Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I'm the Wind, Baby

When I was but a lad of 18, I worked at a mall bookstore and lived in a rooming house with old men winding down their clocks and junkies trying to get clean (sometimes they did; sometimes other stuff happened). I ate a lot of Ramen and drank a lot of generic Stop & Shop soda. There was a pay phone in the hallway I had to use to call my boyfriend, who was thirty years older than me and worked nights. This was before I discovered Bruce Springsteen and my landscape of entertainment was almost entirely re-reading Stephen King novels and finding Real Truth in Counting Crows’ August & Everything After.

I’d get home from the bookstore late, late, late. The buses from the mall to my house were on a schedule staggered just so that I would usually get out of work forty-five minutes before the next bus was due. We had to wear dress shoes and ties at the bookstore, which I’d always found absurd, so when I shut the door to my little room (checking to make sure that the cardboard around the door jamb were still taped in place, so that the old men’s and junkies’ cigarette smoke didn’t seep in and play hell with my asthma while I slept), my feet hurt and my neck ached and I was exhausted. Too exhausted to sleep, usually, so I’d flip on the little 12” TV set up on the dresser that came with the room … and I’d laugh my goddamned ass off. My salvation in those early days of living on my own was Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show about the guy on the spaceship with his little robot buddies – Crow and Tom Servo and Gypsy and Cambot, for whom I would eventually be nicknamed – who are forced to watch bad movies and survive only my making fun of them. I watched Attack of the Eye Creatures. I watched Crash of the Moons. I watched, dear God, Manos: The Hands of Fate. And I fell in love.

Sometimes Tracey would come over to my rooming house with her then-boyfriend Pete to watch with me. My friend Jim would sometimes come by and fall asleep watching it, because he was a chauffeur and started work at 3:00 in the morning. Eventually, Tracey moved out of Quincy and I moved out of the rooming house, and I’d go to Brookline to watch it with her and her boyfriend Jerry. Yep. It stinks!

Things mutated. I lived in a studio apartment now, at least three times the size of my room at the rooming house. I had a kitchen. In which to put my generic Stop & Shop sodapop. Dave (also from the bookstore, and who introduced me to not only Bruce Springsteen but also Daredevil, making him one of the most important touchstones in my cultural development) and Tracey would come over and watch with me. Eventually, we invented the Geek Sleepover. Dave would pick us up at the train station in Quincy (Town of Presidents, don’t you know) and drive us back to his place in Fall River (conveniently located to New York City, only three hours away!) We’d load up on KFC and Utz and soda and get in our jammies and put puddles of water outside the bathroom every time Tracey went in so she’d step in the puddle and get her feet wet, because we’re grownups. And we’d watch MST3K together. Rowsdower!

We’d listen to the songs. We’d make in-jokes about the show. We’d circulate the tapes. I bought the Amazing Colossal Episode Guide and read it to literal tatters. When I met Shawn, I discovered that he and his former roommate Kenna used to watch the show (Shawn disconcertingly called it Mystie), and it was True Love Always. Soon, Shawn was joining us for Geek Sleepover, and you ever get those moments where your life actually seems like a narrative rather than a series of random stuff that happens? Yeah. That. Eventually, I met my buddy Kenny in Texas, and he was a die-hard MST3K fan. Whenever I would visit Texas, we’d watch the show. When he moved to Boston, I’d go over and we’d watch reruns. For a brief, burning time, Kenny was one of the best friends I’d ever had, and we’d nerd out completely to old episodes. I’ll blame Rocky and get away scot free!

Geek Sleepover ended, because everything ends. But, I’m discovering, things rarely end forever. Much like I’m rediscovering Rocky Horror now with Vickie and Duncan and Marty, MST3K as a thing rose up again in my life. Dennis, the funniest man I’ve ever known, decided to start organizing MST3K afternoons. Now, I’ve never really been a gamer, but I did Dungeons & Dragons in high school and I know how the experience is. This was like that, only in my specific area of nerddom. We’d head over our friend Emmy’s house or Dennis’s house and we’d order pizza and drink soda and eat chips, and lose our minds watching MST3K. Lose. Our. Minds.

When I found out my tattoo guy, Kelly, was coming back into town for a few weeks, I booked an appointment with him immediately. I contacted him on Facebook.

“What are you thinking of getting?” he asked.

“I was thinking Tom Servo,” I wrote.

“Are you fucking serious?” Kelly’s a badass who rides motorcycles and listens to psychobilly and tattoos people for a living … and is also a giant goddamn nerd. His huge chest tattoo in progress is the cover of an X-Men comic. He was ecstatic with the idea of doing a Tom Servo on me, and came back with a drawing almost immediately. I loved it, and though I had a brief lapse where I thought I might want a Hitchhiker’s Guide tattoo more, I stuck with Servo. It was the right choice.

Kelly placed the drawing on my bicep and I approved it. I said, “This is going to hurt a lot, isn’t it?”

“Well, only near the elbow and on the side of your arm. Not the guns themselves.”

“Oh. Well that sounds just swell, then!” It wasn’t.

Shawn arrived at Chameleon just as Kelly was setting up his table. His official job was to take pictures of the process. His real job was to let me crush his fingers later, when the needles jabbed into the tender flesh near my inner elbow and I was willing to punch kittens to make it stop.

I got my most recent tattoo done by John, also at Chameleon. His technique is light and long. Kelly goes at it had, but he gets the job done a lot faster. Both valid, both great artists, but you learn how to fool yourself about the pain. My Drive-By Truckers tattoo was (1) in an easier spot on my outer arm and (2) done light and long. So I’m thinking, “Oh, Kelly said it won’t really hurt, and though I know it will hurt some, this will probably be the same deal as before.” Nope.

It’s worth it, though, and here’s why: Kelly’s a goddamn genius at this stuff. Once the outline was in, Shawn – who had been skeptical of me getting Servo – was fully on board. While Kelly has a lot of selling points, dear God is he good at shading. You almost can’t believe a piece of 2-D art on a person’s skin can have depth, but Kelly crosshatched and shadowed until it did. Even before the color went in, Servo’s head looked like a sphere, not a circle. In between bouts of ow, I raised my head to look at the work in progress and said aloud, “Whoa.” At one point, Kelly even impressed himself. “Yeah, whoa.”

Then there’s the collateral awesome. Kelly said, “Since the last time I’ve seen you, you’ve really bulked up.” That was kind of the best compliment ever. (BUCK PLANKCHEST! FLINT IRONSTAG!) Then there were the moments of tattoo euphoria, where there’s pain, sure, but somehow it feels awesome, and you ride that until that more jagged, red, blinding pain rises up again. And the not-inconsiderable fact that Kelly? Is crazy hot.

You know how in the 80s, a stand-up coming knew he or she had done well when Johnny Carson called them over to talk after their set? Well, I know when a tattoo has exceeded Kelly’s expectations when he takes a picture of it when it’s done. He’s only done it three times now: Baloo, Steampunk Dr Pepper, and now Tom Servo. And it deserved it.

I'm the wind, baby.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Finish Line

Finish Line

I’m On Fire: 134, 443 words. DONE.

Here we come to the end.

A couple of times, I thought I wouldn’t be able to push through. I think it happens to every writer, every once in a little while, those dark nights of the soul where you know with certainty that you’re simply not good enough to live up to your ambitions. Those moments pass … but when you’re inside them, man are they debilitating.

I read somewhere recently that the mark of a good writer is someone who sits down and gets words out without being inspired. Inspiration is grand, but it’s rare. If you’re lucky, it hits about a dozen times over the course of a book. It’s those moments you live for, where the course of your novel lays itself out as if from somewhere divine. But the other days, when you’re faced with a bunch of story behind you and a bunch of white space ahead, where you have to sketch out some necessary backstory that you don’t want to do, and you have to make it interesting – those days count, too. They might count more.

Writing is work. It’s good work. It’s rewarding work. But it is work. I find it hilarious whenever anyone says to me, “I have a great idea for a book. All you have to do is write it!” That type of thing assumes (1) I don’t have great ideas, and (2) writing is just some frivolous mischief I’ll busy myself with for a couple of lazy afternoons and then boom, novel. That’s just not how it works.

Confession time: I have never liked rewrites. Ever. I’ve always been, “I just finished a novel? Time to jump right into another one!” And that’s fun. That’s how you get to say, “Oh, yeah, I wrote 17 novels in 12 years!” But you hamstring yourself. Going through a novel once and then leaving it behind does a disservice to both you and it. I wrote I’m On Fire in 1999. It was my second novel and I was still learning. Jumping back in thirteen years later opened my eyes. Words choices I made seemed juvenile. Big twists that seemed so shocking then seemed less effective now. Most characters seemed flat and my main character grew from a cipher to unlikable. Stuff needed to change. So I changed it.

The book has a new ending. It has a new character. The villains have new shades to them, and I added some new, diabolical toys for them to play with. I pulled fewer punches: bad things happen to nice people, and they happen brutally. That was sometimes hard, and I had to be sure I was on the right side of the line between valid storytelling and gratuitous violence. I think I’m okay. I hope I am.

It’s a better book. A stronger book. And doing the rewrite has made me believe I can take on some of my other efforts and make them stronger, too … and also move on and create new things. I have a novella I’ll be working on throughout the summer, as well as a new nonfiction book for my publisher. I’ve got a lot coming up, and I can’t wait to jump right in.

To everyone who helped make this happen: thank you. Art makes us forever. Here’s to eternity.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Thirty-Seven and Halfway Through

Hey guys. You might not have known (despite my MANY social media reminders) that I turn 37 today. I went to Disney World last year, during the muggiest, hottest Epcot day ever. And then I ate steak. So much steak. Oh my God, I want steak. Kobe beef. Can someone bring me some kobe beef? I...

Wait. Tangent. Anyhoodle.

Last night, I took the stage at Rosebud Karaoke. I got in even though I was there late because I know the guy. I grabbed the mic, smiled at the audience, and said, "I'm thirty-seven. Let's party." Cheers! Revelry! "THUNDER ROAD!"

I can even make the ladies swoon. It's the power of Springsteen.

SO! On New Year's Eve this year, I made a total list of things I wanted to accomplish this year. I'm ... very intrigued to see where I am with all those resolutions halfway through my year. Let's take a look, shall we?

1. GO TO DISNEYLAND - Guys, I'll be there in THREE WEEKS. Actually, the resolution was to do it FIRST (before Disney World), but One More Disney Day happened and it all went downhill. So it's modified, but I am STILL GOING. Oh my God, Disney California Adventure is calling me home.

2. GET LUCKY JEANS - Okay, not quite. See, here's the thing. Lucky jeans are expensive. They look great and are awesome, but man do they cost. However, I actually DID try a pair on this year while I was in Atlanta visiting Joe, so that HALFWAY counts.

3. OWN BOWLING SHIRTS - It's a little weird that two of my resolutions are sartorial. Also, do I want to look like Smash Mouth and Guy Fieri? Apparently. This hasn't happened yet, either, but it so will. I will be the heppest cat this side of the Mississip.

4. GET A SHAVING KIT - I became enamored with the art of shaving last year. Like the old school, brush and lather and all that jazz. I think part of me thinks this is the 1920s. A few weeks ago, Shawn got me some aftershave, so that's ... LIKE a kit, right?

5. NANO EVERY DAY - Basically an invective to write every single day. While I haven't STRICTLY adhered, I have written two chapbooks, a score of articles, a bunch of blogs, and I'm nearly finished with the editing of I'm On Fire (which was actually a full-on rewrite). So yes, I've been accomplishing this quite well, thank you.

6. SEE COMEDY ELSEWHERE - I've been to the Comedy Studio twice to support my standup friends, and went to ImprovAsylum once because my favorite all-lady comedy troupe Bearcats were playing there. DONE!

7. TRAVEL SOMEPLACE THAT ISN'T DISNEY - I've been to New York and New Jersey a few times (for concerts, and Coney Island, and Rocky Horror in Chelsea, and buddies galore), but the real coup this year was flying to Atlanta to hang with Joe, get a 2 hour massage, and see Drive-By Truckers in concert. (And I'm doing it again next month, WAHOO!)

8. PAY OFF YOUR CREDIT CARD - Anyone have $2,000 I can just have?

9. WRITE FOR ARCHIE COMICS - The only amendment to my list, and something I really want to try to do. Still working to make it happen!

Stuff I didn't resolve to do but did: became a producer, director, and sometimes actor of comedy at ImprovBoston: roles I sort of stumbled upon and found out I LOVED. Conceived of a terrifying novella I will be writing this year. Published two collections - a short story one and a poetry one - through a real publisher (Cemetery Dance). Got an iPad. Placed a short story in a MAJOR fiction anthology. Became part of the Rosebud Karaoke movement. Got ... kinda huge, arm and chest-wise. And stayed overnight at the Magic Kingdom.

It's been a great year so far. Let's make the back half of this piece sing!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Movie Never Ends

I was fifteen years old when I first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I watched it with my uncle and his then-girlfriend on my old floor-model TV that took up an unknowable amount of space in my teen-age bedroom. Freddy had seen the film dozens of times, but me and Harriet were noobs … or, in Rocky parlance, virgins.

The film bothered me in a lot of ways I didn’t sort out until much later. This was 1991, remember, and I was struggling with my identity as a wee gay. The cross-dressing and bodybuilders and all that did nothing to convince me that gay was the way to go for me, because I knew in my heart that I wasn’t interested in those things. But midway through the film, Meat Loaf shows up on a motorcycle and a leather jacket and boy howdy did things light up there. Seeing him, and subconsciously understanding the implication that he and Dr. Frank N. Furter had had some sort of affair, fired something in my belly. Wait. Fat guys can be gay? This changes everything.

I probably can’t give Rocky sole credit for me having the courage to come out, but it deserves at least some of it. Still, the movie itself – beyond Meat Loaf’s all-to-brief appearance – rankled me. Then this kid, a friend of my downstairs neighbor, had it on video and insisted I see it again. I did … and something changed.

I’ve never been quite able to figure out what that change was. Maybe it wasn’t the particulars of the gayness, but the fact that it existed at all, in your face and loud as life. I came out at sixteen and while I was never an activist, I went to marches and was a peer leader and one time showed Rocky in my Gay Youth afterschool program. This kid Justin dressed up in fishnets, something I’d never had the balls to do.

Speaking of fishnets: my high school crush was into that part of it. His name was Mike and let me paint you a picture. He was seventeen, a year older than me, and could grow a beard. He was hairy and tall and a bit chubby and I was in love with him. I don’t mean like I admired him or I looked up to him – I mean those things, sure, but I was head over heels in love with him. He was the first man I ever loved, even though we were both boys at the time, and 1992 seems so antique now. He was into Rocky big time, and even after he found out I was in love with him, we talked about going into the Big City and seeing the show in the theater. I was wild to throw rice and toast and see Meat Loaf on the big screen. He was wild to put on fishnets and a bustier and girl it up a little bit. I encouraged this behavior, because I thought cross-dressing was akin to bisexuality, and that if he indulged his predilection for lady clothes, he might actually fall back in love with me. Of course that never happened, because first crushes never work out. We had sex, though, and even though it was a tiny bit disastrous, it’s still one of those memories I’ll always carry with me. I had the soundtrack to Rocky by that point, and during the floor show, Frank sings about, “erotic nightmares beyond any measure / and sensual daydreams to treasure forever.” Those lines helped me so much then and they still do: it’s a sex-healthy and a kink-healthy message; you let yourself be yourself and the rest just falls into place.

I never saw the show in the theater until I started seeing Shawn, now my de facto husband. I can’t actually quite remember my first time, but I know it was with my friend Tracey, who was just as scared as I was. Everyone was dressed up as the characters. I was not. I was scrawny and nervous and wearing used clothes I got from Savers, the Thrift Department Store. I knew to call out stuff, but all my information came from a series of comics that came out when I was still in high school; the callback lines were printed in the back. Bad: they had been sanitized for comic-reading kids during the last days of the Comics Code. Worse: there were three issues, and I’d somehow missed the last one. So while I was fairly confident in knowing the lines for the first two-thirds of the film, the end of it remained a mystery to me. But I’d get it eventually. That stuff comes in time. (In this movie, even time comes!)

I started going regularly in 2000, when Shawn still lived in Davis Square and I lived in Quincy and Tracey lived in Brookline. Shawn came once or twice, but it was a real Tracey and me thing. We’d meet up at Shawn’s and put our gear on (our gear at that point consisted of Tracey wearing angel wings and fishnets and right shirts, and me wearing devil horns and my Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts shirt, and putting my hair up like Xander from Buffy; I never said I was cool or subversive), then head out to the show in Harvard Square. After the show, we’d come back to Shawn’s – I’d get in his bed, Tracey would get the guest room – and in the morning, I’d walk Tracey to the train so she could get to work at 10. (One night, she’d forgotten her normal clothes, so when I walked her to the train, it looked like the tattered remnants of a particularly slutty one-night-stand. As she got in the train, I smiled and said, “Well it’s not mine, but I’ll pay for the scrape.” Her mouth dropped open. The doors slid shut. It was a good morning.)

We kept telling ourselves we’d do it every other week, to save money. Eventually, we realized we were going every weekend. So we just embraced it. The people there got to know us. Other regulars started to hang in our section. Because I’m a nerd, I spent way too much of my free time coming up with callback lines. The greatest thing that could happen to a Rocky regular is when one of the callback lines you make up continues when you’re gone. I brought in this silly “Skeletor! Skeletor!” line when Rocky’s in the tank; after being gone for a while, I came back and found out they were still doing it. It’s maybe dumb, but it made me so giddy. I contributed to this. It’s not high art, probably, but it’s art, and when I add to something like this, something big and traditional with a history as old as me, I can’t help but take a little pride in it.

The cast knew us by name. All the straight guys played it up for me because they knew I was into them. All the ladies and the gay guys did it for Tracey, because she was into them. It was a nice little give and take. Tracey and I became so well known that one Halloween, we went as each other, and everyone got it. Not to get too grandiose about going to see a movie over and over, but at one point I was struck by an epiphany: I was living my 20s in exactly the right way. I was writing novels, Buffy was on TV, I was in love with a man who loved me back and I had plans with my best friend every Saturday night. Those feelings come rarely in a life. I think I’ve had them four of five times over the course of my existence. I’m doing just what I’m supposed to, and I’m having a blast doing it.

I saw Rocky in Texas with a group of bear friends. My buddy Joe introduced me to an outtake song I’d never heard of. And when it came out on DVD, I bought it and watched all the special features. Rocky wasn’t the whole of my life, but it was major.

Things, of course, fall apart. Tracey drifted away from the movie before I did. I liked going alone, but I didn’t like it enough to keep going alone. So I drifted away, too. Wrote books. Found theater. You find ways to keep yourself afloat in the wake of good stuff ending. Some people accuse me of chasing the dragon, of trying to continually replicate the original best experiences by doing the same thing over and over. But that’s not true. There is no try. I revel in repeat experiences because there’s safety in recurrent joy, yeah, but because there’s also nuance and change and history and tradition and friends. It’s that way with improv and karaoke and Disney and Springsteen concerts and King novels and everything I do, every thing I love. You form a structure for your life and you live inside it, because it’s comforting and warm, but it’s never exactly the same. It’s always just different enough to keep me coming back.

I was heartbroken when I found out the Harvard Square theater was closing. It's moving to Boston Common in August (yay!), but Rocky had been In Harvard for twenty-eight years – most of my existence. I’d come back recently with my buddy Marty, which reignited my love of the show (since, I’d been to the show in Chelsea in NYC twice with Marty and/or my buddy Duncan, who has a poster of the show up in his house). Last week, the penultimate week, I came back with my friend Vickie and everyone knew my name. Vickie had only been to the show once and she had a great time; she indulged me in my callbacks and did the Time Warp and threw rice with the rest of us. I had a legitimate panic that she wouldn’t want to come this week for the final Harvard Square show, but she showed up in her fetching black dress with her hair pulled back. I came in my I HEART CHUBBY BEARDED DUDES T-shirt and my yellow bunny ears and my pink Chucks, for that is apparently how I roll.

At the start of the night, they usually do a Virgin Ceremony, where they find a bunch of folks in the audience who have never been to the show and have them do something degrading, and then pop their cherry onstage (it’s a red balloon, like in Lucky Charms). Last night, they changed things up and asked people who had been over 350 times to come up onstage. Folks, I have wanted to be on that stage for years, and now there I was, up in those lights looking back at that giant, rowdy audience of hundreds. I used to have this insane fantasy that the guy playing Brad got sick and his understudy wasn’t available, and they had to scour the audience for someone who knew the role well enough. I did.

Only then did they ask for actual virgins, and then we, as lifers, got to pick our own. I of course went for a chubby, bearded guy in the front. Because hot damn was he foxy. Our mission, we learned, was to switch clothes on stage. Now, I’d seen this guy in line and thought idly about getting into his pants, but this was a dream come true. His shirt was huge on me, and he managed somehow to squeeze into my I HEART CHUBBY BEARDED DUDES shirt. Erotic nightmares. Sensual daydreams. Night. MADE. We lost … but did we? Did we indeed?

The whole show was a little bittersweet, but I wasn’t at all rusty this week (even though I forgot some stuff). I got the bun dance line down. A guy near me and I were trading lines off. A lesbian couple in front of me found most of my lines hilarious. After the show, they turned the house lights on, and all 300 of us freaks and weirdos and outcasts in the theater stood up. And they blasted “Don’t Stop Believin’” over the loudspeakers. All 300 of us sang along and cheered in unison. If I ever needed another moment for an epiphany, there it is.

Things change. The center doesn’t hold. Friends drift away and people are never the same way that they were when you knew them best. But it’s like Bob Seger says: rock and roll never forgets. Rocky changed me, saved me, made me feel like being myself was okay. Whenever I want it again, it’ll be right there, waiting for me. The movie never ends. It goes on and on and on.