October 12th, 2011
Butchie is a judo target and t-shirt model for the Manly Fireplug’s barbershop, though he’s been guarding its basement now for several months. Just so we’re clear: he’s in the basement. I know he’s in the basement. Yet every time I go down to the basement he scares the crap out of me.
Butchie stoically presided over last night’s frenzied literary reading preparations, as I dusted off the folding chairs, iced the drinks, and searched for that damn corkscrew. An hour later, after the folding-chair-up-the-basement-steps bucket brigade (thank you volunteers and Fireplug!) I ducked outside to try and air out my damp shirt. I sweat a lot before every barbershop reading.
So I expect the sweat. But I didn’t expect the tears. Last night at the podium, in front of the capacity crowd, I got choked up reading a chapter about my father from the end of my book. Last year, at the Queer Arts Festival reading, I got choked up reading a chapter about my mom’s first girlfriend.
Both times took me by surprise, and embarrassed me. I find myself aspiring to a particular writerly image, the dude who reads, say, at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and sells just enough books to stay – with the help of the requisite side jobs – just above poverty.
That dude writes literature, which requires emotional distance from the subject matter. His work isn’t a barely-digested therapy session thrown on the page.
An emotional distance I thought I’d acquired. By now I’ve written nineteen drafts of my book, and have read through each draft at least ten, but more often twenty or thirty times, tweaking the stray word. I must have read the chapter on my mother’s first girlfriend, and the chapter on my father, at least fifty times each.
So the tears felt like the mark of an amateur, or worse, some kind of performance trick I was pulling on the audience. A schtick.
I used to be the kind of kid that others called sensitive. Code word for homo, maybe, but I’ll admit that I was ruled by my feelings.
In recent years I’ve tried to lean a little more often on my thoughts, if only to reach for a bit of balance, and to become a better writer. And in some cases my lack of emotion began to surprise me.
During those dreary few months when the Fireplug and I split up, for example, I seemed to only feel cold disappointment. I never cried.
But then one day I’m driving to work, listening to a Death Cab for Cutie album I’ve just downloaded, and the sad opening piano chords of their song, “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” throws a hook into the depths of me, and reels up tears. Tons of them. I spend the next few weeks driving around the city with that song on repeat, endangering countless San Franciscans with my blurred-vision driving.
Last week, as the Fireplug and I drove down to Palm Springs, listening to my iPod, up pops that song, and up come the tears. Again. Tons of them.
“Oh G-god,” I said. “I’m sorry, I f…forgot it was on this p…playlist!”
After we’d got back together I’d told him all about the song, so he knew what I meant.
“I don’t know why it still m-m-makes me cry. It’s st-st-stupid!”
“It’s not stupid,” he said. “We almost lost this.”
He was right, and really, the only stupid thing is to pretend like you’re someone you’re not. To jam yourself inside an image of a writer that doesn’t fit. We can’t all be Butchie.
So yeah, I cry, and maybe the only thing that’s changed since I was a kid is that I let my tears surprise me. I was embarrassed at first, last night, but then I got over it. Time’s wasting. I’ve got two last chapters to get right, and if I’m lucky, a slew of future readings at which I can freely bawl my eyes out.