Everybody, 1, 2 Step…

One month ago, I started working out. Like, seriously working out, not just buying expensive, matching workout clothes and fixing my hair and going and performing with the free weights and on the equipment… I mean legitimately waking my ass up at the crack of dawn, slapping the nearest cap over my bedhead, and going to the gym in whatever I pull out of the drawer.

What happened was this: a friend of mine started doing porn and I finally saw him without his shirt on and the unquenchable fire of envy consumed me. That and an acute case of self-loathing. Because I used to work out. In 2002, I underwent a hernia repair and the surgeon told me I should strengthen my core, so I got a gym membership and I worked out and I was fresh to death. Then I got one of those jobs that promises so much and delivers so little, and I ended up working seven days a week, fifteen hours a day, which didn’t really leave much time or energy for the gym. Then I left that job and got another one just like it… and another one… and another one…

Anyway, fast forward to 2018, and I’ve been paying for that gym membership every month since 2002, whether I used it or not… and there’s my friend with his shirt off (okay, yeah, his dick is big, too… but I can’t make my dick bigger by lifting weights, so I’m being practical), and I’m old so I decide–on April Fool’s Day, oddly enough–that I do not want to be another fat, bitter, miserable Atlanta queen over the age of fifty, so I turn my jealousy and disgust into purpose, and I start working out again. And yes, it fucking sucked and it still sucks and I hate every minute of it. I have worked out every single day since April 2, and all I really want to do is lie on the couch and watch Netflix, eat Funyuns, and drink Dr. Pepper like I did when I was in my 20s.

I had my yearly physical in March, too, and that didn’t help. I was the heaviest I have ever been in my life–but “skinny fat,” you know… where you don’t really look like a fat cow, but your doctor is telling you that you might die unless you lose weight and start eating better.

And my husband has lost something like 100 pounds over the last year and a half after his doctor told him he was diabetic and they’d probably end up amputating his feet and hands, so throw that into the mix–porn star friend, yearly physical, all that money I wasted on that gym membership (that I do not dare calculate for fear of how I might react), the midlife crisis I am certain is just looming over the horizon, and I figured if I was ever going to become a Calvin Klein underwear model, it was now or never.

Then my husband got me a Fitbit. Now, not only could I taunt myself or have him goad me on, but I have a piece of technology strapped to my wrist that never seems to be satisfied with anything  I do . Or maybe I’m projecting myself onto it. I regularly top 15K steps and I burn upwards of 3500 calories a day. I even burn calories as I lie in bed and read! Why isn’t that enough? Why can’t I just lie in bed and read and look like Marcus Schenkenberg? “No, no,” my Fitbit whispers to me as it vibrates on my wrist to remind me that if I don’t stand up and walk immediately, I will not hit my step goal for the hour.

“Feed me!” it cries, and I picture Seymour slicing his finger and squeezing the blood into Audrey II’s mouth.

So I feed it. I want it to like me. I don’t want it to think I’m fat and unremarkable. I walk… and I walk… and I walk. I catch myself deliberately forgetting things in far flung places just so I can walk back to where I left them and get more steps. I offer to get things for other people as long as there is walking involved. One day last week, I needed a tablespoon of limoncello for a recipe and I considered walking to the liquor store instead of driving. What have I become?

A week after I got the Fitbit, I hired a personal trainer so my husband and I could work out together one day a week., because what better way to spend time together than tearing our muscles apart under the tutelage of a professional taskmaster. I pretended this was his birthday gift, but really, it was for me. I now see the same trainer as my porn star friend two days a week: once by myself, and once with my husband. It’s been three weeks and I don’t look like an underwear model and I don’t understand why. I stopped eating the junk food and drinking sodas and now I drink a gallon of water daily (one trick to getting 10K steps in, because you run back and forth to the bathroom all day) and instead of Doritos and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, I eat apples and bananas and the occasional protein bar, but I’m suspicious of those. They taste like candy, so they can’t possibly be good for anything other than making me fat and rotting my teeth.

After the first session with the trainer, I thought I was paralyzed from the neck down. I’m not even lying. And I paid him to do that to me, that’s the funny part. “Here’s two grand, man. Hobble me.” I had only barely recovered in time for my second session.

So, here I am, a month in and I’m down 13 pounds from the day of my physical, but I can’t seem to go any lower, although my body fat percent has dropped three percent (see, we have a Fitbit scale, too, and it’s linked to everything, so I can obsess over my weight just as much as I obsess over getting my steps in! #Winning!) and my trainer tells me he can see a difference. I guess I can, too, but I want it to be more drastic. Whatever.

And as if all this weren’t enough? I bought a pair of running shoes last week, because I had the brilliant idea to go running at least twice a week to burn even MORE fat. And I don’t mean I bought a cute pair of Nikes, no… I mean I went to a store that specializes in any and all things for people who run like it is their religion. I stood on a platform and was shown exactly where I put pressure on my feet. I also found out I have a medium arch after being told, literally, my entire life that I am flat-footed. Then the salesperson recorded me running on a treadmill and was pleased to inform me that I have great feet for running because my Achilles tendon stays in a perfectly straight line…? Or something. And when I say she was pleased, I mean she was truly happy. Like I’d won the Achilles tendon lottery or something. Then she sold me a pair of shoes that cost $172.

This week, I got a set of Powerbeats Bluetooth earphones so I can make working out slightly less tedious by listening to music while I do it, but now all I want to do is quasi-drag routines on the StairMaster. So far, I have entertained the other members at my gym with my renditions of “Goodies” by Ciara and “The Thong Song” by Sisqo, but fuck it. I do have dumps like a truck (what, what), thighs like what (what, what)… whatever that means.

So, yeah. I’m getting in shape. But I would trade my $172 running shoes for a bag of Doritos and a six pack of Dr. Pepper right now. I’m not gonna lie.

“Daddy” Issues

I’ve gotten old.

As a gay man, I am supposed to dread getting older, and I have had plenty of people tell me as much along the way. When I turned 30, one acquaintance informed me he had “cried for an entire year” when he turned 30. At the time, he was 32. I assumed I was missing something. Actually, I still think I missed something.

I turned 40 and had one of maybe three birthday parties I’ve ever had in my entire life. No one was there to question why I wasn’t in a fetal position in the corner, screaming like Nancy Kerrigan. We were busy doing shots of tequila and eating birthday cake and my boyfriend (who would become my husband) was planning to propose to me (side note: I fucking hate surprises like that, but there we were).

When I was in the sixth grade, my teacher was 32 years old, and we all thought she was just ancient, and as know-it-all kids, we teased her mercilessly about being so old and decrepit and feeble. Like, how did she make it through her day? Did she take Geritol? Eventually she snapped and challenged the worst of her persecutors to a race, which she won. None of us were convinced, though: she was still old.

At that age, I couldn’t imagine being 32 years old. Like, how would it feel? Would it be painful, being so old?

Then I actually turned 30 and I was like, “Oh.” Because it didn’t hurt, and it wasn’t so bad, and I totally understood why my sixth grade teacher got so pissed off about us calling her “old.” Because my life didn’t really start happening until I turned 30, and by the end of my 30s, it was the best it had ever been, and I kind of felt like a putz for being so mean to my teacher.

Then I turned 40 and that wasn’t bad, either. I got married when I was 42, and now I’m 47, and I don’t get the whole problem with getting older in the gay community and on top of that, I really don’t understand how, if we’re supposed to hate getting older so much, why we (and by “we,” I mean gay men in general) do this whole “Daddy” thing where they lose all romantic interest in anyone over the age of 22. Does that not work at cross purposes? It’s like they’ve been miserable since they turned 30, so to feed their misery on a daily basis, they surround themselves with guys in their 20s. Or is it supposed to assuage the misery? Like I said, I don’t get it.

I don’t get it because I am not a “Daddy” and I don’t want to be one, and I know that breaks with hundreds of years of gay tradition, but I don’t care.

When I was in my early 20s, I lived with a man who was 14 years older than I was at the time. We had nothing in common and basically spent 5 years trying to convince one another why the things we liked, that our respective generations thought were important, mattered more. It was exhausting. To this day, I don’t understand the allure of Marilyn Monroe, and I am perfectly fine with that.

In my early 30s, I lived with someone who was 10 years younger than I was and it was pretty much just a rerun of the 5 years I’d spent with the older guy, only worse because this guy wasn’t just young, he was also immature. Yes, there is a distinction, and I could go into it, but I’ll save you, dear reader, the whole geshikte.

The man I married is eight months younger than I am. We are growing old together. We have the same pop culture landmarks, so when I ask if he remembers that movie or that TV show, he does; and when he asks if I liked that band or that song, I probably did. We are polar opposites, but we share many of the same memories of things, and that saves a lot of energy because I don’t have to explain who Jody Watley was, and he doesn’t have to proselytize on the merits of The Goonies (there are none, by the way, but that’s another blog post entirely).

Neither of us are “Daddies,” either. We don’t lust after scrawny boys in their late teens and early 20s in an attempt to make ourselves feel younger. We’re old, and we’re okay with being old, because we have earned it. A lot of gay men from our generation didn’t make it, so I’ll gladly take it over the alternative. When you’ve buried more people than you can remember, being a “Daddy” just doesn’t seem to matter that much. You’re just glad to be alive with something to show for it all. At least, I am.

The Myth of the Healthy Lifestyle

We all know them: those robotic men and women who are about nothing else in the world than “a healthy lifestyle” and they take advantage of every opportunity to proselytize to anyone within earshot how what they’re eating or drinking is better than anything anyone else is eating or drinking, and how their new yoga/Pilates/meditation regimen is superior to anyone else’s, and how their workout schedule achieves better results than yours ever will, and you should do what they’re doing because if you did, you would–like them– feel so much better!

That’s their catchphrase, and every sentence ends with it. Ever since they stopped drinking soda, they feel so much better! Ever since they stopped eating red meat, they feel so much better! Ever since they started eating unprocessed, hand harvested sea urchin placenta every morning before their workout, they feel so much better!

According to these people, they were basically dead before they started doing whatever it is they’re doing now, be it exercising, dieting, drinking their own urine, or hanging upside down from the rafters in their barn while they sleep at night. They no longer drink mere bottled water, no; now they drink gallons of alkaline water every day and they feel–you guessed it–so much better! They can’t join you for brunch, sorry, because they stopped eating eggs, and they feel so much better! No, they haven’t watched Lost In Space on Netflix, because since they took a sledgehammer to their television, they feel so much better!

It sounds good, too, this constant assertion that they feel so good now that they’ve given up everything that ever tasted good or smelled good or brought them joy. Like all those positive thinking exercises from the 80s and 90s, where you were expected to repeat aloud or write down a goal that you wanted to achieve, and eventually it would reprogram your thinking and the goal would manifest itself in your life somehow. Like, you know, if you stood in front of a mirror and repeated that you would meet Donnie Wahlberg and he would fall in love with you and the two of you would marry enough times, how could it not happen?

Only now, we have social media to remind us daily how much better Beth Anne feels since she stopped drinking water from a bottle and now extracts water from her family’s urine using a simple filtration system that her husband built in the back yard from repurposed barn wood and old socks she couldn’t find the mate to. Or how much better Natalie feels since she wakes up at 2 am and runs 75 miles before she goes into the office. Or how much more energy Craig has since he stopped eating food from supermarkets and now adheres to a strictly bovine diet of grass and fresh hay, with an occasional carrot proffered by a passing child.

And we see this stuff clogging our feeds every day and it starts to really get in our heads. Maybe if I ate the grass in my back yard instead of mowing it, I could have as much energy as Craig has. Maybe if I ran 75 miles a day, my cheekbones would look like Natalie’s. And I have all those orphan socks in that box in the laundry room… maybe I should recycle my urine, too!

Or maybe something less extreme. Maybe I should start small and build up to the conviction of Craig and Beth Anne and Natalie. So, I started working out, and let me be perfectly clear: I do not feel so much better! I started working out on April 2, and I started going to a personal trainer two days a week on April 9. I have lost 17 pounds total and I look fabulous and my cheekbones rival Natalie’s, but I have been in some kind of pain every second of every minute of every hour of every day since April 2. My shins hurt. My calves are sore. My butt hurts. I can’t lift my arms. I’m exhausted all the time. Yet people, when they hear that I have started working out and eating better, light up and immediately ask, “Don’t you just feel so much better?” And when I say, “No, actually, it fucking sucks,” they react as if I just shot their grandmother in front of them.

So, no. I don’t feel so much better since I started working out and eating right. That is a myth. It’s something that someone said might happen, and people now cling to it as if it’s a fact. The same way that ancient people used to watch the sun rise in the morning and climb through the sky and set in the evening, and they wondered what that big ball of fire in the sky could be and someone said it might be a guy in a golden chariot and that sounded like a really cool story and the mental image of that was a lot better than the mental image of a giant ball of hydrogen and other gases hanging in space, so the people locked onto the golden chariot story and it took millennia to change their minds.

The healthy lifestyle is also a myth. Or, rather, the idea that you will feel so much better once you embark upon that path is. You may live longer, and your skin may clear up, and you probably won’t have bags or dark circles under your eyes. Your doctor won’t be such a kvetch when you go in for your checkup, because you will have quit smoking and drinking. Your clothes will fit better, then they’ll start falling off you and you’ll have to buy new ones, and that’s fun and shopping will make you feel better, because that’s what shopping does. But will you physically feel better? No. Will you feel like dancing? No. Will you be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? No.

Because every single, solitary muscle in your body will ache every day of your life and neither acetaminophen nor ibuprofen nor naproxen sodium are strong enough to actually relieve the pain. It will hurt to sit and it will hurt to stand and it will hurt to lie down. Going to the bathroom may result in tears. Showering certainly will.

Then there is the hunger that never really goes away. I eat constantly, but because carbohydrates are now verboten, I’m hungry again by the time I’ve taken the last bite of whatever I’ve eaten. “Eat fiber!” the Craigs and Beth Annes and Natalies instruct me. “It helps you feel full and you’ll feel so much better!” So I increase my intake of fiber and I shit like a goose for two straight days, and I lose a pound or two, and that’s encouraging. But I’m still hungry. So I eat a single serving pizza and finally (FINALLY!) I am full and it’s glorious! Then I weigh myself the next morning and I’ve gained four pounds–even though the pizza weighed only 8 ounces–and my body fat percent has increased 2%. It takes me a week to work that single pizza off, and I regret ever starting this whole health and fitness thing in the first damned place!

But I keep going. I work out or I run daily because I’m STILL waiting to feel so much betterI imagine it will be like an epiphany on a biblical scale: the clouds will part and that God light will beam down and illuminate my face and I will hear a voice say to me that now, now I can start feeling better. Now the pain will disappear and I’ll be able to do a few back flips and at long last, like Craig and Beth Anne and Natalie, I, too, will feel  so much better. And I will go forth and tell other people that they, too, can feel the way I feel if they just do exactly what I do, only I won’t tell them that it takes months, maybe even years, before it gets to that point, no. Because that isn’t how mythology works.

The point of myth is to give an explanation to something that makes no sense to us, or that we couldn’t understand if we were given the facts. Why does my body ache when I exercise? Well, there is science and science says there is the tearing of muscle and lactic acid and the muscles need protein to heal and as they heal themselves, they will be sore, but they will grow and that’s how you get the body of a Calvin Klein underwear model… and all that sounds horrible and bloody and painful. Because it is. But if Craig and Beth Anne and Natalie walked around telling people that, we would all weight 800 pounds and die in our early 30s because no one would work out or eat right.

So we lie and tell people if they do it, they’ll feel so much better! And we all just want to feel better, don’t we? So we keep doing it. Feeling better is just over the horizon, or just around the corner. Just keep doing it. You’ll feel so much better!!

zevunicorn
Me, waiting to feel so much better!

If, Then

Remember those Designer Imposter cologne commercials? If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry–it just means that you’re young… and that you probably have better taste than we did in the 80s and early 90s.

Designer Impostor fragrances were a line of imitation colognes, and they were obviously popular enough that they generated enough revenue for the company to afford to produce a state-of-the-art (for the time) commercial featuring an animated bottle of Primo! (their answer to Giorgio, which was THE scent among high school kids and young adults of my generation) walking the red carpet at a Hollywood premiere.

“If you like Giorgio,” the commercial purred, “then you’ll LOVE Primo!”

Well, I didn’t like either. I wore the original Calvin Klein, “Calvin,” in the blue bottle, but I digress…

Apparently the price was the thing that would make you choose the poor man’s version of Giorgio over the original, which was the whole point of Designer Imposters. And I guess, for the most part, the ones I recall smelled enough like the originals that most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, but had I given in to the marketing, I would have known, and that wasn’t okay with me.

My point–and I do have one–is that there is no substitute for the original. I wrote about this in my first blog post “You Are Not Stephen King (And Why That’s A Good Thing),” and I would have left it there if I didn’t see, on a daily basis, indie authors on Twitter try to sell their work by saying things like “If you’re a fan of the books of (insert name of bestselling author), you’ll love (insert title of author’s novel)!”

I am a reader as much as I am a writer, and I am an indie author who wants very much to support other indie authors, but when I see this tactic used in the marketing of a book or (worse) in the book’s description on Amazon or Goodreads, I am turned off immediately and I flashback to that godawful Designer Impostors commercial.

To begin with, this cheapens both the original work and the work being compared to it in the hopes of increasing sales. If the book is good, and the writing sound, and the characters likable and relatable, and the situations intriguing, why would I have to be a fan of, say, the works of Charles Dickens in order to appreciate and enjoy a novel about an orphan boy in Victorian London? And Oliver Twist is one of my favorite books, but that doesn’t mean that I will automatically love every other novel written about orphans and pickpockets and Victorian London since.

Which brings me to my second point: it insults the intelligence of the potential reader (in this case, me) to have an author tell me up front that regardless of merit, I am going to love their book because I liked another one. It doesn’t work that way, I’m sorry to say. As a writer, your work should stand on its own merits, not on the fact that you think it’s just as good as this or that bestseller. The reader will decide that.

I make it a point not to compare my book to other books, mainly because I want it to stand on its own. As writers we are absolutely inspired by other writers whose work we admire. It’s inevitable. But when we resort to name dropping other authors and their works in an effort to sell our own, it smacks of desperation and, worst case scenario, that we know it isn’t good enough to succeed on its own merits… but if you like THIS OTHER NOVEL, then surely you’ll LOVE mine, because mine costs less! Just like Designer Impostors.

Don’t do it. And if you’re already doing it, stop right now.

Tell me about your book. Use the best words in the best order to make me want to read it, and I probably will. I read everything, from old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys to current NYT bestsellers, and I pick what I read based on a catchy title, an impressive cover, a description that hooks me, and maybe two or three reviews on Amazon. If there’s a sample of the novel available, even better! A review on NPR has been known to work, too.

But don’t cheapen your work by feeling you have to name drop in order to sell it. No one benefits from that–not the writer, not the reader, and not even the author whose work you’re comparing yours to.

 

“You are not Stephen King.” (And Why That’s A Good Thing)

I write. I write short stories and novels and the occasional political diatribe on social media… and now this blog. Mostly fiction, though.

I have always written–and by “always,” I mean since I was about 10 years old and figured out I really enjoyed telling stories as much as I learned reading them. I was nine when I realized that I loved to read, which I would realize when I was older should always go hand in hand.

We had a lot of books around our house: mass market paperbacks for the most part, though we did have a set of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels that I attempted to read on more than one occasion only to quickly realize I wasn’t ready for them. Mostly, though, I read what I could get from the library at school, but at some point in the summer of 1982, I ended up with a copy of Cujo in my hands and my world has never been the same. I know some people say that, and what they mean is that there was a shift in a new direction, like a fork in the road and they went to the left instead of staying straight, and the road to the left basically ran parallel to the one they started on… but I mean everything about the way I read and about the way I wrote changed the second I read that first line:

“ONCE UPON A TIME (and here you had to turn the page) not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine.”

I devoured the book. Then I devoured Salem’s Lot. Then The Dead Zone. Then Christine. Then Pet Sematary.

I could not get enough of this man or the stories he told or the way that he wrote them. This was writing that mirrored the way people actually lived their lives; the dialogue was written exactly the way people spoke; when he went into a character’s mind, it was the way I (even at 12) actually thought through situations. I was blown away. This man was a genius, even though I didn’t understand enough about writing or literature to know that then.

I promptly adopted his style as my own.

I think that’s standard operating procedure for fledgling writers: to take the style of a writer they admire and write in it. I think it’s a great way for someone to learn techniques that are outside the scope of established rules of grammar, and seriously–who better to mimic than the icons? Stephen King is a literary god, and if I could just teach myself to write exactly like him, I, too, could be a literary god. This was my plan.

And I will say this: I never wrote as prolifically or had as much fun doing it as when I was trying to keep up with Stephen King. It also probably helped that I wasn’t old enough to drive or have a 9 to 5 job. I went to school and I wrote. Then I graduated high school and started college. Things got in the way. My life changed. I was no longer a kid, so I had to go be an adult. I wrote when I could. I read other authors and realized they, too, were just as genius as Stephen King. Maybe I’d had it all wrong; maybe his style wasn’t my style. I experimented with other styles. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

I read as many Oh, You Want To Write A Book books as I could, convinced that one of them held the secret to why I was getting older and my writing wasn’t getting any better–or published. The rejections piled up. I thought maybe it was because I had abandoned my (read: Stephen King’s) style, so I tried to go back to it, but it was easier said than done. I reread all the books I’d read as a kid, and then I read On Writing and THAT, dear reader, was when it clicked.

I actually said it aloud to myself: “You are not Stephen King.”

Apparently, the simple act of not being Stephen King was not enough. I needed to be told, and since there was no one else to tell me, I had to tell myself: I am not Stephen King.

I do not have to write and publish multiple novels every year (and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t, because I am not a full-time writer… at least, not yet). I do not have to mimic every trick he employs, I do not have to take his ideas and do my own poor man’s version of them. I don’t have to write upwards of 10,000 words a day (again, because I am not a full-time writer).

I am not Stephen King. And neither, dear reader, are you. And the good thing is this: we don’t have to be.

The instant I gave myself permission to stop trying to be the next Stephen King was the exact same instant that my writing was born, forget all those books and stories I wrote when I was basically just copying Stephen King (and believe me, I have disposed of and forgotten every single solitary one of them). I suddenly had my own style, my own techniques, my own rhythms… and it was like I was 12 years old again. Writing was fun for the first time in years–except when it wasn’t, but that’s another blog post–because I had discovered myself as a writer.

So I dared myself to write a book. I settled on a daily word count (and it is nowhere near 10,000… with which I am perfectly fine), and I set aside a specific time every night that I would sit down in front of my computer and I would write until that word count was reached. I exceeded it more often than not, but there were days that I didn’t even come close and yes, I felt like a hack who would never finish anything in his life and why was I even bothering? But I showed up every night at the same time and I sat there until the words came, then I wrote until the goal was reached, and eventually I had a first draft.

Then I sat down every night at the same time and I edited. I took things away, I put things in, I rearranged things. Then I had a second draft.

Then I had a third draft and finally, after a year and a half, I had a completed book of stories.

I am not Stephen King. I am also not Danielle Steele, George R. R. Martin, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, Dean Koontz, or Tom Clancy. The great thing about all of those writers is that they are themselves, and we get to experience their stories and be inspired by them. But we don’t have to write like them, and that, dear reader, releases every single one of us from any doubt about ourselves and our abilities as writers so that we, like they, can just write. In our own voices, in our own styles, in our own time, and at our own pace.

If you are reading this and you are a writer, whether actively or passively, I wish you well on your journey to realizing you are not (insert the name of whatever writer you idolize) and finishing and publishing your own book.