Remembrances of Halloweens Past

“JOHNNY MIIIKE!”

Betty bellowed, as best she could under the circumstances, for her grandson to answer the door.  It was Halloween and they had Trick or Treaters. She pulled her mask, the one she had to put on twice a day to keep her alive, slightly away from her mouth to cough up the phlegm that was being produced by the steady stream of oxygen pumping into her emphysema filled lungs. Jonathon, or Johnny Mike or JM as his grandparents always called him, ran from the middle room, the room where most of the happiest moments of his childhood took place. This room, aptly named for being in the middle of the house, stored the memories of Betty’s fingers stroking his ear, Tod’s tangents while playing Brain Quest, his recuperation from having his wisdom teeth pulled filled with ice cream and laughs, breaks from swimming back when they still had that big blue pool, and countless movie nights where the six of them would cram into this 10×10 that seemed much bigger when he was smaller.

Jonathon and Tod were playing Wii bowling. Once upon a time, Betty was almost a professional bowler. She and Tod played in tournaments, leagues, and Betty taught lessons after school. Marge spent many days of her childhood in and around bowling alleys. And then Betty threw out her back; the surgeries began and the career was over. But Tod and Betty were “Pros” on the Wii, never playing a game with less than seven strikes a piece, and Betty never missing a moment to give some advice to Jonathon on how to throw the ball (wind the arm all the back and twist the wrist at the end of the follow-thru — sometimes yelling at the ball to “get over there!” helps).

Betty was also a video game connoisseur. Back in the 80s, when she was still smoking and still had teeth, his grandmother was a Pac-Man master. Trouble getting to Level 3? Give the remote to Betty. Late at night, from the fold-out couch with that spring that always seemed to find his back, beneath the fuzzy flowered blankets with the polyester rim, the ones from which he and and his younger brother Stephen used to pull lint balls caused from one too many trips through the dryer, Jonathon could count on a series of “Oohhh!”s and “Shut-a-roo!”s, Betty’s version of cussing, to emanate from her back bedroom, the one Stephen and he later slept in 15 years ago when they all lived together while their house was being built (oh, the way he hated Tod would cheerily enter at 7 am, “Rise and Shine like a Hardee’s biscuit!”), letting him know that Grandma was losing at Dungeons and Dragons.

And then the West’s became a Nintendo home. Betty and the grandkids — Jonathon and Stephen’s cousin Scott joining them on the holidays — learned the warps and pipes of Mario’s Third World (the best of the trilogy) with the assistance from the Cheat Guide, then in magazine form before the days of the Internet; this guide had all possible “N” card configurations, allowing them to maximize their arsenal of feathers and plunks, and told them where to net the coveted whistles (watch out for that turtle in 1.3!) to transport them to worlds they would never beat.

Somehow Super Nintendo was skipped in the pantheon of old school gaming systems and Betty went straight from the square gray cartridges, the ones that required a good horizontal blow whenever they acted up, which was often after Jonathon spilled his orange Vess over the gate, to the smaller black rectangles of the N64. Mario in 3D? Amazing. Yet frustrating. Jonathon, never one to take failure with a grain of salt, could be heard screaming, “Aargh!”s and “Shit!”s, the beginnings of his version of cussing that would only escalate through the years, from the Middle Room or Stephen’s bedroom overlooking the Saia’s backyard where they also had an N64, courtesy of Tod and Betty West. (Their grandparents also supplied Jonathon with his two favorite non-Mario related video games: Bugs Bunny’s Hidden Castle, the game with which his first boyfriend, Luis, tried to woo him back — “I found it for you to play online!” — that night it was most definitely over; and Booger Man, a game in where the hero farts, burps, and flicks his boogers to victory, a game almost tailor made for the Saia clan.

Whereas Mario 3 was Betty’s domain, Mario 64 was Stephen’s. After the inevitable “Goddamnit!” and the violent shake of the controller as if it were someone’s throat, Stephen would be called for, screamed for, throughout their large two-story house to take care of business. He would sweep in like a vigilante, smirking at his older brother’s petulance and dominate the seemingly insurmountable Bowser with the aplomb of a pro.

“Oh, that’s how…I almost had that. He totally should have died that last time. This shit is rigged!” Jonathon would profess in a one part defensive, one part Watch Me Laugh Away My Anger cadence. Stephen would mumble his placating “mhm” with a hint of sarcasm and return to the trampoline to perfect his back flip.

***

Tod struggled up from his seat, the one that was like a fold-up wheelchair. His arms shook as if bench pressing a car, his hands clenched in a death grip to its handles. Sometimes he would get stuck half way. Embarrassed, beaten down, and seemingly ready to tell God, “It’s time,” Tod would whisper to his grandson for help. Jonathon secretly enjoyed this act, this ability to give back. It eased some of the guilt he felt living away for so many years, leaving his parents to deal with the ugly decline of the people they loved. And Tod had been on his way down for years. Heart attack. Lung cancer where they took his entire lung. Then liver cancer where they removed a golf ball sized malignancy. Then the collapses. The broken legs. The fatigue. And the presence of another giant tank in the living room with another maze of black hoses, allowing them to roam the house, even the basement, which Betty knew was off-limits, but seemed to descend any chance she got for the attention it would garner when she huffed and puffed for the following twenty minutes. Jonathon called these machines R2D2.

“Just a second!” Jonathon let go of his grandfather’s arms with caution, like a parent letting go of their kid’s bicycle, hoping they won’t crash. “You OK?”

“Yeah.” Breathy and relieved, ready to fight another day.

Jonathon weaved his way through the hoses, kicking them to the side to protect his grandparents, and dashed to the kitchen table. He reached in the gallon Ziplock filled with Lay’s potato chips and stuffed a small handful in his mouth. He wondered why Lays, so simple, could taste better than most other chips on the market. Is it the salt? No. All chips have salt. This is what gives them their addictive quality, their ability to trick you into eating an entire bag, giving credence to Pringles’ slogan. Is it the oil? Perhaps. But it is so ordinary! Jonathon savored the bites, imagining they were infused with vinegar, his favorite of the line, before grabbing the box of king-sized Three Musketeers. Betty was deep into her seventh game of Solitaire.

“Is he alright?” Betty’s eyes, dark and tired, filled with worry for the clear love of her life. Jonathon nodded through his potato chip mouth and headed for the door.

Batman stuck out his plastic pumpkin, demanding and silent. His parents had obviously not schooled him.

“What do you say?” Jonathon waited for the response he had been taught, the response the whole world had been taught, those three words that practically defined Halloween. Batman’s father nudged his 3rd grader to say it, not out of fun or the spirit of the holiday, but out of obligation and haste. Just say it so the man will give you your candy.

His “Trick or Treat” was pitiful. As if he had never said it. As if this Give Me My Candy Routine had worked on everyone else. Apparently it had. But not on Jonathon. Not on this most sacred of days. On Halloween, people must play by the rules.

***

Jonathon anticipated Halloween more than any other day of the year. The mystery! The make-believe! The candy! Coupled with his birthday and the changing of the leaves, that autumn MidWestern breeze, October was easily Jonathon’s favorite month.

Richard and Marge had lit the pilot light of his Halloween bon fire of passion. Costumes were planned weeks in advance, running the traditional gamut of spook, Dracula, and Wicked Witch of the West to the more “button-pushing” attire of Catholic school girl, Catholic priest, and Dr. Frank-N-Furter.

Marge was a master decorator and knew her son appreciated the flavors of the fall. Labor Day’s sun would barely have set and the giant Tupperware containers were lugged up from the basement and its contents sprawled out on the living room rug. The banisters grew a vine of orange and forest green leaves. The yard became a graveyard. The doorbell changed to a cycle of tunes, sometimes “Monster Mash,” sometimes Beethoven’s 5th, sometimes the theme song from Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

When the big day finally came, Richard and Marge would take turns passing out candy and taking their sons throughout the neighborhood. Passive dolers of candy they were not. The one who bestowed the treats didn’t shy away from getting into the spirit with a costume. Marge was known to portray the Cowardly Lion or don a pumpkin frock; Richard sometimes was a shower. Not a man in the shower, but the shower itself. Jonathon’s favorite costume, and a typical example of his father’s style, was when he would dress up as Dracula. Richard would sit on the front porch in a chair with a basket of candy in his lap. His eyes closed, unmoving and silent, Richard would wait for just the right moment, hand mid-reach for the Butterfinger, before opening his eyes and croaking, “Good Evening.” The Saias gave you tricks and treats.

But of course they did. Richard’s family was known for being festive. On Memorial Day, the gang would all meet at Tom and Shirley’s for rousing games of badminton and near death experiences on the tire that hung from their tree. Tom would barbecue in the back yard, before the pool took it over, while Shirley and Marge would rustle up pasta salad in the kitchen and fill the room with their intoxicating energy. Marge and Shirley’s chemistry was alluring and dangerous. Anything could happen and usually did. One time during an Easter egg hunt, they accidentally pelted Richard’s youngest sister Jackie with a plastic egg, filled with Hershey’s kisses so the weight of it was palpable. Their response: “Well, if her nose wasn’t so big…!” Jonathon loved moments like these. It saddened him when they fell out of friendship, why remains unclear, and rejoiced for his mother when their dynamic duo was back in business. Jonathon, Stephen, Emily, Amy, and sometimes Kristen would run down to East End Park, play very bad tennis, hang upside down on the monkey bars, and jump in unison (“Get out of my bath tub!”) from the swing set.

Christmas would rotate between four of the five siblings who lived in the area (for some reason the oldest of the three brothers, Jim, never seemed to host holidays). Jonathon liked it best when Christmas was at his house. Marge the Master Decorator decked the banister with lights, the bathroom with snowmen, and trimmed the tree with all of her favorite ornaments made by her kids. Andy Williams, Karen Carpenter, and the Muppets sang to them throughout the season. When the big day finally arrived, hopefully with a fresh layer of snow, the Saias would sit around the giant tree with its mounds of presents — before the days when they adopted the Right Family tradition of five dollar generic gifts — and watch whoever was wearing the hats (the ones that said “I Believe in Santa Claus”) pass them out (and watch Rita, their matriarch take ten minutes to open one gift and then fold up the wrapping paper, saving it for next year, while versions of “Don’t forget to save the tape!” were shouted as if in a round).

Jackie the Egg Lady — not to be confused with Julie the Pig Lady, one of Richard’s California sisters — had the annual Halloween party the Saturday before so the kids could still partake in trick or treating. The hallway leading to their front door was laced with spiderwebs or filled with fog. Her husband, Mark, 6’4″ and stoic, would wait for the bone-chilling scream that served as their doorbell for the night to answer it with his Lurch style theatrical flare. As they arrived, the kids would join Mark in his quest to scare the other partygoers, the latecomers, the ones who did not understand the magic. Once everyone was in and properly spooked, the pictures for the scrapbook were taken, and the costumes received their necessary attention, the party would shift into a Saia Family Gathering like any other: The Oodler was thrown. The Pit bell rang. Dirt cake was devoured. Only tonight it was filled with spider rings and gummy worms.

When Jonathon was about 10, Stephen and he started trick or treating in Tod and Betty’s neighborhood. The giant, barren field at the end of their street had recently been converted into rows of pre-fab homes, filled with children. The pickings were good.

After an hour or two roaming through the parade of Disney princesses and Ghostbusters, the Saias would return to 709 Gawain for a recap of events to Tod and Betty and maybe the end of a scary movie on TV as they ate some of their candy. Richard and Marge were not the worrywarts to x-ray their children’s treats, a free service Anderson Hospital would provide this one night only. They took precautions from razorblades and drugs by only collecting from those they knew. And by the time the new neighborhood and its new adults had sprung from their fallow ground, they had been parents of two kids for a decade. Broken bones. Chickenpox. Kidney stones. The anxiety, the checking to see it they still breathed at night, had passed. For the most part. The glare of heart ache’s threat never leaves a parent completely, only dims enough not to need a machine check if strangers are trying to kill their offspring.

As the years passed and the novelty of Trick or Treating had subsided, Jonathon began spending his Halloween nights with his grandparents. This was when his pilot light of love for the holiday became a full blown brush fire.

It began with the movies. Betty was primarily a stay at home Mom. Tod’s mother had to work to raise three kids after his father died and he never wanted the fatigue and the burden of the work day to rest on the shoulders of his wife so he would work long hours at whatever factory would have him. Illinois was steel and copper country. Ciro and A&O Smith appeared on paycheck stubs.

Betty was an inventive interior decorator. Tod and Marge tell stories about coming home from work and school and never knowing how the house would look because Betty may have torn down a wall and moved it to the other side of the room. And good luck telling her not to. If Betty could be described in one word, it would be “stubborn”. But when she wasn’t reconstructing the lay-out of the house or making crafts for the fair, Betty was watching movies.

The 1960s brought an influx of movies to television, thanks to the ingenuity of Lew Wasserman and networks needing hours of air time to fill with programming. When Marge was young, she and her mother had movie marathons on Saturdays: Shirley Temple and Abbott and Costello. Marge passed her loved for these onto Jonathon with their own marathons, beginning his obsession and respect for the cinema, particularly Old Hollywood. One Christmas in the 90s, Marge received the entire VHS box set of the Shirley Temple Collection from her parents. This was also the year that Richard and the boys gave her Limited Edition Barbie dolls. When Marge was 13, they lost their home, their trailer on the Mississippi River, in the Great Flood of ’73. These gifts brought her comfort and closure.

Betty’s video collection, and most of them at this point actually were on video, put some rental stores to shame. Catalogued by number, faux-categorized by “genre” (all of the Chuck Norris movies were together on the shelf, all of the Planet of the Apes), Betty allowed her patrons, of which Jonathon and Marge were her only two regular customers, to flip through the “books,” handwritten sheets of loose leaf stuffed in binder sleeves in two three ring binders, in order to find the appropriate film for the night. Betty’s collection was so expansive, eventually reaching over 1000 movies once DVDs came in to the picture, that she ended up with duplicates, forgetting what she already owned while rummaging through the $5 movie rack at Wal-Mart. Years later, on return trips from New York and Los Angeles, Jonathon would discover the repeats in the collection and as a reward for being a loyal customer and an amazing grandson, Betty would release them to him, free of charge. This made Jonathon very happy.

Movies were also a huge part of sleep-overs. The boys watched many unconventional things on these evenings with their grandparents: musicals, Arnold Schwarzenegger flicks, and if they stayed on a Saturday, a double header of Jerry Springer and American Gladiators. But horror films were the most consistent and Jonathon’s favorite. Unlike many parents, Richard and Marge trusted their kids’ maturity and intelligence that it was all make believe when it came to the movies. They had started watching Rated R movies at very young ages, catching the tail end of Friday the 13th Part 3 on television with their Dad when Jonathon was 10 and Stephen was 8. Jonathon and Marge watched The Exorcist together when he was 14. (“As long as we watch it during the day,” she qualified.) Action flicks with F bombs like Passenger 57 and Speed were heavy in the rotation during sleepovers. But horror movies were planned events. Betty would take Jonathon and Stephen to Di’s Movie Company, the local video store in a large shoddy building next to what eventually became the KFC, to see what she had in the ways of terror. Chucky. Jason. Freddy. Stephen King. Leatherface. They watched them all, curled up on the couch in Grandma’s arms or as background during a game of Scrabble. But no horror film was more powerful or filled Jonathon with more rewarding joy than Halloween.

Maybe it was the music, that pulsating piano warning you of impending doom. Maybe it was that opening shot, the one Jonathon learned years later when he began studying film history was lifted from the opening sequence of Welles’ Touch of Evil. Maybe it was the dialogue, that mix of melodramatic prophecy and “totally” hilarious high school foolishness. No. It was none of these things. It was the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis.

As a child, Jonathon could not discern her amazingness. It wasn’t as obvious as, say, Judy Garland, quite possibly the greatest entertainer the world has ever known. Jamie Lee’s greatness sneaks up on the viewer, like the surprising power an ex-lover may yield when they contact you out of the blue. Curtis, daughter of superstar actors Janet Leigh (Psycho) and Tony Curtis (Some Like It Hot) made her debut in the industry’s first “slasher” film, heralding a wave of imitations by Sean Cunningham, Wes Craven, Eli Roth, and countless others. Jamie Lee became known as the “Scream Queen,” appearing in Halloween knockoffs like Prom Night and Terror TrainHalloween was a run-away success and became one of the most profitable films of all time, spawning sub-par sequels — Halloween: Resurrection stands as the worst movie going experience of Jonathon’s life, filled with cell phones ringing, patrons talking, and Tyra Banks trying to act — and revamps by Rob Zombie — films he has never seen on principle out of love and respect for the original. John Carpenter himself never made another film as impactful or consistently good as this tale of a psychopath, “with the blackest eyes…the Devil’s eyes” killing babysitters.

Jamie Lee, like Carrie Fisher, another progeny of Hollywood royalty, dismisses her talent and takes the whole fame thing in stride (Why else would she do yogurt commercials boasting that her bowels are regular?). Jamie Lee, unlike Carrie Fisher, doesn’t rely on her parents for material or inspiration or career projection — although if her mother was Debbie Singin’ in the Rain Reynolds, a character too unbelievable to invent, and her father was an alcoholic ex-singer who abandoned them for Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps she would. Curtis claims her greatest performance was in True Lies, one of James Cameron’s epic action films in where she plays Ahnuld’s mousy housewife. And yes, Jonathon would agree; Ms. Curtis gives a very strong performance, full of humor, insecurity, and brazen sexuality (the striptease alone is a balancing act of tone not many actresses could achieve). However, Jonathon has always felt and will preach to anyone who cares to listen or anyone who even mentions the name Jamie Lee Curtis that she proved her prowess as a dramatic actress in Mother Boys (1994), a thriller in where she plays a sociopath trying to take back the family she once deserted; and turned in her greatest work in Freaky Friday (2003), a remake of the Jodie Foster flick from the ’70s in where a fortune cookie makes her switch bodies with her daughter, played by a pre-drug, pre-DUI Lindsay Lohan. Jamie Lee is equally believable in both mother and daughter roles, adopting the teenage body language of shoulder slumps and eye rolls, and the sarcastic inflections of a girl at war with the world. Jonathon would especially want viewers to notice the last scene at the engagement part, where Curtis as Lohan confesses to Lohan as Curtis what the impending marriage and her “daughter” means to her. One could make the case that this scene is the strongest work Ms. Curtis has ever committed to celluloid. The pundits, with their predictions and wishful thinking, included Jamie Lee on some of their short lists of potential Oscar nominees for Best Actress. But it was not meant to be. A few months later at a Barnes & Noble signing for her latest children’s book, while wearing his Halloween t-shirt, walking away with elation from a photo-op, the one that never was supposed to happen, but his love and enthusiasm for Jamie Lee Curtis, the Jamie Lee Curtis, had obviously shown through, Jonathon turned about to her — after he and Blake, his fellow film enthusiast friend from AMDA whom everyone thought was a slut but really wasn’t, after they embarrassed themselves with the babblings of fandom, netting ironic gazes from the Jamie Lee Curtis, the ones she gave after calling them “those people,” to which Jonathon responded, “Whatever do you mean, Jamie?” to which she countered, “You know exactly what I mean!” — and shouted for all to hear, “I just want you to know. You were SNUBBED for an Oscar nomination for Freaky Friday!” Jamie Lee Curtis, the Jamie Lee Curtis, looking flattered and wondering if she needed to call security, thanked them from afar with a wave as they descended the escalator in jubilation.

Despite her consistently interesting body of work, lest we forget Drowning Mona (2000) and the 1989 Kathryn Bigelow cop drama, Blue Steel, it was Halloween that brought him back to Jamie Lee year after year. While some people looked forward to annual showings of The Ten Commandments or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Jonathon and Betty tuned into a marathon of Haddonfield murders, even the underrated Season of the Witch, which had nothing to do with the trials of Laurie Strode and her adopted brother. He would gorge himself on 5th Avenue bars, his favorite (That crispy peanut butter! That milky chocolate!), sleeves of Saltines, housed in that vintage tin on the Lazy Susan, half a jar of the bulk sized Jif, and cans of the Nintendo staining Vess. The three of them would order KFC, play Canasta, and spread the holiday cheer with every Reese’s given.

Jonathon’s tradition did not end when he left the comforts of Gawain Ave. In fact, he would go to ridiculous lengths to make sure a viewing of Halloween happened no matter where he was. One year in New York, after accidentally leaving his 25th Anniversary DVD — the one Betty bought him on a Wal-Mart sojourn with Marge one time he was home visiting — at the Barnes & Noble that fateful day he chatted with…her!, Jonathon roamed from store to store, panicking that it was 10 pm on Halloween night and not a copy was in sight; until in the 11th hour, he found it for $30 at a Borders in the West Village. Jonathon knew he should have let it go. A few days prior, he had purchased a copy of Courtney Love’s over-priced, over-rated Diaries and knew the responsible thing, the adult thing would have been not to make another frivolous, over-priced (yet underrated) expenditure on the measly paychecks he was collecting from Hershey’s Times Square, but this was Halloween. This was tradition. And memories. And Betty. Somethings were more important than money. However, within ten minutes of pushing play, before Jamie Lee inexplicably sings, “I wish I had you all alone…just the two of us…,” Jonathon was asleep. It was the principle that mattered.

***

Batman and his father bounded from the front porch, now thanks to Richard’s undying aide to his in-laws and reciprocal love for his spouse equipped with a concrete ramp and industrial strength chrome handrail to prevent Tod from having another spill, and ran to the next house to stick out his pumpkin in silence. Jonathon allowed the screen door to slam.

“Jesus. What is the deal? These kids just don’t get it!” Betty turned off her noisy machine, removed the tubes from her nose, and took a giant swig from her plastic blue water jug.

“What honey?” Betty grabbed a Chips Ahoy from its gallon sized Ziplock and popped it in her mouth. Jonathon wondered how being toothless never impeded her carnivorous junk food ways. He loved the noises she made through her gums, the way she used to smack them to get the dogs attention, the way she whistled as if it helped her win her card games; Jonathon and Marge loved to imitate these noises whenever they would speak tenderly of her mother.

“Trick or Treating is just not the same.” It had been ten years since he had been out there in the trenches. When he was 18, dressed as a vampire, Jonathon went door to door, all smiles, with his plastic pumpkin, collecting candy; the looks from the strangers made him feel ironic, nostalgic, and utterly awesome. The last time he had dressed up was four years prior, as a priest. Jonathon had coincided his annual visit with Halloween so he could relive the glory days with his grandparents. This was also the last time Betty wore a costume, that black robe and mask from the Scream movies, before her breathing problems escalated to the point of no return. Jonathon’s visit this time around was ostensibly for his other grandfather Jim, the one with whom he shares a birthday, and his 90th Bash. But he stayed an extra two days to pass out candy and maximize his visit with his favorite people, the ones he doesn’t call as often as he should, the ones he fears every time he sees them that it will be his last.

“JM. When I was your age, we used to get handmade balls of popcorn.” Tod had made his way into the living room. He slowly lowered himself into the chair next to his wife of 60 years. Jonathon watched from a safe distance, ready at a moment’s notice to intervene if necessary. Tod sighed. Betty gave a quick three taps on his hand. You made it. And I love you. “But now you can’t do that,” Tod announced in his I’m an Old Man Who Thinks this Modern World is a Little Too Crazy tenor.

Jonathon matched his grandfather’s sarcasm: “But of course. The razorblades! God, did that ever really happen? I mean, who is that stupid.”

“More people than you think.”

“True.”

Jonathon lived for these interchanges, these conversations where he learned pieces of the past, where he and his favorite man were actually simpatico with their views. Politically diametrical, Betty hated when they talked government and religion. She thought discourse meant anger. Betty’s style was silence; Tod loved a healthy debate, something he passed onto his eldest grandson. But on this candy thing, this blatant disrespect for tradition, a tradition began, as Tod had told him some previous Halloween, to keep kids out of harms way, they were in complete agreement.

“You know, we got Drumsticks in the freezer,” Betty interjected. His grandmother would throw in these rogue comments as a way to pull him back to her, to win Jonathon’s attention and revel in every fleeting moment with her favorite grandson on their special day before he would leave her again in tears to return to his real life.

“Cool. Thanks. It’s my turn, isn’t it?”

Tod sighed. “I think I’m done for the evening. I’m pretty tuckered out.”

“Whatever. I’ll be back at Christmas.” Jonathon stood from the table, passing the pumpkin he and Tod had carved earlier in the day, and walked to the freezer. Below the rows of red plastic cups filled with ice they would use for their water jugs, below the who knows how old taquitos and mini tacos, Jonathon grabbed a Drumstick. How can I make this night last forever? He returned to the table just in time to see Betty win her game, Tod close his eyes for a moment of peace, and Jamie Lee run from house to house, screaming for help.

The Ticket: The Sessions (Ben Lewin)

I’m not sure exactly what to say about this movie. I know the performances by Helen Hunt and especially John Hawkes are amazing, and yes, Oscar worthy. But is that enough reason to pay 13 dollars to see it?

Based on the life story of poet Mark O’Brien, The Sessions is the journey of a 38 year old polio survivor who lives his life in an iron lung and wants to get laid. It’s all he thinks about and all he wants to discuss with his priest/friend, played by a Could Have Been Anybody William H. Macy (a plot device to keep the whole movie from being voice over narration). After the go ahead from God, devout Catholic Mark (John Hawkes) calls a sex surrogacy service, an organization that hooks up sex therapists with the severely disabled, and they send Cheryl (Helen Hunt).

This is when the movie really starts to find its footing. Which is about 30 minutes in. The first half an hour we are given exposition (the firing and hiring of nurses; getting the audience prepared for watching a movie where a guy lays down the whole time, therefore we have to turn our neck the entire movie to see his face) and the failed “romance” with his young beautiful aide who doesn’t reciprocate his love when he whispers it to her in the thrift shop. This eventually leads into his two permanent, revolving nurses, Rod (W. Earl Brown) and Vera (Moon Bloodgood) — both lived in and likable to a fault, clearly looking out for Mark and his happiness.

Hunt handles her scenes, most of them requiring full frontal nudity, with ease and professionalism (and an amazing body and face that are not afraid to show their ages; thank you, Helen, for bringing some realism to Hollywood — why are you not working more often?). Hawkes completely dissolves into Mark, miles away from the creepy meth head he played to an Oscar nomination in Winter’s Bone.

The Sessions requires you to assess love and all of its possible handicaps and hurdles you may need to overcome. It also puts a disabled person as a protagonist of the film and treats them with utter compassion, making him as “normal” as possible, wheeling his gurney from department store to coffee shop, which is commendable in an industry that churns out pretty people being pretty. However, the film, like many based-on-a-true-story accounts, tries to cover too much and does not develop the things that could and should be developed.

We need to establish his previous experiences with women and/or nurses, but this could have been done in a quick five minute montage, leaving time to develop the only really interesting relationship — Mark and Cheryl. Particularly developing Cheryl’s Road to Attraction with Mark. The lines between sex and love are slim, but her leap could have been given more credibility if we had seen the shift more clearly from therapist for hire to lover. It happens somewhat quickly and without much struggle from Hunt. Your home life does not need to be in ruins to “cheat” or want to cheat or to have feelings for other men, and Mark is compulsively lovable, but perhaps more interactions between her and her husband or more shots of her preparing/leaving the therapy sessions would have given it enough credence.

The ending is also MOW-ed on like Lewin is rushing to catch a plane. After nearly dying, Mark meets Susan (Robin Weigert) in the hospital, who we are told is the love of his life for the next five years until he dies. But we get none of their life together and are left to assume that they lived happily every after. I suppose this is not the point of the film. The point is that Cheryl allowed him to have a sustainable relationship with another woman; seeing this relationship unfold would have been overkill. However, the cliched neatness of it all is a very conventional tactic for a very unconventional story.

There’s an old quote about movies (Roger Ebert? Francois Truffaut?) that if on a second viewing the film doesn’t hold up, the first one was no good to begin with (or something to that affect). I can’t imagine ever watching this movie again, but I’m glad I saw it once. So I don’t know exactly what that means. Should you see it? I suppose. Particularly if you are interested in films that will more than likely get nominations. Feel free to Redbox it. There is no rush.

The Bully Inside

I’d like to tell you It Gets Better, but that would be a lie. I’d like to tell you that there are no bullies once you get out of high school, but that would be a lie. And I’d love to tell you that adulthood is full of acceptance and ease, but that would be the most egregious lie of all. The truth is the playground never leaves you.

Employers bully you into working over time. Pastors and politicians bully you into giving money for their cause. Friends bully you into going here or there. And then there is the meanest, ugliest, most relentless bully on the scene: ourself.

I had a lot of friends in grade school. For the first half, Kevin, Steve, Rich, and I had our own little misfit posse. We were cub scouts, CIA agents, writers of 4th grade fiction, and marines fighting an onslaught of xenomorphs, jockeying over who got to be Sigourney Weaver this go around. But as is common with pre-teen boys when one of their own deflects to the dark side, the gay side, the I can’t be seen with you because other people will think I am gay even though you don’t know you are gay yet but all the “signs” point to it and I still have a bright future as a popular person and this is a Catholic school after all so we don’t want to be involved with a sinner, my male friends started to drop off one by one; and also, a common occurrence, I gained my fortress of female friends to last me through the awkwardness of middle school hormones.

Julie and Laura started off as crushes, severe crushes in fact; I remember crying over Julie on numerous occasions and even got in trouble with Mrs. Lambert, our third grade teacher because I had written this ridiculous series of notes to Julie, claiming among other things that I wanted to “buy her a bra as a wedding present” (Did I think this was sexy? Or was it meant as a subconscious pay back to the girl who the year before had ruined Santa Claus for me during a math lesson?). Her best friend, Laura, brought the notes, notes I had subtly thrown under Julie’s desk with a snicker, to Mrs. Lambert’s attention. Of course, I denied the whole thing – “I found them! I was just giving them back to her!” – even when Lambert brought me out into the hallway, one of the rare times I was ever in trouble during my St. John Neumann career, and tried to bully me into confessing, telling me that Sr. Mary something or other, our principal, would not be pleased if she knew.

I had my own incidents with Laura a few years later. In 5th Grade on Valentine’s Day, she promised to give me a kiss, which sent me to the moon and back, particularly since this was my ugliest phase (glasses, buck teeth, and Ying-yang prominently displayed outside of my white turtleneck); then the bitch gives me a piece of Hershey’s with an Oh I’m So Clever little smirk on her face. In 7th Grade, I started snapping her bra strap (was this the beginnings in my mind of the gay man’s “privilege” to interact with breasts as play things or just stupid adolescence?), sending her running down to our new principal, Mr….I don’t remember. He was like seven foot and was legally blind. I ran after her and convinced her not to squeal. It was all a joke, hahaha.

Stacy Eilerman, Megan Jackstadt (Julie and Laura were extremely popular and usually ran in the Rob Hutti/Dane Shaw and other sexy boys circle), and I played Four Square (a game with a dodgeball where you try and advance to the King’s square by bouncing the ball once in your opponents’ squares and then out of bounds – like tennis, but in a square and with four people; our fourth was sometimes Steve, sometimes Kevin, but usually Michael, the mentally challenged kid who transfered to our school in the 4th grade who had latched onto me as Best Friend #1) at recess (a period of the day that schools used to devote to children getting in the sunlight and being active). 8th Grade we would hang out on the newly built jungle gym in the back of the school, talking about the future, and forming things like the Virgin Club (I was always suspect of Julie’s inclusion; the way she rolled that skirt – that face! – she definitely had to have had a hand or two up her pink polo, but no matter, she was back!)

8th Grade graduation was an embarrassment. I literally cried from beginning to end. For the most part, the 25 of us in my graduating class had been together since Kindergarten. We were like family. And none of my family was coming to high school with me. I would be alone, in public school no less, starting from scratch. And I was terrified.

Being a Catholic school, even though I was “different,” although not quite sure how yet, if kids, particularly boys, had a problem with my “femininity,” it was not treated with vitriol and hate; I don’t have any memories of being called a “faggot.” And the very rare occasions I was treated with disrespect, the teachers nipped that shit in the butt. Not so in high school.

I was really excited for high school. I thought the kids would embrace me and my awesomeness with open arms. And then as I prodded my way through the cattle rustle of the high school halls, it happened.

“F   A    G   G   O   T  !”

I was taken off guard. Who is this person yelling in my face for doing nothing? And how does he know I am gay? I don’t even know! Vince Pratt changed everything.

It feels so strange writing that. “Vince Pratt changed everything.” A boy that doesn’t matter in the scheme of my life. A boy who was just some stupid asshole who needed to take his aggression or self-hate or whatever out on the 100 lb new kid. A boy I avoided for four years and beyond. A boy who was my neighbor and got out of his car at a stop sign to presumably kick my ass or make me defecate myself, causing me to peel out in a panic. A boy who would drive by my house and yell that word at me if I were in the yard. A boy who actually ran my mother off the road with his monster truck. A boy who was purportedly beaten by his grandfather. A boy who ten years later, I still know his name.

He wasn’t the only one in high school who gave me shit. Gym class was obviously awful (oh, the simultaneous avoidance and gawkish staring at boys in undress, the stealth Mike and I brought to an art) and surprisingly so was World History (full of bottom feeders; God, why didn’t I take the Honors class? And was Mr. Perry deaf? How did it not hear the rumblings from the back of the room about me from Craig Zitta and his lot?). I was lucky to never have been physically assaulted or had my head put in a toilet, but I still walked the halls with a sense of dread as if I had. You never know when your life will become a John Hughes movie and I wanted to be ready for it.

Sophomore year was when I really learned how to give ’em hell with sarcastic wit (Thank you, Trevor) and learned again that I was pretty awesome (Thank you, Jennie). Those years, as I, and the rest of the school and my parents, discovered my sexuality, the sarcasm got stronger to combat the barrage of You Are Not Good Enoughs. By my senior year, it was an integral part of the adult I was to become.

I escaped to New York as fast as I could. Needed to get away from this place, this provincial MidWestern life, that made me feel like I was wrong, gross, and inferior. And if you are gay, there really are few places where it is more awesome to be a homosexual. It is also very easy to get lost in what you think gay means and should or could be about. Which created a different set of problems. No longer was gay not good, gay was great! But if you feel you are not great, created by years of others telling you so and you believing them, it doesn’t matter. Self-esteem is a bitch and will fuck you raw. Until you decide to kick its ass.

I bully myself constantly. I should have done this, I could have done that, I…oh, damn it. That’s not right. He should just do it. I won’t do it good enough. Should I say that? Will it sound stupid? Yes. I am stupid. I need to work out. I look skinny. Do people think I am a woman when I shave? Should I lower my voice on the phone? Damn it, called a woman again! So what. Suck it up. It’s not that easy. You can’t just…yes, you can…But…

You get the idea.

It has been a decade since high school, yet those feelings of ineptitude remain. The irony is that self-esteem is not really self-esteem at all. It is informed by the way others have treated us along the way. The voice in our head telling us we are not good enough, not pretty enough, not manly enough, not cool enough, not smart enough is the choir of haters vying for position. I wonder sometimes if killing this voice is possible or even something to attempt. Maybe it keeps us humble. There has to be a balance in here somewhere.

Bullies exist. And must be stopped. For all of the kids out there who have to deal with external bullies, please. Tell. Someone. Adults, take responsibility! Parents, teach your kids respect!

But we also owe it to ourselves to spend time alone. To sift through the lies and ask, “Are these things people are saying about me really true? And even if they are, does it have to be negative?” Depression – anger turned inward – does not have to run away from us. This is something we need to learn from an early age. Like jumping rope is good for the heart. Think how future generations would benefit from an aggressive mental health campaign, the way Michelle Obama is trying to get us to exercise. It would change everything.

So on National Bully Awareness Day, surround yourself with people who build you up. Find your joy. And cut yourself some slack. You are worth it.

Wait, What Did He Just Say?: Why Presidential Debates are a Waste of Time

 

OK. Watching President Obama and Mitt Romney – and especially Joe Biden and Paul Ryan – yell at each other, circle around issues, and promenade like some West Side Story rumble is about to take place, grimacing or trying to hide their deer in the head lights panic, is thoroughly entertaining. It makes for great reality TV and networks know that this close to the election, with the country in arms and ways of life on the line, people may not tune into their shows if they conflict (Ryan Murphy was smart not to air a new episode of The New Normal this week). But what do we actually learn from these debates?

One side tells us the economy is better, the other tells us it is worse, and both use different numbers to sell their point of view. One says, “My tax plan will…” and the other says, “No, your tax plan will…” One says, “In a ______ presidency, Medicare will…”; the other says, “Yes, but in a _____ administration, Medicare will…” Surges work or don’t, depending who’s talking. One claims that they are interested in developing all forms of energy while the other refutes this. Direct questions are asked and we are given rhetoric. It is a game of chess, of sidesteps. So what can anyone possibly take away from all this?

Very little, actually. If you are an undecided voter and truly want to vote for someone based 100% on policy and what you think they plan to do in office and plan to glean this information from televised debates, you are going to be shit out of luck. The debate should raise questions, not give answers, and it is up to you, the voter, to seek out the “facts.” Which are almost impossible to ascertain, particularly at this stage in the game, because most media outlets have some sort of bias. If you watch the propaganda ads, you would think both candidates are ominous, foreboding dictators, hiding in your closet waiting to take away your liberties and cash. If you looked at the Huffington Post’s Electoral Map, Obama has already won. If you watch Fox News, Obama’s lead is inflated by the “mainstream media.” So who’s telling the truth? Everyone. And no one.

Voting for the President is everyone’s right and everyone’s duty, but it should be treated with more respect and concern than the casualness of a Christmas/Easter Catholic. The only way to know someone’s record is to pay attention. For years. This information is public record for anyone who wants to wade through literally libraries full of data. It is the only way to know when they are lying, when they are stretching the truth, or when they actually, rarely, sometimes, may be giving us fact.

But we don’t. We take other people’s words for it. We are lazy. We allow ourselves to be misinformed and taken advantage of while we watch Honey Boo Boo or read Roger Ebert’s 100 Greatest Movies for the 37th time.

So what, if anything, does watching these debates actually do? Most people who tune in already know for whom they are voting and are really just watching to see their guy kick the other guy’s ass. But if you are still trying to decide through a forum steeped in exaggerations and lies, the best you can hope for is to gauge their “likability” factor. The “I Would Have a Beer With That Man” factor. The “Dude, I Wish He Would Have Been My Professor in College” factor. The “Goddamn, He is So Dreamy When He Smiles” factor, the one Richard Nixon knew so well. How trustworthy do they seem? Do I believe the words coming out of their mouth? Do they crack under pressure or play it cool? Are their answers rehearsed or organic? Do I think they will look out for me?

Where were these so called Fact Checkers? And why is this not a no brainer part of the debates? Why did it take a petition on Change.org to come up with what should have been a given? Politicians lie. Period. And always will unless we hold them accountable. Imagine an America’s Got Talent type panel of Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, and Candy Crowley, equipped with the power to give the candidates a giant red X whenever they spoke untruths. Now that would be a Presidential debate worth watching.

Big House Bitch (Or Something Like That)

Beginnings of a novel; I am seriously considering developing this or “I Always Knew I Would Commit Suicide” into something substantial. Feedback on which you would like to see more of would be greatly appreciated. Thanks: 

I want you to know upfront my attorney is making me do this.

He thinks if I tell my story in a flattering way or one that people can understand and empathize with that I can sway some hearts when I am put once again in front of a jury of my peers. Fat chance. I killed my husband. Big deal. No he didn’t beat me. God that is so trite. I have no sympathy for those women. Get out and go to the police. That’s what they are there for. Instead they slay them and claim it was in self defense like it matters. Dead is dead. And my husband is dead. Honestly, I think my attorney, Joe, as if this is Dragnet or something, just wants me to stay as much in the headlines as possible so he can stay famous. His hero is Vincent Bugliosi so…

I figured I’d appease him because frankly what else do I have to do in here? Plus, it’s been almost ten years since I’ve been on the New York Times Bestseller list and I wouldn’t mind being on top again. Unfortunately, thanks to those dumb whiners in Illinois during John Wayne Gacy’s incarceration I can’t collect residuals. Oh, well. It’s not like I can do anything with it or that I’m going to get out of here while I’m still breathing. Judge Guerrero said my sentence was so severe because of my callous nature involving the “vicious slaughter” – I think he called it – of Dan. Oh, that’s my husband. Or was. That’s so strange to say. Was. I suppose I’ll get used to it.

I remember interviewing Diane – Sawyer, that is – after she did that segment with Charles Manson back in ’92. She said he had “a creepy coldness” in his eyes and this unapologetic tone that made her want “to toss her cookies.” Diane is so dramatic in that 1950s housewife sort of way. I never would have imagined how down-homesy she was by watching her on 20/20, but there you have it. She was – or is, I guess – a living example of Martha Stewart Living. Even with all her millions, the bitch still shops at K-Mart. Falconetti – that was my prosecutor, the schmuck – said I possessed an “eerie far away look” in my eyes. I tried to explain that it was merely my contacts slipping, but of course that never made it into the morning papers.

If you are a straight man, you are amazed at my moxie and candor. For that I will reward you with a masturbatory visual aid: 44 DD, long blond hair, and a big ass that drives the black men crazy; if you are a lesbian, I know you are salivating just like the men are, flicking your clit and everything, unless you are into those Rosie O’ Donnell types; if you are a straight girl, you have probably already stopped reading. Good riddance. Women are catty cunts anyway; and if you are a fag, you are probably cumming all over yourself because I remind you of Lisa Lampinelli. For those of you who are still with me and give a shit, we should probably get started with my childhood.

A Conversation with the Author

“Does anyone really read the About page?”

“Well, it is recommended you have one so just do it.”

“But is anyone going to actually look at it? This is taking up space where there could be brilliance.”

“Why are you being difficult?”

“Fine. Hello, my name is Jonathon Saia. And this is my website.”

“What kind of stuff will visitors find here?”

“Mostly movie reviews, broken into Good and Bad Cinema; movies that are underrated or hot messes, respectively, that I want people to see. Movies are my favorite thing. Film history to be more specific. Eventually I plan on working for AMPAS and the AFI, but for now I am just trying to earn a buck, slumming it in Reality TV.”

“Oh, really? What do you do?”

“No one cares. But my website…”

“Oh, yes, your website…”

“…it also includes numerous ruminations about our culture, various personal pieces about my marriage, and the occasional experimental video. Basically anything I feel like doing in order to express myself creatively. This is its repository. Oh, and my friend Betsy and I are writing a book. One paragraph at a time. It’s a fun exercise.”

“How will people find these things?”

“You will notice in the upper right hand corner of the home page there is a list of categories. They are pretty self-explanatory.”

“Tell them how often you will be posting. I read they want to know that too.”

“They – sorry – you can expect bi-weekly content. Possibly more often, but I don’t want to box myself into a corner and commit. Besides, there is plenty of great content already you can peruse – especially for these prices.”

“Jonathon, this is free.”

“Oh. Well, then there is no excuse for them not to read it.”

“Right. They should probably just sign up for email notifications now and save themselves the trouble.”

“That’s a great idea! And readers, if you like a post, please make comments, Like It, and share it with your friends. I am trying to get famous here. So spread the word like wildfire.”

So Come With Me Inside…Inside My Velvet Rope; Or, Depression is an Ugly Mother Fucker; Or, Joshua, This is All Your Fault; Or, Jesus Christ, Shut Up and Get This Started Already (I’m Trying To! Don’t Try. Just Do It. You Want to Take Over? Actually I Would Love To. Fine. Don’t Fine Me. I Didn’t Mean it Like That. You Said It Though. Fi..OK. Sorry. Don’t Be Sorry Just…); Or, The Blanket

Brace yourself. You are about to be given access to a world few have seen and even fewer understand. Prepare to enter the crazed labyrinth of my mind.

Joshua has praised me for my candor and brazenness on this blog. How I will put whatever I want out there without fear. Which I saw as a challenge. Alright, Grant. You want some candid realness? Here it comes.

OK, class. Let’s analyze our first two paragraphs. What do you think the author is trying to tell us here? Yes, Daisy? (In the voice of a whiny white girl) “Umm, that he is dramatic?” Yes, dramatic. What else? Travis? (In the voice of a frat boy) “That he’s a douche.” Douche may be too harsh a word. What’s another word for douche? Cynthia? (Spoken with a confident MidWestern twang she is desperately trying to keep hidden) “Bold with an arrogant delivery.” Who agrees with this? (A third of the class confidently raise their hands while a few stragglers, the ones who don’t really have opinions but want to seem like they do, creep their paws in the air).

‘Brace yourself.’ Thoughts? Yes, Tony. (Timid and husky) “That he is…” Speak up, Tony. (Louder) “That he thinks what he is about to tell us is important. And we should be ready for it.” Very good. Look at the next two sentences. What sense do we get about how he feels about himself? Tracy? (Scratchy like Lindsay Lohan or Macy Gray, somewhere in between) “He thinks he is deep. And we should too.” (Cynthia interrupts) “Or it is a mask and he feels the exact opposite. That he needs to prove his depth because he is afraid people won’t think he is.” (The professor smirks)

‘Joshua has praised me for my candor and brazenness on this blog.’ Why include the name of someone and not explain who they are? Bobby? (Prone to rapid bursts of sound) “FAMILIARITY.” Can you elaborate? And please. We can all hear you. “Well, when a writer drops the name of a person, particularly at the beginning of a novel or an essay or whatever this is, he wants us to feel like we already know them. Like we should know them. Because they are important to the author so they will be – or at least should be – important to us.” Very good. He also mentions the blog here, which does what? Daisy? “Oh, sorry. I was just playing with my hair.” (The professor contains his annoyance for his failing student by imagining a chocolate cake in her place, a tactic he must remember to be aware of doing sparingly, particularly with women, because if he begins salivating, it may send the wrong message). Maggie? (With a Southern dialect, more Georgia than Texas, think Dixie Carter, if you will). “It is very straight forward. He wants us to read the other things he has written on his blog. He makes that clear in the following sentence. He is willing us to seek out his work and prove it is fearless.” (Cynthia jumps in) “And the part about the challenge. He’s again proving his brazenness. Wants us to really feel that he is strong. That he will go to the limit. Or at least says he will go to limit, which sometimes has the same effect.” What about “All right, Grant.” (Bobby) “COMBATIVE.” (Tony) “Defensive.” But who is Grant? Is this a new person or… (Maggie) “Context clues tell us it is another name for Joshua. Could be a nickname. Or a last name, perhaps. Again, bringing us deeper into his world of familiarity.” (Travis) “What is ‘candid realness’?” Anyone? James, we haven’t heard from you today. What is ‘candid realness’? (James, a fast talker so as to avoid being interrupted) “What? You think I know just because I am gay? I take insult to that Mr. Saia. I mean, seriously. This is 2012. Not all gay people are alike. And not all gay people understand what other gay people are…’candid’ is obvious, he wants us to feel like he speaks to us from the hip, honestly, forthcoming, candid, I mean that’s self explanatory. ‘Realness’ is a drag queen reference. It’s something they say on RuPaul’s Drag Race when the girls walk…yes, the girls, it’s respectful to call drag queens women. I don’t know why. I’m not the mouth piece! Ask them! And I don’t know why they say ‘realness.’ Probably because it is clearly a fake world of men in dresses and if you give the judges ‘realness’ you give them true femininity, which is the art behind drag.” (Travis) “So Jonathon is a drag queen?” (James) “No, you moron. He is harkening to drag queens to unite the base, his desired audience of readers.” (Cynthia) “Drag queens?” (James) “Gay men.” (Cynthia) “But you just said that all gay people weren’t alike. Now you are saying that all gay men will understand a drag queen reference. So which is it?” (James) “All I meant was that more gay men than straight will probably understand the reference so he is fishing a wide net. If you don’t know that it is about drag queens, it is still a powerful line.” (Tracy) “Powerful to you because you are a fag. I mean that with love, baby.” OK, then. Let’s move on. Anything else to be said about that line? (James sits on his hands) What about the subject? “You.” We know he is talking about Grant or Joshua or both depending on who Grant is. Why does he do this? (Silence…) Anybody? Is he deflecting blame here? Perhaps saying “Whatever transpires is not my fault, but Joshua’s?” (Daisy) “Duh, Mr. Saia. He says that in the title.” Yes. And we will get to the title later. Now what about “Here it comes?” Maggie? (Maggie) “He is book ending ‘Brace yourself.’ Letting us know that something important is coming next.”

As long as I can remember, I have felt sad. Not like some I Want to Take a Bunch of Pills and Kill Myself Sad, but more like a constant wave of melancholia that comes and goes on any given day, some days allowing me to grab it, bitch slap its face, and say NO! And other days where it just takes over everything, leaving me to disengage, dissociate, and comb the Internet for hours, talk to boys, or watch movies, or eight straight hours of Roseanne, or work on some ridiculous self-indulgent piece that doesn’t matter to anyone except his ego, which tells him that it will matter to someone, so write it damn it write it instead of looking for a better job.

Why does he quantify his sadness? (Tony) “So not to make other people, the ones of us…the ones who feel really sad, you know, they ones who like want to…do that…so it doesn’t trivialize their pain.” Exactly. (James) “I’m sorry. I’m calling bullshit. It’s not about other people’s feelings. It’s about making himself special. Notice the back handed way he denigrates those who do kill themselves with that all capitals crap like its a title of some paperback, like its not real. And then goes on to self-aggrandize his ‘struggles.’ It’s kind of pathetic.” (Cynthia) “Maybe it’s the only way he knows how to say it. Give him a chance to explain himself.”

They say that depression, anxiety, cognitive distortions, hypomanic episodes, or whatever mood disorder this should be called is, like everything, a combination of nature and nurture. The genetics mixed with the environment. It is clear I am a victim of both. If you took a canvas of my family, more of us than not have gone to some sort of counseling and have tried some sort of antidepressant. It’s hard to point fingers and blame because people do the best they can and you always have the option to accept, forgive, and change the things you dislike about yourself. But that doesn’t always make them easy.

Why a list? Why not just state what he thinks he has? Do you think he knows? (Bobby) “No.” Why do you say that? (Bobby) “Because he gives a list of what they COULD be.” Yes. That is the surface answer. What else is he saying with this line? Maggie? (Maggie) “He is trying not to alienate people who suffer from depression by saying that’s what he has. Maybe what he will be describing doesn’t sound like depression to other people and doesn’t want to appear wrong. Or alienate those who suffer from what he thinks is ‘true depression’.” (James) “Yeah, but he plays the victim card, by calling himself a ‘victim.’ It’s right there in the text. I mean, obviously.” (Maggie) “True, but then he takes himself out of the victim category by saying his whole family suffers the same.” Is he saying his whole family is a family of victims? (Travis) “This is so gay.” (James to Travis) “‘I got a knife in my pocket book and I am going to cut you up after class.'” Calm down, everyone. (Tracy) “Relax, Mr. Saia. James is just quoting Female Trouble.” (James) “How did you know that?” (Tracy) “I got culture. Besides. We knew you were quoting something with the single quotations inside the double quotations.” Very good, Tracy. And Travis, we do not talk like that in my classroom. (Travis) “Yes, sir.” So is he saying his whole family is a family of victims? (Daisy) “Maybe?” Thank you, Daisy. Tony? (Tony) “Maybe he is trying to feel included, you know, because depression makes you feel alone.” Excellent. What else? (Maggie) “He is trying to skirt blame, which he tells us, because these people are important to him. And blame is pointless and not always accurate…but then he reminds us that it’s still hard. The sadness. Which I don’t know…maybe…” (James) “I smell victim.” (Cynthia) “Yeah, I agree with James.” But isn’t that a sign of depression? OR anxiety? OR cognitive distortion? (The class chuckles at the professor ‘s wit).

My second therapist, Terence, told me on our last session, last because I could no longer pay his fee since he had become a bonafide shrink at a real therapist’s office and not the almost free Southern California Counseling Center, that he didn’t think I had depression. He thought that I had hypomanic episodes, fits of anxiety that caused sadness; this is a riff on what Angel, my first therapist, thought when she brought up cyclothymia, a less intense version of bi-polarism, during an uncharacteristically joyous day of therapy when I was filled with hope and joy and blissful smiles. And I buy this diagnosis. The hypomanic episodes part, not necessarily the cyclothymia, although it is possible. Either way it boils down to cognitive distortions. And genetics.

(James) “Two therapists? Like he’s Woody Allen or something. He thinks he’s so fucking deep. I mean, this guy! What’s the deal with people thinking therapy is some badge of honor, like it makes them bigger thinkers, more in touch with their emotions? It just means they paid someone to listen to them whine. I mean, right, guys?” (Maggie) “I expected more sensitivity from you, James.” (James) “Why because I’m gay? Because I’m like a woman all soft and weak? Or what did you call me, Tracy? A fag wasn’t it?” (Tracy) “What is your deal today? I call you a fag all the time.” (James) “Yeah, and I hate it! You are not gay. You aren’t even black! You have no right.” (Cynthia) “What does being black have to do with it?” (James) “Spare me the liberal crap. You know very well that black women and gay men have a symbiotic relationship. Don’t pretend they don’t!” (Daisy) “Excuse me, Mr. Saia. Can I go to the restroom?” Yes, Daisy. In fact, you may leave class. You aren’t contributing anything anyway. In fact, Travis, you may go as well since you have already served your purpose as ignorant straight man with the “This is so gay” comment from earlier. Anyone else want to leave? Tracy, do you feel you will have more to contribute as the sassy one we thought was black before because the author compared you to Macy Gray and used the paranthetical “baby,” but now know is not? Yes? OK. That’s true. You should stay. You are the closest James has to a friend in the class. Cynthia, you began in the author’s mind as the snooty girl with all the answers, but when Maggie came along he morphed you into the loud mouth liberal – Hayley from American Dad, shall we say – and he wants to see what material he can glean from you. You may stay. Maggie, you are – or at least will become – the intellectual voice of reason, the calm serene person James – or let’s just put it out there, the author because they are one in the same, James clearly modeled after someone like Larry Kramer – wants to become. (James) “Then why am I named James instead of Larry?” Because Larry would have been too obvious and the author wanted to be more clever. Plus, he has always used “James” and “Michael” as stand in names for himself; “Michael” being his middle name and “James” being the brother of Christ, another ego-inflating/atheistic Sam Harris/cleverly edgy because most people won’t get that reference tactic; sometimes he also goes by “Damien” for similar religious, or more appropriately non-religious, reasons. Bobby, your schtick is already old; he didn’t know what else to do and having Bobcat Goldthwait like outburts – or atleast that’s how he sounded in his mind – seemed funny, but will become, if it is not already, a stale joke (much like Mr. Goldthwait’s career). You may go. Tony, you are needed as the depressed person to speak in a piece about depression because the author will probably over-exaggerate, under-exaggerate, or avoid things and he needs you to speak clearly for him. (James) “And what purpose do you serve?” Someone has to moderate to keep the classroom metaphor going. (Cynthia) “What is it a metaphor for?” (James) “Yeah!” (Tony) “Maybe to illustrate the numerous voices going on inside his head at all times?” (James) “Like he’s fucking Sybil?” (Maggie) “No one said anything about multiple personalities, James. And please, calm down. This is not an attack on you, here. Why are you taking things so personally?” (James) “Can’t you read? I am a conduit for the fucking narrator, guys. Keep it!” (Tracy) “You forget the single quotes this time.” (James) “No, I didn’t. I was merely paraphrasing The Opposite of Sex. Not quoting.” Can we get back to the text, please? (Cynthia) “Why? This is so much more interesting.” Excuse me. But I think what I have to say is very interesting. (James) “Who was that?” (Tracy) “Don’t you recognize your own voice, fool? That’s the author.” (James) “Oh, shit. You’re right! How’s my hair?” (Tracy) “He can’t see you. He can only hear you.” (James, lowering the pitch of his voice) “Pleased to meet you.” (Cynthia) “Dude, what’s with the voice?” (Tony) “He is trying to sound ‘straight.’ It is something he does when he meets men for the first time.” (Maggie) “But Jonathon is gay. You don’t need the pretense.” (Tracy) “Baby, your voice is high. Get over it. If it weren’t, you think you could belt out those Mariah songs?” She’s right, you know. Our singing voice is pretty amazing. (James) “Then why didn’t we get cast for that cruise ship?” Maybe it was your choice of song. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” while a great tune, may have turned them off. (Tony) “You know it was the air you projected. You seemed nervous. And that yellow polo shirt you wore, the one you thought accented the positive counters of your frame, may have accentuated the fact that you are very skinny. That coupled with the choice of a female song, while definitely a ballsy choice, that you performed fairly well (you covered that top note very well; maybe less practicing next time), may have projected a less than masculine demeanor, and when you are playing to senior citizens and MidWestern tourists in the Caribbean, they want their singers masculine. Now, had you auditioned as a dancer, perhaps you would have had better luck.” (James) “Yeah, why didn’t we audition as a dancer?” I don’t know. (Tony) “With all due respect, Jonathon, you do. And I would not be necessary if you had the balls, excuse me, the nerve to say it.” He’s right, you know. Hey, that’s what I say! Well, what is my role now that you are here? I’m not sure yet. Stick with me. I may need you in a bit. OK. I will be over here doing a crossword puzzle. Where were we? (James) “You were going to admit why we didn’t audition to be a dancer.” Oh, right. Because we bombed that dance audition the week prior, the one with the hip-hop where we felt like an asshole because we thought we were being assertive by placing ourselves front and center and then looked like, yes Travis, a douche. What? Oh that’s right he’s gone. Should I bring him back? (ALL) “NO!” Ok. Just checking. (James) “Yeah. Why did we let it bother us so much? Stupid.” (Maggie) “It’s not stupid. This is part of evolution.” (Cynthia) “Remember what Fiona says.” “I’ll make the most of it, I’m an Extraordinary Machine.” (Cynthia) “I was going for ‘I am likely to miss the main event if I stop to cry or complain again,’ but the other one works too.” It does. Hey being honest is awesome! Forthcoming! I haven’t written anything snarky in about four lines! Maybe this is our future! (James) “Yeah, right. People expect sass and curse words from Jonathon Saia. Don’t get all soft on me.” Well, that was short lived. (Tony) “Can I go please? I feel like curling up in bed and listening to Incubus?” (Cynthia) “They are amazing live! Not like Fiona. Who was a hot mess.” (James) “Hot mess? Since when do you say things like ‘hot mess?’ I say hot mess!” (Tracy) “Bitch, I taught you ‘hot mess.’ Simmer down.” (Maggie) “Deep breaths, everyone.” Excuse me, Maggie. But I am the Professor here. (Maggie) “Excuse me, Mr. Saia. But you should just do your crossword puzzle. We don’t need you anymore. I can fulfill the professorial tone, the Barack Obama style.” Do you really think he sounds like Obama! I love him! (The class shakes their head in apology). (Tony) “Whoever is in charge, may I leave. I am feeling the Blanket calling.” (Cynthia) “What is this blanket business?” Take it Maggie. (Maggie) “Thank you, Jonathon. The Blanket is that warm feeling one can experience from sadness, when you feel that the world isn’t real, that the only thing worth feeling, worth living is the sadness. You feel, as Truddi Chase, told us, like all the pieces of you are in a tunnel and they are fighting over which one gets to be shown, and…” (Cynthia) “Truddi Chase? Nice reference. I wonder how many people will get that.” (Maggie) “Thank you, Cynthia.” (James) “But again that’s MPD. That’s not what this is.” Yeah, well, I am too lazy to pull Prozac Nation off the shelf and find an applicable passage so just go with it. (Tracy) “Look at Jonathon. Sassy McSasserton.” I am writing all of you. I am capable. (James) “Then what is my role!” (Tracy) “And mine!” Relax. It was a momentary lapse. All further pieces of anger will go to James. And all further sass will go to Cynthia. (James and Cynthia) “Thank you.” Go on, Maggie. (Maggie) “Thankfully, and correct me if I am wrong, Jonathon – or James – but as the older you have gotten, it is easier to shake the Blanket.” (James) “Yes. That is true. Sometimes it still feels impossible to shake it off….” (Tracy) “Oh, I love that Mariah song. Emancipation of Mimi!!!” (James) “Tracy. Shut the fuck up. But. That is a good album. Anyway, I was saying…oh, yes. Sometimes it still feels impossible to shake…to let it go…but sometimes now it is a conscious choice. Like we, I, have been sad for so long that it’s all I know. Particularly when I am working at that stupid diner. For some reason, I refuse to let my brain see it as anything but abysmal. But without that stupid diner, I would be fucking broke. Because since Sodexo gave us raises and we went union, they have slashed and burned our hours.” (Cynthia) “Then go to the union! That’s what they are for!” (James) “Yeah, but they haven’t taken any union dues from any of my checks and if I go and complain then they will probably notice this error and I need that $50 a month, so it’s easier to just grin and bear it and bitch.” (Tracy) “Bitch. That’s what you do best, boo.” (James) “Fuck you too, Tracy.” (Cynthia) “Change it! Start a revolution! Be the change you want to see!” (Tracy) “Christ, now we got Obama bumper stickers up in here.” (James) “Hey. Leave Barry out of this.” (Tracy) “Barry? Like you guys are friends.” (James) “We could be! He will be at the barbecue.” (Maggie) “What barbeque?” (Tony) “Pardon me, but you just spelled barbecue two different ways. They are both correct. (Tony) “Oh. Sorry.” (James) “Christ, Tony! Grow a fucking pair. Stop apologizing. Nobody likes a whiner!” (Tony) “And nobody likes a sassy asshole.” (Tracy) “It’s getting real up in here!” (James) “Are you kidding? Weren’t you listening earlier? This is Jonathon Michael Saia. Sass personified.” (Tony) “Yes. A mask. To prove how strong you are. When really I am right behind you in the tunnel. Yes. I read When Rabbit Howls too! Drop the act. You will never get to enlightenment or whatever goal you are pathetically trying to attempt, pledging to meditate every day, having done it once, with all this bravado.” (James) “So what I have only done it once. When I feel the anxiety and the anger coming on, I still close my eyes and breathe in the blue and breathe out the red, so why does it matter if I am stoned, lying on the carpet, or at a fucking stoplight? It doesn’t! It is progress. Cut me some slack! I am doing the best I can!” (Tony) “I have had it up to here with all these excuses. You are exactly where you are because of the choices you have made! No one told you to take out that loan. In fact, your parents told you NOT TO! No one made you whore it up in Chelsea and then write some memoir like you were a survivor from a self-inflicted prison.” (James) “You don’t know what it’s like to be gay in this world!” Careful, James. Don’t say something you don’t mean. (James) “Stay out of this! To have your own mother tell you that gay people don’t fall in love, demand to know if you have had sex so if you fall and cut yourself she can tell your brother not to touch you so he won’t die, to have your father want you to go to therapy, and then upon refusing, announce he needed to because he needed to learn how to deal with this, like it affected him at all! To live in a world that tells us gay people are a bunch of faggy sluts and then fulfill this prophecy! To live with that hypocrisy. To wonder if everyone you meet hates you because you are gay! To hate that you still hold onto this crap after almost ten years of vindication from family and friends. And decades of media progress proving we are worthy, living in the best time it has ever been to be gay in America! Yes! My self-hate or whatever you think I am worthy to call it stems from this! Would I feel any of this if I were straight?! No!” Now, James. You know that’s not true. (James) “You don’t know that. And neither do I!” (Maggie) “Come on, James. Think of what this could do to The Cause.” (James) “You don’t think people want honesty? Joshua certainly did! And yes, that is Grant. You idiots.” (Cynthia) “Can we discuss the title?” (Maggie) “Not now, dear.” (Tony) “Ok. So what are you saying? That you are doomed to a life of horrible anxiety and self-hate because you are gay? How 1970s of you. A real Boy in the Band you are.” (Tracy) “Um, didn’t Jonathon already use that metaphor in another piece?” Yes, but it is a good one and should be repeated. Plus, it proves that I have an understanding of gay history; therefore, am better educated than other gays who do not. (Tracy) “Oh, Ok. Just checking.” (Tony) “And what is this pretentious format?! What are you trying to prove, James, with this run on paragraph!” (James) “I’m not the writer! Ask him!” Well, I was going for a Ulysses thing. (Cynthia) “You’ve never read Ulysses.” They don’t know that. (Maggie) “Isn’t there a little Dave Eggers in here as well.” (Tracy) “Please, he is dancing as fast as he can to be Dave Eggers. Even having James say, ‘This guy!’ which Eggers uses constantly throughout his memoir.” He is amazing! (Cynthia) “Is that where the title came from?” (James) “Again, with the damn title! Just tell them, Jonathon.” Well, the first part is a quote from Janet Jackson’s greatest album, The Velvet Rope. It is really her masterwork. The tunes are one part self-profession, one part dance my life away with the requisite spoken interludes that let us into Janet’s psyche – or Ms. Jackson’s, if you are nasty – we have come to expect from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Released in 1997 to mostly positive reviews, it has subsequently been added to Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums, where it currently ranks at a very respectable #259. (Cynthia to Maggie) “Is he channeling Ellis here?” (Maggie) “He is trying to, but poorly.” Hey, you want to try writing this! As I was saying, the first part also is a hark to pop culture, which I try to include in all of my titles, again, to prove my cultural, therefore, intellectual superiority. (Cynthia) “How are those things related?” (James) “Just let him finish!” Thank you, James. The second part is what the piece is about…or was when I first started…now I’m not so sure. Third, yes, it was to deflect blame on Joshua, my best and longest friend, in case people hated it. And he really was the impetus for this, did commend me for my honesty, which I am glad was noticed. (Maggie) Why would they hate it? (James) See Part II. The fourth was to let the audience know that it would be something crazy – although I had no idea this crazy! The fifth is the simple title. The one to which it will probably be referred, if it is referred to at all, like When the Pawn…is called When the Pawn… The sixth tacit reason for the title, not conscious until I started typing, was to invoke When the Pawn…at one time what I thought to be the greatest album of all time, but now I have my doubts and it may be Purple Rain.

(Maggie) “Do you regret getting to the meat of the material so quickly?”

(Cynthia) “Hey, we are finally out of that paragraph!”

It was getting a little cramped. And no, Maggie. It was not my intention. I had planned to write pages in reality before getting into this, yes, Dave Eggers like Interruption. I readily admit my love and respect for him. Thank you, Matt Markwalder and Lisa West for introducing me to his genius. Staggering genius, to be more exact.

(Tracy) “Oh, God. He is starting to give us puns. I think it is time to wrap this shit up.”

Almost, Tracy.

Notice class how he wrote a very personal piece and didn’t mention Julian. What do you think that says?

(Cynthia) “Where the hell have you been?”

Doing my crossword puzzle. Does anyone know a twelve letter word for “self-pleasure”?

(James) “You think anyone will actually read this?”

I hope so.

Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number: 29 for the First (and Only) Time

I was born 29 years ago today on my grandfather’s 62nd birthday. For the first year of my life, the three of us lived in Springfield, MO. We had moved down there while I was in vitro because Dad had a job at the hospital as a PT. A few days before Mom was ready to pop, Uncle Tom, Aunt Shirley, and one year old Emily came down (or whichever direction it is from Belleville) to share in the blessed event, as they say (whomever this proverbial “they” are).

Being young and fairly poor, the four adults entertained themselves by playing volleyball in the living room with a balloon, trying to “keep it up” (a game Stephen and I would play with Emily and Amy years later). As legend has it (or how Marge and Shirley tell it), while at the hospital, my father – forever transfixed by the hypnotic, glowing embrace of the television; forever the jokester – said to my mother, struggling through contractions, “Can’t you clothes your legs? M*A*S*H* is not over yet!” And then I arrived. Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up.

It was Marge’s idea to move back to Troy, her hometown since 13. She wanted me to have a family, grandparents. So it was off to 205 Powell we went.

Growing up, Mom/Grandma would always make us a joint chocolate cake for our joint birthday party back when the family actually got together for such events. Marge, the trigger happy photojournalist of my life, would take a picture of us huddled around the cake with our respective wax numbers tucked into our respective sides of the cake. Then the lights would go down, the candles would be lit, and that song would be sung that everyone gets sung to them on their birthday (by the way, do not ever sing this to me; I hate it. I much prefer the version Aunt Joni taught us when I was a teenager, “Well, I hear today is your special day, Happy Birthday to You. You’ve finally grown out of your baby ways, Happy Birthday to You. It’s your ____ Birthday, wish you many more. Health and wealth and friends by the score. Let’s cut the cake and we’ll eat some more. Happy Birthday to You!” I will also except The Beatles’ version; however, the best birthday song is the one the Three Stooges sing in “An Ache in Every Stake,” their short that is very similar to Laurel and Hardy’s “The Music Box”: “We baked you a birthday cake. If you get a tummy ache, and you moan and groan and whoa, don’t forget we told you so! Happy Birthday! Happy Birthday!”).

My parents also took the cue from Joni to make birthdays “Yes” days, meaning that you could essentially have anything you wanted that day, which was not all that different from the other 364 days in the Saia house. Mom and Dad would hang balloons and a sign – made from a colored piece of construction paper with hand written little congratulatory statements from them, Stephen, and sometimes G&G; even now, Dad will call and ask, “What do you want me to write on your mother’s sign?” – hanging over the kitchen table and beneath would be my gifts (usually DVDs or CDs; Marge always joked that I was such a boring person to shop for; though she tried to wrap them in confusing ways so I wouldn’t know what it was I was getting – an exercise that got crazy at Christmas time; “Thanks for the shoes…no wait, it’s a CD in that box. You tricky woman!” P.S. Dad used to joke that every gift was a CD no matter how obviously it was not, which elicited the requisite eye roll from Mom that told us, “Yep kids. He’s mine. See what I got to put with?”) We would have breakfast as a family, a breakfast that consisted of more than just a bowl of cereal, pancakes or eggs usually.

My birthday dinners as a young child were at 94 Squadron, a restaurant on an air force base, chosen (or at least for subsequent birthdays) because I liked the airplane that was on the front lawn (I have no idea how this got started; Stephen’s childhood birthdays were always at Chuck E. Cheese, or Showbiz Pizza as it was called then). These were nice small affairs, just the four of us plus Tod (who was not the grandfather I shared a birthday with – his is November 15 – and Betty). As I got older, my birthday dinners took place at Olive Garden (my God those breadsticks are addictive) and Red Lobster (Betty would bring gallon Ziplocks, her storage container of choice, so we could gank some cheese bread for later). See, when you grow up in the MidWest going to these places constitutes as “eating out at a fancy restaurant.”

Highlights (or at least the ones I can remember as standing out) of birthdays past were my 7th when we had a birthday party for my classmates at McDonald’s; my 14th when Stephen and I returned home from a sleepover at Scott’s to find a trampoline in the backyard that I couldn’t use because I had broken my arm the evening previous, caused by a poor judgment during a game of American Gladiators (Roller skates + slide + concrete = stupid); my 18th, a party I didn’t think was going to happen because Tod was just diagnosed with cancer for the 2nd time that day. I tried not to be selfish and care, tried to forget it was a milestone, but in typical Marge and Richard style, they had me go pick up Grandpa from his house to bring over for a small dinner just the six of us, and when I arrived at the house, there were about four cars in the driveway (this was also the birthday I bought my first lottery ticket and while on a sojourn to St. Louis with Lesetta, Mike, and Beth bought my first porno that I kept under the mattress of my waterbed); and my 21st, when Marge, Richard, Tod, Betty, and I went to the Casino Queen, a gambling boat in East. St. Louis chosen among many potential gambling spots for what I thought was a clever entendre in the name “Queen.”

29 is the year that gets repeated the most. 30 is a terrifying age for many people to face because it means full adulthood. The time when you should have your shit together. The time you should be on the right track to achieving your goals. Well, I am here to say this will be my first and only 29th birthday. I can’t wait to leave my 20s behind.

The last nine years have been the wildest, most difficult, psychologically draining, most fun years of my life. College, boys, That Bolt of Lightning, shitty jobs, Joshua, Mercutio, New York, LA, and of course, Julian. The life I planned at 17 has definitely not been the one I have been living; I thought I would be such good friends with Madonna by the time I was 25 that I would be babysitting her kids. Until you leave your parents’ home, you don’t realize the truth about dreams: they are harder to achieve than we thought. Am I frustrated I am still working in food instead of famous? Yes. But will I let it destroy me? Not anymore.

The point in having a plan is not to necessarily make sure that everything happens exactly by that time, but to give you things to shoot for, direction. Purpose. And let me tell you, the next 30 years are going to be fucking amazing.

30-39:

On my 30th birthday, Stephen and I (and Joshua and Julian if I can convince them) are going to jump out of an airplane. I am also going to get my first tattoo. At present, it will be a quote from You Shall Know Our Velocity!, a brilliant book by Dave Eggers about purpose and constantly moving forward. It will look something like this:

It will go on my left tricep so others can see it as my badge of honor, my mantra, and so I can see it whenever I need to snap out of the Blanket.

This is the decade that I will get paid to do what I love. I will branch out from the Morgan-Wixson to find paying theatrical work (with a hopeful return each fall to choreograph the Youth Musical – I love those kids!). I will be paid as a writer (an important meeting involving The Ingenue is supposed to be happening today so it could come sooner than I think). If it doesn’t, I will get a job as a staff writer on some long standing series (hey Seth McFarland!). I will write and publish a book. I will write a play and have it produced by Maieutic Theatre Works in New York. I will finally write my long gestating bio-pic on Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, starring Kevin Spacey. By the end of the year (next summer at the absolute latest), I will quit working for Sodexo, and by the time I am 35, I will quit working for Wolfgang Puck, although this is a pretty sweet gig and wouldn’t mind rocking this out for a while as long as it was, “I really want to take a vacation. I think I’ll work a few shifts and raise a thousand bucks to take me and J somewhere nice.” Not, “Christ, yes, I will work a double because I am three days late on my loan payment.”

If money and time allows, I will go back to school (UCLA) to get my Masters in Film History and eventually my PhD. Maybe.

I will start up (again) Larry’s Literati, an LGBT group named after Larry Kramer, dedicated to understanding our history through books, plays, films, and lectures. This will become a national program. It will be taught in universities.

I also very much want to get married. I suppose J and I could get married now (or at least soon because CA is supposed to be, may be, hopefully is overturning Prop 8 in the next few weeks), but I made a tacit promise to myself (and the reason I haven’t pressed him thus far), that I would propose (I have it all planned out!) when I was an equal. Oh, sure. I am an equal human, but I want to be a fucking gay power couple, taking over the world together, not some burden who can barely pay his way (You don’t make me feel that way. This one is all me). I never want money to be an issue between us. Maybe this is a pipe dream (one of us will always make more at some point, prompting potential jealousy), but this shit of being poor all the time doesn’t help the psyche. Which brings me to the Blanket.

My greatest achievement planned for my 30s is to conquer this depression once and for all. To throw away the warm embrace of sadness forever and always, to stop the lies, to take control of my emotions and never let them control me.

40-49:

My 40s, after being a successful gun-for-hire writer in my 30s, will be dedicated to directing films, films that further The Cause, the normalization and acceptance of homosexuality from sea to shining sea. To write the Great American Romantic Comedy, the Annie Hall or Bringing Up Baby for gay men. To develop the sitcom starring Julian and me as fictitious versions of ourselves (both already wildly successful in our respective fields; look out Jay Leno. Julian Michael is coming for your job), a cross between Martin and I Love Lucy, co-starring his cousin Kelly and a version of her boyfriend (can he act? Would he want to be involved? Or do we find another comic, Mike Andre?, to play him?). To appear on Broadway via this TV stardom a la Jim Parsons. To foster a teenager. (What? Yes. You read that right. Maybe. I don’t know. Definitely not a baby. But maybe some wayward teen, kicked out or orphaned; our own little Torch Song Trilogy).

OUT OF DEBT!

50 – 59:

After gaining notoriety as a filmmaker and raconteur, a man who My God How Does He Do It All?, I will teach Film History at UCLA (having received my PhD in my 30s or just getting an honorary degree like filmmakers do). I will help Scorsese preserve film and specifically work with the branch of the UCLA Library that preserves LGBT media. As a member of AFI and the Academy, I will get to help shape those lists and awards that mean nothing, but mean so much. I will go on the lecture circuit, speaking to gay youth about my seminal novel I wrote in my 30s.

And if we have that wayward teen, he will probably make us grandparents. Oy vey.

60 – 69:

Write. Direct. Travel. Rinse and repeat.

70 – 79:

Go on a one man show tour singing songs and telling stories about my fabulous life like Elaine Stritch.

80 – 100:

Having spent the last 50+ years in the spotlight, I will become a National Treasure like Bob Hope or Betty White, garnering standing ovations just for being alive. Need an old guy? Get Saia. I smell Guest Actor Emmys. Or dare I say, Oscar, that one that is really for your entire career. I will die on stage. Like Bette Midler at the end of The Rose. Only not from some drug overdose. At least I hope not.

More than any other day of the year, one’s birthday is the most important. Without it, you would not be able to experience any other. Holidays are about celebrating someone or something else. Birthdays are all yours. So on this birthday, the last of my first decade of adulthood, I vow, that whatever may or may not happen from the aforementioned paragraphs over the years, one thing I know will happen is that I will continue to evolve, to be a work in progress. This extraordinary machine will be a better friend. A better son. Brother. Husband. A better version of me.

Happy Birthday, Jonathon.

Bad Cinema: Steel Magnolias (Dir: Kenny Leon, 2012)

The 1989 theatrical version of Steel Magnolias, directed by Herbert Ross and starring Sally Field, Julia Roberts, and a handful of other Hollywood heavy hitters, is one of those movies that almost everyone has seen, but is never discussed in any list of Greatest Whatevers. Which is a shame. Like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, A Prairie Home Companion, or About Schmidt, Steel Magnolias‘ greatness lies in its simplicity and grace. It doesn’t call attention to itself with fancy filmmaking or beg you to love it with its melodrama; instead, it touches you, repeatedly, on repeated viewings, with just enough emotion to keep from being saccharine and slays you with its lived in performances from some of the best in the biz. It is one of the only films that no matter how many times I have seen it – and they are many – when it comes on TV – which is a lot – I can’t help but stop what I am doing and watch the whole damn thing, laughing at the same parts, and crying like a baby in the cemetery and that final scene where Daryl Hannah, at the Easter celebration by the lake, is suddenly rushed to the hospital in labor with her new old friends for support and that swelling piano theme coming in for the kill.

When I first heard they were making an all-black cast version of the film, I was uncharacteristically elated (historically, I have been against remakes or reimaginings or revamps or whatever they are calling them now, particularly when the original is so good; but with age, my dogmatism is softening and I have realized that there may be more than one way to tell a great story – Rise of the Planet of the Apes, anyone?!) In fact, I was annoyed that it was denigrated to a Lifetime MOW (I think we all know the typical quality, style, and content of these films; my brother Stephen used to joke when Mom and I would sit down to watch one after school, “OK, does she have cancer or is she beaten by her husband?” Can you imagine one with both! I’m sure there is one out there somewhere starring Bonnie Bedelia…).

Academy Award nominees Queen Latifah and Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott. How was this not being released by a major studio (or at least Lionsgate; do they only do black movies with Tyler Perry at the helm?) This is ridiculous! If this revamp starred white people (Katherine Heigl? Kathy Bates? Anne Hathaway? Frances McDormand?) they would be pimping this for a summer release (or an October long-shot Oscar film if enough revered women got into the project). RACISM! Can we not trust people to go see this movie? And must everything be about the all mighty dollar!? Can’t we just make art? There will always be Transformers and The Avengers making studios money. This could have been a side project, a Paramount Vantage or a Sony Pictures Classics, a passion project for some indie director (Lee Daniels, Spike Lee, or maybe the directorial debut of some great black actress – “And from the acclaimed Academy Award winning Whoopi Goldberg comes her first outing behind the camera…”). Hell, they wouldn’t even have to be black (although let their voices be heard for God’s sake!). It could have been a nice little fall picture directed by Sam Levinson (check out Ellen Barkin’s Why Was I Not Nominated for a Fucking Oscar turn in Another Happy Day) or Sam Mendes.

Kenny Leon seemed like a suitable choice. 1) He is black. 2) He is from the theatre, directing Denzel Washington and Viola Davis to Tony Awards in Fences. 3) He directed another white/black transfer of A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway and directed the MOW of A Raisin in the Sun. Having never witnessed his stage work, nor his retelling of Raisin, this was my first experience with Mr. Leon. And Steel Magnolias is a failure because of him. Partially. Or completely, depending on your idea of what a director is supposed to do.

Let’s start with the way the film looked. Cheap. The use of video would have been fine to tell this story if the framing was creative and impactful. More often than not, the frame was cluttered with people too close to the lens and/or barely hanging on to its edges with camera moves and mis-en-scene that just did not make sense. Clearly, “art” was not something they were going for here. (Lifetime’s constraints or Leon’s ineptitude?) More egregious was the quick editing style that never gave you ample time to make emotional connections with the characters nor their plight, whose stakes are pretty high. Which brings me to the tone. Which was ALL WRONG. What makes the original work beautifully is that it is a comedy infused with moments of melancholia and triumphant sisterhood. Leon’s version has it ass backwards, dragging you through a maudlin wasteland of an inevitable diabetic death march with a moment or two of levity thrown in, as if against his will because, sigh, Robert Harling actually wrote a hilarious play and a lot of it (save the modern references to Facebook, Iraq, and Beyonce) has been retained by Sally Robinson’s “adaptation” (the only scene missing from the original that I missed was seeing Spud put on his tie for Shelby’s funeral; that could have been a nice moment for Jill Scott to play, although she is given a similar scene with her husband earlier). But of course the film was serious. The star/executive producer no doubt made it so.

Queen Latifah started out as a rapper (one of the best, I am told) and a singer (one of the great ones, I know). She segued into acting via comedy on television’s Living Single, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. She was one of the stars of the dramatic heist thriller Set It Off and then hit the mainstream in a big way with Chicago, netting an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. In Entertainment Weekly’s Oscar Issue, Latifah stated that her aspirations were to be a serious actor like Robert DeNiro and win a bunch of Academy Awards. Well, it’s nice to have a dream.

I’m not saying that Queen Latifah is a bad actress. She is very good in Set It Off, The Secret Life of Bees, and Stranger than Fiction. I also enjoyed her work very much in Mad Money and Hairspray. But there is something about her that is always working a little too hard, a little too forced, as if to say, “Look at me! I will ACT for you!” Her performance as M’Lynn is so stoic and serious and closed off and forced and disconnected and just plain bad that it is amazing they signed her up in the first place. Where was Viola Davis?  Was Angela Bassett busy trying to get her groove back? It doesn’t help that the comparison we have is Sally Fucking Field, the epitome of Southern Charm meets Drama Queen. Who can resist reciting “Juice is better” in that lithe tone or screaming “I Wanna Know WHHHHYYYYYY!” when talking about this film?

Sally Field’s M’Lynn defines the ’89 version. Which is saying something when your daughter is Julia Roberts and your friends are Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Shirley MacLaine. Latifah misses the ball almost every time she is up to bat, particularly in the post-funeral climax (which is now set in Truvy’s Beauty Shop and not the cemetery; is this to make us not compare the two? We’re going to anyway and “Hit Ouiser!” loses most of its zing when they are not all gussied up in their Sunday best). Latifah’s performance in this monologue (and the all over the place staging of it) is almost laugh-out-loudable. If a director’s main job is to encourage, tame, and manipulate performance, Leon failed us big time. (Let’s not even bother going into the cheese ball ending with the black and white montage of Shelby’s wedding and the repetition of the play’s most famous quote).

Almost as bad, if not worse, are Condola Rashad and Adepero Oduye as Shelby and Annelle, respectively. Rashad (daughter of Phylicia) marks through Shelby as if it is the second rehearsal in her community college’s acting class. We care nothing about her, nor see the inherent dimensions that Roberts gave us, leading to her first Oscar nod and the beginning of her illustrious career. Notice the stark differences between their “interpretations” of the insulin attack scene: Roberts gave us full body shake and embarrassment, which yields one of her best moments in the film with Field; Rashad goes for complete internal shutdown, which doesn’t really work in a visual medium, especially when your scene partner is trying desperately to be noticed as a serious actress and has nothing to play off of so she looks ever more ridiculous. Oduye has stripped the humor from this simple girl who is definitely twisting braids without a full bag of rubber bands (“My personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair”) who morphs into a devoutly Christian woman amongst these gossiping, sex talking menopausals. Was she/Leon afraid of offending a black audience who are traditionally religious by poking fun at faith?

Jill Scott knew she could not duplicate Dolly Parton’s bombastic chutzpah and doesn’t try. Instead, she imbues Truvy with gentility and a romantic tenderness without losing the role’s requisite bite. Ms. Scott is further proof that some artists truly can do it all. Phylicia Rashad (somehow passing none of her amazingness to her daughter) and Alfre Woodard respectively play the sophisticated dirty old lady Clairie and the bombastic bitch Ouiser to perfection (It is a credit to Harding’s play that Woodard, without ever having seen the ’89 version, gives us a Ouiser Boudreaux that is similar to MacLaine’s, but different enough to give her her own flavorings and shades; that’s good writing). Watching Scott, Rashad, and Woodard interact is the highlight in this mess of lowlights.

I Always Knew I Would Commit Suicide

The beginnings of a novel that may or may not ever be written:

I always knew I would commit suicide. The question was how.

Hanging seemed antiquated and unreliable. How to find the right structure, one that wouldn’t concave, from which to harness the rope? What if my neck didn’t break and I was left to slowly suffocate? Or my neck would break, yet so would the rope, leaving me not only not dead, but a paraplegic? Then there was the matter of making a noose. Having dropped out of the Boy Scouts in favor of, well, anything but the Boy Scouts, I was ill-equipped to even manage the simplest of knots. I suppose this is what the internet is for, but it would have seemed false. My death needed to be a truer reflection of myself.

Stabbing a knife into my chest or slitting my jugular was always out because I can’t stand the sight of blood. Chances are I would have fainted and missed the whole thing. Which was half the point.

Pills were too Hollywood, too cliché, too weak.

And while foaming at the mouth from some meth-laced speed ball would most definitely do the trick if left untreated, its grandiosity seems too great not to be able to revisit. Just imagine the endless barrage of flowers and sympathy gift baskets of cheeses and chocolates: “To a speedy recovery.”

Alcohol seemed like the best bet. A nice slow death. But it wasn’t certain. It also takes too much time. Perhaps I would have changed my mind. AIDS was out for a similar reason. The once death sentence disease has become almost as innocuous as diabetes.

I also toyed with the idea of guns, sitting in the garage with the car on, over eating, arsenic, and hiring someone to beat me to death, but none of these felt right.

One of three things is running through your mind at this moment:

1)   Where the fuck is this going?

2)   I have experienced a similar dilemma.

3)   Why would he want to kill himself?

All valid questions, I assure you.

In reference to #1: I don’t know. That’s just it. Call it, the thesis if you will.

#2: The humanistic thing to say is “I’m sorry. I feel your pain. I empathize.” The truth is I’m not and I don’t.

#3: Power. And control.

Pick up an object next to you. Any object.

Now stroke it. Allow your fingers to caress the contours of its creases. What is its shape? How heavy is it? Its smell. Texture.

Now put the object down. Close your eyes and remember the previous act in detail. See yourself pick it up, stroke it, recall all of its memorized parts. Does it feel less real? Or more? How are you sure that it even exists at all?

Welcome to my life. Or more accurately, my death.