An Ode to a Renaissance Man

Ask me who instigated the plot and with hand raised timidly I have to confess my guilt. We were at the Mulholland Tennis Club celebrating our friend Suzanne’s bat mitzvah. A bar served drinks; us kids were consigned to non-alcoholic of course. I had Shirley Temples, probably one too many. A group of us went to the bar and asked for a banana daiquiri. It was a for a friend, we said. Then we went to the DJ and asked him if he could play “Yes! We Have No Bananas.” It’s for a friend, we said. Fortunately, the DJ had it in his collection and squeezed it in between the more contemporary dance music he played. Once it started, we proudly marched the daiquiri to our friend, all smiles—or should I say shit-eating grins.

Jeff Robbins looked at us with those gentle brown eyes, smiling beneath his thick, woolly mustache and beard, and shook his head, keeping whatever profanities he had under his breath. Jeff hated, hated bananas. But he loved a good joke and laughed mightily at our wit and cheek.

My history with Jeff goes back to the Temple, as we old-timers say. 1977, the year the Center for Enriched Studies (CES, as it was known then) first opened in rented classrooms in back of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Jeff held forth in rm. 228. I had him for Photography. We took pictures of objects, buildings, the playground, each other. We even learned how to develop film in a dark room.

But Jeff taught us much more than that. In each subject he taught, he infused all of himself, his myriad of interests. Thus, the Photography class contained more than a small dose of history. In particular, he taught us about Mathew Brady and his importance documenting the Civil War. He also taught Architectural Math, Music Appreciation, and Comparative Religions, among other subjects.

Thus, Jeff was a true renaissance man. His subjects blended together, each informing the other. His broad width of intelligence and interests, along with his taste for bad puns and his wise-ass-but-kind demeanor made him one of the most popular teachers at CES.

We had to do a project in Photography, pick a subject and do a photo essay on it. I cheekily picked Jeff himself. To my surprise, he invited me to his home. That’s when I met his wife Nancy, a wonderful companion for Jeff with an equally wide range of interests and a formidable wit of her own. She also taught in the LA schools and welcomed me into their home as she did all of Jeff’s kooky students. In time, I would meet the two wonderful people they brought into the world, Ian and Courtnay. A man of great passion, it was beautiful to see how much he adored his family.

During that first trip to Jeff’s house, I discovered his great love of trains. His basement office looked like a turn-of-the-century train depot, replete with mounted train schedules, signaling lights, station plaques, everything. Many years later, as a retired counsellor and teacher, Jeff’s first novel, The Layout, would focus on trains and rail enthusiasts. 

We had many mutual loves and interests, music, astronomy, antiques, history. He followed me and my growth over the years, including my studies of Indian classical music. I’ve played both sitar and tabla at their house. And Jeff’s stereo is something I’ve tried to emulate for decades. It had such a lush sound, filling the room with warmth.

While I often say that I wish I had had History with Jeff at CES, in reality I learned much history from him outside of the classroom. He introduced me to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. And like his colleague and close friend John Otterness, like all of the best CES had to offer, he taught independent thinking, free thought, and curiosity. These tools made me the person I am today.

Jeff treated us like humans, not children. Thus, our 43 year relationship really only changed because we as humans change over the course of time. The last time we spoke together, in June of this year, felt like many other times we spoke on the phone over the years. We asked about each other, gave updates, laughed at the absurdity of everything, kvetched about he absurdity of everything.

Nothing lead me to believe or think that he would be leaving us in a few month’s time. Indeed, per his family, his final illness came on suddenly. We talked about the future. I said how wonderful it would be for us to meet at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, that he would make a badass docent. He paused a bit and agreed what a wonderful meet up that would be. Perhaps when COVID-19 passes, we thought, we hoped.

We met when I was 12 and he was 32, both kids, really. Part of us stayed kids, I think, to the very end. I could still see his boyish smile and twinkle as we spoke on the phone that last time.

You were loved, Jeff, by countless students you shepherded over the decades. I love you, more than I can say and I’ll miss you horribly. My deepest condolences to Nancy, Ian, and Courtnay.

Thank you for all the lessons and your friendship.

[Editor’s Note (11/13/20): Fourth paragraph from the bottom revised to reflect information from the family that Jeff did not know he was ill in June and that his final ailment came on suddenly. (See Nancy’s note below in comments.)]

When We Vote We Scare Them, So Keep Voting

They recklessly harassed a Biden/Harris bus on a busy highway because we scare them.

They threatened to march around polling places with guns because we scare them.

They pepper-sprayed children, children, during a march to go vote because we scare them.

They sue to invalidate legally submitted ballots, ostensibly because they didn’t like the collection method of the ballots, but really because we scare them.

They put up phony ballot boxes in California, of all places, to hoodwink voters because we scare them.

They set ballot collection boxes on fire because we scare them.

We scare the Republicans and all those who support Donald Trump, because they know that all the things they did were wrong, immoral, and indefensible.

Because Mitch McConnell blatantly kept President Obama from making judicial appointments, hoping and waiting for a Republican to come into office so that he could stack the courts with right wing ideologues out of step with a majority of Americans.

Because the Republican Congress passed a tax bill that overtly benefits the rich and powerful at the expense of those who live from paycheck to paycheck.

Because the Republicans have done everything in their power to undermine the Affordable Care Act without proposing a substitute; they aren’t even trying.

Because when the pandemic dropped, Republican Congress members and Senators looked the other way while folks became infected and began to die. Worse, some said that the elderly would have to sacrifice themselves for the good of the nation (i.e., their profit margins) so that the lockdowns would come to an end and businesses could reopen.

Because regardless of how many murderous cops and police agencies Republicans prop up, Black Lives Still Matter, Always Have Mattered, and Will Continue To Matter.

Because when all else fails, Republicans lie, cheat, and steal to maintain power. They do their damndest to prevent the opposition from voting. They close polling places and force people to stand in hours-long lines. They shorten the early voting period. They lodge court challenge after court challenge to keep as many ballots from being counted as possible.

Republicans do all of these things because they are morally bankrupt. People in the right who have the votes do not have to do these things.

But today’s Republican Party truly has no leg to stand on. So by hook or by crook, they will do what it takes to win. Every desperate act only proves just how much we scare them, and just how much their fear will drive them to deeper depths of immorality.

We scare them. We cannot let them scare us. Keep voting.

My Interview on the Sandra Moran Book Club

Last July, I appeared on the Sandra Moran Book Club to discuss my novel Sin Against the Race with host Elizabeth Andersen and panelist and poet Mercedes Lewis. I met Elizabeth and Mercedes at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in 2018 and I’m so happy that we’ve stayed in touch. We had an excellent chat and a thoroughly delightful time during the radio show. For those who missed the live broadcast, you can listen to the episode in its entirety below. Enjoy!

(You can purchase my novel at many independent bookstores. Thank you for supporting them during the pandemic crisis.)

Trump’s World of Illusion

Signing a blank piece of paper in staged photo while at Walter Reed Hospital

Donald Trump has lived his entire life wrapped in illusion. And because of his extreme narcissism, he has expended a great deal of energy over the years to convince others of his illusions, usually to their detriment.

As the New York Times series on his taxes has made clear, Trump is not a billionaire. In fact, he owes many a great deal of money, most notably the US Treasury. Similarly, he is not a successful business man. His casinos went bankrupt and his hotels and golf courses are floundering. He often spends more than he has, living the life of the pampered playboy with yachts, jets, and resorts all gilded in tacky gold trim. He was the perfect subject for a reality TV show, a setting where illusion is the name of the game. 

During those forays, he hurt thousands of people. He burned contractors by not paying them. He burned thousands more by running fake businesses such as Trump University.

By becoming president, though, the stakes went through the roof. Now he could threaten the livelihood of millions all for the sake of wealth and self-aggrandizement, for the sake of maintaining his narcissistic illusions. From his xenophobic immigration policies, to his drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to his revised tax code that funnels money to the wealthy, to stacking the courts with right-wing ideologues, he has caused tremendous damage, including to those who support him. And through it all, he has projected the image of a tough guy who gets things done. Illusion, illusion, illusion.

With COVID-19, illusion became acutely lethal. All for the sake of maintaining his tough guy image, he downplayed the disease’s deadliness. He pitted states against each other for necessary supplies. He hobbled his own COVID-19 task force. And, of course, he refused to set a good example by just wearing a damn mask. His policies, or lack thereof, have killed over 210,000 people in the US and wrecked the economic livelihood of millions.

Each day the US lacks specific, detailed, science-based planning to deal with COVID-19, we risk increasing the number of fatalities. And without an effective plan to revive the economy, prolonged economic ruin could condemn millions to homelessness and starvation.

Regardless of what Trump and his supporters believe, science doesn’t care about fantasy or illusion. It simply exists. If I drop a stone while standing on the surface of the Earth, it will fall. No amount of wishing or fantasy will change that fact. Similarly, the current novel coronavirus follows a set of unalterable rules. One rule says that the virus can travel in droplets of saliva and infect others who might inhale those droplets or get them in the eyes. The best way to prevent one’s saliva from infecting others is to wear a mask.

A simple truth, but those invested in maintaining a fantasy disregard it. And now Trump himself has contracted the very thing that he said will one day “just disappear.” Worse, he hosted a huge event at the White House to celebrate the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. It turned into a super-spreader event. No one social distanced or wore a mask. Now many more are infected. 

Prior to becoming president, Donald Trump’s world of illusion impacted the lives of many. Now as president, he has adversely impacted millions across the country and billions around the world. That he should fall victim to his own illusionary world seems quite inevitable. That he has foisted tragedy on others is criminal.

Voting by Mail

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key.

John Lewis, NY Times Opinion, July 30, 2020

We face the most consequential election not just in one generation but several generations. Simply put, we have to remove Donald Trump and all those who support him from office. The vote is our most powerful weapon, which is why Trump has moved heaven and earth to dissuade and hamper people’s ability to vote. We can’t let him do that.

With COVID-19 still casting a pall over the country and the world, traditional voting becomes challenging. All the more so where jurisdictions have limited the number of voting locations in recent primary elections. For those who wish to vote by mail this November, start planning now.

Vote.org has state-by-state information on how to vote by mail. Some jurisdictions have easier rules than others. California, home of the gar spot, has very accommodating rules regarding voting by mail. Furthermore, per Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order, all registered California voters will receive a mail-in ballot automatically. These ballots can be returned by mail or taken to a polling station or dropped off in a vote-by-mail receptacle. I’ve used the drop off method for years. (Don’t I look fabulous in my Mardi Gras beads?)

I’ve thought a lot about my hero John Lewis since his passing. His whole life is an example of how to fight for a better world for everyone. And his final words, some quoted above, are our marching orders. May his words inspire us all to go to the polls and to cause good trouble in the name of righteousness.

The Comet Chasers

Comet Kohoutek

During 1973-74, Comet Kohoutek became all the rage. Discovered by Czech astronomy Luboš Kohoutek, scientists believed the comet would become a major event, big, bright, spectacular. I was only 8 at the time, but remember the hype quite well, because no one was more excited about Comet Kohoutek than my mother.

Mom loved outer space. The moon landing beamed onto our TV set, back when we lived with my grandmother, my mom’s mother. Whenever Skylab passed over LA, it became a major event in my family. And by the time the Vikings landed on Mars in 1976, I was old enough to get excited by it, too. Mom had never seen a comet, and Kohoutek promised to be a Big Deal. Dr. George Fischbeck, the Channel 7 news meteorologist, went on and on about it. Dad loved space, too, and loved his wife, so he would take her out here and there to find the perfect viewing spot to see Kohoutek.

But like millions around the world, she never saw it. Comet Kohoutek turned into a major disappointment. Scientists had theorized that Kohoutek had never traveled to the inner solar system previously. Thus, it would contain lots of ice and volatiles that would outgas spectacularly when it heated up during its loop close around the sun. Nope. Turned out it had more rock than expected and it did not spark up nearly as brightly as anticipated.

Kohoutek remained a running gag in my family. Any time another astronomical phenomenon excited Mom, and she dashed outside all hours of the night, we reminded her of Kohoutek. She laughed, but went out anyway. I often joined her. Eclipses, meteor showers, we searched for them all, with varying degrees of success.

In 1996, Comet Hyakutake came round the inner solar system, and the hype machine tuned up again. It appeared in late March of that year. Sadly, by that point Mom had lost much of her mobility, her body ravaged by arthritis and lupus. But that didn’t stop her. She went outside anyway into the front yard in search of Hyakutake. Much to my delight, she phoned me to say that she saw it and we excitedly traded stories. I also saw it from my place in Oakland. A few months later, in June, Mom passed away.

Comet Hale-Bopp put on a much more spectacular show a year later. My husband and I saw it in clear skies from the hills west of Ukiah. The comet’s tail went on and on. It was an awesome sight. Of course I wished for Mom. Dad and I talked wistfully about her and Kohoutek and her finally seeing a comet before passing on.

Last weekend, I trudged uphill on the block where I live in search of Comet Neowise. I needed a clearer view of the horizon the elevation offered. Look in the direction of the Big Dipper just after sunset, the article I read suggested. But in the twilight just after sunset, the Big Dipper remained invisible, so that wasn’t of much help. Just as I was about to text my sister and say “I’m on another Kohoutek run,” I saw it, very small just above Mt. Tamalpias. And in the binoculars, I could see its head and a short tail. Nothing as spectacular as Hale-Bopp had been, but still a thrilling sight.

I may not have become a professional astronomer, but I’ll forever remain fascinating by “out there,” a love I came by honestly thanks to my parents, in particular Mom, our family’s first Comet Chaser.

A Noah’s Arc 15th Anniversary Reunion

Black queerdom collectively gasped when word got out that Patrik-Ian Polk created a Noah’s Arc reunion. No, not in production, not in the planning stages, not in the cards, but in the flesh. (LOTS of flesh.) The magic dropped on Sunday, July 5, a perfect way to end the Independence Day Weekend. 

Entitled “The ‘Rona Chronicles,” we catch up with our favorite black gay divas—Noah (Darryl Stephens), Alex (Rodney Chester), Ricky (Christian Vincent), and Chance (Doug Spearman)—as they shelter-in-place, their catty banter and tea pouring continuing via Zoom…

And let’s pause for a second. Since March, I’ve largely worn t-shirts, sweatpants, and shorts while working from home. Not our divas, honey. About 10 minutes into the story, and I tweeted “Oh dear. I’m gonna have to up my Zoom dress game. Big time.”

During a Zoom with Alex, Noah tries on one fab outfit after another. Indecisive as ever, he wants to look his best for a Zoom party with the fam, where he and Wade (Jensen Atwood) have huge announcement. But Wade is in the doghouse because he just had to go out and play ball with the boys, and two of them end up testing positive for the ‘Rona. He has to stay in isolation in their large house (mansion?) and wear a hazmat suit whenever he steps out of it.

Despite Wade’s personae-non-grata status, the party happens and the happy couple announce that they are expecting a baby. But before the toasting begins, Noah gets a call from Brandy (Jennia Fredrique) with a dream job offer: show-runner on a new Netflix production. He had planned to become a stay-at-home dad once the baby comes, but now, will he?

Lots of classic Noah subplots take place, bringing in Wilson Cruz as Junito Vargas, Gregory Kieth as Trey, Jonathan Julian as Eddie, and a fabulous cameo by Wanda Sykes. At times witty, at times moving, its constantly entertaining and endearing, just as this classic series has always been since its debut 15(!) years ago.

While sheltering-in-place, I’ve largely avoided new TV stuck with comfort food TV (Bewitched, mostly). But this new installment of Noah felt like a homecoming, as comfortable as buttermilk pancakes. Creator Patrik-Ian Polk brought it all together. He clearly loves these characters. As do we all.

I came out just a year before Marlon Riggs’ seminal documentary Tongues Untied (1989) dropped, spilling the tea on black gay life to the world for the first time. Noah’s Arc is a valued part of this legacy. The hunger for the show has hardly diminished and it remains a lasting mystery to me why it only lasted for two seasons. With its huge fan base constantly screaming for more, let’s hope that the television powers that be will listen and green light more episodes, so long as Polk and crew are willing and able to do it.

Check out the magic of this 15-year reunion on Patrik-Ian Polk’s YouTube page. And bring your boa. (But hurry! It will only stream for another day or two.)

On the radio

Mark the date!

Next Saturday, July 11 at 1pm CDT (11am PDT), I’ll be a guest on the Sandra Moran Radio Book Club from radio station KKFI in Kansas City. Host Elizabeth Andersen, panelist/poet Mercedes Lewis, and I will discuss my novel Sin Against the Race.

Society has entered an extraordinary period of activism around issues of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and police violence. So I really look forward to having the opportunity to discuss my book, which touches on all of these subjects.

If you live outside the Kansas City area, you can click the link above to hear KKFI streaming online. Join us!

I’m very tired

Breonna Taylor.

Ahmaud Arbery.

George Floyd.

How many times do we have to live the same nightmare, travel the same dark path, scream the same anguish until our voices go raw?

I’m very tired.

100,000+ dead from COVID-19, with African Americans disproportionately bearing the brunt of the pandemic in the US. And then these killings happen.

I’m very tired.

Donald Trump has fanned the flames of racism rather than quelled them during his misguided, disastrous tenure in office. His self-centered bungling also aided and abetted the spread of COVID-19.

I’m very tired.

When Amy Cooper called 911 on Christian Cooper (no relation) and claimed that Mr. Cooper was threatening her life, she went full-on Carolyn Bryant. Bryant is the white woman who lied and said that Emmett Till molested her. Fortunately, Mr. Cooper did not suffer Mr. Till’s fate.

I’m very tired.

And now the world erupts again, disgusted, angry, scared, while those in power sit silent. We have no national voice to bring calm or hope or change.

I’ve written about racism, racists policing, racist hate crimes, and Black Lives Matters for years. At the moment, I have few new words to add.

My voice is tired. My fingers are tired. My heart is tired and my soul is not rested. My weariness runs deep in my core and dates back generations.

Saints & Sinners: New Fiction from the Festival 2020

Look what came in the mail today! I’m very honored and excited to be included in this fine anthology of New Fiction with so many amazing writers. I’m also very sad that we did not get to meet and read together at the festival. Such is the case in the age of COVID-19. But I have no doubt that we’ll meet again soon and continue to raise our voices in support of each other, queer art, and Saints & Sinners.

You can purchase a copy of New Fiction from the Festival from the publisher, Bold Stroke Books, here.