Sunday, December 30, 2012

New Year's Resolutions for Southerners and San Franciscans

Time to make New Year's Resolutions. Even though most resolutions have the life span of a butterfly with a bad cough, it never hurts to pause, reflect, and vow to be a better person in the coming year.

In the spirit of the season, the following are New Year's Resolutions from imaginary Southerners and San Franciscans--two demographics I admire, love, consider myself a member of, and, yes, enjoy poking fun at. I've also added some vintage New Year's Eve photos I found online, just for the heck of it.


The Southerner: "I want to see my shoes again while standing up. Mostly to make sure they're not white and it's after Labor Day."

The San Franciscan: "My goal is to keep my weight down and my Klout score up."

Getting Organized

The Southerner: "I resolve to stop storing my pistol in my makeup drawer."

The San Franciscan: "I will remember that after drinking my Starbucks non-fat-one-Splenda-extra-foamy-double-tall latte, I will put the used cup, brown paper 'sleeve,' and wooden stir stick into the composting bin. The plastic lid goes in recycling. And those bottles of 'ethical' plastic water bottles I bought go into my messenger bag so I won't have to pay the 10 cent paper bag fee."


The Southerner: "Start putting pocket change into my Piggly Wiggly piggy bank. Those summer shag dancing competitions in Myrtle Beach don't come cheap!"

The San Franciscan: "I resolve to not blow my budget this year for medical marijuana lollipops and leather chaps for the Folsom Street Fair, and to add money to my budget to offset my carbon footprint whenever I drive my Prius to Whole Foods."

Giving Back

The Southerner: "It's time for me to give back all those casserole dishes my cousins brought to my house for MeeMaw's 105th birthday party."

The San Franciscan: "I will stop hogging the electrical vehicle charging station in the Noe Valley Walgreen's parking lot."


The Southerner: "I resolve to leave my job as a banker in Charlotte for something totally different--like being a banker in Atlanta."

The San Franciscan: "It's time I left my exhausting job at Google and got an exhausting job at Facebook. Besides, Facebook's chef is, like, way better than Google's."

Your Resolutions?

Whether you're a Southerner, a San Franciscan, or something entirely different, what are your New Year's resolutions? Serious or silly, I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

"A Southerner in San Francisco" Now on Kindle

Why would you pay $1 a month for something you can already read for free?

That's the question I asked myself when I published this blog to Amazon's Kindle platform a few days ago. For the aforementioned price, you can now have A Southerner in San Francisco delivered automatically and wirelessly to your Kindle whenever this blog is updated.

One benefit is that you can read this blog on your Kindle, whether you're on the go or curled up in bed. You don't have to navigate to it; it comes to you. Instant gratification is a good thing.

Also, I get a percentage of every $1 monthly subscription--which is more money than I currently make writing my blog. So think of me as your friendly neighborhood bartender, and a Kindle subscription to my blog as the equivalent of the tip jar.

If you're interested, here's the link to A Southerner in San Francisco on Kindle.

Whether you subscribe or not, thank you for reading. To paraphrase Sandra Bernhard, without readers, this blog (or any other one) is nothing.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Why is There a Gorilla in Our Living Room Every Christmas?

On the eve of Christmas Eve, Nick and I are taking a break from our dinner party preparations. It's quiet, except for the sound of something thrashing around inside the clothes dryer. The windy rain has momentarily stopped.

And there's a gorilla in our living room.

Any reasonable person might ask, "Why is there a gorilla in your living room?" The unreasonable answer is, "He visits us  every Christmas."

About nine years ago, Nick and I threw a big anti-Christmas Christmas party built around the theme of a Tahitian disco. It's not that we dislike Christmas; it's the same-old-same-old Christmas decorations we'd grown tired of. So we bought two faux palm trees with white lights in them to serve as our Christmas tree, with a leopard-print sheet wrapped around their base. (Leopard print, in my opinion, is suitable for any occasion, especially Christmas.)

We pulled out white ceiling lights and replaced them with green, blue, and yellow bulbs. We bought a big disco ball and hung it from the ceiling. Our dining area monkey chandelier dripped with plastic leis. Paper pineapples proliferated, to the extent that our living room resembled a tiny Dole plantation. We didn't go over the top, because there was no top for us to go over.

The party was a hit. We held onto all the decorations. And every Christmas since then, we bring out a subset of them to transform our living room into a Tiki hut.

About a month ago, we came to a crossroads. While cleaning out our garage, we pulled out our traditional faux Christmas tree. We hadn't used it since 2003, the year of our big Tahitian party. It was taking up space. So the question arose: Keep it or donate it? After the briefest of pauses, we looked at each other and added the traditional Christmas tree to our Salvation Army pile.

Oh yes, you're wondering about the gorilla.

He's a life-sized cardboard cutout that Nick discovered in a party shop when buying decorations for our Tahitian disco. Every Christmas, he is unfolded and propped up to silently witness the shenanigans around him. He is ingeniously named "Christmas Gorilla."
Christmas Gorilla
The first day or so after Christmas Gorilla returns, he invariably startles us. About a week ago, I came into the kitchen late at night to get a glass of water, saw the big dark shape, and jumped. Nick has had similar episodes.

On a few occasions, Christmas Gorilla has come out at other times of the year. When a close friend of ours was recuperating in the hospital from surgery, Christmas Gorilla went with us to visit her. Even the nurse, who had presumably seen many strange things in her line of work, took a look at our friend and said, "I've seen some jackasses in the hospital before but never a gorilla."

On New Year's Day, we fold Christmas Gorilla, wrap him back up in black garbage bags, and store him behind a tall Japanese tansu. The Tiki hut is transformed back into a living room, and another year begins.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sh%t Southern Women Say

"Some fool stole my buggy at the Piggly Wiggly!"

"Dern! My tannin' bed's broke!"

"He's dumb as dirt, bless his heart."

"Does this pistol come in pink?"

"I'm fixin' to beat your ass!"

Admittedly, I've never heard a Southern woman say any of the above. But they do in the hilarious YouTube video, "Sh%it Southern Women Say Part 1." I've posted both of the "Sh%t Southern Women Say" clips below because, as a Southern woman (or man) would say, they're a "hoot." And I'm adding a few things I've heard Southern women say that aren't in either of these videos: 

"I hate I heard that," the meaning of which is obvious. 

"I hate I drank that," which means: "Damn this is so good, I'm gonna get addicted." 

"I hate I ate that." Same as "I hate I drank that."

"I'm sorry but I'm sorry." 

"She doesn't have the sense God gave a flea."

"Do I have on too much makeup?" (Usually asked by someone whose makeup was applied by Bozo the Clown. In the dark.)

"What time should I come to y'all's house?"


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Facing a Cliff? Go Ahead and Jump!

With all this talk about the fiscal cliff, you'd think going over a cliff is a bad thing. As with all things in life, it depends. On the cliff.

I understand the anxiety about facing a cliff and not wanting to go over it. I'm one of those people who, staring down at the bay from the Golden Gate Bridge, imagines what it would be like to jump or, worse, be pushed off. The thought immediately causes me to step back from the rail, horrified.

But sometimes, I see a cliff and know I must jump.

Before you send a SWAT team of psychiatrists to my home, I'm talking primarily about a psychological cliff. It's a point you've reached beyond which you can only see a deep, scary chasm of uncertainty. There's no obvious safety net. And yet, you jump.

When I was 29, I was offered the opportunity to move from Atlanta to San Francisco by my then-employer. All the moving expenses were paid and I had a job to go to. At the time, Nick was not working, so he was free to relocate. We were both bored with Atlanta anyway. Was this really a cliff? Maybe not, but it felt like one. What if we didn't like San Francisco and wanted to move back--without any jobs to return to? How would my parents react to such a big move? What would happen to our friendships in the South? Nearly 26 years later, I'm happy to report that this was one of the best 'cliff jumps' I've ever made.

A few years ago, I was in New York on business. While there, I went on a three-day theater binge. Electrified by August: Osage County, I decided to try my hand at writing plays. Within three years, I was among the opening-night audience for a short farce I'd written called Two Wings and a Breast. I knew, heading to the theater, that I was also heading toward a cliff. I had friends in the audience--what if they didn't like it and simply gave me fake smiles afterwards? What if no one laughed when I wanted them to or laughed when they weren't supposed to? What if the actors flubbed their lines? What if an actor at the last minute couldn't make it and my play, part of an evening of shorts, was cancelled? (There were no understudies). I took the leap anyway, and thankfully, the audience went with me.

Not all my cliffs have been purely psychological, however.

Years ago, on a trip to Mexico, I had just begun to insinuate myself onto a beach chair when I heard Nick call my name--from somewhere in the sky. I looked up and discovered he was parasailing over my head. He returned to Earth, all breathless excitement about the fantastic experience he'd just had and urging me to try it too. Nick's mother and former sister-in-law, Margaret, were with us. Margaret and I anxiously took the challenge, signed legal documents that would give even a Hollywood stuntman reason for concern, were strapped into parachutes, and were soon airborne.

As I floated over Acapulco Bay, I screamed as loud as I possibly could. Even the iguanas stopped munching foliage and looked up. Eventually, something miraculous happened: I stopped screaming. I looked around. I admired the view, felt the embrace of warm sun and wind. In those few moments, I had no fear, only wonder and excitement and gratitude.

Those moments ended all too soon, unfortunately. When attempting to land on a postage-stamp platform in the bay, I smacked against the side of it instead. The physical pain was fleeting; it's the jump I took that is with me still.

What cliffs have you jumped off? I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Google Car? Yes Please. But What About a Facebook Car?

I can't wait to own a Google driverless car, especially if they come out with a metallic blue convertible. I imagine it will be like a den on wheels. Want to cruise around town while having cocktails and watching Downtown Abbey? But of course. Only questions: Where should we go, and will that be a pomegranate martini or a cosmo?

Of course, once there is a Google car for purchase, other corporate-branded, self-driving cars are inevitable. A few examples, if you will.

The Facebook Car

A giant 'Like' button with four doors and wheels, the Facebook car will let you video chat and IM with friends to enliven mundane chores, like driving to the hair salon. In fact, you can have your hair done, even dyed, while driving across town for a dinner engagement. Just pull up to the salon, yell out the car window to your stylist, "Hey barber, get in!," and off you go. Your friends around the globe can give you an instant thumbs up or down on your new style and color. But why stop there? Get a Brazil wax on the way to a Brazilian restaurant. The only downside is that, in keeping with Facebook's privacy practice, the car will automatically post on your timeline, to the entire world, every place you go. And of course, you'll have no way to prevent this from happening. In other words, it will be just like Facebook. So if you're planning a trip to a Las Vegas brothel and you're married, might I suggest a taxi instead?

The Krispy Kreme Car
Imagine a giant glazed doughnut cruising along on the highway and you've got an idea of what the Krispy Kreme Car will look like. This one will also sport a giant neon 'hot light' that automatically turns on whenever a conveyer belt in the backseat produces freshly made doughnuts. Instead of air bags, the Krispy Kreme Car will be equipped with vomit bags that automatically engage once you've consumed more than a dozen doughnuts at once and hit one too many potholes. Just for the fun of it, the vomit bags will be decorated with the Dunkin' Donuts logo.

The Apple Car

The iCar, as it will surely be named, will have only one button, an on/off switch. Everything else will be controlled on a giant touchscreen that replaces the entire windshield. (Who needs to see those tedious pedestrians?) The car will be gorgeous, sleek, cool and sophisticated. Fans will stand in line for weeks to get one. And, in keeping with Apple's corporate philosophy, the car will only take you to places that Apple pre-approves (unless, of course, you get someone to jailbreak your car).

As you can see, the possibilities are endless. Which corporate-branded driverless car are you waiting for? Just don't ask for a 'MySpace car,' however; that one will only take you to dead-end roads.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Facebook & the 2012 Election: Can We Still Be Friends?

You didn't have to look further than your Facebook news feed to see the rancorous divide that grew during the 2012 Presidential election. In fact, here's something that probably won't surprise you: A Mashable poll found that 47 percent of people on Facebook unfriended someone due to the election.

It's been two weeks since the election, so I hesitate to kick this particular hornet's nest. But the election raised a lot of questions for me, ones I'm still mulling over. Such as:

* When someone unfriends another person because of his or her political beliefs, were those people actually friends or just acquaintances? If it's the latter, is Facebook really the place to connect? To me, Facebook is where you connect with people you care about; LinkedIn is for people you do business with; and Twitter is for broadcasting to the entire world.
Image from Mashable
I have only unfriended one or two people in my years on Facebook. It wasn't because I disagreed strongly with their views; it's because they clogged my news feed with way too much meaningless stuff. Seriously, I don't need to be alerted whenever you step out of the hot tub.

* Isn't it unhealthy to only surround ourselves with people who think just like us? I'm not setting myself up as the poster child for diversity, by the way. I'm a Democrat and so are the vast majority of my friends. And I live in San Francisco, where Republicans are as difficult to find as convenient parking spaces.

One reason why many people only engage with those who think similarly is because they want to avoid conflict. I'm guilty here, too. But conflict can have positive results. Recently, I attended an excellent playwriting workshop in which the instructor said one character's driving need, desire or interest is blocked by another character, and that creates conflict. That conflict creates change, and change causes the characters to grow. If in real life we avoid interpersonal conflicts at all costs, aren't we denying ourselves the potential for change? Doesn't conflict, when it's resolved or at least expressed civilly and understood, lead to greater intimacy?

* Have we gotten too comfortable making assumptions about other people because of their political party affiliation? The truth is, nobody I know is all one thing or another. We're complex human beings with sometimes conflicting beliefs. For example, I know Republicans who support same-sex marriage and Democrats who favor the death penalty.

* How long does it take to repair a friendship damaged by political differences? Many years ago, a friend of mine expressed the belief that gays shouldn't be allowed in the military. The statement was made casually, just as many things are expressed today on Facebook, but it stung. I decided that person no longer my friend. Fast-forward to today. We are friends again--on Facebook, of course. And I'd all but forgotten this incident until Nick reminded me of it when reading a draft of this blog post.

* How much is too much when it comes to sharing political, religious, or other potentially divisive views on Facebook? Some people believe such topics are better kept off Facebook; others don't think twice about frequently posting their views. So what is the happy medium? One solution might be to create a Facebook group for your politically like-minded friends and only let that group see your most heated political postings. But that doesn't feel like a good solution, because you're making assumptions again about the people you're excluding. And by including people with different opinions, you might learn something from them.

* My last question is rhetorical but worth asking anyway. Wouldn't we be much better off if each of us considered the rights, needs and feelings of others along with our own, not just at election time but all the time?

Friday, November 2, 2012

True Confessions of a Technology Addict

Hello, my name is Jim, and I'm a technology addict. (This is your cue to say, "Hi Jim!")

New Yorkers waiting to buy an iPad Mini (photo by Fortune)
You probably know at least one tech addict. Maybe you're one, too. If nothing else, just check out the line at an Apple store when a new product is released. Case in point: Today, some 600 people stood in line at the Fifth Avenue Apple store to buy a new iPad Mini, while other long lines formed at gas stations and grocery stores in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Whenever priorities seem so out of whack like that, there must be an addiction lurking.

Fortunately, my childhood was free of technology addiction. Of course, outside of a cute, portable, black-and-white Sony TV, there wasn't much consumer technology to get worked up about in the 1960s. The Sony TV only got a few channels anyway, and they were fuzzier than a Chia head eating a peach.

Somewhere around age ten or 11, my father gave me an electric typewriter, a hand-me-down from his photography studio. I was thrilled; it was as if my efforts to tell stories suddenly acquired power steering. I tapped away for hours at a time, drafting incoherent yarns and adolescent plays that embarrassed me then and would mortify me now.

Kaypro PC
I kept the typewriter throughout college, writing term papers and short stories. By the mid 1980s, something even better came along: a PC. I saved and bought a Kaypro, an MS-DOS computer made by a short-lived, family-run computer company whose demise was due to "too many Kays and not enough pros," according to one wag.

Eventually, the Kaypro led to my first Mac, which led to more Macs as well as more PCs and then to laptops and smartphones and iPads, oh my. Today, our home is filled with everything from an iPod nano to a 40-inch Samsung HDTV.

How did this addiction happen? Maybe its roots can be traced to the typewriter. I loved this machine because it gave me a new, easier way to write my stories, and for whatever reason, I have had a compulsion to tell stories since I was a kid.

My father, the Southern gentleman photographer
At any rate, the addiction kicked into a higher gear 20 years ago, when I was working as an editor for Publish. The working environment at this magazine was often so dysfunctional, we nicknamed it "Punish." But I learned something of lasting value there: how to use technology in new ways to not only tell stories but to illustrate them as well. During this period, I got everyone in my immediate family, and most of those in my extended family, to write down the fondest memories of their lives and send me their favorite pictures. I digitized it all, used page layout software to design a book, printed multiple copies, and had the books bound. It was none too soon. My father died a year later.

Over time, someone we loved who has died inevitably fades in our memories. It's sad, it's even a little scary, but it happens. Stories--their stories, in their words--keeps them alive in ways that a photograph can't. Now that I've come clean with my technology addiction, it occurs to me that preserving the stories of people who won't be here one day to share them is my true addiction. Technology is just the enabler.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Barbara Eden, Boris Karloff, and Halloween at the YMCA

As Halloween nears, my mind wanders to the YMCA.

It's not what you're thinking.

By the time I was born, my parents had already raised four daughters. My father, at the time, was 47, and my mother was 39. No doubt exhausted by the whole child-rearing thing, they gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted, to a point. For example, while other kids played kickball in the street, I positioned myself in the middle of the downstairs hallway, drawing cartoons. My entire family had to step over or around me for hours at a time. Surprisingly, no one seemed to mind.

As I grew older, my lack of typical boyhood interests and skills became difficult for my parents to step around. My father, I suspect, was in denial and tried to find a rationale behind my behavior whenever one even remotely plausible might be deduced. One night, during an episode of I Dream of Jeannie, I drew a diagram of what Barbara Eden's hair must have looked like when completely unknotted. Having sketched something vaguely resembling a cantilever bridge, I showed it to my father. One of my sisters shot me a look of icy disapproval.

My father studied the drawing and gently chastised my sister for her scorn. "He might grow up to be an architect one day," he said.

My mother had other strategies in mind. At first, she used shame as a tactic. "Why can't you be more like So and So?," she'd ask. I'd usually respond by citing that So and So just got into trouble for catching the nearby woods on fire or breaking Coke bottles in the church parking lot.

When the shame game didn't work, my mother tried bargaining with me. If I'd take basketball lessons at the YMCA, she'd give me a reward. I don't remember the exact bribe, but it must have been good because I begrudgingly accepted it. Soon, my mother was driving me to the downtown Greensboro YMCA on a regular basis. Each time, there was a little bit of hope in her heart and a big knot in my stomach.

As I expected, my adventures in basketball were a failure. I was the skinny asthmatic kid who, if he were lucky enough to actually possess the ball at any given moment, looked at it as if it were a live hand grenade. I couldn't get rid of it fast enough. During every game, I was threatened at best, spit on at worst.

But all was not lost.

The conclusion of my long basketball nightmare coincided with the YMCA's Halloween costume contest. It was a big to-do that included a showing of a Boris Karloff movie called Die, Monster Die. The film is chiefly memorable for a scene in which a young man enters a creepy old house, decorated with cobwebs, creaky doors and dry ice. The young man approaches a bed draped in a thick canopy, behind which an ailing old woman with a raspy cigarette voice is shrouded. "You must think this house is obsessed with mystery!," she says. It's still one of my favorite movie lines.

Back to me. I'd gone to extreme lengths for my costume, wrapping myself in a big decorative blanket, painting my face red, and wearing a black wig. In other words, I went as a kid's politically incorrect idea of a Native American back when we still called them 'Indians.'

After the party was over, my mother picked me up. "Did you have fun?" she asked.

"Not really," I answered. "But I won the costume contest!"

Halloween with sisters Julia and Mimi. I'm afraid that's me in the tutu.
That was the last time my mother attempted to coerce me into extra-curricular athletics. There would be battles between us in the future, especially during my rebellious teenage years. But on that Halloween night, despite my ineptitude on the basketball court, I suspect my mother was just a little bit pleased.  

Friday, October 19, 2012

How I Missed the Chance to Be on the Radio

While spending the afternoon on a clothing-optional beach, I missed the chance to be interviewed on a radio program about public nudity.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In San Francisco, our summer weather usually arrives in mid-late September and sometimes lasts as long as early November. Nick and I had noticed that the middle of this week looked ideal for playing hooky from work and going to our favorite beach, the ever-elusive and, yes, clothing-optional Gray Whale Cove. I say 'ever elusive' because too often, we've ventured down Highway 1 from San Francisco on a warm, sunny day only to discover the beach had disappeared beneath an impenetrably gray, chilly fog.

This is why I call Gray Whale Cove 'the Brigadoon of beaches.'And on Wednesday, it materialized out of the mist to deliver a spectacular, warm, sunny beach day. Nick and I settled in for the afternoon. My beach bag bulged with an iPad, a Kindle, an iPhone, the day's New York Times, a notepad, and other stuff I'd planned to get to. There was this blog to update, some research to do, email to answer, stories to read about the previous night's presidential debate.

Before long, Nick and I became absorbed by the spectacle of waves smashing against distant rocks, exploding into what looked like fireworks. I felt the coarse, golden, warm sand against my bare feet.

Gray Whale Cove, as seen from the hill above the beach
The beauty of our surroundings led to a discussion of spirituality. Nick told me of the time when, as a boy, he'd endured another long, drunken argument between his parents and had felt completely alone in the world, until he looked out the living room window into the clear night sky and saw one particularly bright star. I was reminded that I don't currently have any particular spiritual beliefs or strong disbeliefs, and maybe now would be a good time to start figuring things out. Religious and spiritual practices have always felt too dogmatic for me. But it occurred to me I might approach them the way a seasoned cook follows a new recipe: Read the steps, line up the ingredients, but follow your instincts and make it your own.

Periodically throughout the afternoon, a tension crept into my body. Since it was midweek, there must be email that needed my immediate attention. And yet, here we were, taking much-needed time away from work on a beautiful beach, a place where one day long in the future, I would like some of my ashes scattered. The iPhone stayed in my backpack along with everything else I'd brought until about 5 p.m., when we were packing to leave.

That's when I saw it: an email from a producer at KQED, a highly respected public radio station in San Francisco. She wanted to know if, as the author of a recently produced play that addresses San Francisco's public nudity controversy, I'd care to speak on that topic during the next day's Forum program. Hurriedly, I tried to respond to the email, but the signal on the beach was too weak. Clearly, my response would have to wait until we climbed the many steps that led back up to the road and the parking lot. Over three hours had passed since the producer had emailed me; wouldn't they have found someone else by now?, I wondered.

Before I even started up those steps, however, something amazing (for me) happened. I was grateful I hadn't checked my email until then. Being on KQED the next morning would have consumed my thoughts the rest of that afternoon: What wise or funny things could I say? Who else might be on the program? How could I get a digital copy? The radio show would have drowned out the crashing waves, and it would most likely have derailed the spirituality discussion.

As I expected, when I was able to reach her, the KQED producer informed me she had made other plans. She encouraged me to listen the next morning and if I felt inclined, to call in. I did as she suggested, but the lines were jammed.

The road to talking about my play on a popular radio show had been sealed off, just as the fragile Highway 1 that leads to Gray Whale Cove often is after a strong winter storm. But that afternoon on the beach, another path started to materialize out of the fog. I move toward it, grateful.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Does Honey Boo Boo Get Spanked in School?

Recently, I turned on CNN to see what in the world was happening. I expected news about the presidential election, the economy, and other such weighty matters. Instead, I learned about Honey Boo and school paddling.

I'd heard of Honey Boo Boo, of course. She's the child beauty pageant contestant in Georgia who, along with her family, is the focus of the reality-TV show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. The CNN segment was about the show's huge ratings success and the fact that the titular star is now a household name. This fact was confirmed for me personally when, a few days later, a Southern friend jokingly used 'Honey Boo Boo' as a term of endearment for me.

Next up on CNN was a segment about school paddling. The news hook was that a male teacher in Texas had paddled a teenage girl student (which, no matter where you are on the corporal punishment issue, just feels horribly wrong). CNN flashed a map of states in which school paddling was allowed. Guess what? Except for Virginia, every state in the South allows school paddling.

Honey Boo Boo: Naughty or nice?
Wait a minute, I thought: Honey Boo Boo is a child who, presumably, attends school. She lives in Georgia. I wonder if any teachers have paddled Honey Boo Boo? Was she naughty enough to provoke such treatment?

I became infinitely curious about the child dubbed by at least one blogger as "the redneck Shirley Temple." So I TiVo-ed her show, starting with a rerun of the first episode. A night or two later, Nick and I sat down to watch. We started midway through the pilot episode because of a TiVo recording 'boo boo.'
Shirley Temple, left. The death of taste and decency, right.

Our first image was of a bunch of people gathered around a large, red mud hole. Each person took turns getting hosed off before jumping into the hole. Nick and I looked at each other. "Turn it off," Nick said. "Done," I replied, hitting the 'off' button.

The show most definitely appalled but failed to enthrall. It's not that I have a problem with people jumping into mud holes to cool off; they're not harming anyone except perhaps themselves (that mud hole looked shallow). I turned off the show because it made me feel awful, as if I'd just unintentionally insulted a child.

Like many reality TV shows, Honey Boo Boo encourages its viewers to feel superior to other people and laugh at them. I was certainly guilty of such behavior in the past, and I'm not immune to it now. It's practically engrained in our culture. But that doesn't mean it makes me feel good about myself (it doesn't), or that it's something I'll actively devote time to it (it's not). Rather than help me unwind after a hard day of work, a show like Honey Boo Boo makes me agitated and uncomfortable. Perhaps a better name for the show would be American Horror Story: The South.

Based on my brief viewing of her show, I have no idea if Honey Boo Boo is naughty enough to make teachers want to spank her. But I do know this: The producers of Honey Boo Boo could use a little paddling.

Friday, October 5, 2012

My Late Father Helped Me Take This Picture

Last month, Nick and I were at my niece Kathleen's wedding in Greensboro. I hadn't been particularly focused on taking pictures during the reception, other than getting a few snapshots of my sisters and me clowning around. Frankly, I was more interested in raiding the risotto bar than attempting photography.

I was standing across the room from the dance floor when the bride and groom had their first dance. I peered over a few shoulders and caught a glimpse, smiled, and went back to the conversation I was in. A few minutes later, Kathleen was dancing with her father, John. Suddenly, I felt an urgency. I had to get a picture of them. I was behind several people, trying to find a good angle; Nick pointed out an opening and I jumped in. I quickly dug into my pocket, pulled out my phone (which has a decent camera), and snapped only one photo. Here it is:

I posted it on Facebook. It was one of my most 'liked' posts ever. John is currently using a cropped version as his Facebook profile photo. He told me he loved the 'thumbs up' Kathleen gave him in this touching moment. And I somehow managed to capture it.

I suspect my late father played a role.

C.W. Martin was a professional photographer for decades, starting out as a newspaper photojournalist and then launching Martin's Studio in Greensboro with his business partner. He was beloved in the community, his photos won awards; the Greensboro Historical Museum put together an exhibit on Martin's Studio that ran for years.

When I was younger, my father tried to interest me in photography. He failed. The reasons why are complex, and I'm still identifying them all nearly 20 years after his death.

On multiple occasions, as a kid I'd asked my father if we could move away from Greensboro. Partially this was because I was getting picked on a lot as a gay boy in the South in the 1960s. I'd also been watching a lot of TV and was longing to see the world beyond: New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Europe.

My father's answer was practical but not wanted I wanted to hear. He'd explain that he had spent years building up his photography studio in Greensboro. It wasn't a business that could be easily relocated to another city. We'd have to go without so many things because he'd have to start all over in a new place, he said.

So I got it into my head, which seems preposterous to me now, that photography was an anchor, or at least, it was my anchor. It kept my father tied to Greensboro, and so it kept me stuck in place, too. I realize now I resented the entire concept of photography for doing this injustice to me. And while I could appreciate an artful photo, the science behind capturing it bored me. Aperture and f-stop were as interesting to me as an isosceles triangle. I'd rather draw cartoons (and did).

There's more to this story, however.

I know now that, as much as I loved my father, I rebelled against everything he tried to teach me. Save your money for a rainy day, he'd say. I'd spend it instead on a designer rain coat. Wear a navy blue suit on job interviews, he'd advise me. Navy blue, in my mind, was the color of Southern male conformity. Instead, after college, I wore an off-white suit on all my job interviews, much to my father's disbelief. (Needless to say, it took me a year to get my first job, and only after I ditched the Tom Wolfe look).

Every Saturday night, my father cooked steaks on the grill for the family, except me. I would insist instead on chicken pot pie; anything but steak. I didn't even eat steaks until I was in my early 20s and had left home.

I'm not particularly proud of this. I regret that I wasn't closer to my father, because he was a terrific man, someone everyone respected. But I rebelled against him because I instinctively knew that if I didn't push him away, he might get a better look at who and what I was: his gay son. I couldn't risk disappointing him or, worse, losing his love. And so, I suspect I disappointed him in a different, though seemingly safer, way. Over the years, I've been letting go of this long-ago father-son drama piece by piece. I'm not finished yet; maybe I never will be.

But then, at the wedding, when my niece danced with her father, I felt as if my father and I had joined forces, too. With his spirit and my camera, we captured something beautiful. The partnership only lasted for a few seconds, but it is a start.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Why I Wrote a Play About San Francisco's Naked Guys

Public nudity isn't something I was, pardon the pun, exposed to in the South. Private nudity wasn't even part of my upbringing. I may have seen my father's bare legs half a dozen times, usually as he dashed from the bedroom to the bathroom.

There was a time when, as a boy, I stumbled into a room in which a relative was breast-feeding her baby. All I can remember thinking was, "If you offer refreshments to one person, aren't you supposed to offer it everyone else?"

And so, I was a public nudity 'virgin' until I moved to San Francisco. It didn't last long.

Soon after relocating to SF from Atlanta, I heard about the nude beaches scattered here and there, such as Baker Beach, Land's End, and Gray Whale Cove. Nick and I, strictly in the spirit of research, hit them all. We rarely kicked off our own bathing suits, however. It wasn't so much that we thought it was wrong. It was mostly about maintaining a tan line.

There was the undeniable curiosity factor, too. You go to a place where naked people hang out, you're bound to come back with stories. For example: One day at Gray Whale Cove, a game of nude volleyball was happening. A good female friend of ours sat with us, not far from the players and their bouncing appendages, intensely reading a book about how to stop children from thumb-sucking. The juxtaposition still makes me laugh.

About five years ago, a slow-burning movement began, but at the time I thought it was simply an isolated case. A couple of guys would walk around San Francisco's freewheeling Castro neighborhood completely naked, except for shoes. They'd casually stroll up and down the streets, almost as if they were on their way to the grocery store. In truth, they were all undressed with nowhere to go because no business establishment, I assumed, would allow them in.

Upon first sighting, I was shocked. Who would do such a thing? Gradually, I began to see the naked guys with a bit more frequency. Each time, I was less surprised, but I was still baffled. What was the point of it? I didn't like how it made me feel: uncomfortable, annoyed at them, and annoyed at feeling Puritanical.

Not surprisingly, the naked guys grew ever so slightly in numbers over time. And then, the public nudity movement began in earnest about two years ago, when the city created a public plaza at the highly trafficked intersection of Castro and Market Streets (shown below). Suddenly, there was a place for the nudists to congregate, because it was public property. And this is where it gets even wackier: Public nudity isn't a crime in San Francisco, as long as you're not visibly aroused.

Photo: ABC News
Even in a city as liberal as San Francisco, feelings are sharply divided over the naked guys (and, by the way, the occasional naked woman). Some of my friends find it ridiculous, disgusting, pointless, an unnecessary 'political statement,' and an embarrassment to the city. 

Among these sentiments, there's one I've heard expressed often that's a little troubling. To wit: The vast majority of the naked guys are unattractive and out of shape. In other words, the public nudity is bad--but maybe it wouldn't be so bad if they were cute and buff. Typical comments I've heard include "The naked guys are the ones you'd least like to see naked," and "Who wants to see Santa Claus nude?"

On the opposite side, I've heard friends say that the public nudity is yet another by-product of living in a liberal, tolerant city. They'd all lived in places that aren't so welcoming and relaxed and are downright hostile to people who are different. And while they don't exactly love the naked guys either, they accept them as part of the eccentric, accepting, be-whatever-you-want-to-be nature of San Francisco.

Where do I stand on this issue, you might be wondering?

I started off in the first camp and slowly moved into the second. And during that journey, I became fascinated with the emotions the topic stirred--enough so that I wrote a 10-minute comic play about it, The Buck Naked Church of Truth. The play is currently running in San Francisco through Oct. 13th. It's part of a show called Family Programming, an evening of seven short plays, all of them awesome. You can buy your $15 tickets (yes, please!) at Brown Paper Tickets.

In my play, a father (Jeff) who sees himself as liberal has come to San Francisco with his girlfriend, Joy, who's a bit conservative. They've flown in from Kansas City to visit Jeff's son Tony, a gay man who lives in the Castro.

Jeff and Joy arrive early and go to the Castro so that Joy, who doesn't think she actually knows any gay people, can get comfortable being around gays before they have dinner that night with Tony and his new boyfriend. But while Jeff and Joy are sitting at a sidewalk cafe, guess who shows up buck naked? Tony and his new boyfriend.

The father, who had no idea his son is a public nudist, is outraged. And before the lights go out, roles get reversed quickly: the liberal becomes conservative, the conservative becomes liberal; the naked get dressed and the clothed shed a few layers.

The Buck Naked Church of Truth is beautifully acted and directed. And it may end up being a historical play, perhaps soon. The naked guys controversy is in the news again because a city supervisor is considering proposing a ban or at least restrictions on public nudity. And in a twist that only San Francisco could have invented, the supervisor's name is Scott Wiener.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

North Carolina Barbecue and the Meaning of Life

This just in from The Wall Street Journal: "Studies show that food cravings involve a complex mix of social, cultural and psychological factors, heavily influenced by environmental cues."

In other words, my blog and I are back from vacation, and we want to talk about comfort food.

Nick and I recently spent two weeks on the East Coast. It was one of the best visits we’ve had there in years: a whistle-stop journey visiting family and old friends from Boston and Provincetown to Richmond, Va., where Nick is from, to my hometown of Greensboro, N.C.

It hasn’t always been easy for us to visit our hometowns. Nick has often spoken of the ‘wet blanket’ of the past--unhappy memories that descended upon him as we drove into Richmond. Growing up gay in a dysfunctional family tends to do that to you.

To help salve those wounds, Nick and I would seek out Richmond 'comfort' food. Bill’s Barbecue, a long-term Richmond institution, was a frequent destination, not just for its minced pork barbecue sandwiches but for its limeades and crinkle-cut French fries, too.

In Greensboro, any number of emotional sand traps would cause me to "self-medicate" with food. To the rescue would come Krispy Kreme, whose illuminated neon ‘hot light’ would suddenly cause our rental car to careen into the doughnut palace’s parking lot. Rarely could we drive past a Chick-fil-A without soon having their crispy chicken sandwiches dissolving in our stomachs. And a visit to Greensboro was never complete without at least one stop at Stamey’s barbecue.

This trip was different.

In Richmond, we dined out with Nick’s old friends in new restaurants. I even nibbled a pig's ear (though I had to be prodded into it). We went to Bill’s Barbecue, but only for the limeade. In both cities, we gave the Krispy Kreme “hot light” the cold shoulder. Given all the recent uproar, we didn't even consider Chick-fil-A.

But then there was Stamey's. For years, my brother-in-law Larry had been trying to convince me that Country Barbecue, also in Greensboro, is superior to Stamey’s. And for years, I’ve smiled and nodded and completely ignored his advice. Stamey’s, for me, was the comfort food I looked forward to most on my Greensboro visits. So why risk your comfort on something unknown, especially at a time when you need that comfort the most (or think you do)?

On this visit, however, we took Larry’s advice. On our way to visit Larry and my sister Nancy, we picked up sandwiches for everyone from Country Barbecue. And you know what? Larry was right. Their North Carolina-style chopped pork barbecue sandwiches are better than Stamey’s.

What was different this time? The "environmental cues" that caused us to seek comfort have mostly faded now, and good riddance. Seriously: Why did we need comforting? Nick has a close group of fabulous friends in Richmond whose company I greatly enjoy. I have a huge, wonderful family in Greensboro that I love, and who love me and Nick. Sure, my mother has dementia, and that's painful to watch. But she's also still quick on the draw. When being ushered to the bathroom by a nurse's attendant at the memory care facility where she lives, my mother turned to Nick and me and said, "Better watch out, she'll make y'all go next!"

Nick and I have learned to enjoy our hometowns for what they offer now, rather than begrudge them for what they didn't provide years ago. And we're hungry for new experiences, which are the opposite of tried-and-true 'comforts.'

Don't misunderstand. Comfort food, on occasion, truly hits the spot. But does it comfort you? Or does it just keep you in the past and actually make you feel worse? What I've grown to learn, thanks to my most recent trip "back home," is this: Comfort food can be like a friend who pats you on the shoulder--while reminding you just how miserable everything is.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Time for a Blogger Break!

There's nothing new on the Chic-fil-A front (at the moment). I've still got plenty of Cheerwine in my kitchen cabinet. It will be hard to top the story about my mother catching me going commando.

Time for a blogger break!

Me, Nick, and an unidentified, disembodied little girl, Venice Beach, CA
I'll be back after September 9th (if not before) with new stories and old memories, like the Mrs. P Mardi Gras misadventures I promised a while back. Maybe I'll tell you about the time I caused an explosion in a cafeteria during my first day on a new job. And I'm definitely going to let you know about a short play I've written that's being produced in September, which I think (hope) will be  controversial.

In the meantime, happy late summer, everyone. And thank you so much for reading my blog. I'm so fortunate to have such smart, funny, interesting, loyal readers. -- Jim  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Memo to Shirley MacLaine: I'm Over All That, Too

A good friend recently recommended I read Shirley MacLaine's latest book, I'm Over All That. The premise intrigued: MacLaine writes that once you've reached a certain age, you know what's important and what's not. You've earned the right to say "oh hell no!" to things that have repeatedly bored, hurt, angered, or befuddled you.

Reading MacLaine's book, I realized there are several things I'm over now and will probably continue to be over. Here are a few.

I'm over one-sided conversations.

Recently, I encountered someone in a restaurant who I'd known during my Charleston days. I acknowledged him, asked how he was. It was as if a curtain had been raised, and his floor show began. He talked amusingly and yet incessantly, asking me absolutely no questions in return.

At one point, he was reminiscing aloud about Hurricane Hugo, which blew through Charleston in 1989. I mentioned that we, in San Francisco, had experienced a major earthquake the following month. This was a test; I wanted to see if my disclosure would prompt him to ask what the experience had been like for me. He failed the test.

I'm over him and people like him. I want a dialogue, and I feel sad for serial monologists. How can they ever expect to learn anything about themselves if they don't listen to other people? (The answer, of course: They aren't interested in learning about themselves, because what they'll learn won't be pretty.)

I'm over politics in general and politicians in particular.

True leaders who believe in and fight for a just cause? I love them. People who go into politics for the power, the manipulation, the media exposure? I've had a belly full of them.

I've stopped reading the vast majority of 2012 campaign news. I already know who I'm voting for as president, so why subject myself to all that needless noise? I'm way over all that, and I doubt that's going to change.

I'm over french fries.

Just kidding.

I'm over Chic-fil-A.

This is a tough one for me because I love, love, love their sandwiches. But I'm not spending my money on an organization that's so dead-set against my right to marry whoever the hell I want.

I'm not over freedom of speech.

Chic-fil-A's executives have absolutely every right to voice their opinions. And all those people who waited in line for hours to buy the restaurant's delicious sandwiches during the much-publicized Chic-fil-A appreciation days? I say good for you, go for it.

In fact, I support your right to support Chic-fil-A 100 percent. Just don't get all Judge Judy on me because I'm boycotting them. That's my right, too. And come to think of it, you should support me in my boycott just as much as I support you. We're both exercising our freedom of speech and keeping democracy alive. Everybody wins.

I'm over guns and gun lobbyists.

Yes, I know the right to bear arms is baked into the Constitution. And yes, I've heard the slogan that if you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have them. I don't know the solution to the gun violence in this country. But I know this: It's a huge problem and it needs to be addressed in a sensible way, soon. Let's start by revising that ban on assault rifles. I mean, outside the military perhaps, who has a right to an assault rifle? No one, in my view. 

I'm over entitled pedestrians and distracted drivers.

But I suspect you are, too, so let's move on.
I'm nearly over big Hollywood blockbusters.

The big Hollywood movies this summer were recycled garbage. Here's how bad it was: The Amazing Spider-Man, one of the big money makers, was a remake of a film that was only 10 years old! I'm sure I'll be tempted to pay my money for another 'tentpole' film at some point, but for now, I'm done.

I'm not over movies about real people.

My two favorite movies of the summer have been independent productions about people, not comic-book characters, and the things that make them human.

The first is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, starring Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, two actresses I greatly admire. The film is about British retirees who have lost their dreams. They think the game is over for them, reluctantly move to India--and discover that, far from being over, their lives are taking a different, and ultimately more interesting, direction.

The second is Hollywood to Dollywood, a charming documentary featuring gay, identical twins. It's the story of people (the Lane brothers) who are chasing their dreams and who, along the way, discover things even more valuable than what they were seeking. For more on H2D, see my post about the Lane twins.

I'm never over reading what you have to say.

A blog is at its best when it's a dialogue, not a one-sided conversation. I'm fortunate to have readers who can always be counted on to chime in with funny, smart, personal stories of their own. For that, I am sincerely grateful.

Now that I've buttered y'all up, I'd love to know: What are you over for good, and why? What are you not over? 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

How Swimming Saved My Life--Twice

Swimming has been good to Michael Phelps. The athlete from suburban Baltimore, Maryland racked up his 19th Olympic medal yesterday in the London Games--an historic record.

Swimming has been good to me, too, though the only metal I've ever acquired are the fillings in my teeth.

I took up swimming as a boy because I had asthma, the kind that required me to sleep next to a steam machine every night. My pediatrician suggested I take up swimming. He believed swimming for exercise would help make my respiratory system stronger, among other benefits.

L to R: Julia, Mimi, me.
And so I joined the swim team at Starmount Forest Country Club in Greensboro, to which my family belonged at the time. Two of my sisters, Mimi and Julia, also swam on the team. Mimi would return home from each competition laden with trophies. Julia and I won awards primarily for not drowning. The photo at right tells the story. Notice the direct correlation between the size of the awards and our smiles (or lack thereof).

As discouraging as my swimming competitions were, something miraculous began to happen. Though I still hear a wheeze now and then, my asthma soon become a relic of my childhood.

Surprisingly, I didn't continue to swim as a teenager, young adult, or even a middle-aged adult. Maybe swimming was a painful reminder of my childhood. Certainly it wasn't as convenient for exercise as going for a run/powerwalk in my neighborhood. In San Francisco, there aren't any lap-swim pools near us.

Fast forward to nine years ago. One of my closest friends, Mark Kelly, had just died from a long battle with cancer. I'd grown discouraged with a novel I'd been writing for four years and had decided to abandon it. And my hands and arms were constantly aching from all the computer typing I did for work. The situation had grown so bad, I wondered how else I might make a living? Writing as a profession and for a creative outlet was all I knew or wanted to know; without it, a part of me would have died.

I started seeing an amazing massage therapist, Scott Schwartz, who now runs Psoas Massage + Bodywork in San Francisco. Through multiple visits a week for months, Scott saved my hands. Once I was over the hump, he suggested I take up swimming to rebuild my strength and help prevent me from having future hand problems.

Back into the pool I dove. I'm still swimming regularly today, and I can't imagine giving it up again. There's no external stimulation to distract me when I'm swimming laps in a pool. It's just me, the water, and during the summer, the sun. My mind is free to drift, scheme, dream, and problem-solve. I once came up with a poem while swimming, and I never write poetry.

As we get deeper into the London 2012 Olympics, I'm reminded that there's a big difference between an award, like an Olympic medal, and a reward. I may not have won a single swimming competition award higher than the "Nice Try" citation, but oh, how I have been rewarded.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My Mother Busted Me for Going Commando

It was toward the end of a recent visit to North Carolina, and I was down to one pair of clean underwear.

And so I faced a dilemma: Wear my last fresh pair to visit my mother on her birthday? Or save it for the day after, when I'd be flying home to San Francisco? (Wearing dirty underwear, in my opinion, is never a viable option.)

Ultimately, the fear of my airplane dropping from the sky, and my improperly attired body plunging with it, was the deciding factor. The thought of showing my crack in someone's driveway, even posthumously, was just too much. Besides, I reasoned, my mother lives in an Alzheimer's facility. She'll never notice.

When I arrived, my mother, Ruth, was surrounded by two of my sisters, Nancy and Julia. I was wearing a pair of baggy shorts, and I took the chair opposite Ruth. It didn't take long before Ruth grabbed one of my pant legs, peeked up it, and asked me something along the lines of "What are you wearing under there?" Stunned at first by the question, I admitted I was "going commando," and we all had a hearty laugh about the fact that my 93-year-old mother had just busted me for not wearing underwear.

Later, Ruth turned to Julia and asked "Do you bleach your hair?" My mother was particularly fascinated with my shirt, a red Polo shirt with a large exotic bird on it, and with Nancy's Paul Frank monkey-face watch. She looked at us and suddenly said, "I can't believe I gave birth to all y'all." Then she paused and added: "And I kept you, too."

In other words, Ruth was more observant, engaged, and upbeat than I'd seen her in a long, long time.

The afternoon wasn't without its bittersweet moments. Repeatedly, Ruth asked my sisters and me to call our father, who died in 1993. We'd explain that we'd called him just now and gotten a busy signal, or that he was working, or that we'd call him in a minute. Even though the excuses grew easier to make, each one stung just a little.

And then, Ruth announced that this was "the happiest day of my life." That was why it was so important for us to call her husband. She was having so much fun, she didn't want him to miss any of it.

Nancy, Ruth (in Piggly Wiggly T-shirt), and Julia

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How I Met My Mother Out-of-Law

It was a cold January night in 1983. The location: Humphrey’s, a former drug store that had been converted into a sophisticated restaurant/jazz club in Richmond’s Fan District. I’d been fretting over meeting Nick’s mother for over a year. And as soon as we settled into a table for our first meal together, one of my worst fears was realized.

"Alright now,” Polly Parham said, leaning forward in her chair. “Here's what I really want to know: Who's the he, and who's the she?"

How to answer such a question? Stalling for time, I reached for my glass of Chardonnay but my jittery hand knocked the glass over. A stain quickly spread on the white tablecloth.

The waiter, a tall bearded college student, quickly came to my aid. "I'll get a towel," he said.

"I’d rather have a refill,” I responded with a weak smile.  

As Mrs. Parham and Nick chatted with the waiter, I glanced around. A middle-aged blonde at the next table, seated with a blandly handsome man with gray temples, had been staring at the three of us since we entered the restaurant. I decided to nickname her Nosy the Riveter.

She seemed particularly curious about Mrs. Parham. Elegant, confident and glamorous, with beautiful, silver-white hair spray-starched into an impenetrable matriarchal upsweep, Mrs. Parham had glided through the restaurant, posture straight as a swizzle stick, her body bundled up in a full-length mink coat with an upturned portrait collar, still-shapely legs sheathed in sheer black hose, expensive-looking black pumps adorned with rhinestone buckles. She was impressive—a woman who, at 66, was clearly in her prime.
Mrs. P in Paris, 1990

The waiter returned with our drinks. Mrs. Parham took a thirsty sip of scotch and lit a cigarette. And then she returned her attentions to me. "Jim, I hope you don't mind my asking a few questions. As you know, this is all new to me. Until a few months ago, I had no idea that Nicky was interested"

"I don't mind," I replied, taking a sip of wine. "This is all new to me, too." I felt Nosy’s attention on me—or was I imagining it?

"Do Your Parents Know?"

"Do your parents know?,” Mrs. Parham asked. “About you and Nick?"

I took another sip of wine and breathed out. "Nick has met my parents, but they don't know about us," I replied. Mrs. Parham's silence indicated she wanted me to elaborate. "I just don’t think they'd understand.”

"That could very well be," Mrs. Parham said crisply. "But couldn't it also be you haven't given them the opportunity?"

"Mama," Nick interjected, reaching for her hand, "you have to understand, you're not like most parents. You're much more open-minded and..."

"I understand that," Mrs. Parham said. "I also understand that because I'm more open-minded, I'm expected to deal with the fact my son is in love with another man and Jim's parents aren't?" She took a long drag off her cigarette. I could tell Nosy was absorbing every syllable. "It doesn't seem fair to me, quite honestly. I understand what you're both saying," Mrs. Parham continued. "I'm simply asking you to understand what this is like for me, too."

This is going horribly, horribly wrong, I thought. Nothing I've said is making sense. She hates me. This will never work. 

"I come from an entirely different generation," Mrs. Parham continued. "We didn't disclose our secrets. But I suppose that's not the way it is anymore."

I could see the agitation on Nick's face. He was about to respond but I beat him to it.

"Who's the He and Who's the She?"

"Mrs. Parham," I said, unsure what my words would be. "I'd like to answer the question you asked me earlier--you know, 'who's the he and who's the she'?"

"I hadn't forgotten," she answered, lighting a fresh cigarette.

"The truth is, I'm the she, and Nick's the he. And the opposite is true, too. Nick's the she, and I'm the he."

Mrs. Parham looked confused but said nothing.

"What I'm trying to say is, Nick and I don't have to play any prescribed roles with each other," I continued. "We don't have traditions to follow, and we don't have expectations to live up to. We can be whatever we want with each other. And we are. But the most important thing is, we're always completely ourselves with each other. I’ve never had that before, not really, and neither has Nick.”

Mrs. Parham considered my answer. "Nicky, were you not able to be yourself with me?"

"No, Mama," Nick answered. "That's why I had to tell you about Jim."

Mrs. Parham finished her scotch. "I suppose I always knew you were gay, on some level," she said to Nick, sadly. "I hoped you wouldn't be gay, because I knew how much harder it would make your life. And Lord knows, Nicky, you’ve had a hard enough life as it is."

To me, Mrs. Parham added: "Nicky had an enormous amount of responsibility on his shoulders as a boy. He had to help me take care of his father. He had to be his father's eyes when he couldn't see. Nicky would read stories to him. As a teenager Nicky drove his father from one doctor's appointment after another. Nicky was always--always--the one person I could count on."

Mrs. Parham smiled lovingly at her son. "I remember the day after your father's funeral. You and I were sitting outside on the front steps. It was a hot morning, and neither one of us wanted to sit at the breakfast table and follow our routines. You looked at me and said, 'Mama, you and I can keep on being mother and son. Or we can be friends.’ And you were so right. We didn't have to play those roles with each other anymore." She paused, retrieved a tissue from under her blouse sleeve, dabbed her nose. "We could be whatever we wanted to be with each other, too. I suppose it’s like what you and Jim have.”

A jazz trio that been tuning up suddenly launched into Begin the Beguine. Nosy sprang from her seat and led her male companion to the dance floor.

"Jim," Mrs. Parham said, extending her hand, "would you care to dance?"

"I'd love to," I said, rising. As we danced, awkwardly at first but then, to my surprise, extremely well, Nosy turned to Mrs. Parham and said, "I hate to ask, but y'all look so cute together, are y'all related?"

Mrs. Parham smiled sweetly and replied, "I guess you could say I'm his mother out-of-law."

There are two things I distinctly remember happening next. One is the completely befuddled look on Nosy’s face. The other is the feeling I experienced when Mrs. Parham linked her arm through mine as we left the dance floor together.


Postscript: After that night, I quickly became soul mates with Mrs. P (as many people, including me, called her). Nick first witnessed this when he came home from work one day and found Mrs. P and me sitting on top of the bed, watching Mildred Pierce and eating brownies. She died in July 2000.

Friday, July 13, 2012

How to Get Married

If you're casting about for creative wedding ideas, how about asking your dog to be the ring bearer?  Get your uncle to sing to you--during the ceremony. And instead of cutting into a white wedding cake, serve cupcakes--especially a margarita cupcake with tequila frosting.

Nick and I recently attended the wedding of our good friends Natalie Rome and John Pendleton at the Sunriver resort in Oregon. We've attended our share of "I do" affairs in the past, but the 'Pendlerome' mashup was especially creative and touching. Here are just three reasons why, for me, it was an affair to remember.

1. Friends and family were part of the wedding ceremony.

Traditionally, the ceremony is all about the bride and (let's be honest), to a lesser extent, the groom. Not the Pendlerome wedding. On a beautiful lawn at the Sunriver resort, the attendees were seated in two large, bisected semi-circles. Between the circles was an open path for the adorable boys and girls to toss rose petals and, of course, for the bride to make her grand entrance (which she did, in a gorgeous gown that Princess Diana would have craved).

The flower boys and girls strewing petals
Natalie escorted by her fabulous father Don Gaines
About midway through the ceremony, the marriage officiant Micky Lloyd, a close friend of Natalie and John's who is licensed to perform marriages, opened up the proceedings. As John and Natalie were seated, the attendees were asked to come forward with anything we wished to say to the bride and groom, or to just sit and reflect.

Some friends had been asked beforehand to read inspiring quotes about love and commitment. Natalie's uncle Tom Gaines performed a song, which had many (including me) reaching for a tissue. Nick and I popped up and grabbed the microphone, too. I talked about how I'd fallen in love with Natalie when I met her in a cooking class in the mid 90s--she was adorable, smart, and looked quite capable of mischief (and still is). Nick spoke about the moment when we knew we loved John. He'd shown up at our home for a movie musical challenge night, wearing the world's smallest basketball uniform (an homage to John Travolta in Grease) and bouncing a basketball on our living room floor.

Later, Natalie told me they got the idea for including the guests in the ceremony from Quaker wedding traditions (though neither she nor John are Quakers).

Allison, Freckles, Natalie, Micky, and John
When you think of it, a marriage happens not just because two people love one another, but also because their close friends and family members have helped bring them together and have given them support along the way. It felt so right, including us in the marriage ceremony.

2. Their family pet was the ring bearer.

Granted, you don't want to try this with a young pup. And it's a risky proposition with an indoor wedding (what if the dog cocks up his leg on the altar?)

But Freckles, an 11-year-old German Shepherd, behaved beautifully, and her presence added yet more warmth and charm to the ceremony. Freckles has been John's faithful companion for many years and is now much beloved by Natalie and Allison, Natalie's 13-year-old daughter from her previous marriage. When it came time for the ring exchange, Allison (standing beside Natalie during the ceremony and looking so mature and beautiful), retrieved the rings from Freckles' collar.

Allison gets the rings from Freckles' collar

3. They didn't assign seats at the reception dinner!

As a wedding guest, I've never liked being told where to sit and to whom I must sit beside. Too often, it's an effort by the bride and groom to position the fun ones next to, how should I say this?, the tedious ones. I guess you don't want all the laughter coming from one side of the room.

At any rate,  I've gotten into trouble at past weddings by switching around the name cards so I could sit next to whomever I wanted. And if I'm fortunate enough to be invited to your wedding reception and discover that I've been assigned a seat, well, consider yourself forewarned.

Allison Rome, one of my best girlfriends, spinning me around on the dance floor at the reception

Nick, Natalie's sweet mom Sammie Gaines, and me at the day-before BBQ

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving Day, Y'all

I'm well aware today is July 4th, Independence Day, America's birthday. But for me, this day is a summer edition of Thanksgiving for several reasons. As with that November holiday, there are no gifts to buy on Independence Day. The emphasis is on getting together with friends and/or family, eating (and perhaps drinking) too much, and hanging out. My kind of holiday.

Unlike Thanksgiving, however, on July 4th I think about independence--mine, to be specific. At this stage of my life, I have a great deal of freedom. I'm old enough to know what I want and young enough to expend the energy to get it or do it. I'm fortunate to enjoy good health, which is essential to complete independence. My relationship with Nick is an easy one that continues to grow more rewarding, and we don't try to 'control' each other. I've been self-employed for 18 years, so there's no one telling me what I can and can't do. Like everyone else I know, I have money concerns, but I'm not hurting for the comforts of food, clothing, and shelter. 

All that is my way of saying that giving thanks for personal independence is important. It's something to be acknowledged, savored, and celebrated, because it can be fleeting. Without notice, our independence can disappear, often the result of major health or financial conditions. Or it can be taken away, piece by piece, over time, until there's none left.

For example, there's my mother Ruth. She married early (at age 20) and almost immediately began raising kids--a total of five, born over the course of 17 years. She took care of a loving husband during a 52-year marriage, nursed him through his year-long illness, and mourned his death for years. Four years after my father died, Ruth's mother became ill and died.

A few months later, Ruth was at last fully free and independent for what I believe was the first time in her life. To celebrate, in 1998 she bought one of the first Volkswagen New Beetles to roll off the production line using money she'd inherited from her mother. Ruth was never happier than when she was tooling around town in her adorable white car, which--due to its scarcity at the time--got a lot of attention.

I was with Ruth one day when a stranger approached us in the Beetle and asked, "How did you get that car?"

My mother, who was 79 at the time, smiled mischievously and said, "My mother bought it for me."
I combined two of Ruth's paintings, of her Beetle and a purple cow, and Photoshopped them together with her photo.

Sadly, Ruth's independence lasted only a few years. By 2003, her sister was dying, and Ruth was once again in a caregiver role. And then, over the next two years, my sisters and I began noticing our mother's memory lapses.

Upon a doctor's advice, we had to take away the keys to Ruth's beloved Beetle--a wrenching experience for everyone involved. If that weren't enough, later that year, my sisters and I had no choice but to force Ruth from her home of nearly 50 years.

By that point, Ruth's Alzheimer's had progressed, she'd fallen several times, she'd nearly caught the kitchen on fire; you get the picture. Her continued existence in that big house was a disaster in the making. And so, again upon her doctor's advice, we moved Ruth to a retirement community where she could be safe and secure, and we hired our niece Marcy to be her caregiver. Four years later, after Ruth had wandered off at night more than once (perhaps looking for her Beetle), we had to move her again. Today she lives in an Alzheimer's facility where you must press buzzers and punch in codes to come and go--the exact opposite of independence. 

And so, on this 4th of July, as the fireworks rise, explode, and quickly fade, I'll be giving thanks for the independence I enjoy today, because I know that, like fireworks, it can't last.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hollywood to Dollywood: Why The Lane Twins Are This Summer's Real Movie Heroes

Allow me to ask a few questions about this summer's movies.

Did The Avengers leave you thinking about your goals and dreams and how you might achieve them? Did Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter have you questioning your relationship to your parents and what's getting in the way of those relationships? Did Prometheus stimulate any thoughts whatsoever other than how a young woman could possibly perform a C-section on herself and then run around a space ship?

I'd venture to say the answer to all of the above is 'no.' Why? Because, in my view, none of the people involved in the making of these films took risks. They relied upon the safety of known comic books and a popular novel. They rebooted a dormant but once-lucrative sci-fi franchise. They didn't challenge themselves or their audiences. And for their efforts, they're floating on inner tubes across vast oceans of money, a margarita in each hand.

Meanwhile, there's Hollywood to Dollywood.

The independent documentary recently had two showings at Frameline, San Francisco's annual LGBT film festival, following more than 50 festival showings around the world. (The Huffington Post has a detailed story about the film worth reading.) 
Hollywood to Dollywood is about two twin brothers, Gary and Larry Lane, both gay, from my home state of North Carolina. The Lane twins, who currently live in Los Angeles, wrote a screenplay entitled Full Circle, which includes a part they wrote with Dolly Parton in mind. They love Dolly (who doesn't?), and they really want her to be in their film.

So how would these two young up-and-coming actors/models/screenwriters get someone of Dolly's stature to even consider their screenplay? How would they fast-forward past all the non-responses and rejections that inevitably await the vast majority of scripts by unknown screenwriters?

They made a movie about it.

Venturing Into Tornado Winds and Flood Waters

More specifically, the Lane twins made a charming, funny, suspenseful, and unexpectedly touching documentary about their cross-country trip from Hollywood to Dolly's theme park in Tennessee. Their goal: To hand-deliver their script to Parton during the 25th anniversary of Dollywood, a time when they knew exactly where she would be and when.

The Lane twins on the road to Dollywood
These guys rented an RV (which they nicknamed Jolene), assembled a tiny crew, and made the trek--venturing into tornado conditions and flood waters along the way--without any assurance they'd actually make contact with Parton.

Sure, they had some reasonable hopes, as we all know Dolly is a genuine and benevolent person. (By comparison, can you imagine making a trek cross-country in hopes of getting Patti LuPone to read your script?) But the Lane twins took a big risk--something that so many in Hollywood and on Broadway today wouldn't dream of doing. They invested time and money and emotion into filming a story the ending of which they couldn't possibly know.

That alone earns my heartfelt admiration. But the movie also spoke to me on many other levels. As someone who has also toiled on a script (a play) for four years, the Lane twins' guerilla script-submission-tactic is inspiring. I'm already scheming about the unsuspecting hands I'm going to thrust my manuscript into, though I hope I can do it with as much Southern charm and style as the Lane twins.

And their tactic, from a marketing perspective, is absolutely genius. You want to make sure Dolly is aware of how badly you want her to be in your movie? Make a movie about the trip you took to hand your script to her--a documentary, by the way, which has won lots of festival awards.

Leslie Jordan
I don't want to imply Hollywood to Dollywood is simply some shameless exercise in self-promotion. Yes, it's a story about ambition and living your dreams, however corny that may sound. But what gives the film such heart is that, ultimately, it's the story of two gay men who want to fully 'be seen' and accepted by their mother, whose religious beliefs has yet to allow that to happen.

All This, and Leslie Jordan, Too

That's the quiet sadness that runs throughout the film, though there are many comic high points--including cameos by the likes of Will & Grace's Leslie Jordan, the diminutive Southern comic actor.

The Lane twins come across as sweet, adorable, handsome, funny, intelligent, genuine Southern men of whom anyone would be proud. I'm happy to report that Nick and I had a chance to talk to them after a Frameline screening, and in 'real life' they're exactly as they are in the film. One minute of talking to them and you feel as if you've known them for years--or wish you had.

I could go on and on, but I'll close where I started: with The Avengers, Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and the woman who gave herself a C-section in Prometheus. They're Hollywood's safe, risk-free action heroes. But for me, the real super heroes of the summer movie season, of the entire year in fact, are the Lane twins. And if you're at all interested in seeing their story, please buy the Hollywood to Dollywood DVD. It's only $20. You'll be supporting some terrific young Southerners. Ten percent of the sales go to Dolly's Imagination Library, which provides books to children. And most of all, it's a memorable movie. Besides, $20 is less than you paid for two tickets (plus popcorn) to see The Avengers--a movie you've probably already forgotten by now.

Postscript: Here's a recent Virgin America commercial featuring the Lane twins you may enjoy.