I was re-reading Stephen King’s On Writing over the summer — make it an annual or semi-annual habit, fellow writers — when a line struck me. In the second half of the book, after King lays out his abbreviated memoir, in the opening paragraph on his treatise of the writing progress, he says this:
“I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers. Some are on-staff at your local newspaper…” etc. etc.
I’ve read On Writing, oh I don’t know, about a dozen times since it was published in 2000, but I guess I’ve glazed over this line. No big deal, normally. Except I’ve also been going to therapy for work-related anxiety. For my work as a newspaper writer.
That line was a blow I felt a little too deeply. Imposter syndrome is a bitch, folks.
I hear you get over it, eventually? At least, I feel like I have, in a huge way.
In early November, I had the honor of attending the Poynter Institute’s Power of Diverse Voices workshop, one of 15 other journalists chosen to deep-dive into four days of personal essay and opinion writing.
I went in with my usual bundle of nerves. I’m not good enough to be with these people. My writing is shit. Why am I bothering? What if they don’t like me?
Well, friends, in reverse order, I think they liked me, and I bothered, and my writing wasn’t nearly as bad I expected it to be.
In case you’re unfamiliar, the Poynter Institute is a respected non-profit journalism think-tank that trains journalists and media professionals. Poynter hosts seminars and workshops all over the country, but the workshop I attended required traveling to the Institute’s home base of St. Petersburg, Florida, for four days of sun and sand. (Ha, just sun, but only barely.)
While the warm Florida sun blazed outside, enticing tiny lizards and birds to flit about on ground and sky, we journalists were inside, huddled in work groups poring over our words. Sessions varied, as did the instructors (audio training with Eric Deggans of NPR, column writing advice with Aisha Sultan of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, storytelling and focus with Tom Huang from Dallas Morning News), plus some serious time plumbing our depths as writers of color.
It was this last point that I am trying to hang on to, like bottling lightning. I’ve never felt so charged, so sure of my faculties, as I did talking to my fellow POC writers. There was no explanatory comma, no having to educate, no emotional labor. These were people who understood the struggle of feeling othered in a newsroom. These were people who knew all too well the chest-crushing weight of Impostor Syndrome and it’s close friend, “Twice as Good” (as in, “to get half as far”). There was the work, and nothing else.
It was emotional. It was taxing. It was healing.
If only writing could be like that, all of the time.
On night one, Roy Peter Clark, legendary Poynter dean, instructor, VP and now, senior scholar, serenaded our group with a keyboard rendition of Smoky Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears,” before hammering home the weekend’s theme: Storytelling from the heart, speaking truth to power, the importance of exploring dangerous places in one’s writing.
The resonance this had on my weekend, as we collectively got braver with pen and paper, became clearer as I interacted and became friends with my fellows. While waiting for my connecting flight to Chicago in Baltimore-Washington airport’s cavernous, empty D gate, I wrote on my Instagram:
It’s too soon to assess what this weekend will do for my writing, but I can say my heart is full to bursting. I got on my flight from Chicago in the wee hours of Thursday morning, slightly terrified and intimidated by the 20 other award-winning journalists I’d be meeting over the course of the weekend, but now I’m waiting for my connecting flight, looking forward to the next time I see my new friends. I’ve been writing and working as a journo for about a decade now, and I think I’m pretty good, if I do say so myself, but I didn’t know how much I was missing, spiritually. How much I needed to be in a room with brown people from Champaign Urbana, from Atlanta, Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco, Albuquerque. From Pakistan, from India, from Taiwan, from Houston, from Delaware. I didn’t know how much I’d held in, held back. I didn’t realize the extent to which my chest felt constricted and heavy, an explosion waiting to happen. I didn’t realize how alone I felt as a brown gay immigrant journalist, how much I codeswitch not just in my everyday life but in my own writing. This weekend? I’ve cleared away so much of that mental and emotional detritus and see in front of me a clear path, more focused than I’ve ever hoped for. This, without exaggeration, was life-changing.
And just weeks prior, I had my first real breakthrough in therapy, specifically my keen search for my authentic self and voice in my writing. Added together, I realized that I’ve held back so much of who I am, in favor of some alternate-universe me that is more palatable to others. And I’m done.
I was done with the half-life of the closet a decade ago. I was done with the myth of the model minority at about the same time. But did my previous writing, personal and professional, reflect that? Was I brave enough to claim a space in a white-male-hetero- dominant world? I don’t think so, but as of this month, I’m done. Done being the timid human. Worse, the timid writer. The one I now believe to be the subject of Stephen King’s scorn.
There’s still a lot of work to do, but being unapologetically present in my writing is my first step. My new North star.
It’s National Coming Out Day, but I don’t want to talk about coming out, or at least the whole process of it. I want to talk about being gay.
It’s actually quite boring.
I put my pants on one leg after the other, brush my teeth more cavalierly than my dentist would like, butter my toast with abandon. I worry about my midsection, paying my bills, and the state of the world, but will full-on belly laugh if someone pronounces “dicks” just right. I have a system when shopping the grocery store (don’t make me veer from it), and I can’t carry a tune to save my life.
Everyday, I get to kiss my wonderfully goofy, brainy, sensitive boyfriend good night, then goodbye every morning on my way to work. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, half-asleep with racing thoughts, I’ll turn to my left and kiss his shoulder. He’ll grunt, and I’ll fall back asleep.
Besides the boy-love stuff, how is any of this gay? Well, it’s not. Not really, because being gay is as normal as being straight, as breathing. It’s incidental to my life, as well as that of many millions of others.
Being out, though? Being open?
That, friends, is magical and wondrous and joyous.
Not long ago, the choice of being out was ostracization, and quite literally death, or the lighter life sentences of conformity and silence in the closet.
Fuck those times and the system that built it.
Praise the universe that today, choosing between the closet or being out is more akin to sitting quietly and coloring within the lines with only gray crayons, or saying “fuck you” to the quiet, flipping the table and ripping up the coloring book.
Being out – as a gay man, or a lesbian, or a trans man or trans woman, or asexual or bisexual – is like saying “fuck your crayons, and the primary colors, too, I’ve got my own fucking paint set. Fuck your lines, I’m coloring on the walls, dummy! With CHARTREUSE.” (My significantly quieter significant other would disagree with me here, but I digress.)
Everyday is a choice to say fuck you to shame, fuck you to bigotry, but also hell yes to living, hell yes to me.
Being gay is normal. The ups and downs, though sometimes more acute, are also normal. Coming out, being out, is spiritual and special, a full-body experience that you never really forget, and one that changes you for the better.
Featured image by Alysa Bajenaru
I love the b-roll feature over at Good Beer Hunting, these little vignettes that peek into the beer world with just the smallest bit of explanation. Who has time to show everything? Moments can be as special as the whole story, some times, more.
A friend and her boyfriend invited me and my own SO out to the ‘burbs this weekend (specifically, Barrington), to meet her friends and their animals. They have a charming little farm set behind their ranch house, with seven lambs, two goats, countless chickens and roosters and, most excitingly, two mini-horses named Penny and Stella.
“They used to be named Special and Delight, but they sounded like retired strippers,” said Pam, one of the owners.
We spent an hour or so feeding apples and Mrs. Pasture Cookies for Horses to Penny and Stella — “flat hands, unless you hate your thumbs,” said Suzanne, the other owner — and then spent the rest of the afternoon talking, laughing and drinking wine. I even got to ride a lawnmower, so all in all, Saturday was a Delight, or something.
Full disclosure: I’ve been experiencing a lot of anxiety lately. World affairs being what they are, coupled with my somewhat crippling impostor syndrome, I’ve become an emotional turtle. Even as I’m producing some work I’m super proud of, I’m terrified it’s not enough — “But for whom?” my therapist has asked.
I still don’t know the answer to that, but I feel small and shitty regardless, because the world is literally burning around us.
We’re living in the age of self-care, but the idea is not a new one. As I’ve started seeking therapy, and working on some inner stuff that I’ve long been ignoring, I’ve been figuring out new and socially acceptable ways to cocoon, rather than just take up the full-time #hermitlife, tempting as it is.
I reasonably understand I can’t take on Atlas’ burden, so I’ve been taking a step back. Breathing. Calming my racing thoughts. Chilling the fuck out.
Summer sets off my SAD (seasonal affective disorder), or more colloquially, summertime sadness, but as a solutions-oriented person, I’ve spent the season seeking out coping methods. I’ve largely succeeded (for now). Starting therapy is a first step, but it’s also a culmination of my efforts, and I’d be a fool to think the my work on myself was done.
Home has become my favorite safe space, the ultimate of bliss stations. Not to get too twee about it, but my plants have helped.
Last week, a bunch of friends sent me that Washington Post article about plant-obsessed millennials, makes me a statistic now, I guess. I’ve got about 20 plants throughout the apartment, but they’re hardly a chore (I’m not giving them a weekly shower), and their existence goes beyond “livin’ for the ‘Gram.” (Though I’ll post pics of them from time to time.) Handsome though they are, my royal palm, silver-leaf philodendron and stag-horn fern are my favorite for the way they sound — rustling at every errant breeze, dry and papery and soothing. Their softly humming chorus is aural Ambien. I love mixing a cocktail at violet hour and posting up on my couch with a book, my phone and computer far away in another room. As golden light filters through my mini-conservatory of leaves, I escape from world-weariness, if only until sundown.
Speaking of books, I’ve read a lot more this summer, even though I intended to write more than read. (Working on it.) I’ve tried to avoid majority voices (straight, cis-gendered white men, if you have to know), for POC, LGBT and otherwise diverse voices. My life as a media person necessitates that I’m always in contact with the former, so my free time is better spent getting to know the latter. This isn’t to brag or otherwise be performative; the simple of act of reading people who more closely resemble me has been a balm, creatively and emotionally, reminding me that representation is nothing to scoff at.
I don’t know where I’m going with this, except to say that I’m fine, or will be. I’ve been crying a lot of late, but not because of anxiety. My favorite summertime programming, So You Think You Can Dance has been blissfully cathartic (OMFG), even if it’s painfully heteronormative, and a few other streaming things have just been beautiful and/or idiotically manipulative, which is cool too, I guess. You can’t be serious all the time. Even a cheap cry is a nice release.
Other than that, movement and activity has kept my mind clear. Swimming, in particular, has been a boon, as I’ve met a few weight-loss milestones and burned off some wiggles. Friends, too, have coaxed me out of my den of sadness: barbecues, boat adventures, cocktails, wine and music have been in my self-care rotation. I think my biggest lesson this summer has been listening to my body, to my feelings, and people that probably know better than me what I need, like sunshine and time on the lake and Champagne with smoked shrimp.
The work continues, but my favorite season is up to bat. Fall has always been a comfort and reprieve from stifling summers, and my birthday — much as I loathe celebrating it — marks the last real day of summer, and the closing of Virgo season, a sort of signal that I am, in fact, in control of my life.
At least, that’s what I tell myself.
A few weeks ago, a friend of Ian’s sent him a care package of a dozen Georgia peaches. Wrapped in thin, crinkly sheafs of white paper, nestled in individual foam nooks, the bounty of summer fruit looked just like the emoji, sun-gold, fragrant and chipper in their little homes.
Upon opening the package, I couldn’t help myself. In a moment of animal lust, I grabbed one of the plump, floral-perfumed fruit and devoured it over the sink, sticky sweet juice dripping slowly down my chin and neck.
Was it peach season then? Is it peach season now? A month ago, Kim Severson of the New York Times wrote a delightful piece on a debate among Southerners and writers about the perfect time to eat a peach:
“Kathleen Purvis, the Southern food writer most likely to let you know when you have something wrong, made a peach declaration on Facebook a couple of weeks ago.
Peaches, she said, should never be eaten before the Fourth of July.”
I love the charm of this easy-to-remember rule, even as others maintain a different set of standards. For me and Ian, that box of fruit lasted but a few days. Sliced over cinnamon-laced oatmeal, eaten over the sink, chopped into grain bowls — it was a bounty that brought summer home.
As the days went on, the firm peaches hinted that they weren’t long for the world, the perfumey luster dissipating in our kitchen as the skins started to dry and pucker. We didn’t have enough to bake a pie, so I did the next best thing: poach them in a pool of rich, nutty brown butter, a sultry, almost too-sensual topping for a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Throw on some nuts slightly toasted in brown butter and sugar, if you want to be even more decadent.
Even now, as I write this, I’m hot under the collar.
Recipe: Brown butter-poached peaches with ice cream
Serves 2, Cooking time: About 20 minutes.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons light brown sugar, or to taste
2 ripe peaches, sliced in half (skin-on)
2 tablespoons brown sugar, divided
1/2 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
Melt the butter in a pan or cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Swirl the butter until it starts to bubble and smell nutty, about five minutes. Lower heat to medium low and place peach halves, skin-side up, into the butter. Tilt pan slightly and spoon butter over each peach half, about four minutes. Gently flip the peaches with tongs, so they are skin-side down in the pan. Divide one tablespoon of sugar amongst the four peach halves, spooning brown sugar into each cavity, and continue spooning melted butter over each peach, another three minutes. Remove peaches to the side. Do not clean the pan. Add walnuts and remaining sugar to the hot pan. Stir walnuts, sugar and butter until walnuts are fragrant and the sugar caramelizes, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Serve warm peaches topped with walnuts with your favorite ice cream. Mine is vanilla.
A look at the stuff that’s fueled my week, published
every Sunday occasionally or whatever, don’t judge me.
“Queer, tender, true. I like those things.” – Gabrielle Hamilton, Mind of a Chef
I spent my first birthday in New York at the now-famous Prune, a narrow little charmer of a restaurant in the East Village. My friend from Kasey took me — it was more like a treat for the both of us, since she’s two weeks older than me. There’s a banquette just underneath some mercury-glass mirrors; they pull out a table for you as you slide in, scoothing it back over your legs as you settle in. I don’t remember much of the meal — some sensible rosé or other in a cute tumblr, impossibly cool New Yorkers all around me, a kitchen humming with activity — but I do remember one dish in particular.
We started with a simply prepared avocado half, with olive oil spilling out the concave once housing the pit. Flaky sea salt covered the avocado’s fleshy surface, a sprig of parsley the lone garnish. The effect of the golden oil and verdant fruit mirrored that of the dappled fall sunshine just outside the window. It was barely anything, truth be told, but life changing in its way.
I’ve had meals conjured from foams and gums and wizardy, but the combination of that honest avocado, shared with one of my closest friends in a nondescript restaurant — I’ve never felt so welcome.
I’ve never felt truly part of the LGBT community — lots of baggage to unpack — but I do hope that each of us, this Pride week, Pride month, find some measure of belonging. Cheers to the queer, the tender, the true.
I recall the avocado at Prune because Kasey and her new husband were in town this week. When I first moved to Chicago, Kasey (a student at Northwestern) and I shared a teeny apartment in Uptown — it’s been a decade since she last saw the city. She and Brian are big beer fans, so I took them to the newly designated Malt Row in Ravenswood for some local brews from Dovetail and Begyle. Afterward, we headed to Map Room, still one of my favorite bars in the city. My guests agreed.
I had to kill a mouse this week. A few months ago, when we initially realized there was a problem, our landlord came in and plugged up all the holes with steel wool. He left some traps, and we thought that was it. It helped for a little while; we caught a mouse that week and thought that was it, the our unwanted roommate was just sneaky. Then last month, we noticed little paw prints on some butter in the counter, plus some scratching noises underneath the sink. There was an entry hole we missed in the cabinet, so we laid two traps and the tainted butter down there, and a few days later, we caught the mouse.
Then this week happened. I came home from picking up pizza dough from the grocery store and as I placed my keys on the kitchen counter, I saw the scurry of another grey lightning bolt duck back behind the oven. The other trap held another teeny brown thing, squeaking and writhing in panic. My heart leapt out of my chest, first because there was now a fourth mouse in as many months, and I didn’t know how long the little guy was there. It could have been hours, torturously wiggling to get out of the glue.
I set up a ziplock plastic bag with baking soda, placed the trap, mouse first, into it and slowly dropped in some vinegar. As the baking soda started to fizz, I quickly closed the bag, and placed it into a grocery bag as quickly-gentle as possible. I couldn’t watch the life get snuffed out of the silly little creature, but I also couldn’t let it suffer.
I did something I haven’t done in a long time: I prayed for the little one’s quick, painless passing.
It’s a two-fer this week, with two podcasts that should be on your radar. First up is The Sewers of Paris. It’s not new, but it’s new to me, a real pleasure because I have a whole backlog of episodes to listen to. Billed as “interviews with gay men about entertainment that changed their lives,” the show is produced by Matt Baume. Matt asks very poignant questions of these men, going beyond just the musicals, books, and television that left a lasting impression — topics span loss, love, nostalgia, coming to terms with identity, really the gamut of the queer (and human) experience. The episodes I’ve listened to so far feature Glen Weldon (NPR), Guy Branam (Talk Show the Game Show), and author Dave Holmes, and each one is a seamless blend of charm, hilarity and insight.
Next podcast? Nancy, hosted by Tobin Low and Kathy Tu. Speaking with them for the Chicago Tribune, I asked them about representation even within the LGBT space and how they navigate their newfound platform. The most recent episode, which explores Orlando one year after the attacks on Pulse nightclub claimed 49 lives, will give you all the feels.
Chicago is in full bloom, and like any good Chicagoan, I’m spending as much time outside as possible. Millennium Park’s lawn is fresh and sharp, thanks to semi-frequent rain, while walking near the Chicago River in my neighborhood smells of jasmine and linden and ozone (a tree branch was struck with lightning, and the smell is not unpleasant). I’m not synesthetic (I wish!), but it does smell like the color blue, if that makes sense?