I Wanted Control My Whole Gay Life. My Whole Gay Life Fought Me Every Step of the Way.
This is a story about (lack of) control. And if you get that reference you’re up to speed. It starts out just the opposite, this feeling of power, predestination almost. For those of you who drank the Kool-Aid with your morning bible, you might even still get touches of it. You know, when that book sells or the guy says yes or Instagram likes are way, way up. Like it was as expected as a tidy “Brady Bunch” ending.
But it’s as fake as the filter, as artificial as those colored drinks, as deceitful as Mr. Brady’s sexual healings. At some point we realize we have no control, hopefully before we tell a gunman “go ahead, shoot. You don’t have the guts.” That’s (hopefully) figurative, but you get the idea.
For me, I know I have no control every time I, say, write a brilliant essay and am, wait for it, turned down by every major publication on the planet (so give me a week after I finish this piece to be reminded of my helplessness in a cruel world). If you’re an artist and not related to Francis Ford Coppola, you probably learn that you can’t always get what you want faster than most. Consider yourself lucky. If you’re Nick Cage you learn that, contrary to what most thespians are brought up to believe, acting skills can decline with age. So go figure any of this philosophy out. And feel free to convey my words to Mr. Cage. You don’t have the guts!
If you’re wondering where I’m going with all of this jabbering, and if you’ve made a life goal to stick around to the end, it’s that, as a gay man of a certain age in an uncertain age, I’ve been mulling over life’s grand plan, which basically translates to “there is none,” and damn does if f*** with your head. In Divine terms, Bette and otherwise, if God is listening, you’re his iPod and he just put you on shuffle. Which one of our life songs will come up next is anyone’s guess. You can’t even count on John Lennon — he made other plans.
I grew up without God and still believed it was all gonna happen in order, the road to success. It was going to be like Highway 5 from San Francisco to L.A. Sure, there might be little bumps in the road, or perhaps a side trip to Santa Barbara (bad detours do happen), but I’d get there just in time to see my name above the Hollywood Sign. I was 10 when I saw that happening, but the casting directors at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco told me I was too fat and feminine to be the next big thing. If life were “The Brady Bunch,” I wasn’t even qualified to play Oliver’s stand-in.
I butched up and toned down and decided New York was in the cards. How had I not seen the signs all along? Those Gaiety posters were pretty hard to miss! Besides, I was a real actor and real actors don’t eat sushi. And in New York, the real men don’t either. It was gonna be heaven and a place on earth and I was ready to go-go’s. I even picked out an older boyfriend who lived in Chelsea. He looked the part and I cast him as my romantic lead.
Word to the wise: Never choose a boyfriend when you’re hungry, and avoid the plague like the plague. AIDS took away the comfy-cozy security of the Big Apple (who knew there were worms inside?), and my boyfriend started seeing someone else while we were together — a cult that took his money, his friends, his monogamy.
And then, the funniest thing happened on the way to summer stock and Stella Adler and being a recipient of the “I too have played Conrad Birdie in college” professional-actor wanna-be award. I came down with something called Intrusive Thoughts OCD, and the world, and theater world, went dark. My head blew up with horror, I developed derealization, where nothing, including the actors next to you, seem real, I couldn’t speak correctly, I had panic attacks on stage, I grew stage fright, I got off the stage.
Now, I had heard about cancer and getting hit by a car and other inconveniences that derail your career, and breathing, but mental illness? That’s what mentally ill people get! I had been told about a business degree, but no one in college ever suggested I think of drug-combination-therapy as a backup to an acting career. They really don’t teach you the practical stuff.
I decided to go back to where it all began — not home, but the world of literature. Even before acting I was writing stories on the kitchen table — some of them are probably still there. Funny thing, professional writing in New York: Editors aren’t really big on you if you’ve not been to an Ivy League school or have never worked as an editor at Conde Nast or Hearst. I was over 30, unmarried, and found out the hard way that trust fund babies are actually considered more hire-able than the rest of us. And I thought that was just for Presidents and American Dictators.
I plugged away — thank god sex was back — and got freelance work at a bridal publication, where, and here’s where life just gives you one long giggle, got a call from Random House asking me to write a wedding-planning book. I was on my way to becoming a published author! Blow the bugle, beat the drum, pop the champagne cork… oh dear, just when you’ve said “I Do” on the agent contract line, you realize (with the help of an intervention) that you’re an alcoholic.
Now, I had heard about cancer and getting hit by a car and AIDS, but alcoholism? That only happened to guys who worked at bowling alleys or donut shops and carried knives where others strapped on fanny packs. You know, men who looked like Sean Penn. Or Sean Penn. But there it was, drowning me (literally), and destroying any last dreams I had of being the next Dean Martin Drinker…suave, sophisticated, standing up. Sure, I’d already lost the hair, but a good toupee is easier to find than a good excuse for oversleeping your appointments seven days in a row. And don’t even get me started on losing your thick, curly locks at the age of 19! It’s enough to make you drink… oh, wait.
Suddenly sober (and by “suddenly” I meant the synonym “after years of denial”) I’d written three more books and decided I wanted to return to the world of theater, as a writer and actor. Why not? If the “Where’s the Beef?” chick could make a name for herself after the fact, so, certainly, could I. And I used to work at Wendy’s! I’d say it was Kismet McNuggets but that’s stretching it. Everyone knows McNuggets are a McDonald’s brand.
Speaking of branding, and here’s one of those unexpected giggles, after outliving all my hot, older friends, I became a hot, older daddy myself. Who knew all you had to do was age? And, you know, live. I took PrEP, they prepped, and I made up for that lackluster sex life of the bubonic plague middle ages age. In my own middle age. And, unlike these sentences, it never felt repetitive.
I got my teeth (half) fixed and wrote four screenplays and talked to theatrical agents (and by “talk” I meant the synonym “have them laugh in my face or write me insulting emails”), and felt more determined than ever. Besides, I learned along the way to have a wedding-book-author career mapped out as a back-up plan. You learn these things.
So I’m wheeling and dealing and getting ready for my “not so close!” up, when, wouldn’t you know it, COVID hits and the world goes dark again, but this time from the outside. Directors aren’t directing, producers aren’t producing, my teeth are in limbo, paid writing gigs aren’t paying (that’s an aside, but it’s making those useless headshots even less affordable), and I’m stuck between a rock and a semi-hard place — yeah, it happens sometimes as we get older.
I mean, I’ve heard about everything else that might kill you or make you less stronger, but now COVID? It’s like someone pressed “Pause” on Planet Earth. Nothing is happening, well, besides riots and death and autocracy and the return of Paris Hilton and something called a WAP. Things that leave a bad taste in my mouth. It’s all destruction and my time is running out. But I made so many plans for 2020 and beyond. My Golden Girl years. Now I’m stuck at home watching the reruns.
And therein lies the lesson it’s so hard to learn, but Gilda Radner told us best way back when we were too young to know anything harder than staying awake long enough to watch the show. “It’s always something,” the late comedian said, later wrote, later died. And of the original cancer sin. We have no control. Heck, even the remote gets lost in the cushions on a nightly basis. Damn it, Janet, why did you make us believe you way back when? It’s not like your brother had any.
But we plan, we practice, we plot. They say when you stop dreaming you die. While I think it’s more likely the reverse, the sentiment still rings true. As soon as I finish writing today I’m gonna hit the gym, get back to mapping out scripts, call agents, make checklists, plan for my future, plot ways to overwrite the new virus world. I may not be able to conquer the illusion of control, but I sure as hell can have fun with the delusions.