A writer’s journey is a funny thing. Not that I think that we don’t fold our towels in some magical manner than others. Or that we pay our bills using money from Gringott’s (that’d be nice if we did … ’cause elves and dragons … jussayin’). No, I think that it’s more that we often jot down things that happen to us. We document lives – our own and those characters and worlds we create.
It’s this documentation that I have rambling in my head as of late. Why? Well, first it started off because I am recasting my Angels of Mercy series cast in a YA format. But that wasn’t the end of it. Angels of Mercy was always meant to be a metaphorical exploration of characters – a character study of three main protags over the course of the same timeline – each boy having a different perspective over the timeline and the answers to the drama I’ve thrown at them. Each boy has an angelic name that is emblematic of their character traits. So, recasting them in a YA setting I wanted to change it up, take the Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Supernatural route and make the story about actual angels and demons. I also took them back to the 1907s so I could omit a lot of the tech that characters interact in current stories and focus purely on character. Eschewing trappings of today entirely. Old school, er, uh, as the kids today spell it: #oldskool. (Ya gotta love them kids).
Since I grew up in the 70s I decided that I’d throw in all the stuff that happened back then that I could recall, augmenting with image searches and binge watching TV shows of the 70s to keep in the groove in my righteous way. #RightOnMan!
One of the shows that I binged while writing Mercy’s Little Angels was The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
I loved this show. I watched it religiously when I was a kid. However, the rewatch completely threw me. The writing was still brisk and funny, but with modern eyes the sexisms and subversive language, while progressive of the time, fall woefully short of what we think today – which is as it should be. But there was another thing I took note of: Lou Grant (played to perfection by the inestimable, Ed Asner). Why? Because there were elements of Lou’s character that mirrored my husband’s. J, my husband, is sixteen years my senior and a relative contemporary (give or take a decade) of Lou’s character. He’s of that age, of that time. I always found my husband to be an amusing man – one of the many traits that endears him to me. I fell in love with his mind far before anything else about him. That remains true to this day. With my recent cancer scare it was his complete and thorough knowledge of medicine (as a retired physician) that kept my oncologist’s feet to the medical fire. I credit my slow climb to win this war against this awful disease to him. He is the light that presses into the night when all I feel is darkness. He’s my angel (I’m not religious so for me to say that, it’s something, believe me). It’s why Angels of Mercy was dedicated to him with the first book. He’s always been that light in my life. And my bout with cancer wasn’t the only time he’s done that.
When he and I got together I had a cat I’d had for about eleven years to that point, his name was Gizmo. I say was because he passed in 2006. But the thing is he wouldn’t have made it to that year (I got Gizmo in 1994) if my husband hadn’t been there. In his eleventh year Gizmo was diagnosed with feline diabetes. This completely restructured our lives. But by then J’s life had taken a turn with his own heart disease and so he built a regimen for himself and Gizmo to monitor and administer their meds at the same time. Everything in our lives revolved around Giz and J’s routine. Dinner plans? What time did Giz require his insulin shot (yeah, shot)? Don’t forget your meds too, hon. “I got it …” he’d call back to me as he went to do both. Movie night? Again, times were selected around their med schedule and feedings. EVERYTHING was according to Giz and J’s schedule. But here’s the thing: Gizmo didn’t suffer for his disease for another 11 years. J meticulously monitored, double checking the vet’s current tests and lab results at every turn. Gizmo’s comfort and quality of life was beyond anything I could’ve done for those remaining 11 years of Gizmo’s life. They bonded over that disease. I’d often come home from work to hear the hubster and Giz “talking” in the kitchen while J prepared dinner for all of us (in some shape or form). Until Gizmo’s stroke at the age of 21 (admittedly VERY old for a cat’s life) J gifted him with a care and quality that always left me breathless. When the stroke happened I saw a crack in my stalwart, former college football playing husband. He broke. It was quiet and removed, huddle up to my cat and whispering such sweet words to him about what he’d do to make it better. This from a life long “dog” person. Yeah, you read that right. That’s how far he’d moved along that pet line to embrace my cat. It’s when I realized he was no longer “my” cat. Giz looked to J for everything. J would have to pick Giz up and put him down for feedings. J would follow him into the cat box area in our bathroom and if Giz made a mess, he’d look up at my husband (I witnessed it) and J would just whisper to him that it was okay, he’d take care of it.
Put simply: I’d married a gem of a man.
When Giz passed – we eventually had to put him down because there simply wasn’t any hope – he’d suffered another minor stroke. The end was eminent, there’d be no magic cure. On February of 2006 we took him to the vet to say our goodbye’s and were there to be with him as he slipped away. My husband broke. This man who didn’t do emotional displays, who didn’t do anything public (no social media presence, remember?), lost it. We went home, he cried silently as I drove us there. He went into a pseudo seclusion. His own medicine regimen suffered because he wasn’t doing Gizmo’s any more that kept time. Things got messy. It went on for months. We languished. It was the most silent part of our relationship. We talked about a lot of stuff. We just didn’t talk about Giz much. His bowls, toys and items weren’t packed away for weeks. J wouldn’t let me. It was then that he told me the moment he fell in love with Giz.
When I first moved to San Francisco, to be with J, my cat stayed behind with my ex. When he eventually moved to SF six month’s later (we’d always planned on moving to SF together – but that’s not how it worked out – even if we’re still friends to this day) Giz made the trip up with him. J was there to help sort my stuff from my ex’s. Gizmo was amongst the moving items. My ex had the cats we had (there were three) mildly sedated for the driving trip (some 10+ hours). When J saw Giz for the first time, those big blue eyes catching J’s brown, J said he swore he would take care of Giz for the rest of his life and that he would never let Giz go through something like passive sedation to make a moving trip easier. J never let that happen for the rest of Gizmo’s life. Again, a supposed “dog” person did this.
So, why the comparison to Lou? Because, so many character elements my husband has are perfectly aligned to that character. J has an enlightened mentality to our times, but he also is staunchly attached to his era. It’s a duality I live with that fascinates me to this day. And the reason I am documenting this aspect now.
You see, we’re in a similar situation. Not only with my battling cancer but one of our two cats (that we got 2 years after Gizmo’s passing), Katya, the Bengal, is having health issues. Her eating habits are off. Being a Bengal, Katya is 5/8ths wild. Her breed is special because it was created by a geneticist who bred Asian leopard cats and snow leopards into the standard silver tab because those leopard cats had a natural resistance to feline HIV and Leukemia. Bengals are also known to have robust systems that keep them fairly healthy throughout their lives. Given our situation with Gizmo this seemed like a good thing.
One thing Bengals are subject to: old age. No getting around that. Katya is now 15. And, at the moment, has been faltering. As I write this early this morning, I woke because my husband had been quietly crying with Katya curled up to him as he whispered that she needed to eat more, and that he’d think of something to help. My husband’s a bright guy – remember, he vociferously and meticulously kept my oncologist feet to the fire throughout my cancer scare – writing medical analysis that eventually went to Second Opinion and got them to see his point of view on my case – they concurred. But animals, it seems, are his waterloo. Katya became J’s return to life. He was always proud to show people his “leopard” – she has rosettes like a leopard because of her lineage. Bengals have been clocked out in the wild at racing 40mph. Did you know that? He’ll tell you that if you meet them. Katya is his pride and joy – I’m not saying I take a back seat, but I do often chide him that the “fish wife” wants him and I have to step aside.
Like Lou Grant, a tough guy exterior, coupled with an acerbic wit and a fiendishly clever sense of humor, my guy has a lot in common with Lou. But it’s the last character trait I’ve yet to mention about Lou that cleaves my heart in two: his heart of gold. Like Lou, when you strip away all the bravado, the humor, the wit, when you really boil it all down, you have a man who loves whole-heartedly and is “all in” with what you’ve both got going on in your life.
This morning – at 4:50am I woke to his muffled tears and sniffles as he whispered to Katya curled up into his chest. Like a cat erping up a hairball, J’s emotional displays are a HUGE wake up call. I often tell people I have to really poke him hard to get him to say anything that is hurting him. I tell doctor’s, when we take him to see one, that if J goes, “Ow, that hurts,” it’s equivalent to someone coming along an whacking your arm off with a machete and then pouring iodine on the wound. J doesn’t do “ow.” He’s very quiet that way. So, when I hear him break it’s like an Emergency Broadcast alert has gone off in the house.
This morning was one of those moments.
He kept apologizing. Like Lou Grant apologized. It was messy and sometimes incoherent. And I found myself not too unlike Mary grappling with the helplessness of wanting to help Lou (even if they weren’t married). We fed Katya 3 hours early this morning because she seemed to want to eat. Something she’s been meh about eating for days. J became emboldened and wanted to take care of it right away. So there we were cutting up filet mignon for Katya (yeah, he bought her absolute favorite to have on hand in case she got hungry). She ate. She seems more active for the moment. My “Lou” seems happier, but there’s a knowing sadness creeping in there. A Gizmo laden one I’ve not seen in years. Fifteen plus years to be exact.
I know what’s coming. I see it, even if he’s trying like hell not to. We’ve decided to take her to the vet on Monday morning. She’s not hiding (usually a very strong sign that something is amiss in a cat), she’s not stopped pooing or peeing – so we’re good there. She’s still grooming regularly – another sign that things are semi-normal. She just does EVERYTHING slower. I’m fairly convinced it’s old age that’s crept up on us while we weren’t watching. It seems sudden, it’s caught him off-guard from his prized leopard, but for those of us of a certain age, as I tell him, that old age thing happens pretty quickly when it comes. We suddenly can’t kneel easy anymore. We could do it yesterday, but not now. Things like that.
So, I watch my Lou. I see his worry and concern. And, like Mary, I do what I can to help the big guy out. There’s no easy win here. There’s no magic balm that will set this right. THIS IS LIFE. It’s how it works. He knows that, I know that. Katya certainly knows it on some level. But it did make me realize and distill the man I married. I’m okay with that. Hell, I signed up for it. Tonight, while he kept Katya close to him on the bed, with me holding Zorro (our Somali cat) close, we watched “Victory at Sea” and “Zorro” (the Disney Guy William’s version from the 1950’s) so J could relive a part of his boyhood past. He was six and ten respectively and he talked a great deal about why these two shows (along with The Swamp Fox – which is next on our list) were so prominent in his childhood. The four of us lie on the bed, watching old TV and letting my Lou reminisce about his youth. In this I saw the boy who had numerous mutt dogs – all called Penny for some silly reason – Penny One, Penny Two … yeah, that’s my guy. He named them all Penny so it’d be easy to remember. Well, that’s what he says.
I now think, after his emotional breaks with Giz and Kat, that he named all those dogs (who were terrier mixes, btw) Penny because he needed the next one to fill the shoes of the Penny before her. It was his way of keeping continuity in his youth. That explains a lot to me about the man I married. The man who diligently sees to our pets care. Cat or dog. Like Lou Grant, beneath that gruff exterior is a heart of gold that is undeniable and the source of my love.
Until next time …
Humans love to classify things. We love order amongst the chaos. It’s just how we’re wired to short cut how we see the world. It gives us order and cohesion that is comforting to us. It makes the world easier to navigate.
But I write this as a queer writer. It’s a word that used to be hurled at us to open new wounds, add salt to old, and denegrate us to the point of tears or real physical gut-wrenching pain. As a matter of history, we, as a community, have used that classification to identify who we are and establish our voices in the mainstream political spectrum as we vied for a place at the table to establish and hold onto our rights. In that particular venue we needed to define ourselves so people not of the community could see us collectively as well as individually as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, etc. In the beginning Gays and Lesbians led the way, albeit with differing agendas. Men established their separatism by holding it close to the bone sexually. Whereas the Lesbian movement was more about poltical rights, personal well-being and emotional quality of life. They both realized in the early days of the movement saw that they needed to present themselves as the next door neighbor. Someone the mainstream knew.
It was important to our early movement to make us seem like any other neighbor. We were human after all. We ate, made a home for ourselves, paid bills, worked, sought personal relationships just like any other human being on the planet. The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitius did their level best to put us in that light early on. It started the national conversation on the right foot. Our best foot. That’s not to say that there weren’t detractors from within both those groups. As we’ve seen in We Rise, the mini-series that covered those early days produced by out academy award winner screenwriter, Lance Black, there was a healthy amount of discention from within those movements. Queerdom already had a propensity to refuse to be classified so rigidly. For many within who went along, it was a personal compromise they thought was worth it to gain some value and respect in the greater mainstream.
So why the historical recap? Because, as of late, I’ve seen quite a few of my queer brothers (I use queer purposefully – acknowledging that many of my generation have a visceral reaction to that term) across the spectrum as identifying as anything other than “strictly heterosexual,” commenting on works that don’t fit into the gay rigid classification. Where gay men are meant to be “just one way” with each other – much like how the CIS HET world tended to hold against us (why aren’t you dating a woman like everyone else?!). I think while we’ve asserted ourselves in the mainstream conversation we’ve lost sight that it was queerdom we were embracing. The specifics of where we fall within that rainbow laden spectrum is quite literally irrelevant. We just all can agree we’re queer – derisive commentary from close minded heterosexuals be damned. It’s what we are. Outside the perceived norm, which we ALL know doesn’t exist.
I watched as my gay identifying brothers derided Andre Aicerman’s Call Me By Your Name option into a cinema work as “not gay.” I withheld my own commentary on it until I both read and watched the adaptation. It is decidedly not “gay” by rigid classification for those that need it. I know. I used to count myself amongst them. It’s one of the reasons I hold a great ire for MM Romance which is certainly NOT gay, either. It’s gay in name only but is predominantly written for straight women by straight women who are more in love with men in general and choose a male/male pairing so they can have more of that man-pie they crave. It has nothing to do with queer men. I know some gay men who enjoy it. That’s their call. I personally don’t agree with it. I like stories closer to the bone of who we are. Not that they can’t have the romantic trope of a HEA (happily ever after) or HFN (happy for now) endings. Our stories can certainly ascribe to those hopeful ideals. But I like it going into our stories when I don’t know how it will all end. I love that churn I feel, that gut wrenching “no, no, nonononononono,” that happens when things go unexpectedly sour. Why? Because that’s how it happens. The best of circumstances, the best relationships, all hit snags. What I am after is what happens next. What do each of these characters, already maligned in life because of who they are or how they represent themselves rise to the occasion? Do they implode? Do they rise above it (much harder to do in this world – but boy howdy, it’s a great thing to see when they do!)?
At the same time I read K.M. Soehnlein’s The World of Normal Boys. Two works that couldn’t be more different in approach but both explore the exact same turf: “Normal Boys” who defy classification. Boys who find themselves in homoerotic relationships that push against what they expect out of life – the script we, as men, are given to us by society. The one gay boys say, “fuck it, that ain’t me …”
The World of Normal Boys has the main character, Robin MacKenzie, discovering why he’s different from other boys. It’s not because of the exposure to the museums and culture his mother brings to him in New York, though it is certainly part of it. Instead, Robin discovers his sexuality because he begins to crave the touch of those “normal boys” in the form of two non-conforming boys – outlaws – in his high school world. Todd Spicer is a stoner boy, born into a rich aspiring family, but bucking it all and playing a bad boy. Eventually, Todd and Robin find themselves in a sexual situation that Todd easily explains away as his being a free spirit, brought about by an inspirational film he saw about a guy doing whatever the hell he wanted to in life. There were no limits to life that way. His messing around with Robin sexually held no more meaning than smoking the cigarette they shared after their tryst. The other “normal boy” in Robin’s life is Scott Shatz. Scott is a lone wolf (Scott’s own label for himself – isn’t that how we all see ourselves in our teens?). But Scott soon befriends Robin and their relationship evolves to Scott and Robin messing around sexually as well. Scott keeps telling Robin “not to make a big deal about it” when Robin soon susses out that it IS a big deal but Scott and Todd don’t want it to be. What I find so interesting in this work is this is how it works for gay boys. We seek the comfort of other boys who are often not like us, but when pulled away from society expectations other things take flight in the dark, drifting through clouds of marijuana like dark birds who want something secretive that says they are their own man. Only to have the harsh light of day come piercing through their dark dreams and bring them all crashing to the ground of reality. So many gay boys have this story. I count myself amongst them. It was how my early gayboy days revealed themselves to me.
Conversely, though not all that different, Call Me By Your Name, explores the same territory. Men who discover something so revelatory and life shattering that they become swept up by it but find, at the end of the day (or summer in this case), must return to the world better and healthier for their experiences, but no less resigned to life in the rigid normalcy of a heterosexual life. Elio and Oliver meet over a summer of 1983 when Oliver, an American, is hired by Elio’s father (an archeologist) to catalog their findings from recent digs in Italy. At first the story moves about with both men, Elio’s late teen crush on a girl, and Oliver’s supposed romantic summer fling in the arms of another woman. Yet, Elio and Oliver soon start to spiral around one another. An epic dance of two men discovering each other in ways they don’t expect. Mainstream rules say they must reject those feelings at first. It’s part of that script should they have to run to the “troubleshooting” section of that heterosexual manual they all carry. But that troubleshooting doesn’t offer much in the way of hope as Elio keeps longing for Oliver’s attention. When the subject finally rears its head it’s outed under the guise of Elio wanting to discover what Oliver knows about being a man and navigating the halls of love. Hero worship. Oliver, for reasons not provided fully in the work, knows it is something more. He gently lets Elio pull close but eventually pushes him back with a clear, “we need not speak of it.” Saying that with the clear implication that they certainly won’t act on it. Only, they do. And thensome. Peaches, anyone?
Once they come together they are fairly inseparable. Elio’s parents, both educated – delightfully displayed not only in the father’s line of work but also of the intimate moments the three of them share when their mother translates a german work into english as her husband and Elio listen louging next to her. Indeed, the film does this to brilliant effect by having French, Italian and English rotate – often within the same speech as the story moves along. These are not, say, the close minded parents of a similar film that takes place at the same time, Edge of Seventeen, where the parents are working class. Elio’s parents clearly detect that Elio and Oliver are involved in some way. It is the final sequence after Oliver’s eventual departure at the end of Summer that his father has a heart to heart talk that clearly separates European fathers from their American counterparts. While I recognize that not all American parents were close minded (mine weren’t, for example) and all Europeans are open minded, I would think that it is one place where Europeans are ahead of us and have been for quite some time.
What I love most about these works is that they informed me in writing my own. In Angels of Mercy, I quite literally fought against the twin brothers of my series as being rigidly gay. I should’ve known better. Hanging around my queer granddaughter and her queer friends, I know that the spectrum is vast and varied. Yet, I pushed back. I tried to force my boys to be gay and gay only to the point where it was literally strangling the story. I had to step back and have that same heart to heart Elio had with his father – which literally smacked me in the head when I saw it before my eyes. It is better to have the courage to explore love for love’s sake – whatever form that takes. Eventually I was able to let my previously defined gayboys as pansexuals – still part of the queer spectrum, just not wholly of the gay classification. Marco and Pietro discover that they fall in love with who the person is, not what junk they have trapped in their pants.
After all, isn’t that what we’re truly after? #LoveIsLove has greater implications. For me, I’ve learned not to be so craving for a “gay” story – whatever that is. I’d rather it be queer and let me discover it along with the character. It is their journey that brought me to them in the first place, not mine. I want to know what they feel and aspire to, not what I would do.
I’ve come to realize that all my works may focus on first person narrative, but they are essentially ensemble pieces. It takes a village and all that rot.
I am a queer author, writing queer works, and finding myself wholly embracing the term and seek the works of others who want to tell stories that explore that in all its infinite varieties.
Until next time,
– SA C
Okay, maybe not totally. I can’t put the blame on someone because they created something they were passionate about. But what art does, if it’s at its best, is to inspire other artists to create. So, in that case, it is totally Whedon’s fault. He inspired me. His storytelling for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (yes, I even endured the terrible movie version with Kristy Swanson and Rutger Hauer – in the theater, as a PAYING customer no less – so I get extra-slayer points for being a supporter from the very beginning). I didn’t buy the movie version. Not when it’s available to rent. I’m not that much of a freaky fan.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Whedon at Comic Con one year. I’d always heard he moves around in a constant state of exhaustion – the man works so hard all the time – and my meeting with him it was evident that even within the marketing hoopla of what he was there to promote that I was very judicious with my fawning over having a moment with him. I didn’t even bother him with a photo op because he just looked so damned tired – though it didn’t stop my daughter and mother from having me snap a picture of them. I’ve got it somewhere in my photo library … somewhere. Even my granddaughter made the rounds at the Con taking pictures with various Buffy actors when she had barely achieved her first year of life (she has the distinction of being Jonathan Strong’s very first baby pic – or so he told us as he took brief possession of my granddaughter so my daughter could snap the coveted pic of them). I already knew the do’s and don’ts of meeting him … chief amongst them was to NEVER mention his brilliant work for the movie Waterworld. That was a sure-fire way to make him walk away from you with a look that would melt you on the spot. We promptly took my daughter/mother’s pic with him and thanked him for his time and spared a thought to let that man rest soon.
He really did look exhausted. I felt enormously guilty for taking any of his time but don’t regret it happening at all.
But I digress.
I’ve always liked the paranormal or supernatural stories. Whedon’s take – when he emerged on the scene in the mid-to-late nineties – was a breath of fresh air. Not only did he have a great female protagonist but she was sharp, witty, assertive (when she needed to be), and completely three dimensional for a superhero sort of story. Who knew pop-culture refs would work in a serialized fictional story and that people were hungry for that sort of snark in their supernatural drama?
I lapped that shit up like mother’s milk.
So why write about Buffy’s influence on my works? And why wait so long between blog posts? Well, I haven’t been silent about my dealing with cancer. I am happy to report that my last CT scan showed that the cancer is gone and the residual lymph nodes that demonstrated inflammation and germicidal (the type of cancer cells for my type of cancer) cells that caused that inflammation had decreased by more than half after the second round of chemo was a complete. I was happy to discover from that bit of news from my oncologist. So the pause from my last post to this one has, thankfully, been a rosy colored one. Things are definitely looking up for me now. And having something like cancer hit you broadside (as it did for me) completely reset my clock – so to speak. What used to be important that was truly frivolous have all fallen by the wayside. Writing, now that I have some strength returning to my limbs and energy overall, has become forefront in my mind and efforts. I think I can return to the land of writing on a more consistent basis than before.
But back to Mr. Whedon and his inspirational scrivenings.
Aside from the Swanson led debacle, I pretty much own everything he’s ever worked on, written, produced (okay, maybe I’ve missed a couple there – but I’ve seen them). His character development, his ability to find tender threads within any character and make them relatable to a wide audience was something I wanted to harness and add to my own writing arsenal.
Before Buffy, words like “Owenness” (when describing the general aura of a character named Owen), or using the word “much” to proclaim complete astonishment (“Morbid much?”) or references to pop-culture slogans in the media at the time “Gee, Willow, I love your dress. How great that you’ve seen the softer side of Sears…” to establish a character’s snarky teasing/bullying were unheard of in night time evening offerings. Here was an over thirty-year-old man who was successfully capturing the rise in pop-culture use in teenage interactions was beyond brilliant.
If anything, it made me listen to my queer granddaughter and her friends far closer now as I write about my own crew of high school social misfits in Angels of Mercy. I want my kids to sound authentic. I think all writers serious about their craft do.
So why this ode to Mr. Whedon and Buffy? Because I’ve decided to do something completely bonkers. On the verge of ending my Angels of Mercy series, I am taking the entire cast of characters and recasting them all in a vampire/supernatural romp of my own. Only to make things even more interesting (at least for me) I’ve set them all back to the disco-laden days of the 1970s. Angel Flight polyester pants, candy heeled platform shoes, disco anthems on the transistor radios – what could be better for a fluffy Buffyesque vampire romp beach read? Only I’ve taken a page out of another author I admire and doing the new series as a freebie web series that I’ll compile during the month of November (using it as my NaNoWriMo) and adding some filler material and backstories to the web series to turn it into a YA book that will (hopefully) be slightly silly, slightly scary and even slightly sexy using the same cast of characters from my literary fiction series in this new scenario.
I sometimes think I need to have my head examined. I am hoping my readers who love Angels will join me and their beloved Angels of Mercy characters in a new story setting. The Same fictional town, same fictional high school, same snarky set of teens. Just toning down the over sex from the main series so it’s more YA audience bound. Maybe I’ll pick up new readers that way. Who knows? I just want to do this as a way to reexamine and explore my characters I know well and throw them into something completely off the wall fun.
I don’t think I would’ve seriously considered this pre-cancer. I think messing around with my own mortality has given me a certain freedom now that I’ve stared that mortality down and said, “Not yet … I’ve still got shit to do.”
I am confident I can pull this off. Whether my current readers will embrace it I can’t say. Fingers crossed and thanks to Mr. Whedon for giving me the idea (I am rewatching all seven seasons from the beginning while I write – giving my eyes a much-needed break from staring at the computer screen for long periods of time). Let’s see what I can do with Mercy’s Little Angels, shall we? The first “episode” hits my blog this Monday (fingers crossed). I hope you’ll join me for the journey in this retelling of my characters in a paranormal/supernatural frivolous romp.
Until next time …
That Oppressive Script … How Angels of Mercy Changed My Queer Boy Perspective on Sports
(Reprint from Rainbow Gold Reads Review)
Jocks have it hard.
They’ve got a lot to live up to as they pursue their passion in their chosen sport. This isn’t an easy thing to acknowledge on my part. I was one of those artistic queer kids that jocks loved to bag on. So why the change up in opinion?
Simple: I wrote Angels of Mercy.
When Angels presented itself (fully formed to the bitter end, mind you), I thought “Eh, I’ll bang this one out in a month.” I had the ending in my head already. I just had to write to that ending, right? Yeah, not so much it seems.
Here’s what I learned: you see, my main protagonist, Marco Sforza, is built upon my husband’s experiences playing football both at the high school level at Massillon, Ohio (the heart of high school American Football as we know it) and for Clemson U back in the day (admittedly a very different era than Marco’s present day story). So given the disparity in my husband’s and Marco’s timelines, I had to make some adjustments between my husband’s experiences and those that I was building for Marco. But what amazed me is that, at its core, very little has changed with regards to the institutionalization of homophobia within American football – be it, high school, college or pro.
We like to think “It gets better …” but in reality, has it? There are emerging stories about players in high school and college football that have appeared in OutSports where the players have come out to their teammates. In the cases that have been reported the response has been rather positive. Yet, we only have to bring up what happened to Michael Sam to understand that very little has changed with regard to players who hope to play openly and valued for their sportsmanship and not for who they love.
Angels taught me a lot. Not just about my characters and their road to happiness, but also because as I explored Marco’s having to follow that “jock script” all boys are indoctrinated to follow (bag the girl and draw some blood out on the field) Marco goes through some fairly difficult moments in his teenage life. In his desire to play ball and be one of the guys, he’s opened himself up to a major downfall that he can’t see coming – mostly because of the pressure to perform both on and off the field. That pressure is enormous. Yet, there’s a boy that has captured Marco’s attention in a way that no one, boy or girl, ever has. He finds himself on an emotional pendulum – swinging wildly from the life everyone else thinks he should have (girlfriends or friends with bennies, followed by marriage and rugrats), and the life he wants for himself wrapped up in a boy who requires darkness and shadows to survive another hellish day of high school.
It’s a ride my own husband had to play.
Simply put, hiding hurts everyone involved. No one ultimately benefits from that arrangement, despite how much comfort it may bring teammates in thinking that everything is cool, the dude is solid, a man’s man. Marco’s journey changed long held positions and baggage I carried from jocks that tormented me in my own past. I began to understand the pressures boys like Marco – who hide from themselves just to play the game they love to play – are under. But I didn’t want that discussion in my works to be so one-sided.
My granddaughter is queer and I spend a great deal of time with her and her friends. Queerdom is a very different monster with her crew. Just the fact that they embrace the word “queer” has changed my perspective on a word that used to torment me. So I realized that while things may not have totally changed, I also remembered the stories posted in OutSports of players who have experienced support from within their team. So while there is a clique within the team from Mercy High in my stories, I also balanced it with boys who really wouldn’t care if Marco was with a boy. I needed to show that line that things are changing. Maybe not at lightening speeds, but change is coming.
I am not kidding myself in thinking it will change in college or pro-ball in the next five, ten or fifteen years. That may be a long time in coming, but come it will.
With the release of Angels of Mercy – Diary of a Quarterback Part I: King of Imperfections and Angels of Mercy – Diary of a Quarterback Part II: Prince of Mistakes, I wanted to explore Marco’s journey. To be honest, while I started the main Angels of Mercy series from Marco’s boyfriend Elliot’s point of view, the story was really Marco’s to tell. He gets the lion’s share of the series (three books out of the six total).
I am thankful that Marco exists. He’s made me understand my husband’s past so much more. And I am far more sympathetic to athletes who take that courageous step to emerge and live a life out and proud. Their stories will always hold my interest.
I often wonder what I would say to my younger tortured teenboy self that would give my younger self context to understand what those boys go through. Don’t know if it would’ve made a difference or not, but I am glad I’ve grown enough as a writer and a queer man to give them a bit more of a pass and a modicum of understanding that many of them may not feel free enough to live openly and use oppression to express their frustration.
That’s what Angels ultimately explores. Here’s hoping that the trend toward acceptance keeps moving in a positive direction. I look forward to the day when it simply won’t matter.
Until next time …
SA Collins Store (support the author directly)
Character creation has never really been an issue for me. Having played so many of them on the stage over my half-century of being on this planet, I have pulled upon so many threads of the people I’ve met and crossed paths with. My high school drama teacher taught me many things about the craft. But there was one he taught that has stuck more than any other.
The world will reveal itself to you if you just stop singing, stop dancing, stop talking and just … listen and observe.
Now, if you’ve caught me on the podcast I co-host, you know that my not talking is something of an issue. I love conversation and have little to no filter (yes, I recognize it’s a flaw – but I choose to run with it and hope others can keep up) when it comes into diving in on topics that crop up during the conversation. So it’s no small feat for me to stop, not make a sound, and listen.
Yet, there are moments in my past that it happened for me with very little input on my part. Magical people and events that would just trigger that stop all action and listen (and watch) what was going on around me. And I’ve always come away the richer for it.
In writing the Angels of Mercy series, I have two characters that appear secondary in the story (to the plotline – though, in truth they are very much first level characters for one reason only – I know them both. They exist not only on the page, but also in my books).
I knew them when I was in grade school through high school. La Presa Elementary right up through La Presa Junior High and then ending at Monte Vista High, before we all went our separate ways. When I crafted Angels of Mercy, I knew that my quiet unassuming gay boy, Elliot, would have only one real friend in school before he becomes involved with the love of his life, Marco Sforza. That guy is Greg Lettau. Greg is drawn from the guy I knew in school who I thought was incredibly brilliant and had the wickedest sense of humor. He was skinny as all fuck, pointdexterish in the extreme – horned rimmed glasses and gawkish looking as can be.
But here’s the thing: Greg was so honorable as a friend he’s stuck with me, in my mind, long after we went our own ways after high school graduation. The few times I’d spent at their house after school back in my youth provided me with more than enough fertile ground to plunder when I crafted my two snarky brothers as supporting characters for Elliot and Marco. The Lettau boys are solid guys. Obviously, I’ve not known what they’ve gotten up to since we parted ways so long ago, but the memory of who they were in my past had a profound effect on wanting to capture their spirit and their particular brand of living life that I knew I wanted to pay homage to them.
I know I run the risk of using their actual names in the work, but I think even though it may not be the kind of book either man would read, I think I’ve done right by them. Greg, after all, gets the girl of his dreams in the end. I wanted that for Greg, even back then. He will always be that quick witted, snarky guy with a heart of gold. The banter he had with his brother I recalled was epic. I’ve only barely scratched the surface with them – as in this scene from my soon-to-be released Angels prequel: Angels of Mercy – Diary of a Quarterback Part One: King of Imperfections.
The first scene I had between the brothers had to be key in setting the tone for them. These were two guys who expressed their love by bagging the shit out of the other. The harder you bagged, the more love you expressed. It was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed before – completely foreign to how my world worked. And I remember loving the shit out of how they did it. They never missed a beat between them.
That is, until Greg gave me the greatest gift with his next words.
“Oh yeah. They live out on Oak Ridge Way out on the south-east part of town, up near the oak forest area – well, where the oaks and redwoods sorta mingle. Kinda the last house in town, if you know what I mean. You ever been out that way?” He eyed me for a second before turning the station on the TV to the science channel. This kid really was the quintessential geek.
I shook my head, “No, not really. Why?”
“Ah, well you just seemed the athletic type, being a jock and all.” He gave me a snarky roll of his eyes before continuing, “It’s fairly nice to hike up there sometimes. Hell, if I was half the friend to Elliot that I say I am, I should haul his ass up there for a bit. I know he could use the companionship. I sometimes worry ‘bout the guy, ya know?”
“Why? You think he’ll go all postal one day?”
“Nah, nothing like that. He’s to empathetic to go postal. He’d feel it way too much, ya know? But he’s definitely got a fairly lonely existence. Sometimes I’ve spotted him sitting out along the stands in the stadium – just drawing a bit in that sketchbook he carries around in his backpack while he eats his lunch. You know, way away from everyone. Serious loner stuff. And he’s a really great guy. I mean, I’m not going all gay for him, but he really is very smart and has a twisted as fuck sense of humor. I enjoy his company when we do get a chance to talk. I think he just is thankful that he has someone at school he can relate to a bit. I just can’t imagine how going to a school that holds nearly seven hundred kids and he’s only got pathetic me to chat up every now and then. Sad, really.”
“Maybe I should remedy that, then? I mean, if he’s as cool as you say he is.”
“Yeah, well, Elliot’s right on that score, bud. It’s one thing if the horn-rimmed math geek gets caught chatting him up from time to time. I mean, no one really pays any attention to math geeks unless its the jocks picking on ‘em because the gay kid ain’t around to bag on, ya know? For you, it’s a whole other thing. He’s right. It wouldn’t work out. Just the way it is.”
“Yeah, well, they don’t know dick about me.”
“Well, at the risk of pissing you the fuck off, it wouldn’t matter. This shit’s bigger than the both of us. Always has been, always will be. Ya know?”
I had to shrug at that. I knew the playbook about Jocks and inter-class social associations. The shrug was a requisite at this point if I was to maintain any credibility. Nothing but a pure acknowledgment of the rule book we both were playing by.
I had more than my fair share of intel on what I wanted on Elliot. Fuck me, when I thought on it, I’d hit the mother lode. I mean, now I knew where he lived. If it was where I thought it was, then I was in fucking hog heaven. I never drove out that way and I was kind of glad that the Impala I had back home wasn’t quite ready for her first run on the road since I’d rebuilt her engine. I still had a few things to fix on her before I got her that official armor of black paint to make her just as bad-assed as the Winchesters’ car on Supernatural. From the time I saw the first episode I was hooked and that car is what did it: full on classic muscle car. I could only hope Elliot would like riding around in it.
I looked at my watch; it was still early but I should head out anyway, didn’t want to over-stay my welcome. ‘Sides, I had an itch to scratch that had Elliot’s home address written all over it. I needed to get out there and see if I could sort out where he was. My heart was racing with just the prospect of seeing him this afternoon.
“Well, I better get going. I got some errands to run before I get home and hit the homework.”
“You leavin’ already?” Kevin asked as he came back from the kitchen. He had a grin on his face so evidently he was in tight with his latest conquest. And here I was, pining over the gay kid on campus.
How fucking upside down is that?
“Yeah, I think I better. I got some shit I gotta take care of.”
“Don’tcha mean, someone to take care of?” Kevin snickered and suggestively mirrored his younger brother’s salacious expression a few moments earlier.
Brothers, I got it, more than they knew.
“Jesus, Kevin, give it a break. Not everyone in this world thinks with his dick like you do,” Greg moaned.
“We’re teenaged men, dip-shit. Even you think with that pencil sized piece you’re packin’ ,” Kevin retorted.
“Still a heap bigger than the thimble-sized chubby you try to force on your latest conquest,” Greg volleyed right back.
“Really, guys? Is this gonna end with each of you marking your territories by pissing here?” I countered to the both of them.
They both looked stunned that I’d insert myself with this very familiar form of brotherly love.
“‘Sides, I’m the one with the monster cock in this room so I got you both trumped,” I said as I started to walk towards the front door.
“Yeah, right,” Greg huffed as he slipped back down onto the sofa. I reached the door and Kevin took the knob from me and held door open.
“No. He’s right, lil’ brother. Even with both our cocks, this guy would still beat us.”
I stopped at the door and just wiggled my brows at them both. Kevin chortled a bit. Yeah, I knew he’d seen the python I got going because of the showers. Hell, even Beau stacked up short against the stallion.
“Fuck me,” Greg snorted. “How’s a geeky brother gonna get laid if we got Godzilla dick out there banging around?”
“Wait ’til Marco roars. Then you’ll see ‘em run. That’s when we bag ‘em, lil’ brother.” We fist bumped as I ducked out hearing Kevin laugh as he started to shut the door.
I just waved a hand without looking back as I got to the family Audi. I had a certain someone I needed to find: a certain boy who had my heart, a certain boy who I was more determined than ever to find my way into his arms. And I knew, I just knew, that I’d gained an invaluable ally in Greg Lettau. He was my key. I only had to find a way to get him to help me out. But I’d get to that later. I had more pressing matters on my mind just now.
Yet, that love they had for one another had to shine through, as evidenced when Greg moves off to grab his jacket and Kevin has a moment to speak with his teammate Marco giving Greg some Jock attention. Although, even in that, Kevin is clear that Greg can never know how he truly feels about it.
“What I said was that there was an opportunity to redeem yourself tonight. A few of us are going to the Hut for some pizza. You should come along. Make up for your serious fuck-up this afternoon.”
I scratched the back of my head considering it. I did have some homework to do, but it was a Thursday night. I guess it would keep until the weekend. I looked at Greg for a moment. His eyes kept conveying to me I had no way out on this one.
“Who’s all gonna be there?”
Kevin shrugged, “Beau, Willem and Mack and their latest squeezes, I guess. Fuck all if I know. I just know the guys specifically asked that you come along for dinner at the Hut.”
“How’d they know I’d be here?” I thought it was a valid question. It seemed to irritate Kevin a bit though.
“I don’t know. Maybe because they’ve seen you becoming besties with Greg here.”
Fuck, now I had the geek kid rep to deal with.
“On one condition.”
Kevin stitched his brow, unsure of what was going to come out of my mouth next.
“I want Greg to ride shotgun.”
Greg looked like he was about to shit a brick over that one. “What? Hey, you can leave me outta this …”
Kevin chuckled, “It would be a bit odd to bring my kid brother along. Might make it a bit awkward for him, too. ‘Sides, I get enough of his lip as it is …”
“Not an option,” I dug my heels in.
“Dude …” was all Greg said as he sighed and shook his head. I didn’t care. I needed an ally if I was going to walk into dealing with that suspicious crew.
I collapsed on the sofa between them both. “Sorry, bro.” I mumbled.
Kevin quirked an eyebrow at that. “You two want to get a room or something? I mean, don’t let me stop you from your budding bromance.”
Greg blushed a bit harder than I thought he needed to. Evidently, he was a bit sensitive about the whole being thought of as a fag thing. But I guess when you weren’t a jock, then you might have cause to be a bit sensitive about it. I observed Greg’s eyes darting to me to gauge my reaction. I didn’t have any, not really. I wasn’t one to harbor weird shit like oh don’t say that, it offends me …
Playing football or hell, any team sport, tended to thicken your skin pretty damned quick or you were out on your ass. Tom Hanks said it best, even if the quote was about baseball: There’s no crying, none. Well, maybe if you lost an important game, but even then you cried your ass off silently, under the shower where no one else could see. I knew the drill. A little bromance joke would accomplish nothing to get under my skin. Only Greg couldn’t leave a line like that dangling without a proper sibling response though.
“Well, at least I’m smart enough not to go out with the likes of you. Speaking of which, how’s things with Suzy, lately?”
Kevin’s smirk faded quickly. His gaze became far more pointed. I still didn’t know what Greg had done but whatever it was, it had to’ve been big.
“Whatever, little brother.”
“Uh-huh, that’s what I thought.”
I looked at my watch: five fifteen. “So what time are we supposed to be there?” I looked over at Kevin.
He shrugged, “I guess around six or so. No one really said.”
I chuckled, “Yeah, that figures.”
I spared a beat while we all watched Guy Fieri chow down on a sandwich that looked like it would guarantee a heart attack just by inhaling the fumes let alone macking down on it like there was no tomorrow. I slapped Kevin’s leg as I pushed off the sofa.
“Well, I’m gonna go home and get sorted. Meet ya there?”
I turned to Greg, “Wanna tag along?”
Greg’s eyes darted to his brother’s – a beat.
“I’m thinking of taking the Impala out for her maiden run.”
Greg face lit up with that. I’d been telling him about it from time to time so he was eager to see what I’d done so far. I already sensed that Greg had a hard-on for the muscle car I was working on. The fact that I’d even suggested that he could ride shotgun on her maiden ride seemed to put him to the edge of cumming all over himself.
I nodded, “Yeah, no time like the present, right?”
“Right on …” He got up and made his way down the hall to his room. “Give me a sec to grab a jacket.”
After he’d disappeared Kevin watched me with a greater interest.
“Greg. I bag on his ass a lot but, and I’ll kick your ass if you ever say that I told you this, but I love the little douchebag. It’s sorta cool you giving him some attention. It wouldn’t mean half as much if it came from me. Big brother n’ all.”
I stretched, then shrugged, “Nah, it’s cool. He’s a great guy. But dude, I so gotta do something about pulling him outta his math geek shell. Dude will never get laid if he keeps going the way he’s goin’.”
Kevin chuckled a bit loudly at that as Greg emerged from the hallway.
“What’d I miss?”
“Eh, it’s nothin’,” Kevin offered, a smirk still coloring his face. I couldn’t help but smile the tiniest bit as well.
Greg stopped dead in his tracks.
“Okay, what the fuck? Out with it. Somebody said something about me and now you both are grinnin’ like you just put one over on me. So what gives?”
I shook my head and approached Greg. I put a hand on his shoulder and started to guide him out the front door.
“It’s nothing, bro. Let’s get a move on before the team has another whine session about my blowin’ them off. Say good-bye, Kevin.”
Kevin shook his head and grabbed the remote from where Greg had unceremoniously dumped it. “Good-bye, Kevin…” he snorted at the two of us making our way out the door.
“Whatever, bro. You both are acting weird,” Greg murmured as I guided him out to the family Audi sitting in front of their house.
Greg could be like a pit-bull with a thought. As soon as he closed the door to the car he was on me with it. “So what did that fucktard of a brother really say?”
I chuckled, “That really does get into your shit, doesn’t it?”
“What? Kevin? You have no idea.”
He shook his head as he put on his seatbelt.
But it was more than just how they bagged on one another. You had to feel the thread of love that ran through it all. For that I had to stop, close my eyes and shut out the world and just listen to those moments I spent in their house, listening and observing them being themselves.
Greg told me that he was making a bit of progress with Elliot regarding the jocks on campus. I asked him to work on getting Elliot talked into going out for the tennis team like I’d overheard that one morning. That proved to be a little tougher to work out. Elliot seemed open to the idea of playing. He told Greg he would get into that part of it, even enjoy the tournaments he’d have to go to. All of that seemed okay. Only one thing he couldn’t get around.
“Being a jock. That’s what he can’t wrap his head around,” Greg admitted to me at one of my after school visits at his place.
He seemed particularly worried about how I took that update. I had to admit, it didn’t suit my fancy too much.
“Does that mean he’s not going to do it?”
Without directly answering, Greg flipped to one of the food networks where we watched some blonde chef boozing it up while throwing some cans of soup on a chicken breast and calling it cooking.
“What I want to know is, why is it so important that he go out for the team?”
“Uh, jock? Something in common between us? Any of this ringing a bell for ya?”
“Yeah, okay. I getcha there. I thought of it, too, ya know. But I dunno, Marco. Elliot’s got a weird streak when it comes to guys like you. And before you go off half-cocked, you gotta realize he’s been harassed and belittled for several years now by guys who became jocks. It’s a learned response. He sees the danger and rightly goes the other way. It’s how he’s survived. Of course he’s gonna rail against becoming one of you, even if it’s a game he really likes to play. It still involves becoming one. He’s having a real hard time getting around that.”
I sighed, running my hands down my face.
“Forget it. This whole thing is bat-shit crazy” I got up and began to pace around the living room.
“What’s bat-shit crazy?” Kevin walked in through the front door. “Dude, where the fuck were you?”
Confused, I looked around me, “Uh, I think that’s fairly obvious. Been here, pencil-dick.”
Greg snorted at that one.
“Yeah, I see, but you were supposed to be down at the cliffs with the guys, asswipe. We missed you out there. You know – some quality bud time? And I find you here, holed up with my geeky kid brother.”
“Wow, fucktard, way to feel the brotherly love…” Greg deadpanned.
“No, not like that, dick scum. I mean that Marco knows what team building is like. We do some social stuff together, too. This was one of our days to blow off some steam and he wasn’t anywhere to be found. So not cool, Sforza. So …” he plopped his massive frame down on the sofa and grabbed the bag of chips Greg had thrown on the table between us, “…what the fuck, bro? How does my brother rate when your teammates are having a rather illegal kegger out along the cliffs?”
“Oh yeah, that’s a great place to serve alcohol illegally to a bunch of dumb jocks. Let’s give guys who are hormonely challenged and mentally deprived and have them imbibe along a precipice that’s only a hundred forty feet above the ocean. Yeah, sign me the fuck up. Fuckin’ YouTube heaven, that shit is,” Greg tossed out.
“We are not a bunch of dumb jocks,” Kevin groused leaning in toward his brother to press his point.
“I’ve seen your grades; your position in this debate is questionable.”
He grabbed the chips from his elder brother. I sat back down and watch the sibling rivalry play out, thankfully obscuring my social faux pas. Kevin had the right of it though. I should’ve been out with the guys. Only this whole Elliot thing really did a number on me. Even while I listened to Kevin and Greg verbally pound on each other, a small sense of gratitude moved through me that I had a bit of time to sort out my shit. It did give me some concern that I hadn’t handled all of this with any degree of grace. I needed to get my game face on.
It’s moments like that I tried like hell to capture about these two remarkable boys from my past. Vibrant young men, each of them comfortable in their skin, but they never made me feel less because I was the queer kid. It all just … was. So how do I not run the risk of pissing them the fuck off? Mostly because I did change up quite a few elements about them for the work. My Greg and Kevin Lettau are not the actual Lettaus by a long shot. There are very similar threads, but by and large they are of my own making. As I said, an homage to who they were/are from my youth.
So Greg, don’t know what you’re up to. Don’t know where life has taken you and how it’s all panned out for you, but just know, that some small thread of you, some essence I observed and committed to memory, lives on and bears your name. It’s not you. It was never intended to be you. It was simply my way of acknowledging to the world what great guy I thought you were back then. No page can truly capture your dry wit, and plucky bon monts. That part is wholly you. I’m just winking in your direction and saying, “Thanks, for all of it.”
Until next time …
– SA C