Thursday, September 29, 2022

Theater Program Notes: Titanic

The RMS Titanic: At once a triumph of engineering and a metaphor for the the hubris of an era sailing at full speed
By Jake Stigers

The RMS Titanic was already a legend when it unmoored from terra firma and embarked on its storied first–and last–voyage across the Atlantic in 1912.

Weighing 46,328 tons, towering 104 feet high and built to accommodate 3,547 people–though only an estimated 2,224 people sailed on its maiden voyage–it was “the largest moving object in the world,” as chief naval architect Thomas Andrews declares with pride and an unmistakable air of hubris in his soliloquy prologue to the musical Titanic.

The second of the White Star Line’s three Olympic-class liners (the eponymous Olympic had launched in 1911 and the Britannic was just beginning construction with an eventual 1915 launch), Titanic represented an apotheosis of human achievement and pride: “At once a poem, and the perfection of physical engineering,” as Andrews boasts at the beginning of the musical and eventually the ship’s entire passenger manifest laments from a grim new perspective at the end.

Titanic and her Olympic-class sisters also represented a triumph in White Star Line’s luxury-liner race with rival Cunard, builders of the now dwarfed RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauretania.

But size, human achievement and Titanic’s catastrophic, conviction-defying demise–White Star Line never officially declared the ship to be unsinkable, but owner J. Bruce Ismay had reportedly declared that Titanic was so safe that it was its own lifeboat–weren’t the only catalysts that launched the ship and its wreck into the pantheon of disaster mythology. The culture that built it–and in many ways went down with it–also played a conspicuous role.

In 2004, the satirical newspaper The Onion published a wry, tongue-in-cheek special edition devoted to deconstructing the mythology and legend surrounding the Titanic sinking. It smartly–if not callously–summarized its perspective under a banner headline and multiple subheads that pulled no punches 90 years after the fact:

WORLD’S LARGEST METAPHOR HITS ICE-BERG
Titanic, Representation of Man’s Hubris, Sinks in North Atlantic
1,500 Dead in Symbolic Tragedy
Well-to-Do Dowager Gets Hair Disheveled for First Time
Stewards Kindly Ask Third-Class Passengers to Drown


The seeds of Titanic’s hubris were planted two centuries before she set sail

The first Industrial Revolution began around 1760 with the discovery of new, more efficient, more affordable manufacturing processes for everything from producing textiles to generating power from steam. It slowly but surely transformed economies and population centers in Britain, throughout Europe and across the Atlantic in the newly established United States. Along the way, it raised the standard of living across almost all populations and demographics … while it also laid foundations for an eventual explosive growth of capitalist wealth and economic disparity that very measurably thrives to this day.

New discoveries and inventions for streamlining the mass manufacturing of steel in the 1850s kick-started what is now considered the second Industrial Revolution in Europe and America. This more efficient production of steel vastly improved developments in railroads, shipping and manufacturing and eventually spread to the developments of the electricity, chemical and petroleum industries. It continued to transform the ways people lived and businesses operated … but it also continued to broaden the growing chasm between wealth and poverty.

In 1873, American writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today to satirize the greed and political corruption wrought from a century of Industrial Revolution spoils in post-Civil War America. It shone harsh light and judgment on the nation’s deeply entrenched graft, materialism, and obsession with money and power. But perhaps more memorably, it gave a name for this period of dramatic, arguably obscene stratification between rich and poor.

Across the pond, Britain’s Victorian Era and France’s Belle Époque mirrored the Gilded Age’s remarkable innovations in technology, manufacturing, science, medicine and even the arts–all with improvements in the standards of living for many populations. And all without remedying the staggering economic disparities between the wealthy and the impoverished.

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, the Edwardians–named for her successor, King Edward VII–started relaxing the social strictures and pieties of Victoria’s influence and ushered in what American author Samuel Hynes eventually described as “a leisurely time when women wore picture hats and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and the sun really never set on the British flag.”


Titanic brought this Zeitgeist to life in bold, statement scale

It was in this spirit of financial, cultural and social hubris that the massive ship Titanic was conceived of and born.

Taking inspiration from London’s 5-Star Ritz Hotel, Titanic’s designers finished First and Second Class staterooms and public spaces in a range of fashionable styles from Empire stateliness to the florid indulgences of Louis XV. A squash court, a Turkish bath and 24-hour telegraph service offered novel diversions.

Thomas Andrews even added a relatively unnecessary fourth smokestack to give the ship a more grand, imposing profile.

And into the good ship Titanic strode three stratifications of passenger ready to traverse the Atlantic in the circumstances their money–or lack of it–had made them accustomed:

First Class
Titanic’s First Class manifest was a venerable Who’s Who of Edwardian society and the keepers of the Western Hemisphere’s wealth and influence. At least a generation out from the Gilded Age forebears who built their family wealth and social status, the Titanic First Class passengers enjoyed lives of privilege and leisure tempered only by intricate and often labyrinthine social rituals that demonstrated good breeding, old money and civilized superiority to the lower, more vulgar classes.

That is not to say this population did nothing beyond living off the passive income of generational wealth. Many family patriarchs–and sometimes widowed matriarchs–still kept their businesses running efficiently and profitably, but they were also actively involved in exploiting the working classes, fighting unions, building monopolies, and heavily influencing the political and financial systems that kept their family dynasties in wealth and power.

It is certainly fair to say that these families and icons of business also contributed immense amounts of money to build museums, libraries, concert halls and other civic amenities, but not without preserving the wealth and privilege they and were accustomed to enjoying.

The men of First Class gleefully clarify this perpetuation of wealth and power in a lyric sung early in the Titanic musical: “Remarkable U.S. Steel is splitting shares at five to four! Monopoly makes the industry far better than before!”

Second Class
While the demarcations between Edwardian First Class and Second Class were absolute when buying tickets on a luxury ocean liner, they were far more fluid in the real world.

Titanic’s Second Class passengers still spent a great deal of money and expected a great deal of opulence and privilege on their voyage. But for reasons extending from budget constraints to a modest lack of interest in the conspicuous pomp and circumstance of First Class, these passengers still enjoyed extravagant accommodations without extravagant costs–and still without encountering passengers of the Third Class.

That is not to say there weren’t curious lookie-loos and brazen social climbers peering around the metaphorical–and physical–walls dividing First from Second Class.

In a clever bit of narrative construction, the Titanic musical embodies this Second Class ambition in the character of Alice Beane. Based loosely on the actual passenger Ethel Beane, Alice breathlessly and without a trace of shame bombards her beleaguered husband with facts and gossip she’s memorized about the First Class passengers as they board the ship.

It’s a neat writing trick for a number of reasons: It very clearly illustrates the tacky social-climbing aspirations that many Second Class passengers had, it comically delineates the Second Class climbers from the First class noblesse, and it introduces a lot of information about a lot of passengers to the audience without forced or ponderous exposition.

And if Alice Beane’s brazen antics don’t fully establish this demarcation in the first act, John Jacob Astor IV spells it out explicitly in the second act: “A few too many climbers. … Lately I’ve noticed that anyone with a few million dollars considers himself rich.”

Third Class
While First and Second Class passengers traveled with varying degrees of conspicuous privilege and wealth, Third Class passengers traveled with a more urgent sense of purpose: escaping lives of poverty, crime and hopelessness in Europe (and beyond) and emigrating to experience the storied opportunities and dreams of living in America.

These European immigrants were traveling at the end of what historians now call the New Immigration wave, which started in the late 19th Century when President Benjamin Harrison designated Ellis Island in New York Harbor as a federal immigration station.

Earlier immigration waves established a cross-cultural tradition of coming to America to establish new lives, housing and income sources–usually in Irish, German, Jewish and other ethnic enclaves–and then summoning remaining family members to cross the Atlantic to reunite in the New World. With Ellis Island protocols and record-keeping in place, immigration became more efficient, and the numbers of reuniting family members surged well into the 20th Century.

Despite the dangers of tenement life and the poverty wages of Industrial Revolution employment, the spirit of American opportunity still lived in these immigrants’ hearts and imaginations. But as the decades around the turn of the century saw a growing establishment of business owners, professionals and even politicians rising from these enclaves, the lure of legitimate American opportunity became stronger and stronger, drawing more and more people through Ellis Island and driving the exponentially explosive growth of New York City and other urban centers.

And while the White Star Line built its reputation and socioeconomic iconography on the opulent accommodations it provided its high-profile, high-wealth passengers, its primary source of revenue was actually from its Third Class passengers. These passengers were far more economical to house and feed, and their accommodations were designed to maximize the number of people who could occupy any given amount of space.

That’s not to say they were in any way unlivable. To attract Third Class passengers away from competitors who also used this business model, the White Star Line outfitted Titanic and its Olympic-class sister ships with sleeping, eating and public accommodations that had never been seen or experienced by most of its passengers. There were flushing toilets, warm running water, steady meals, comfortable beds and even bathtubs–though the entirety of Third Class had literally two bathtubs: one for all the women to share and one for all the men to share.

Titanic’s Third Class passengers encapsulate this mix of excitement, awe and wonder in a moving set of lyrics as they board the ship at the beginning of the show:

Get me aboard
Call out my name
It’s to America we aim
To find a better life
We prayed to make this trip!

Let all our children’s children know
That this day long ago
We dreamt of them
And came aboard this ship!


These are the cultural waters–both metaphoric and literal–that Titanic navigated as she headed west into the Atlantic

History has given us an understanding of the mechanics and enormity of Titanic’s demise through newspaper accounts, books, movies, YouTube channels and devoted internet sites.

Titanic the musical takes us on a more introspective journey with the ship and its passengers and explores the very human side of the tragedy through a prism of privilege and want, hubris and awe, and shared dreams of a future that’s both collective and jarringly unequal.


SIDEBAR: Why do we use female pronouns for ships?
Throughout recorded history, people have referred to ships as she and her and grouped them with sister ships and sent them on maiden voyages and led flotillas on mother ships … but why?

The short answer is there is no clear answer. Or at least there are many possible answers, including these:

For centuries and millennia, sailors have traditionally been men who’ve often named ships after important women in their lives as a way to keep them symbolically close on long voyages.

Sailors have dedicated ships to goddesses and mother figures (like Christopher Columbus’ La Santa María and the now-retired RMS Queen Mary) to petition for safe passage on journeys.

Ships have been seen as metaphoric mothers caring for the sailor in her womb.

The Latin word for ship is navis, whose linguistic feminine gendering eventually translated to a more literal interpretation of seeing ships as feminine.


SIDEBAR: Cedar Rapids’ Brucemore Historic Site has a Titanic connection
George and Irene Douglas, who lived in Brucemore from 1906 to 1937, have a tragic connection to the Titanic sinking: George’s brother and sister-in-law, Walter and Mahala Douglas, and Mahala’s maid, Bertha LeRoy, were sailing home on Titanic after a three-month trip to Europe to celebrate George’s retirement and to buy furnishings for their Minnesota home.

Mahala and Bertha survived the sinking, but Walter–feeling an obligation to be a gentleman and not board a lifeboat–did not. His body was recovered (and identified by the monograms on his shirt and cigarette case), and he and Mahala are now entombed in the Douglas family vault in Cedar Rapids’ Oak Hill Cemetery.


Jake Stigers is a frequent contributor to theater programs in the Corridor and can often be seen on stages in the Cedar Rapids area. His longtime fascination with the Titanic disaster and with Gilded Age-era history made the opportunity to write program notes for this production especially thrilling for him.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Tributes: Edward Albee

There is a moment near the end of The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?—Edward Albee's 2002 tour-de-force play exploring the outer limits of love, fidelity, morality and tolerance—where the emotional crisis at the center of the narrative boils over into such catastrophic levels of heartache and rage and such Greek-tragedy levels of destruction and retribution that the first time I saw it—and the second time and the third time and the fourth time—the audience collectively gasped to the point of almost screaming and then sat rigidly and almost palpably silent until well after the final stage light had extinguished and the last emotionally drained actor had silently moved into position for the company bow.

It's one of my two favorite—if there even exists a favorite-not favorite continuum of cataclysmic emotional destruction—moments in modern theater ... the other being the last three seconds of David Mamet's Oleanna before the stage becomes abruptly, dreadfully dark.

Though he's largely a genre unto himself, it's difficult to pigeonhole Edward Albee as a playwright. He wrote or adapted about 30 works that embodied movements like Theatre of the Absurd and brought popular works of narrative fiction like The Ballad of the Sad Café and Breakfast at Tiffany's to the stage and screen.
My favorite Albee works—Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (embodied in this movie still by the incrementally calculated Richard Burton and desperately braying Elizabeth Taylor playing the American-experiment patriarch and matriarch George and Martha [the latter of whom the script deliciously describes as "large, boisterous woman, 52, looking somewhat younger"]), The Play About the Baby and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?—all share the format of four characters on stage interacting to varying degrees with one character who may or may not exist offstage. It's an intriguing conceit, and one that keeps bringing me back to these three plays for my own contemplation. In an odd double standard, though, I can't stand reading them; the characters for me seem to be clumsy and dry with no meaningful depth on the page, but they grant a glorious latitude for actors to make fascinating choices as they flesh them out.

Today is the sixth anniversary of Edward Albee's death. I'm not one to be sad when famous people I've never met pass away—and having seen only seven of his works (that I can remember) I'm certainly no slavish Albee devotee—but I'm profoundly thankful for the emotional roller coasters he's put me on in various theaters over the years ... and for the body of work he's left that I can continue to explore in my own way in my own time.

I have a couple favorite quotes from these works that I'd love to mention here in closing, but they're all potential spoilers. So I'll just lift a glass of bergen to his memory.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Happy 181st birthday, Antonín Dvořák!

Though a proud native son of Czechoslovakia, Dvořák is perhaps best known for his mighty, highly melodic Symphony No. 9, which is most commonly called "From the New World" due to its early American musical themes and the fact that he wrote almost the entirety of it in the United States—more specifically in Spillville, Iowa, just 100 miles north of Cedar Rapids.

It's the last symphony he composed, and in my opinion its enduring brilliance lies in its endless accessibility. Its dominant six-note theme, often sung to the words of the American folk song "Goin' Home," is never far from the surface no matter how many variations or complex contrapuntal themes he weaves it through.

As a composer, he was rooted firmly among the late Romantics with their heroic storylines, soaring emotions, and confident nods to the nascent but growing fascination with the shimmering textures of the Impressionists and the gorgeous discordances of what would soon be revered around the world as American jazz. And this symphony sits right at the confluence of all that history, all that emotion, all that foresight and all that promise.
 
It's a gorgeous, centuries- and continents-spanning legacy ... built on a mere six-note theme he encountered on an 1893 stay in the humble American Midwest.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Iowa hurricane

Two years ago today, a massive derecho—a Category 4 inland hurricane defined by its straight-line winds, which exceeded 140 miles an hour here—appeared out of nowhere and with less than 30 minutes’ notice pummeled Cedar Rapids for almost an hour. The National Weather Service literally called it unprecedented.
Roofs were ripped off; buildings were destroyed by hurricane-force winds, high-velocity debris and crashing trees; sewers were overwhelmed and flooded streets, yards and houses; literally all electricity, cell service and light disappeared for over a week … it was a war zone nobody had time to prepare for, and nobody could fully comprehend when it was over.
And our trees. Our beautiful trees. By most estimates, we lost almost 75% of our trees. Many of them were centuries old. They provided essential shade for us and fertile ecosystems for our wildlife and insects. With no place to nest, our birds all but disappeared for weeks and weeks.
My niece—who’d just lost half of her senior year of high school to covid—also lost the young tulip tree she’d chosen and we’d just planted to celebrate her graduation.

And—shockingly ... infuriatingly ... heartbreakingly—people outside of Cedar Rapids had no idea what had happened. Without electricity or cell service, nobody here had any idea what was going on even a block away unless we could get there on our own—and with roads buried under light and electricity poles and massive debris, that was often literally impossible. With virtually zero coverage on the national news, my colleagues on the West Coast had no idea why we’d all gone radio-silent for days. I’d assumed reporters from every national news source had descended on what was left of our city to cover the carnage, interview our citizens and raise national awareness of what had happened. But without cell or TV service, I had no idea that wasn’t the case. Nobody came.

We felt so alone. We had no idea how or where to start cleaning up. People were left homeless and immediately needed covid-safe places to stay. Some of those people were still living in technically uninhabitable housing a full year later.

Gas stations were knocked out without power, and people with low gas in their cars were pretty much screwed. My neighbor and I had to drive almost 45 minutes to find a gas station that actually had gas—and even then we had to wait at least 30 minutes in a line while a gas truck filled the underground tanks as desperate Cedar Rapidians filled their own tanks and as many gas cans as they could find.

Stores had no electricity to run cash registers to sell things. Produce and meat spoiled. Generators were impossible to find.

Three people died.

People and cities in hurricane zones have the benefit of buildings built to withstand hurricanes; protocols in place to manage the preparations, durations and aftermaths of hurricanes; well-publicized warnings that give everyone many days to prepare their homes and businesses, stock up on gas and water and groceries and survival supplies, and get out of town if needed for safety; and the benefits of the aforementioned publicity to generate after-the-carnage relief efforts across the country.

We had none of that. NONE.

And many of us talk about how we’re still kind of resentful when we see other disasters that get lots of warnings, national coverage and organized help.

But we immediately started our slow recovery here. People mobilized to help each other day after day after day. They set up free food trucks and gathered clothing and supplies and bottled water for people who suddenly had none. Churches and other organizations dispatched teams of volunteers to provide all kinds of assistance to all kinds of people. I randomly had just purchased a sharp, really awesome collapsible hand saw, and I found people who needed help chopping up and hauling trees every day and every night after I was back at work and every weekend for months. And I was far from alone.
The city chipped the massive amount of downed trees and made it available to everyone as free mulch. People are still using it to cover new plantings in newly sunny gardens and yards. Buildings are slowly being repaired or torn down and rebuilt entirely—though most insurance windows expire today with many repairs still not even started as the backlog of demand slowly clears. I had very low expectations for seeing foliage last spring, but even the most stripped tree trunks and stumps were blooming with tufts of green leaves and are coming back surprisingly stronger this year—even though they’re blooming in weird ways that are hard to picture what they’ll look like in the long term.
We've planted so many young trees along streets and in boulevards that they've made me extremely contemplative about how trees are gifts from the past to the future. We'd been enjoying trees planted a century ago by our long-forgotten Cedar Rapids forebears, and when our young trees mature we'll be the long-forgotten forebears who've gone to our graves content in the knowledge we'd managed to perpetuate the cycle as we all rose from the ashes.

The world may not have known what happened to us in the days and weeks after the derecho, but I did hear national reports about the one-year anniversary on NPR last year.

So we’re still recovering, but we're well ahead of what I'd expected. And we all have LOTS of pictures.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

#Pride101: What the hell do LGBTQ+ people have to be proud of?

We’re proud because despite decades and decades of relentless persecution everywhere we turn—when organized religion viciously attacks and censures and vilifies us in the name of selective morality, when our families disown us, when our elected officials bargain away our equality for hate votes they try to disguise as so-called “religious liberty,” when the entire Republican party perpetually enshrines a pledge to strip us of our legal equalities in its national platform, when communities and cities and entire states keep trying to codify our families into second-class citizenship, when small-importance bakers with the backing of the big-money hate industry take their unhinged loathing of us all the way to the Supreme Court, when our employers fire us, when our landlords evict us, when our police harass us, when our neighbors and colleagues and fellow citizens openly insult and condemn and mock and berate and even beat and kill us—we continue to survive.

We’re proud because pride is the opposite of shame—and despite what systemic bigotry and the ugliest sides of organized religion work so hard to make the world believe, there is nothing shameful about being gay.

We’re proud because—thanks to the incredible bravery shown by gay people who lived their lives openly sometimes to the point of being defiantly in the decades before us—we can live our lives more and more openly at home, at work, with our families, on social media … and even on national television.

We're proud because we've worked tirelessly to achieve legal equality in marriage, adoption, parental rights and many other ways that make our families recognized as Families in our states and across our country. And though we have much more to accomplish—and though bigotry disguised as morality and religion and the supposed mandates of constituents work and sometimes succeed at eroding our newfound equalities—we have the momentum and intelligence and motivation and humanity and ability to keep driving back the hate as we continue to drive forward with both our newfound and future equalities.

We’re proud because in just the last few years an openly gay married man was a long-viable, highly qualified, unquestionably respected candidate in the Democratic presidential primaries and who’s now our country’s secretary of transportation—something most of us never even considered would EVER happen—and not only does he enjoy enthusiastic support across the Democratic party, but leading Republicans seem to have learned that while they can attack him for reasons they’d attack any other candidate, attacking him for being gay is completely unacceptable.

We’re proud because through our tireless work and the prevailing powers of common sense and compassion, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and Proposition Hate and the so-called Defense of Marriage Act long ago collapsed onto their illogical, immoral, meritless foundations … and new legislative attempts to dehumanize us—especially during election cycles—gain little to no traction or visibility and soon die on the trash heap as well.

We’re proud because we are smart enough to overcome the self-loathing that our venomous, mindlessly theocratic society forces on us, and we have the power to stop its destructive cycle by fighting back and by making intelligent choices involving sex and drugs and money and careers and relationships and the way we live our lives—and by using our lives as examples of success and humanity and love that other gay people can see and respect and emulate and achieve more and more easily.

We’re proud because after all we’ve been through, the world increasingly continues to notice and respect us and enthusiastically appropriate the often fabulous culture we’ve assembled from the common struggles and glorious diversity of our disparate lives.

We’re proud because more and more often and in more and more contexts our country and our culture see the fact that we’re gay as unthreatening and commonplace and frankly boring.

We’re proud because our tireless efforts to be seen have engendered (which is the perfect verb in this context) massive visible support for us with rainbows and Pride messages on everything from clothing to flags to television commercials—and while we can legitimately be worried that companies are merely riding the Pride wave for profit, we can also celebrate that the explosions of these rainbows on our apparel and flags and televisions overwhelmingly normalizes the understanding that we have a place at the table and a presence in our communities.

We’re proud because especially during this past Pride month and always all year we’re celebrating with parties and street fairs and parades—all mostly virtual in 2020 and 2021—that are overflowing with drag queens, leather queens, muscle queens, dad-bod queens, glitter queens, nonbinary queens, you’d-never-know-they-were-queens queens, people who prefer not to be called queens and even straight-but-honorary-queens-for-a-day queens, and together we can see beyond the pride in the parades of our lives and together celebrate the underlying Pride in the parades of our lives.

We’re proud because 52 years ago a small crowd in a bar in New York City reached the tipping point in putting up with endless harassment and oppression and instigated a violent retaliation to a police raid that escalated to a week of riots and then to a march for equality that grew unstoppably to a national movement for equality and respect that continues proudly to this day.

Quite simply, we’re proud that we have so incredibly much to be proud of.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

#Pride101: The Stonewall Uprising

Fifty-three years ago today, the New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn—a mob-controlled gay bar in Greenwich Village that catered mostly to drag queens—in an ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation specifically targeted at people wearing clothing that didn’t conform to the conventions of what the laws called their “assigned gender.” These arrests usually led to people’s names, photographs and home addresses being published in the newspapers … which carried the high risk of further targeting and harassment, job loss, eviction, and family ostracism.
Usually the bar patrons submissively complied as they were being arrested. But this night—clearly fed up past their breaking points—they fought back. When an officer clubbed a Black lesbian named Stormé DeLarverie over the head for complaining that her handcuffs were too tight, the crowd that had gathered outside the club had had enough. Marsha P. Johnson, a Black drag queen and beloved heart of the community, and Sylvia Rivera, a popular Latinx queen, were two of the first to actively resist the police that night, and their fellow queens joined them in throwing bricks, bottles and shot glasses at officers and effectively shutting down the raid. I’m including these people’s ethnicities and orientations here to give credit to the non-white, non-cis-presenting people who showed the courage and gumption to initiate the fight back and start what ended up being six days of riots in the neighborhood surrounding the Stonewall Inn that finally ignited a national fight for the rights and equalities that *everyone* under the LGBTQ+ rainbow enjoys today.
Stonewall wasn’t the first riot in defiance of police raids and harassments; in 1959 angry gays fought police after a raid of Cooper’s Do-Nuts—a gay-friendly diner—in Los Angeles, and in 1966 a trans woman threw a cup of hot coffee in a police officer’s face in a raid at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, sparking a riot that inspired the city to acknowledge the trans community and develop a network of trans-specific social, mental-health and medical services.
But Stonewall was the emotional—and ultimately cultural—turning point. The police raid there quickly drew a large mob whose collective lifetimes of oppression and discrimination boiled over into a violent revolt that trapped police in the bar until the NYC Tactical Patrol Force was dispatched to rescue them. Riots erupted the next night and through the week in the Christopher Street and other nearby gay neighborhoods, including one mob that threatened to burn down the offices of The Village Voice for mocking the gay rioters and describing the riots as "forces of faggotry" and "Sunday fag follies." The next year, an organization called Chicago Gay Liberation organized a parade on the anniversary of the Stonewall riot, and the city has staged a parade on the last Sunday in June ever since—with the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic causing the first exception.
Now, every major metropolis and many smaller cities have Pride parades and events—though in 2020 and 2021 they were mostly held virtually—and many of them usually spill beyond the last week of June to pop up in celebrations all month and all year.
But June is officially Pride month in the hearts and minds of LGBTQ+ people—and an exploding population of straight people and businesses large and small—and we owe it all to the brave LGBTQ+ people—more specifically, the extremely marginalized drag queens and people of color—who had had enough and fought back at great risk to themselves and even to our community and started our slow march toward equality fifty-two years ago today.
THIS IS WHY WE CELEBRATE PRIDE.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Floating through Chicago Pride

I didn’t really know anybody by the time the first pride parade happened soon after I moved to Chicago. So I went by myself to watch it. And, standing among thousands and thousands of cheering, smiling, happy, proud people who were watching with groups of friends and waving at other friends who squeezed by on the crowded sidewalks, I never felt more alone.
 
It was actually so devastating in my mind that pride weekend literally filled me with dread for the next 15 years I lived in Chicago.

I did notice that first year that the people dancing and waving on the floats looked very happy—and they didn’t have to be surrounded by friends or even anybody as they enjoyed the parade from their glorified perches. So I made up my mind that I needed to make the connections to get myself on a float by the next pride parade.
 
As I slowly—finally!—made Chicago friends and watched the next few parades with them, I still harbored an irrational, unshakable dread that I’d lose them—or they’d actually leave me—and I’d be alone all over again in the crowds. So I kept trying to figure out how to get myself on a float.
Then I joined the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus. And we marched in the parade! But not on a float. And I very very stupidly decided to wear my rollerblades and they hurt and I was bad at stopping so I kept running into people and I was so miserable I had to hobble home the moment it was over so I couldn’t hang out and celebrate with anyone afterward so as far as I’m concerned the whole experience didn’t count and I don’t want to talk about it.
 
Then! Finally! I got on a float! And let me tell you: Though standing in a Speedo sucking in your abs and holding on for dear life on a lurching, frequently stopping vehicle technically sucks all the fun out of it, having hundreds of millions (in my fantasies my math says I have hundreds of millions of adoring fans so shut up) of people screaming and cheering for you is ALMOST as awesome as dancing and waving high on a moving platform where the cooling breezes are plenty, the jostling crowds are penned up on the sidewalks below you and the scenery changes by the second to keep everything interesting.
Plus you get to dance to your favorite disco hits.
 
I got myself onto many more floats for the rest of my years in Chicago. The weather was always perfect, my cheering, adoring fans swelled into the billions (shut up), and the joy and pride were always plenty. And my irrational dread—though never gone—was always in check.
 
Today is Chicago’s pride parade. My Facebook and Instagram feeds are filled with joyful, excited, rainbow-colored pictures of my Chicago friends and acquaintances already celebrating, and while I’m thrilled and proud to have (eventually) been a part of those traditions, our dramatically more subdued Cedar Rapids pride festivals are now WAY more my speed. And not my Speedo.
 
So I wish all of you celebrating pride in Chicago today—whether on the sidewalks or on a float—an awesome day and an awesome experience both personally and with everyone around you. I’ll be happily singing and dancing to ABBA hits in a big, splashy production of Mamma Mia. And I’m thankful for that music.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

#Pride101: Protester hate

Virtually every pride parade and public LGBTQ event draws a crowd of hate-filled, mouth-frothing religious bigots carrying massive-lettered, professionally printed signs (that always use the playground word “homos,” always say we deserve AIDS and ALWAYS obsess about gay sex) and screaming at us with bullhorns, trying to goad us into physical fights so they can videotape them and whimper to the police and public about the cruel persecution they endure just for violently perverting their First Amendment rights.

At bigger events like the Chicago Pride Parade, they're walled off in pens like the rabid swine they are at the end of the routes where they're more of a nuisance than a violence-inciting threat—and so they can ruin the joys and kill the highs that people in the parades have experienced and inspired along the routes. But at smaller events like the Cedar Rapids Pride Fest, they wander freely in much smaller numbers at the perimeters, hauling massive signs as if they were crosses, yelling into bullhorns and goading us from afar so they can run like the cowards they are if they feel outnumbered and/or want to stoke their wannabe persecution complexes.
 
(Cisgender straight people: Raise your hands if you’ve ever endured any of this for being affectionate in public, having wedding photos taken outdoors, being seen with your kids or just basically existing.)

But despite these relentless, organized, violence-inciting attacks, LGBTQ people and our allies keep showing up to our Pride events, not letting the bigots’ cruel, puerile, relentless harassment undermine our celebration of who we are and how far we've come.

THIS IS WHY WE CALL IT PRIDE.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

#Pride101: LGBTQ+ survival

Cisgender heterosexuals—how many times have you:
  • Gathered with other straight cisgender friends while people with bullhorns held giant signs and screamed at you that they hope you die of AIDS
  • Gotten egged and insulted by people screaming out of a car as you waited in line to enter a straight bar
  • Pretended to be someone you’re not out of fear that your mechanic or doctor or waiter or accountant or employer or family would do something bad to you, yell at you to leave or eject you from their lives
  • Walked down the street holding hands with your spouse or partner and been accosted by a stranger calling you filthy and disgusting and declaring that he or she shouldn’t be “forced” to see your affection
  • Watched information about cisgender heterosexuals get eliminated from textbooks for the sole reason that it’s about cisgender heterosexuals and schools need to “protect” children from knowing you exist
  • Watched your rights being used as a bargaining chip in national political machinations
  • Had your inequality cemented into law by a public vote over a state proposition
  • Watched people fight so hard to discriminate against you that they take their hatred all the way to the Supreme Court
  • Joined a church that condemns you to hell
  • Been consumed by your own white-hot hatred that you don’t want and you don’t need and you don’t deserve because the above hostilities constantly bombard you while you have almost no recourse
Probably every LGBTQ+ person you know has been called a faggot. Or worse. I have. More times than I can remember.

Probably every LGBTQ+ person you know has had something thrown at them with the intention to hurt or humiliate them. I have. It was a barrage of eggs thrown from a car as some friends and I stood on a sidewalk in Chicago's Boystown … where we'd assumed we were safe from such bullshit. The cowards who threw the eggs missed all of us and raced away cackling like they were big men who somehow mattered.

Many LGBTQ+ people you know have been physically, violently assaulted. I never have, but I have friends who've been assaulted so violently that they've been hospitalized.

It's 2022. The homophobic violence that our forebears endured may have lessened, but it hasn't stopped. And while straight cisgender people probably barely even think about what we endure, we all still get up, walk out the door every day, and live our lives as openly as we dare and as comfortably as we can.

THIS IS WHY WE CALL IT PRIDE.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Juneteenth

Afro-American Literature (as it was called at the time) had, quite frankly, a killer reading list. In one semester we covered the major works of Amiri Baraka, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin … and those were just the writers I’d heard of. I was a junior in college, I’d just declared my English major and I had only three semesters to complete it … preferably in classes with great reading lists like this one that I could enthusiastically devour.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I might be the only white person in the class. And when I walked in that first day, I was. Until two white girls walked in a couple minutes later. I’d never been the racial minority before—no less the racial minority who paradoxically represented the oppressor to the people around me—and the experience made the class and everything we read and discussed and learned all the more profound.

The professor was brilliant. He peppered his lectures with names and dates and fascinating contextual histories without ever using notes. He got his students to participate with enthusiasm—even the shy ones. His influence literally transformed the way I thought and wrote, and I hear his voice in my writing to this day.

He and his reading list taught me way more than I could even hope to expect about the Black experience in America. I found myself spellbound in incredulity as I began to understand the ubiquity—the enormity—of black suffering in the name of white American “freedom” and “liberty.” I literally wept as I read the stories and absorbed the sociopolitical implications of the literature in our curriculum. And I vowed that I would always strive to be aware and understanding of racial perspectives and how they shape the lives and personal contexts of the people of color in my life and my larger orbit.
The class was truly a transforming milestone in the way I defined myself and the way I related to my surroundings. It blew open the doors of my relatively sheltered world and it energized me as a global citizen.

But it wasn't until a year later, when I ran into the professor at a beautifully minimalist staging of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf and he not only remembered my name but also offered to drive me home, that for some reason I suddenly realized—to my absolute, gut-dropping horror—that those two white girls and I had slowly, gradually drifted toward each other and had eventually spent the semester sitting—rudely, arrogantly, cluelessly, cruelly—front and center in his classroom … while our Black classmates had sat behind us. In the back of the learning bus.

The professor died within a year after that ride in his car. Before I had the guts and the decency to find him and somehow apologize. I have never kept in touch with anyone—black or white—from that class. Thirty-three years later, I still feel sick to my stomach when I think about it.

As we are currently fully aware, there is racism everywhere—deliberate racism, violent racism, habitual racism, institutionalized racism, self-unaware racism. "I'm not a racist, but …" conversations happen in hushed tones where white people gather and look around furtively before they speak everywhere, every day.
 
Depending on the circumstances when I encounter these conversations, I either walk away or stand there awkwardly until the moment has passed. I've called a few people out on their racist comments a couple of times, sometimes angrily, sometimes in a spirit of hopefully changing a mind or a heart. But regrettably all just a couple of times.
 
I'm—we're all—far from perfect. Despite my best intentions, I'm not racism-free. I admit I fleetingly embraced the overgeneralized idea of "all lives matter" before it hit me like a hail of bricks how that undermined—more accurately, destroyed—the core message of and desperate need for Black Lives Matter. And while I feel a slight level of relief unloading this story on social media, it doesn't exonerate me or excuse me or even atone for my unwitting behavior 33 years ago.
 
I realize that living in my largely privileged white bubble with my white family and my overwhelmingly white friend base both in life and on social media that it keeps me safe from awkward conversations and maybe even confrontations. But I hope that maybe this admission sparks a dialogue somewhere. That it inspires other people to reach out and just talk to each other. And get to know each other. And start to care about each other. Because it's harder to hate—and harder to even realize that you're hating—when people stop being abstractions and start being, well, people.

I don’t even know how to begin to apologize to the Black people I insulted and the white people I enabled in that classroom over three decades ago. And I hope if you know me or eventually get to know me that I'm living my life in a way that you can accept as an apology … and believe that it’s a genuine, productive path to my own improvement.

As I hope everyone is fully aware, today is Juneteenth—also known as Freedom Day—the anniversary of the 1865 emancipation of the last remaining enslaved African-Americans in the Confederacy. I first learned about Juneteenth in a high-school history class, and I’d often wondered since then why it’s never really been a massive national holiday. And now—despite the devastating circumstances that have finally brought it to the country’s attention—I’m thrilled it’s officially become a national holiday … and an integral part of our larger dialogue about race.

The national-holiday designation came quickly and largely unexpectedly last week—especially given what little awareness Juneteenth had even a year ago—so federal agencies and even private companies didn't have a lot of time to plan and coordinate procedures for proper celebrations and shut-downs.

But many found a way, and they've closed their doors and encouraged their employees to take the day off to celebrate the milestone … the freedoms … the progress … and the hope for continued communion in the march toward equality in our country’s minds, our hearts and our shared American culture.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

#Pride101: Supreme Court employment protection

Two years ago today, the Supreme Court ruling protecting gay and transgender workers from job discrimination and outright firings kicked the right-wing propaganda machine into high gear as it blustered predictably on and on about about “activist judges,” “religious liberty” (note: “liberty” is a right-wing dogwhistle that translates to “legal protection for hating LGBTQ+ people”) and the especially-laughable-in-the-context-of-its-adultrous-presidential-administration chestnut “family values.”

Right on cue, people like the homosexuality-obsessed Franklin Graham called the ruling “a very sad day” because he’d be “forced to hire” filthy gay and transgender people—and he cloaked his lust for hatred and discrimination as “a traditional Christian ethic” with the clear subtext that he and his brand of Christian cover story hold the monopoly on ethics and morality in this or any other discussion that fires up his mouth-frothing base.

But the fight is far from over. Last month's leaked draft of a Supreme Court ruling that would overturn Roe v. Wade leaves room for overturning the 2015 ruling in favor of marriage equality. And since our equality is grossly oversimplified as a "social issue" that fires up the cultist Republican base, the prospect of stripping away our equality will no doubt become a bigger and bigger campaign platform as we get closer and closer to this November's elections.

Cisgender heterosexuals: Have you ever needed a Supreme Court ruling to protect you from being fired just for going to work? Have you ever felt threatened enough that you had to lie about yourself and your relationships just to keep your job? That’s how bad things still were for gay and transgender people in 2020, more than half a century after the Stonewall Riots that sparked our collective demands for equality, justice and our right to live in peace.
 
It’s why we still have to carry the campaign and continue the fight and rely on your support and advocacy in our struggle TO THIS DAY to achieve basic, foundational equality so we can hopefully just exist without fear from repercussions incited by so-called moral leaders like Franklin Graham. He and his ilk are stubbornly not going away, but as the 2020 ruling shows, we keep making incremental progress toward maybe one day being able to live our lives free from their manufactured hatred and fear—and the destruction it causes in our lives.

THIS IS WHY WE CALL IT PRIDE.

Monday, June 13, 2022

CedaRound: The Drowning

Though I was living in Chicago at the time, I was in Cedar Rapids 14 years ago today to visit my folks for their June 14 anniversary. My boyfriend at the time and I had heard stories of looming flooding, and even though the rains and the swollen rivers diverted us north from highway 30 at Mt. Vernon and sent us into Cedar Rapids on Mt. Vernon Road, we still never believed Cedar Rapids could have serious flooding. I mean, it's CEDAR RAPIDS. I grew up here. How could anything bad happen?

By the time we finally got to my folks' house late on the 13th though, the flooding had become serious enough that the city's last intact water pumping station was in such danger of being breached that the urgent call went out on the news for volunteers to sandbag it. Though we'd had a 5-hour drive, we wanted to go out and help, but by the time we had a quick bathroom break before heading for the door, the news announced that they'd already gotten all the sandbaggers they needed. Which was a clear harbinger of the resilience our city would soon show. But at the time it was dark and late and we were 32 blocks from the river so all we could do was go to bed and wait.

The next morning, the footage on the news was devastating. The river had crested at 31.12 feet—19 feet over flood stage—and our entire downtown was drowning, as were 1,300 blocks of the city on either side of the river. Office buildings and banks and stores and my beloved theaters were almost up to the tops of their doors in water. All three bridges that cross May's Island to connect the east and west sides of the city were completely submerged. The Time Check and Czech Village neighborhoods were annihilated, with many houses underwater to their roof lines. The highly elevated I-380 was the only way to get across town, though all of the entrance and exit ramps in the flood zone were submerged. We—like seemingly everyone else in the city—drove slowly along the highway and peered out our windows to survey the devastation as the flood waters rippled mere feet beneath us.

As the water slowly receded, the city reeled over the destruction of homes, the closing of businesses, the undermining of infrastructure ... but never the loss of spirit. The city leaped almost immediately into action to tear down what was unsalvageable, repair what was repairable, clean up what was messy and dangerous, reimagine new life and purpose for what was destroyed, and start to recover and relocate and rebuild ourselves into a newer and better and more thoughtfully redesigned shining city on the river. We now have our vibrant and ever-expanding NewBo district and its neighboring Czech Village restoration, we've literally picked up and moved an entire museum to higher ground, we've creatively and beautifully incorporated new levees and berms into inviting public spaces, we've used the opportunity to upgrade and restore historic buildings, we've turned our once-desolate-after-5:00 downtown into a destination area bustling with restaurants and entertainment (well, before covid hit—but it bounced back as soon as returning was safe) ... and we've salvaged and restored and improved and polished up my beloved Paramount and Iowa (home of Theatre Cedar Rapids) theaters.

The flood was awful and heartwrenching and devastating. Many businesses never recovered. Many homes and families and lives have been forever changed. And our renaissance is perpetually ongoing and far from complete; in the last decade-plus, we've brought to life a towering modern addition to the stately Chicago-school American Building, built an expanding Habitrail of downtown skywalks, converted all the downtown one-way streets into two-way to feel more like friendly streets than impersonal expressways, incorporated towering, visually referential berms into the natural features along the river lowlands, and built many massive, architecturally interesting mixed-use buildings in the vibrantly revitalized Kingston Village neighborhood.

There was one sliver lining linking the 2008 flood that destroyed the center of the city to the 2020 land-hurricane derecho that destroyed enormous amounts of the entire city: The blocks and blocks of still-empty land in what was left of the flood-destroyed Time Check neighborhood became the primary dumping ground for the thousands and thousands of derecho-felled trees that the city slowly hauled away from everyone's property. It was centrally located, it offered a LOT of land and it made a mighty monument to the destruction the city endured. Driving by it was both breathtaking and heartbreaking. But also reassuring in that it provided a useful place for the city to dump the trees it collected and get back out to collect more as efficiently as possible.

Aside from the before-and-after photos of my dad's office, where he thought two levels of concrete blocks would protect his antique roll-top desk from the floodwaters that eventually submerged his entire office past its ceiling, the pictures I'm posting here aren't mine. But they show the depth and breadth of the destruction we all faced and make a great reminder of how amazingly far we have come in the last ten years.

So happy floodiversary, Cedar Rapids! May we keep our recovery and flood-protection development speeding along forevermore. (And don't forget to wish my folks a happy 58th anniversary tomorrow.)

Third Street looking south from First Avenue. You can see the old Theatre Cedar Rapids marquee on the left.

Theatre Cedar Rapids. All the First Avenue storefronts on the left were shut down after the flood, and the space became the awesome new Linge Lounge.


Dad’s office—and beautiful oak roll-top desk—before and after the flood. The desk was unsalvageable, and everything in it got ripped out and carried away by the floodwaters.


1,300 blocks on both sides of the river were submerged—some under more than 10 feet of water.

Those ghostly lines in the water are the totally submerged bridges that cross May’s Island as they connect the east and west sides of the city.


That’s normally-high-in-the-sky I-380 snaking through downtown with floodwater submerging its ramps and lapping at its floors.


The massive crown-jewel National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library building on the lower right was actually lifted and relocated to higher ground after the flood.


We parked this string of train cars on this essential train bridge before the flood to weigh it down so the floodwaters wouldn’t wash it away.


We parked this string of train cars on this essential train bridge before the flood to weigh it down so the floodwaters wouldn’t wash it away.


Entire neighborhoods. Families’ lives. Wiped out. No words.


The floodwaters floated the Mighty Wurlitzer organ console two stories from the bottom of the Paramount Theater orchestra pit to above the stage, where they dumped it like a dirty carcass.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

#Pride101: Blood donation bans

In 1983—at the height of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the United States—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration instituted a lifetime ban on blood donations from gay men (specifically “men who have sex with men,” a distinction necessitated by a sizable population of MSM who refuse for any number of reasons to be identified as gay or bisexual).

The ban was actually even broader than that; it also included women who have sex with MSM and transgender people. At the time, HIV was—and was perceived by the broader population to be exclusively—a “gay disease” and was gleefully used by religious hate groups to perpetuate their vilification of—and mock and exploit the deaths of—gay people. The ban was an extreme measure, but as 1980s technologies in HIV detection weren’t very effective it was seen as prudent—with no resistance from leading gay organizations—and it no doubt prevented an even larger American HIV epidemic.

As HIV spread beyond the gay population, the infection demographics leveled out and HIV-detection technologies advanced, in 2015 the FDA guidelines regarding blood donations from MSM were reduced from a lifetime ban to a one-year-of-celibacy requirement. Then in April 2020—as blood supplies dwindled to crisis levels at the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic—the one-year celibacy requirement was reduced to three months.

Still, the institutionalized discrimination has not been eliminated; a man who has protected sex with another man in the last three months is not allowed to give blood, but—for instance—a woman who has had unprotected sex with multiple men in the last week faces no such restriction. (For the record, the relatively small populations of people with certain medical conditions, people on certain medications and people who have had blood transfusions are subject to other restrictions and bans.)

Today, the Insti HIV test—considered to be the most accurate and convenient, requiring just a small finger prick—has a 99.96% accuracy rate, with results provided in one minute. With often desperately low stockpiles of donated blood in the United States, there is no reason to keep specifically restricting blood donations from MSM based on outdated demographic medical information and stigmas regarding HIV. And yet it is still happening.

But progress in eliminating this discrimination is being made; the march to erase the stigma and embrace 21st Century medicine is on, and MSM without other risks are proudly—despite the humiliation and discrimination of the existing bans—willing to step up and do our part as blood donors.

THIS IS WHY WE CALL IT PRIDE.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Pride 101: Pride Month begins

Before the 1969 Stonewall riots, virtually every aspect of the lives of gay people was illegal to varying degrees in America: being openly gay, showing public affection, having sex, marriage, adoption, assembly in public, assembly in private, going to gay bars … even owning bars with any form of gay designation.

The only gay bars that existed were owned by crime syndicates, who definitely weren’t at the vanguard of fighting for gay liberation; they saw in the gay population a steady and highly dependent form of revenue that the mobs could protect via their considerable influence over law enforcement. Gay people were exploited for our desperate need to find each other and for the money we were willing to pay to feel like we weren’t alone. We paid exorbitant prices for watered-down, bottom-shelf liquor. We gathered in buildings that were unclean, unsafe and unimportant to society. We entered those bars carrying cash for bail with the clear expectation that we might need it.

The subtexts were shame, risk, secrecy, and arrest and public humiliation—and the very likely loss of our jobs—if we were caught entering or exiting these bars.

But in the gathering momentum of our achievements in equality over the last half century, our forebears demanded—and slowly, surely got—our growing equality and our freedom to live our lives openly and safely and without imposed shame and exploitation.

THIS IS WHY WE CALL IT PRIDE.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Mental Health Awareness Month: NAMI

The National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI) is a nationwide organization that provides informational and emotional support for the caregivers who work to keep people with mental illnesses on track and stable—or at the very least it lets the caregivers know they're not alone.

The organization has 1,000 state and local affiliates across all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. To keep it accessible to everyone who needs it, NAMI is funded through pharmaceutical company donations, individual donors, sponsorships and grants.

My parents found a lifeline in NAMI when I was diagnosed as bipolar a decade ago. Now my mom—a retired teacher, so this is totally in her wheelhouse—is teaching classes to help NAMI members better manage the situations they face in their families. I'm so thankful for everything my parents and my sister's family have done to support me in my bipolar adventures. NAMI has helped them help me manage my life with a considerable degree of success and relative normalcy.

If you’re interested in learning more or finding a NAMI group to attend, please visit nami.org.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Mental Health Awareness Month: An Unquiet Mind

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison is a fearlessly, brutally honest 1995 memoir examining the exhilarating highs and soul-crushing lows of bipolar disorder (which was clinically called manic-depressive illness during the events of this book) from the perspective of a psychiatrist trapped in the disease. Her frank and intimately personal insights bring bipolar disorder’s cycles of terror, elation and crushing, abject despair into stark and sometimes heartbreaking clarity.

The book was recommended to me soon after I was diagnosed as bipolar in 2008, and it grabbed me on every level—from its smart writing to the recognizable, relatable, almost comforting details of its narrative—and I all but literally didn’t put the book down until I’d finished it.

I have an indelible memory of reading it on the Red Line EL train home from work one night in Chicago, and a man who’d clearly seen me reading it made sure we made eye contact as he stood up to leave and then he patted me reassuringly on the shoulder as he got off at the Sheridan stop. That encounter—a direct extension of this book—made me literally weep the rest of the way home as I was coming to grips with the label “mentally ill” and discovering the signs I’d never thought to notice until then that I wasn’t alone … and realizing that everywhere I go I’d never be alone.

If you are or love someone who is bipolar—or struggling with any mental illness—this book will make you weep, give you hope and quite possibly change your life.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Mental Health Awareness Month: Tardive Dyskenesia

As if mental illness itself weren’t embarrassing and exhausting enough—and as if the spectrum of side effects from psych meds weren’t even more embarrassing and exhausting—along comes tardive dyskenesia. 

Aside from sounding like an antebellum flowering vine, tardive dyskenesia is also a range of involuntary, repetitive neuromuscular movements of the tongue, lips, face, torso and extremities that occur in people treated with long-term antipsychotics and other dopamine-receptor-blocking medications. If you’ve ever stood or sat near me for an extended period of time, you’ve no doubt seen the full compendium of symptoms: grimacing, lip chewing and pursing, heavy blinking, face touching (and I deserve seven gold medals for fighting back the compulsion to touch my face 75 times a minute in the Coronavirus Olympics), arm swinging, leg hitting, rocking, fidgeting, shaking, and—oddest of all—being on tiptoe whenever I’m sitting down. My foot also pulses on the gas pedal when I drive, and a number of people have told me it almost makes them carsick when they ride with me.

I’m rather lucky in that my flailing and wiggling are more embarrassing than physically problematic, but about 20% of the population living with the disorder literally can’t function; it can prevent them from walking, eating and even breathing.

And as a point of clarification, these symptoms are the opposite of those from Parkinson’s Disease. People with Parkinson's have difficulty moving, whereas people with tardive dyskinesia have difficulty not moving.

Tardive dyskenesia symptoms can lessen, change or even go away over time after a person stops taking neuroleptic medications, though more often than not they’re permanent. My symptoms have noticeably changed over the last decade, but I’ve traded making alarming sucking sounds on my lips for making an entire room tremble from my violently shaking legs.

There are many medications that can be used to manage the symptoms to varying degrees. After five-plus years of needless misery, I recently weaned myself off the anticonvulsant Gabapentin, which did or didn't work depending on the way the wind blew and the leg trembled. It also tended to make me drowsy and sometimes even confused, which makes me especially surprised that it’s used recreationally—under the totally lame street name Gabbies—for its supposed euphoric effects that I absolutely NEVER experienced.

One more thing: You may have seen the commercials for the prohibitively expensive tardive dyskenesia medications Ingrezza and Austedo … the commercials where they call tardive dyskenesia “TD” like it’s some cool brand of earphones or energy drink. Dear Ingrezza-makers Neurocrine Biosciences and Austedo-makers Teva Pharmaceuticals: I’ve had tardive dyskenesia for over a decade. I’ve been seeing psychiatrists and neurologists about it for over a decade. I’ve read everything I could read about it for over a decade. I’ve been on medications for it for over a decade. And NOBODY outside of medical publications and pharmacy websites calls it TD. STOP TRYING TO MAKE TD HAPPEN.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Mental Health Awareness Month: Depression

Everyone can feel occasionally sad, lonely or unmotivated as a result of anything from grief to just having an off day. But when these feelings become exponential and overwhelming and prevent you from functioning, you could be suffering from clinical depression.

And there isn’t a single kind of depression. It’s diagnosed when you present any long-term combination of symptoms including feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, trouble concentrating, insomnia, fatigue, loss of interest in pleasurable things, restlessness, suicidal ideation—and even physical symptoms including body aches, digestive problems and appetite loss. Depression symptoms also vary widely based on age, gender and personal circumstances.

There isn’t a single kind of treatment either; depression can be managed with any combination of psychotherapy, antidepressants, exercise, certain supplements (vitamin D and fish oil have noticeably increased the efficacy of my meds) and in extreme cases electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)—with focused attention paid to people expressing suicidal thoughts and reckless behaviors.

Depression can also present itself along with other clinical disorders including psychosis, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder. In my case, I have both bipolar II disorder and major depressive disorder—which means my shutdowns are almost always epic: I collapse into a deep, deep hole of despondency, exhaustion, physical pain, dull panic, slurred speech, a metallic taste on my tongue, and a fog that feels like a hot, wet, suffocating blanket I can’t find a way out of. All I can do is sleep in a drenching sweat, lose all track of time and frequently wake up with the pain of an oncoming migraine that thankfully never fully manifests itself.

Plus I’m totally no fun at parties. :-)

On a personal note, I have serious issues with the word “depression” in itself. I know it’s impossible to find a word that succinctly encompasses all these symptoms, but colloquial English has appropriated depression to mean feeling kinda blah, and people also associate the word with low spots in the ground, dips in the road and economic slumps, so they tend to think that clinical depression is just sadness. And if we depressed people had a nickel for every time someone told us to cheer up or decide to be happy, we just might be rich enough to actually BE happy. I know people who say these things are often coming from a place of not understanding and of just trying to be helpful, but the word “depression” is exactly the reason they’re confused and ultimately unhelpful.

And on that note, if you know someone who’s depressed or struggling through a depressive episode and you want to help, just ask what you can do. Some of us want to be left alone, but some people may want you to sit quietly with them so they don’t feel alone … or bring them some ice water … or call 911 … or some people may genuinely want you to try to cheer them up.

This is way off-topic and completely unhelpful given most of what I’ve just said, but if the latter request is the case, I recommend you start with my all-time favorite joke:

What’s brown and sticky?

A stick.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Mental Health Awareness Month: Bipolar Disorder

I’m starting my series of essays with something I know on a cellular level: I was diagnosed bipolar II over a decade ago, and I’ve spent a lot of time since then trying to learn everything about the illness, how the medical community’s understanding of it is evolving, and how we all can work to manage it both day-to-day and long-term.

Bipolar disorder in general involves one-to-two-week swings between two opposite poles of mood, energy, focus and function. The top pole is mania, which manifests itself with elation, irritability, energized behavior and lack of impulse control. People in manic episodes experience racing thoughts; an inability to focus or stay physically still; and delusions and hallucinations that can inspire irrational or risky behaviors including gambling, sexual activity and drug use without regard for what can be catastrophic consequences. The bottom pole is depression, which manifests itself with hopelessness, indifference and despondency. People in depressive episodes experience extreme sadness; suicidal ideation and attempts; and difficulty functioning, thinking or experiencing pleasure (which is called anhedonia).

There are three types of bipolar disorder. Bipolar I Disorder involves swings between both poles—sometimes both at once—that are so severe they can require hospitalization. Bipolar II Disorder—sometimes called bipolar depression—involves mild manic episodes (called hypomania) and often more profound depressive episodes. Cyclothymic Disorder, which isn’t as common, involves hypomanic and depressive episodes that last at least two years.

As I’ve said, I’m bipolar II, where my hypomanic episodes involve restlessness, fast (well, faster than normal) talking and thinking, and buying shoes online that I don’t need. I usually post these purchases on here to broadcast that 1) I bought awesome new shoes and 2) I’m currently hypomanic off my ass. My depressive episodes are soul-crushing in their extremity. I can’t think, I struggle to breathe, my vision is blurred, I feel like I’m wrapped in a wet wool blanket that I can’t kick my way out of, I sometimes have visual or aural hallucinations (including seeing people in black clothing lunging at me and hearing stupid, irritating circus music coming from another room), and I often contemplate suicide but I have no energy or initiative to carry it out … I generally feel like everything is completely hopeless and I just want to have never existed. And when I emerge from these episodes I’m exhausted to my core.

Bipolar disorders can be managed with psychotherapy (talking with a therapist), psychiatry (drug therapies) or a combination of both. I’ve never found much benefit from my visits with various psychologists, but I’m a HUGE believer in better living through chemistry. Psych meds (which are awesomely called psychotropics) affect me strongly, for better or worse. They involve a lot of trial and error, but I’ve been highly functional for the last four years after finally finding a magic cocktail of three psychotropics (there’s that cool word again).

I do want to stress, though, that what works for me is indicative only of what works for ME. If you’re living with a mental illness, don’t abandon a combination of therapies that might be working for you just because someone else is thriving on a different combination of therapies. And for God’s sake, ALWAYS TAKE YOUR MEDS.

Bipolar disorders were classified as manic depression through most of the 1900s. In 1980, the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (called DSM-III), officially changed the classification to bipolar disorder to reflect a wider range of nuance and understanding of the disease. This paragraph is a broad generalization of the naming history, but I wanted to explain that manic depression and bipolar disorder are essentially the same thing.

There is a lot more I could discuss here, but I want to keep these essays short(er than this one) and digestible for anyone who cares to read them. Feel free to share this with anyone you think might be interested, and I hope to have another short(er than this one) essay posted soon. Stay healthy!

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Cedar Rapids>Dubuque>Car With Total Strangers>O'Hare>Fucking Hell>Eventually NYC

Four years ago today, I embarked on what ended up being a 19-hour, four-airport, one-roadtrip-with-strangers odyssey trying to get to NYC for my 50th birthday. I documented the increasingly infuriating saga on Facebook—to the endless amusement of my family and friends, who literally encouraged to turn it into a book—but I'm too lazy for that so I'm just piling it all here. Please enjoy. Or not.

May 2, 11:21 pm
This weekend’s performance of the Big Birthday Broadway Bash has been delayed while we search for an understudy. Thank you for your patience.

#HowToTurn50 #AndWithholdYourStandingOvationBeforeTheShowEvenStarts


May 3, 12:08 am
Curtain up! My chauffeur parents and I just have a bit of a drive ahead of us.

#HowToTurn50 #AndFinallyExhale


May 3, 4:16 am
My (slightly revised so I want to make sure the tank is full but miraculously still on time) Big Birthday Broadway Bash begins!

#HowToTurn50 #AndLoseAllYourSleep


May 3, 6:34 am
We made it to Dubuque—where the airport is quite modern and cool and the snacks are on a table with a sign that says $1 each and there’s a cardboard box to pay or make change for yourself all on the honor system—and I’m seated on the plane where there are two quite hot men except one of them is literally sitting in a crowd of children so whatever but anyway I’m back on track for my Big Birthday Broadway Bash!

#HowToTurn50 #AndNotStopYawning


May 3, 8:41 am
See this sunny, optimistic smile? It’s the rictus of a man who got up at 3:00 to drive to Dubuque after he had to rebook when his Cedar Rapids flight was canceled ... and then sat on the runway and even back in the airport for TWO FRUSTRATING HOURS because of the fog and is now finally taxiing back to the runway for another attempt.

#HowToTurn50 #AndUseAllYourSwearWords


May 3, 9:33 am
Well THIS is a first.

After sitting in impenetrable fog on the runway, returning to the gate, deplaning, replaning, taxiing back to the runway, and finally revving the engines and accelerating for takeoff ... we abruptly aborted and came SCREAMING to a stop just short of certain fiery death. Because the engine failure light came on. THE ENGINE FAILURE LIGHT. How ridiculous! I’ve been driving with my airbag light on for 10 years and I have never even once experienced certain fiery death.

So here we sit AGAIN at the gate with the honor-system snack table waiting to think of newer, even more thrilling, ways to destroy the joys of turning 50.

On the plus side, I’ve now had the chance to scope out the entirety of the passenger population and I have revised my two-hot-guys body count to four. But one’s wearing a backward baseball cap so I have to kill him. So three.

#HowToTurn50 #AndAlmostPoopYourselfRightOnTheRunway


May 3, 10:05 am
Keep scrolling ...
Keep scrolling ...
Almost there ...

You know what’s awesome about having good bipolar drugs? I’m totally chill in almost every situation.

Of course, I won’t cry at your funeral, but you’ll be dead so FUCK YOU WITH YOUR FUCKING COMPLAINING.

#HowToTurn50 #AndShrugAtEverySetback


May 3, 10:21 am
A post from Mom:

So, I will add a chapter—no, just a little info—to the airplane trip to NYC that still has not happened. Just wanted to share a super foggy photo [note: I cannot find this photo] of the original taxiing to the gate in Dubuque about 6:33 am today. And the airport did not know that the plane did not actually take off from the runway until I called them 90 minutes later and said the AA site said the plane was delayed. And now Jake is in Dubuque and we and the car are back in Cedar Rapids!


May 3, 11:31 am
Well. They did such a good job re-duct-taping the engine to the wing that you can hardly see it. So we’ve now completed our third boarding and I’m in the process of ignoring our third safety demonstration as we speak. It’s now been over 12 hours since I was notified that my 6:06 Cedar Rapids flight was canceled, I got rebooked to a 6:41 flight a hour away in Dubuque, I deplaned not once but twice, I’ve been reassigned to three increasingly later connecting flights, and I first embarked on my first of five (and counting!) treks across that mega-long-ass gangplank (or whatever it’s called). (Seriously. That thing has an Olympic-length lap pool, a Renaissance vanishing point and two time-zone changes.) (Parentheses party!)

But it’s now 11:31 and instead of launching ourselves into the air at our promised 10:45 takeoff time, we’re still connected to that gangplank (or whatever it’s called) like an emotionally needy fetus to its umbilical cord.

Aaaaaaaaaaaand ... we JUST got told that our re-duct-taped engine WON’T EVEN START RUNNING.

This literally is exactly the reason why I didn’t buy tickets to a show tonight.

#HowToTurn50 #AndGetGrayHairsOnYourGrayHairs


May 3, 2:23 pm
See this pretty house? It’s in Galena, which is about a 30-minute drive east of the Dubuque airport. See the side mirror in the corner of the photo? That belongs to a family of four people I just met in line in the Dubuque airport. What could all of this possibly mean?

I’LL TELL YOU WHAT IT MEANS.

After having my original flight canceled and then driving to Dubuque at 4:00 am to catch a different flight, after evacuating the plane for that flight twice for fog and twice because the damn engine fell off, after canceling my tickets to Jimmy Fallon, after TRYING REALLY HARD NOT TO FUCKING SWEAR (oops), my second flight was finally canceled too. OF COURSE. And! There were no more Dubuque flights today. And! There was no time to drive to Cedar Rapids to catch a flight there. And! There was nobody at the car-rental counter anyway. But! There IS an 8:30 flight out of Chicago tonight. And! The nice family in line ahead of me decided to drive their car there to catch it. And! They invited me to tag along.

So here I am. In a car with (hopefully) nice strangers. Who won’t dismember me and feed me to feral she-wolves.

Being 50 is weird.

#HowToTurn50 #AndHopefullyNotBeFedToSheWolves


May 3, 3:05 pm
We have stopped at a McDonald's. I'm hungry. I have to pee. But I'm suddenly obsessively worried that my captors will run to their car and take off without me. So I'm neither peeing in the bathroom nor ordering food at the counter with my back to the door and the car.

#HowToTurn50 #AndLiveInHopefullyIrrationalFear

May 3, 3:59 pm
This fluffy boi is lurking ominously in the general vicinity of O’Hare from my view out the window of my captors’ car.

BRING IT, MOTHER NATURE! Imma get to NYC tonight even if I have to climb on a broom and turn my back to the Western skies. Because everyone deserves a chance to see SpongeBob Squarepants the musical!

#HowToTurn50 #ViaTheIncredibleKindnessOfStrangers


May 3, 5:47 pm
Gary the O'Hare American Airlines ticketing agent is a dick.

Every other American Airlines employee I've encountered today responded to my good spirits and organized, at-the-ready information and mood-lightening corny jokes with nothing but friendly helpfulness.

Let me tell you the reasons you’re a dick, Gary:
  • Blah blah blah made-up rules
  • Blah blah blah dramatic sighs
  • Blah blah blah made up fees
  • Blah blah blah putting me in a center seat when my profile says I prefer aisle seats and there’s no way your ticketing system didn’t tell you the back TWO rows of the airplane were empty.
#HowToTurn50 #BlahBlahBlahI'mTalkingToYOUGaryTheDick


May 3, 6:24 pm
I am FINALLY at my O’Hare gate, my third airport after my second canceled flight and two unexpected car rides totaling 500 miles over the last 16 hours. But this flight is two hours earlier than the one I was supposed to be on. So if it gets canceled too, I still have options. BUT I’D BETTER NOT NEED OPTIONS, PEOPLE. I am painfully tired. And after all my soul-crushing travails, American condemned me to a middle seat by the toilets, which my wide shoulders and delicate nose and I hate. But perhaps I’ll be seated in the waifish constipated goblin section. Because OPTIMISM! POSITIVITY! EMACIATING FIBERLESS PLAGUES AMONG THE MAGICAL WOODLAND CREATURES WHO ARE TRAVELING TO NEW YORK TONIGHT!

#HowToTurn50 #ByDrivingToLotsOfAirportsInsteadOfFlyingLikeNormalPeople


May 3, 7:17 pm
Guess what's shut down right now. Just guess.

No, I'll tell you: ALL THE FUCKING NEW YORK AIRPORTS ARE SHUT DOWN RIGHT NOW.

We are currently enjoying life on dimly lit auxiliary power on the O'Hare tarmac. We will sit here until we receive “an update” in an hour and 15 minutes. Go to hell, world.

#HowToTurn50 #WhileSittingOnTarmacAfterTarmacAdNauseam


May 3, 8:31 pm
You know what would make this fucking hell of a day even worse? I’ll tell you exactly what would make this fucking hell of a day even worse:

We literally—LITERALLY!—just got the “Is there a doctor on board?” announcement—yes, apparently it’s a real thing—because someone across the aisle and one row ahead of me is apparently having some kind of seizure. And there are so many people crowding around her that a good four rows of us are trapped in our seats as the whole plane sits trapped on the tarmac subsisting only on dimly lit reserve power.

I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.

So of course—OF FUCKING COURSE!—the self-absorbed douchebag sitting next to me—who has already TWICE demanded that I get up so he can wander the aisles doing his self-absorbed-douchebag things—suddenly decides that NOW is the time to push our row back into the crowded aisle again so he can wander the plane doing even more of his self-absorbed-and-now-potentially-harmful douchebag things.

ON TOP OF THAT!

I don’t even know what’s up with the prick directly in front of me, but he’s trying to interfere in the doctoring so insistently that the flight attendant has repeatedly—REPEATEDLY!—told him that he needs to stay in his seat and stop demanding to interfere and shut the hell up or—and she literally said this to him—“I’ll have to involve the captain.”

Plus the flight attendants have just confirmed amongst themselves and within my earshot that the gagging smell here in the back of the plane is from the “exploded diaper” someone left in the bathroom.

I am so so SO beyond exhaustion and patience and a capacity for tolerance of self-absorbed trash and even basic happiness right now.

#HowToTurn50 #InThePitsOfHell


May 3, 8:58 pm
Why is my phone still on? Why am I using the same screen grab?

I’ll tell you why my phone is still on PLUSS I'll tell you why I'm using the same screen grab:

We have resolved the medical emergency (something about low blood sugar triggering a panic attack, near as I can tell). We have taxied to the runway. We have dimmed the cabin lights. We have been told to off our electronic devices for takeoff.

WE HAVE ALSO SUDDENLY HEARD THE BLOOD-CURDLING SCREAMS OF A FUCKING CHILD WHO HAS LOCKED HERSELF IN THE BATHROOM AND REFUSES TO COME OUT.

The flight attendants are trying to calm the child through the door with a mix of soothing reassurances underscored with FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING LITTLE BRAT OR SO HELP US WE WILL BURN THIS PLANE TO THE GROUND WITH YOU IN IT AND WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOUR PARENTS WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOUR PARENTS?

Oh, wait: The flight attendants seem to have gotten the door open and (hopefully) stun-gunned the child because all is quiet save for the dulcet tones of their forced soothing reassurances. BUT THE QUESTION REMAINS WHERE THE FUCK ARE THE FUCKING PARENTS.

#HowToTurn50 #TheFirstStepIsToGetYourTubesTied


May 4, 12:07 am
Wheels on the ground, bag collected, Uber arrived, traffic at a brisk crawl! I haven’t been so tired—or so in need of a vigorous tooth-brushing—in as long as I can remember. But my tap shoes and my sense of overwhelming relief (not to mention my carefully selected, casually handsome, still-looking-Jimmy-Fallon-fresh shirt) are here, so bring on the big gay musicals!

After a sound sleep, of course. Preceded by a vigorous tooth-brushing.

#HowToTurn50 #AfterAGoodSleepOfCourse


May 4, 12:42 am
I’M! IN! MANHATTAN!

TAKING! ELEVATOR! SELFIES!

AND! POSSIBLY! FLEXING!

time. for. fucking. bed.

#HowToTurn50 #ImOnlyDoingThisOnce

Theater Program Notes: Titanic

The RMS Titanic: At once a triumph of engineering and a metaphor for the the hubris of an era sailing at full speed By Jake Stigers The RMS ...