dirt (where, inevitably, it will throw me onto my back, twist my arm and elicit a desperate “Uncle!” from my constricted lungs), I’ve been unable to do much blogging. That’s too bad as often, when I’m stuck, blogging helps me come “unstuck.” I’m going to try to do a bit more of that in the coming months to see if it’s like kicking the Coke machine to make it work–the “Coke machine” being my misfiring brain in that scenario.

You know who has a kick-ass blog? Nova Ren Suma. Her Distraction 99 is filled with wisdom, support, and some nifty guest posts. She gets you thinking.

This was a post I wrote for her back in March when her new book, the amazing 17 & GONE, had just come out. The suggestion was that we write about what haunted us at the age of 17. As it’s the month for all things haunt-y, I asked Nova if I could reprint the post here and she, being nice, said sure.

http://distraction99.com/2013/03/18/libba-bray-haunted-at-17/

There are some really terrific posts in that series from everyone from Adele Griffin and Gayle Forman to Bennet Madison, Nina LaCour and more. Why not procrastinate and read them all?

Today’s writing prompt: What haunts you?

How Not to Write a Screenplay

fire typewriter

My interpretation of the screenplay I’m now writing:

 

CHARACTER ONE: Here is that information you seek. Let me summarize it for you. It’ll only take, oh, a four complete pages. “Blah-de-blah-de-blah. Long history of cult. Drugs. Murder. XL Creepy. Blah-de-blah.”

CHARACTER TWO: Non-sequitur comedy line. (beat) That was a lot of portentous maiming. We needed funny.

CHARACTER ONE:  Hold on, there, Sparky: Here’s some more shit you didn’t know about that cult. Blah-de-blah-de-blah, offerings, rituals, telemarketing for the Anti-Christ, Cher songs.

HOT CHARACTER: Wait! Not the cult that did X during the time period Y? The one that swore VENGEANCE UPON OUR SOULS!!!!!

CHARACTER ONE: The same. Would you like to hear more? Okay, here goes…

HOT CHARACTER: I believe it is time to take my shirt off now.

CHARACTER TWO: Excuse me! Question: I am noticing something that I’d like you also to notice. Should I say, “Angle on” or “Reveal”? Also, can you tell that my humor is a mask for my sad because of the way that I constantly bite my lip and laugh but then stop suddenly, my eyes brimming with the moist?

HOT CHARACTER: My shirt is off. Just saying.

CHARACTER ONE: Oh, also, I forgot to tell you these other things about the cult: Blah-de-blah-blah, pentacles, pendants, soul-containing, ShamWow, haunted Tostitos, blah, blah, blah.

HOT CHARACTER: No, really. I can do this thing with my pecs. Watch.

CHARACTER TWO: So is that “Angle on” pecs or…OMG. You are so shirtless.

CHARACTER ONE: They didn’t say “OMG” in the 1920s.

CHARACTER TWO: Fine. “1920s OMG!” Angle on: Your hotness.

CHARACTER ONE: Wait…did we ever tell the people who Diviners are?

CHARACTER TWO: Not caring. Do that thing again, where you make them jump.

HOT CHARACTER: Do you think it’s appropriate for me to be shirtless for the rest of the movie?

CHARACTER TWO: I’m sure it’s fine. They did that a lot in the Jazz Age. It was a nipple-rich decade.

CHARACTER ONE: I’m staring at a thing. It’s important. That’s why I’m staring. Do you notice that I’m staring at it? Do you see it? The thing that’s important? Because my eyes hurt. From the staring. At the thing. Which is important.

CHARACTER TWO: Oh, applesauce. When do we drink?

CHARACTER ONE: (losing hope) All the time.

CHARACTER TWO: Now I finally know why.

HOT CHARACTER: Ha! Did you see that? Made the other one jump! I never get tired of that.

FIN.