Back to my Roots: All the books I’ve loved before

A couple of weeks ago I saw a great musical by  the local playwright, Dave Deveau, called the Elbow Room: The Musical, about the Davie Street breakfast spot that is an institution in Vancouver’s gay community.

I’m sucker for stories about queer Vancouver, having written one myself. As proud as I am of the strides gay people have made since I came out 30 years ago, I’m still sentimental for queer culture at the height of AIDS crisis. I’m loathe to say they were simpler times, but they were. We didn’t have screens getting in the way of meeting each other, and if you wanted to go on a date with someone, you had to walk up to them and ask them out in person.

A recurring theme of the Elbow Room: The Musical, is knowing your history. You would think with all the queer studies courses being offered today in universities, and films like Milk and The Imitation Game it wouldn’t be as difficult. However, I do find a lack of respect for what queers my age went through by some (by no means all) from the generation nipping our heels.

Learning my history came natural to me; I’ve always been a fan of origin stories. I didn’t have the advantage of taking a class in queer culture in my early twenties. Back then all I had was the public library and Little Sisters Bookstore.

It was the book Stonewall by Martin Duberman that triggered my interest in queer history. I had never heard of the Stonewall riot before then. That book was a launching pad to others: The Mayor of Castro Street, And the Band Played On, Queer in America, and anything by James Baldwin.

Those books grounded me in who I was and the rights I was fighting for. If anyone accused gay people asking for special rights to my face, I would throw facts back in their face. It was empowering. Some of my friends accused me of being militant. I felt I was just standing up for my rights.

Lately I’ve been reading When We Rise by Cleve Jones. The book has rekindled some of those old feelings of self-discovery back in my twenties. While the stories he’s telling aren’t new, I’m getting a fresh perspective on them.

There is one section about a secret tree house in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco where queer men used to go to have sex and get high that made me nostalgic for the Seventies. If there is one thing I wish Millennials could experience, it’s the secret hideaways we used to have access to. I don’t mean exclusive clubs or bars; I’m talking actual spaces where you could be alone where no one could find you.

I love imagining what San Francisco and Vancouver were like before they got over-developed; when they were places for free-spirits and bohemians instead of venture capitalists and software developers.

I know it’s easy to get romantic about the past, that the times weren’t as simple as I remember them. I’m the first to admit those decades weren’t without their challenges, especially if you were gay or black. I personally lived in fear of having the crap kicked out of me.

That aside,  you get the sense that people were free to do more then. Cleve Jones travelled most of Europe on just over $1000 US dollars. He was able to get a work permit in Germany. He hitchhiked from San Francisco to Vancouver, BC. He flew return from Montreal to London for a $100. I don’t know what that would be in today’s currency, but it’s still pretty cheap.

I don’t miss the past, but I certainly wish we had preserved more of it. I’m so sick of being chained to my devices, of checking Facebook every fifteen minutes whether I want to or not. I hate that anyone can find out anything about me and twist my words out of context or use them against me.

When We Rise has helped me put the times we are living in now in perspective. While Cleve Jones loves discussing all the liberty and sex he had, he’s also quick to remind us about all the horrible things that were going on: Nixon, Watergate, and the Vietnam war. Not to mention the government sanctioned affront on gays and lesbians.

At one point Jones talks about not considering himself to be an activist earlier in his career, but feeling obligated to at least show up for a protest. I’ve been struggling to figure my role in this sudden rise of nationalism, fascism, and every other phobia that has been raising it’s ugly head since the US election. There’s a part of me that doesn’t have the energy to fight the good fight. I still show up for memorials, like the one after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. But it doesn’t feel like I’m doing enough.

All l I can do for now is just show up for the protest. In time, hopefully I’ll figure out what my role will be.

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Does this hairstyle make my face look fat? Review of “The Princess Diarist”

The Princess DiaristThe Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I was expecting a book about the day-to-day antics of shooting one of the most popular movies in history, but instead it spends a lot of time discussing Carrie Fisher’s affair with Harrison Ford, and quoting fans who ask for autographs.

That’s not to say the book isn’t well-written—it is. I would say this probably Carrie’s Fisher’s strongest prose to date. However, the section where she talks about comic-cons starts to feel like padding after a while. The actual diary entries from the period when she was shooting Star Wars, is interesting, but short on revelations.

I’m glad Carrie Fisher left us this piece of her memory but therein lies the problem. As she tells us in Shockaholic, years of electroshock therapy have left her memories diminished which does not make for a good memoir. If you want to reconnect with Carrie Fisher one last time, then this a quick way to do it. If you’re looking for the inside scoop on Star Wars, then I recommend the digital edition of The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film.

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Crazy Like a Princess

ShockaholicShockaholic by Carrie Fisher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading Carrie Fisher’s Shockaholic, I’m amazed the world had her for as long as it did. I’ve read most of Carrie Fisher’s books, and although I’m always impressed with her turn of phrase, I’ve found her books never lived up to the sum of their parts. To my surprise, Shockaholic is probably one of my favourite books by her.

The first chapter confronts her mental illness head on as the title promises. However, the subsequent chapters are the most contemplative and soul-searchy of her oeuvre. She ruminates on the phenomena that was Michael Jackson and confronts her relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. Her description of her step-father is laugh-out-loud hilarious. The sections about Eddie Fisher are touching and heartbreaking.

The real surprise here, is how she contemplates her own mortality. Shocokaholic was published in 2011, but you get the sense that she knew was on borrowed time.

It’s sad that anyone who has felt like a “fuck up” in the eyes of their friends and families will no longer have Carrie Fisher to relate to anymore, however we can comfort ourselves knowing she learned to forgive herself and move on. Something we can all learn to do regardless of our mental health.

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When the going gets tough: Flash review of Born to Run

Born to RunBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was the only thing that got me through the 2016 US election.

I loved reading about his relationship with Clarence Clemons and his father; his career in the 70’s and 80’s. Big take away from this book is his dedication to his craft, practicing what you love until you literally pass out, and picking yourself up after you fail.

The chapters about “Born in the USA” were pretty enlightening as well.

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The fastest way to a nerd’s heart is with Toy Story shoes

I live in Canada, but I’ve been listen to NPR religiously. I love the CBC, but I prefer how NPR reporters deliver the news. There could be a zombie apocalypse in Iowa, but the reporter’s voices would still lull me into a false sense security—which has been beneficial during this election cycle.  

Last Friday (Oct 21), I went to a live taping of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast—NPR’s roundtable about books, movies, and music. 

I love PCHH  because the panel discussion resemble the conversations I have with my friends. In fact, the hosts, Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, Glen Wheldon, (and formerly Trey Graham) could easily stand in for any one of my friends; they’e articulate, have great taste, and will childishly defend a movie or song they love to the death, regardless of what anyone thinks. 

When Trey Graham left the show abruptly a few years ago, I almost took it personally. It was like a roommate moving out in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. 


The show’s format is this: first they discusses a current film, television series, book, or play; then they talk about a trope or theme in popular culture, and  conclude with “What’s making me happy now,” where each panelist talks about a book movie, article, album, or show they are currently enjoying. I’ve got a ton of good recommendations out of “What’s making me happy now.”

I must admit, I went to the taping in the hopes of meeting a hot nerd. I even spent $100 on a pair of Toy Story Vans to tip the odds in my favour. 

My pathetic attempts at dating aside, it was kind of cool to be in a theatre full of people who listen to the same show I do. “So this is what my tribe looks like,” I told the friend I brought along who doesn’t follow pop culture at all. 

Turns out  my tribe pretty much looks like a version of me—average looks; healthy, but not body conscious. There was a woman sitting directly in front of us who looked exactly like Terry Gross; I was almost convinced it was her, but we were way up in the balcony. 

I was also looking forward to seeing Linda Holmes in person. I totally have a gay-boy crush on Linda Holmes. If Linda and I were in high school together, we would have totally been friends.

Aside from being an amazing writer, Linda Holmes reminds me of a roommate I had in the 90’s. I’m almost certain Linda Holmes and I are the same age, so we have a lot of pop culture references in common, and despite coming from completely different backgrounds, we share a similar backstory—awkward kids who escaped into books and TV.

Linda Holmes once told a story on the podcast about how a guy in high school was paid two dollars to dance with her. The story endeared me to her because she told it without shame or embarrassment. As painful as the incident must have been at the time, I didn’t feel sorry for her, because she obviously got the last laugh.

Linda Holmes is the glue that holds PCHH together. She’s an excellent moderator, she has a great voice, and she’s usually the only girl in the room. Granted, Glen Wheldon is gay, but Linda Holmes “represents” nonetheless. To be completely honest, I’m less likely to listen to the podcast if Linda Holmes isn’t on it. As much as I love Steve Thompson and Glen Wheldon, they’re not as good as Linda Holmes at curating a conversation. 

For example, one time Glen Wheldon quizzed the other panelists on comic books, but the answers were so obscure, no one was able to guess the right answer (well maybe one or two). After a while it became torture to listen to because it was like he getting revenge for anyone that had made fun of him for being a nerd. 

The conversation for the live show revolved around Halloween candy, which was heavy on peanut oriented chocolate bars. This was followed by a lively discussion about binge-watching a show with your partner. They did make a valid point that liking the same show as someone your dating does not make them your soulmate. 

As much as I enjoyed the show, the highlight of the evening was when two people complimented me on Toy Story shoes. I may have left the theatre still single and closer to becoming best friends with Linda Holmes, but now I now what my tribe looks like and which shoes attract them. 

You can hear the show I saw in person below:

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The kids are not alright: Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”

Children of the Corn (Kindle Single) (A Vintage Short)Children of the Corn (Kindle Single) by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As someone who is constantly referring to my enemies as “The Children of the Corn”, I thought it was time to actually read the story. The story accomplishes exactly what short story is supposed to do: throw you into the middle of a conflict and amplify it. I don’t know if it’s because I had a vague idea of what the story was about going into it, but I was on the edge of my seat the whole way through. The ending was the icing on the cake. If you liked The Legend of Sleepy Hollow you’ll definitely love this.

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The Ballad of Black Tom: Something Wicked Comes to Harlem

The Ballad of Black TomThe Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I LOVED this book. Nothing better than a good novella, especially one as creepy as The Ballad of Black Tom. Lots of shady characters, creepy houses, with a touch of gore thrown in. Found this book through an author interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The novel is meant to be the author’s attempt to reconcile himself with his admiration for H.P. Lovecraft who was a racist. I don’t know which character was meant to represent Lovecraft as I know absolutely nothing about him. Allegories aside, the book stands on its own as chilling piece of horror with a touch of Social Justice thrown in. Loved the descriptions of Harlem. I was moved by the protagonist’s story despite eerie overtones. Perfect for a dark and stormy night.

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One Fucking Scary Clown: Stephen King’s “It”

ItIt by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up to cure me of my “Stranger Things” hangover. I had seen the TV mini-series back in the day and had always meant to read through it. I’ve read my fair share of Stephen King; I don’t know if I would call this his masterpiece but it ranks up there with Misery which gave me nightmares.

If you’re just discovering Stephen King, I highly recommending The Stand. The book marks an interesting chapter in his ouvre; he was getting a lot of backlash about his “Magical Negro” characters, and borderline anti-semitic langauge. To his credit, I think King was actually trying to raise awareness of the world’s ills as opposed to fueling them. The monster at the heart of the story is definitely and allegory for bigotry.

Suffice it to say, this is one scary clown but it’s also a well crafted novel that rivals anything by Stephen King’s contemporaries were writing at the time such as John Irving. I loved how he captured just a few days in the lives of these characters and how he illustrated the same events from six points of view. He masterfully spreads the book’s secrets out across 1150 pages and ties everything up nicely at the end.

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Worst Case Scenario: Underground Airlines

Underground AirlinesUnderground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Underground Airlines” is a great speculative-fiction/mystery novel; sort of a The Man in the High Castle lite. I tore through this one in a few days. Lots of plot twists and some provocative world-building. Interesting piece of Science Fiction in light of today’s headlines. Profound, in it’s way, but not mind-blowing. A nice page-turner for the commute or a plane ride.

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Watching Blazing Saddles in the current political climate

If there’s an upside to the rash of celebrity deaths this year, it’s that The Rio Theatre has been honouring the deceased with retrospectives of their best movies. First it was Bowie, then it was Prince, and lately it’s been Gene Wilder.

Last night I went and saw a double-feature of The Producers and Blazing Saddles. The Producers is one of those movies that’s always alluded me so I jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen. It did not disappoint. Springtime for Hitler never fails to crack me up; the musical number itself is hilarious, made better by the theatre audience’s reaction to what they’re seeing.

Blazing Saddles was the first “adult” comedy I ever saw. My brother went to see it a couple of times in the theatre when it came to the Brampton Mall Cinema, and then CityTV showed it on TV a couple of years later.

Back in the Seventies and Eighties, CityTV in Toronto was a novice cineaste’s dream come true. Every night they showed R-rated movies like Taxi Driver and Annie Hall at 8PM and 11PM. They would show the “edited for TV” version at 8PM and then show the same movie again unedited at 11PM—swearing and nudity and all. CityTV basically taught a generation of Southern Ontario kids how to cuss and have sex.

My older brother and I shared a room at the time. He said I could stay up and watch Blazing Saddles with him as long as I promised to be quiet. The two of us squeezed onto his single bed, our faces inches away from his 10 inch black and white TV with the volume turned down really low. 

Fifteen minutes into the movie, I was laughing so hard, my brother had to cover my face with a pillow so I wound’t wake up my parents. It’s one of my fondest memories I have of my brother.

The last time I saw Blazing Saddles was at The Castro Theatre in the late-Nineties/early-Naughts. People in the audience hissed whenever the N-Word was used. I thought they were being overly-sensitive since Richard Pryor co-wrote the script. According IMBD, he was supposed to play Bart but Mel Brooks couldn’t secure financing with him as the star (I thought it had to with insurance).

I was curious how the audience at The Rio would respond to the use of the N-word in light of the recent deaths of two black men by police in Charlotte, NC and Tulsa, OK. I half-expected people to walk out or someone to cause a scene. 

Watching the movies you love from the late-sixties and early-seventies can be challenging in this day and age. Blacks, Asians, and gays had their place in films: the butt of a joke, or a body bag. It’s sort of like reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: you have to be prepared to turn blind eye to the times to focus on the story.

I  personally,  have a hard time believing Mel Brooks is a racist, homophobe. If anything, I think he was one of the first people to appropriate hate-speech and use against his oppressors. The song, Springtime for Hitler, is not an homage to the Furher—it’s a thumb in the eye of anti-semites.

The N-word was certainly used more liberally by white movie characters in the Seventies, but I’m still of the mind that Blazing Saddles is actually a satire about race, and a good one at that. The movie doesn’t shy away from how blacks would have been treated during the Gold Rush, and all of the racists in the movie come off as idiots. If anything, the movie was a great antidote to the racist rhetoric coming out of the American election at the moment.

The only scene that made me really uncomfortable was when Mel Brooks appeared onscreen in red face as an Indian Chief. Laughing at the expense of First Nations is not cool, but in the context of the film, the joke was about race as opposed to being at the expense of it.

Being gay, I didn’t have any issue with the gay stereotypes in either The Producers and Blazing Saddles—truth be told, I thought they were offensive, but pretty funny. That said, if someone pulled that shit now, I would go up and down their ass.

I don’t know if I’m turning a blind-eye to the blatant racism, misogyny, and homophobia of Mel Brooks’ early films because I have fond memories of them, or because he used humour to make a point. I certainly wouldn’t laugh at the same movie were it by someone like Adam Sandler.

However, I couldn’t help but notice that Blazing Saddles serves as a template to so many popular movies and television shows. Those cutaways in The Family Guy come directly from Blazing Saddles—one scene particularly. And I think it’s safe to say the shock-appeal of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s humour is definitely influenced by Mel Brooks as well.

That’s the trade-off with politically incorrect humour from 40 years ago. You don’t have to like it, but without it we wouldn’t have the political satire we know and love today.

Posted in Brampton, Commercial Drive, Current Events, Humor, Memoir, Movies, Politics, Rio Theatre, The Seventies, Vancouver | Tagged , , | Leave a comment