Friday, December 23, 2011

Another Dec. 25 Birthday Worth Celebrating - Quentin Crisp

I'd like to state that by the time Nick and I met him, Quentin Crisp--born December 25th, 1908--was famous. Of course, if he and his mauve hair were still inhabiting this planet, and Lord knows I wish they were, Quentin would quickly correct me by insisting he was merely "notorious."

Either way, at the time I became aware of his glorious existence (the early 1980s), Quentin Crisp was listed in the Manhattan phone book. Despite his notoriety, he believed--insisted--on being completely "available." He adored strangers in general, Americans in particular. 

After reading his witty, wise, and brave autobiography The Naked Civil Servant, which I still consider among my favorites, I passed the book onto Nick. He became equally enamored. Not long after, on a business trip to New York, Nick rang up Quentin.

Edward (left), Quentin Crisp, me, Nick, circa 1985
"Oh yesssss?," Quentin would answer. (This is how he always answered his phone.) He and Nick arranged to meet for lunch. When Nick told me about their date later, I was jealous. And so, on a New York vacation about six months later, Nick, our friend Edward, and I had lunch with Quentin. It was the first of multiple, delightful encounters with one of the world's true wits, gifted raconteurs, and one of my personal heroes.

Can one be sincere and highly theatrical at the same time? If so, Quentin was. I believe he sincerely loved being completely open and available to strangers, but at the same time, he rarely missed an opportunity to play the role of Quentin Crisp. For example, during a dinner I had with him on another New York visit, he brought along his mail. At one point, he handed over his E.F. Hutton investment account statement. "What do you suppose Mr. Hutton wants with me now?," he asked, seemingly perplexed. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Why was Quentin notorious? Born in England, his name was Denis Pratt "before I dyed it." Once he realized he was homosexual (his preferred term), he "became not merely a self-confessed homosexual but a self-evident one." To put a finer point on it, "I wore makeup at a time when even on women eye shadow was sinful." He "waltzed" around the streets of London in the 1920s dressed exactly as he pleased, in outrageously feminine attire. Needless to say, he was beaten multiple times and arrested. He was undeterred.

In the late 1960s, he published his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, which eventually led to more books (most of them delightful reads), a fabulous one-man show, a move to New York, parts in movies and on stage (he played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest). Sting wrote a song about him, Englishman in New York. Several films have been made about him, most notably the 1975 TV version of The Naked Civil Servant and An Englishman in New York (2009), both starring John Hurt.

Quentin's thoughts about developing a style that is uniquely and immediately recognizable as yours may seem trivial to some. He wasn't advocating that you wear a particular style of clothes per se. Rather, he encouraged everyone to figure out exactly who they are, and then to amplify that individuality on as large a scale as possible. He believed in being transparent, even predictable, in your style.

One example is worth repeating. When Elizabeth Taylor was married to Richard Burton, the press followed their every move, to the point that Elizabeth even found paparazzi lurking outside her bathroom window. She was outraged, as most of us would be. But in Quentin's view, the solution was not to pull the curtains or build a high wall to keep out the peeping toms. The solution was to "learn to urinate with style."

Quentin lived to the age of 90, passing away during a trip to England--a shame, given how much he loved America and Americans. I miss him. Fortunately, I own a half-dozen of his books, dog-eared, underlined, and best of all, autographed by the man himself.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and thank you, Quentin. You made my life richer in many ways, though I've not quite figured out how to urinate with style.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Christmas Gift That Took Me Decades to Appreciate

When I was a boy, my father gave me a gift every Christmas morning. Funny thing is, I didn't think it was a gift at the time--in fact, quite the opposite.

C.W. Martin was a professional photographer. Every Christmas morning, he would insist that my sisters and I remain at the top of the stairs while he and our mother went downstairs and prepared. He would take what seemed to be 20 years, beginning with slipping on his bathrobe and freshening up, then mozying downstairs, setting up his camera equipment, making a pot of coffee, and then drinking his coffee. I think my mother even made him toast, for crying out loud. He may as well have taken a stroll down to South Carolina, too; it took him for-ev-er to finish all his preparations.

A photo my father took of my sisters and me (in the box)
Meanwhile, my sisters and I chomped at the bit, like race horses awaiting the start of the Kentucky Derby. Our excitement and anticipation was almost unbearable. I would get downright annoyed at my father. Would it have been so difficult to do a little prep work the night before, to spare us this needless torture? And how long did it take to get a camera ready to shoot pictures? You made sure there was film in the camera (remember film?), you turned on the camera, and boom, you're ready to go. Why the big production?

Many years later, I came to understand what my father was really doing. He was teaching his children patience, something in shockingly short supply among children most of the time and especially on December 25th.

This excruciating wait every year also helped me appreciate, eventually, the sweetness of anticipation at all times of the year. The waiting for something good can be nearly as rewarding as the thing itself (and sometimes, even more so). Anticipation can last for weeks, months, years, while the thing you're waiting for comes and goes all too quickly.

C.W. Martin (1911-1993)
The anticipation of something gives it special event status. I'll give you an example from the movies. When I was growing up, The Wizard of Oz was shown on TV once a year. I would look forward to it every year and get really excited as the TV broadcast neared. Now, of course, Dorothy and her pals are digits on a server somewhere, ready to be streamed into your living room any time you want. While instant gratification can be rewarding itself, it is the enemy of anticipation.

We all need something to look forward to; to appreciate while we have it; and to have fond memories of when it's gone. Life is pretty flat otherwise, and my father understood that delayed gratification helped enrich each of those experiences. Through his annual Christmas morning dawdle, he gave me a gift that I was only able to appreciate decades later. It was worth waiting for.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Getting Holiday Decorations With a Gun

Who the heck would shoot mistletoe out of a tree?
A Georgia resident named Bill Robinson, that’s who. Robinson was featured Tuesday on the “Ridiculist” segment of Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN because he'd used a 12-gauge, double-barrel shotgun to blast mistletoe out of a tree on private property. While Robinson may be applauded for his clever labor- and money-saving strategy, the authorities were not pleased and he was booked. 
Your mind may be reeling at the potential consequences this scenario presents, as mine did. For instance, would someone find it romantic if you went out and shot some mistletoe on their behalf? What if, as you were smootching your significant other under said mistletoe, a bullet dropped into your beehive hairdo? And if other people hear about what you've done, might you incur the wrath of some organization that advocates non violence toward holiday decorations? Would you be splashed with red paint in public as someone screams "Mistletoe is Murder!" in your face?

After considering these and other potential outcomes, my thoughts turned to Nick’s Uncle Burnley.
Burnley never married and lived with his mother in a large house on a sizeable plot of land in rural Georgia. Nick has often told me tales of how Uncle Burnley would sit on his front porch, take out his shotgun, and blast pecans out of the trees. Every Christmas, Burnley would mail Nick's mother (Mrs. P) a shoe box full of pecans. To my knowledge, no one ever broke a tooth biting into a buckshot-filled pecan.
I met Burnley twice. The first time was in the mid 80s, when I attended his mother's funeral with Nick and Mrs. P. After a Southern church service funeral, everyone gathers at the home of the bereaved to eat fried chicken, corn muffins, and such. (Funeral food in the South is good eating, I can assure you.) The home in which Burnley resided was decorated in a style best described as "Benign Neglect" or perhaps "Early Boo Radley." For example, when Nick and I sneaked away to check out the rambling, creaky, once-grand house, we discovered a broken second-floor window--with grass growing on the floor.
Nick's Aunt Doris, Nick, and Uncle Burnley
Many years later, in 2003, we visited Burnley again. We'd heard he was in declining health and decided we'd better see him while we could. I don't believe Nick had had the occasion to talk to his uncle in several years (they did correspond with Christmas cards for a while). And yet, here comes Burnley to greet us at the front door, and the first thing out of his mouth is, "Have you fixed Jimmy Carter yet?" 
A few years later, Burnley moved into a nursing home and gained notoriety by rolling down the hallways on occasion, naked, in his wheelchair. He passed away in 2007.
You probably have a relative like Burnley, if you're lucky and you're from the South. If not, well, bless your heart, happy holidays, and go get some mistletoe.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Just in Time for the Holidays - The Funniest Southern Novel Ever Written

If you've never read A Confederacy of Dunces, then please take a second and read the following excerpt. It may help you make up your mind whether you want to read what I absolutely believe is the funniest novel ever set in the South, if not the funniest novel ever written.

"Ignatius pulled his flannel nightshirt up and looked at his bloated stomach. He often bloated while lying in bed in the morning contemplating the unfortunate turn that events had taken since the Reformation. Doris Day and Greyhound Scenicruisers, whenever they came to mind, created an even more rapid expansion of his central region. But since the attempted arrest and the accident, he had been bloating for almost no reason at all, his pyloric valve snapping shut indiscriminately and filling his stomach with trapped gas, gas which had character and being and resented its confinement. He wondered whether his pyloric valve might be trying, Cassandralike, to tell him something."

That excerpt is just one of countless other parts of the book that made me laugh out loud as I read them, hungrily underline them with a yellow marker, and come back to re-read them again over the years.

The Ignatius mentioned in the excerpt is Ignatius J. Reilly, the book's protagonist, a wildly delusional French Quarter nut case who wanders the streets in a green hunting cap. His "full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs."

While Ignatius is the main character of A Confederacy of Dunces, his pyloric value plays at least a supporting role during their many French Quarter misadventures together. Yes, it's that kind of book.

The novel is priceless to me for so many reasons. It paints a vivid picture of New Orleans in the early 1960s, with actual stores and locations (some of them long gone but fondly remembered) woven into the narrative. (There's even a statue of Ignatius in New Orleans now.) The rogue's gallery of quirky characters is as rich as any you'll find in a novel. The author's writing style perfectly complements Ignatius' outrageous delusions of grandeur. This novel truly deserved the 1980 Pulitzer Prize it won for fiction.

But not all of Dunces is a laugh-out-loud experience. The backstory of how this book came to be published is tragic. The author, John Kennedy Toole, frustrated by so many rejections over so many years, committed suicide.  His mother took up the cause to get the book published and eventually brought it to the attention of noted author Walker Percy. He saw in the book what so many others hadn't: that Confederacy of Dunces is a rare novel of brilliance, humor, and surprising depths of sadness. Similarly, efforts to make a film of Ignatius' exploits have stopped and started over the years, with everyone from John Belushi to Will Farrell being considered for the role. As far as I know now, there is still no definite plan to make a movie of Dunces.

When I first read the book, I was about 23 or 24. I didn't dare read it in public because I never knew when I would erupt into volcanic laughter--a reading experience I have never had before or since.

And at that age, I didn't see the despair and melancholy just beneath the surface of the novel, either.

Rereading the book nearly 30 years later, that sadness is now on the surface for me. What's changed between my first and most recent readings? Not the book, certainly. I'm the one who's changed. I've been around long enough to recognize despair, isolation, insecurity, and misdirected rage when I see them, emotions that were too often invisible to me in my early 20s.

If you love Southern literature, have a slightly warped sense of humor, and have never read A Confederacy of Dunces, then by all means, please do it now and tell me what you think. Consider it a holiday gift to yourself, a fabulous antidote to the sometimes-forced seasonal cheer. And if you've read this book more than once over a span of time--or any book, for that matter--I'd love to know if your reactions were different.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

How to Have Your Chick-fil-A Boycott & Eat Their Food, Too

How do you boycott a restaurant when you crave their food?

I didn't know I was supposed to be boycotting Chick-fil-A until my friend Bob forwarded me a link to an article from this past January entitled "Yes, Chick-fil-A Says, We Explicitly Do Not Like Same-Sex Couples." The story, posted on the site, says that Chick-fil-A is "a restaurant where franchises frequently donate to anti-gay organizations like the Pennsylvania Family Institute, Focus on the Family and others. The restaurant's charitable arm, WinShape, holds conferences for opponents of gay marriage and praises their work. And this charitable arm's Retreat program puts a blanket ban on gay couples using their facilities, because they 'do not accept homosexual couples.'"

Nick never hesitates to express an opinion
I'm not terribly surprised. I knew Chick-fil-A is known for promoting its founder's Christian values and is closed on Sundays. Every organization has the right to promote its values, of course; how boring this world would be if that weren't the case.

But in this case, my head is in conflict with my stomach (which is nothing unusual). So I've been thinking of ways I might boycott Chick-fil-A and still enjoy their scrumptious sandwiches, waffle fries, and fresh-made lemonade. And ooooh child, did you ever have their banana pudding milkshake? Or their breakfast chicken biscuit or their...

Okay, back on track here. These are a few schemes for getting Chick-fil-A sandwiches without supporting them financially.

Minnie wants her some Chick-fil-A
Plan A. My partner Nick suggests I dress up as Mickey Mouse and explain that my wife Minnie has never had a Chick-fil-A sandwich and wants one for her birthday. But given that I am Mickey Mouse, all my money is tied up in Disney stock options. This might work; I mean, who would dare refuse Mickey Mouse?

Plan B. Organize a flash mob. Using social media, I would arrange a flash mob that will, at a specific Chick-fil-A location and at a precise day and time, begin singing and dancing to Katy Perry's "Firework," complete with pyrotechnic bras. I will have placed my food order just a moment before the flash mob erupts. As the employees break out their own firework-spewing brassieres and join the dance, I sneak away.
Katy Perry's firework bra

Plan C. Go to work at a Chick-fil-A restaurant. Presumably employees get free Chick-fil-A sandwiches. I know this is probably true because when I was 16, I worked at a McDonald's in Greensboro. I got so much free food that my face quickly transformed into a pimple plantation. I quit after one week. However, the closest Chick-fil-A from our home in San Francisco is an hour away. Drive two hours every day just for a free Chick-fil-A sandwich? No one is that desperate (not even me).

How would you boycott Chick-fil-A without having to give up their food? I'd love to hear your ideas because, frankly, I may need them.