I was born in New York City in 1972, and it rained a lot.

To write about Valerie’s letter, and then go silent, seems a special type of horror. This week has been a special type of horror. There isn’t, in some ways, much to say.

This isn’t, by the way, about policy. I am not, for example, concerned we are about to return to the Reagan and Thatcher years, as terrible as they were, as desperate and as full of death. I am concerned that we will return to what we thought the Reagan and Thatcher years were, that we will live in the literature and the songs and the films we produced in that time. That things will be like Valerie’s letter.

In the last week, what I have been struck by in moments quieter and calmer, has been a sense of continuity. I asked my father about his father, in case I am eligible for Italian citizenship. His name was Vincenzo when he came here. At Ellis Island it was changed to James. He married, had children, and then went back to care for a sister, before returning here again. We’re trying to figure out the years. We’re trying to figure out if my father – who complained when I moved back to Brooklyn because his parents spent so many years trying to get out of Brooklyn – can help me go back to Italy, if I need to.

So many people I talk to have this sense of return. Of continuity. Of generational wisdom, of the ways we can be buoyed by both children and loss.

If the end result of this political period is simply that I look silly, that I worried for nothing, that it was all just a bit crass and not to my taste, I will be overjoyed. But in the meantime, I am – like so many others – looking to who I once was to figure out who I will be.

We say, easily, that what is happening right now is not normal. In many senses, this is entirely true. In other ways though, we must acknowledge that this moment of uncertainty is entirely normal. Fascism seems to rear its head when we begin to forget its last appearances, and in times of trouble, people look close to home, to their families and their neighbors, in both worry and hope.

Because writing speeches is kind of what I do tonally, this piece should end with a call to action. I can tell you to volunteer, to donate, to speak up against hate, and to call your representatives in Congress. I’m doing all those things, and I hope you will do whichever of those you can too.

But my call to action today is simpler. Smaller. More basic. And vitally necessary:

Trust your gut.

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The story is the most important thing.

Every year on November 5, I post Valerie’s Letter from V for Vendetta. I never meant for it to be a tradition — one year it was a whim, and for a few years after that that someone would ask about it or say they looked forward to it, and then it just became a thing.

Some years, I’ve just posted the letter. Some years, I’ve written more. But no year has been quite like this year, and I’ve been noodling at the edges of this post for months. Don’t get excited about that. That doesn’t necessarily herald fine writing, probably quite the opposite. It’s just a way of saying 2016 has been a long, strange, horrible slog for me too. And then on Tuesday we vote.

If you follow my Twitter you know I talk about this election a lot and work with data regards it, as I have for many elections previous. You probably also know that I love politics as a sport, and suffer from the same disease  much of our media does — a bias towards strong narrative, towards anxiety, towards running up to the cliff edge but not going over it.

Which makes it pretty hard to say, This is election is really scary. This is not hyperbole. You need to pay attention. Especially when half of the discussions about Trump seem to come down to whether he’s an actual fascist or just stylistically fascist as if one of those scenarios is going to turn out totally okay if he wins the presidency.

Look, 2016 has been a weird year full of heartbreak and loss. Change too — some of it good, and none of it that I’m ready for yet. Over and over again, terror felt like my watch word – medical terror, financial terror, political terror. The terror too of being left behind. Of not being enough. Of failing. And failure.

Meanwhile, Brexit’s a nightmare; Trump is unthinkable; and a regional political scandal involving someone I went to university with has forced me to relive the very chunk of time in which I first encountered V for Vendetta. That, too, was not a good year.

Valerie’s Letter – and Valerie herself – always fascinated me for how it, and she, are a demand for humanity against all evidence to the contrary. It is certitude in the face of gaslighting, identity in the face of how easily our bodies are discounted, dissembled, and dissolved. Valerie’s letter says, No. I am not who you say I am. I am who I say I am. I am who my story says I am. I may be a writer, but that is something very hard for me.

Writing is swimming against the tide.

It is for me I know I know I know I am not a person and I know I know I know I am not good and I know I know it is because I am queer and have a cunt and believe I am something other than the things that have happened to me and have a right to say all of it regardless of your contempt or the lack of simplicity and purity in anything that I’ve ever done or anything that I ever am.

It’s the drowning breath. It’s not yet. It is the reminder I am nowhere as near okay or as functional as I can mostly pretend to be. It is about mortality and precariousness.

So here’s what I want to say about Valerie’s Letter this year: The story is the most important thing. Your story is the most important thing.

Because stories are weapons. And shields. Tools. Strategies and tactics. And I believe they can help save us from all sorts of things – from this particular tide of political darkness sweeping increasingly from country to country, from the hatred of our neighbors, from our own self-doubt, and from our own despair. I believe stories are what give us the power to fight when there are no other options, and I believe they are succor against the coming dark when there are even fewer options than that.

How will stories matter as this year comes to a close? As 2017 dawns as a messy aftermath or a darker road? I don’t know. In a year like 2016 — when I’m just trying to get through, when we’re all just trying to get through — I am not really sure that I care.

But I do know that I still exist.

And so do you.

And so does Valerie.

If you are a person with a say in your government, please use it.

Please vote.

I don’t know who you are. Please believe. There is no way I can convince you that this is not one of their tricks, but I don’t care. I am me, and I don’t know who you are but I love you. I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me. Perhaps I won’t be able to write again, so this is a long letter about my life. It is the only autobiography I will ever write and oh god I’m writing it on toilet paper.

I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot. I passed my eleven plus and went to girl’s grammar. I wanted to be an actress. I met my first girlfriend at school. Her name was Sara. She was fourteen and I was fifteen but we were both in Miss Watson’s class.

Her wrists. Her wrists were beautiful.

I sat in biology class, staring at the pickled rabbit foetus in its jar, listening while Mr. Hird said it was an adolescent phase that people outgrew… Sara did. I didn’t.

In 1976 I stopped pretending and took a girl called Christine home to meet my parents. A week later I moved to London, enrolling at drama college. My mother said I broke her heart, but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…

… But within that inch we are free.

London: I was happy in London. In 1981 I played Dandini in Cinderella. My first rep work. The world was strange and rustling and busy, with invisible crowds behind the hot lights and all the breathless glamour. It was exciting and it was lonely. At nights I’d go to Gateways or one of the other clubs, but I was stand-offish and didn’t mix easily. I saw a lot of the scene, but I never felt comfortable there. So many of them just wanted to be gay. It was their life, their ambition, all they talked about… And I wanted more than that.

Work improved. I got small film roles, then bigger ones. In 1986 I starred in ‘The Salt Flats.’ It pulled in the awards but not the crowds. I met Ruth working on that. We loved each other. We lived together, and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses, and oh god, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.

In 1988 there was the war…

… And after that there were no more roses. Not for anybody.

In 1992, after the take-over, they started rounding up the gays. They took Ruth while she was out looking for food. Why are they so frightened of us? They burned her with cigarette ends and made her give them my name. She signed a statement saying I seduced her. I didn’t blame her. God I loved her. I didn’t blame her… But she did. She killed herself in her cell. She couldn’t live with betraying me, with giving up that last inch.

Oh Ruth.

They came for me. They told me that all my films would be burned. They shaved off my hair. They held my head down a toilet bowl and told jokes about lesbians. They brought me here and gave me drugs. I can’t feel my tongue anymore. I can’t speak. The other gay woman here, Rita, died two weeks ago. I imagine I’ll die quite soon.

It is strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish…

… Except one.

An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I may never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.

– Valerie

I enjoy being a girl… sometimes. Sort of.

I have a celebrity wife problem. As in, every time I crush on a male celebrity, I discover his wife is even hotter and more accomplished, and then wind up in this weird feeback loop with my gender presentation and my bizarreo Pride-and-Prejudice-with-different-dresses childhood (p.s. in this Jane Austen scenario, I’m Mary. In case you’ve forgotten, she’s the ugly one whose name you can’t remember).

So I was educated a certain way, to have a certain life — of heteronormativity, of wealth, of female endurance, and of utter accomplishment (although generally of the in-service-to-others-while-standing-in-a-shadow sort. Bonus points for helping to create the shadow).

And to be clear I don’t have and was never ever going to have that life. Like most everyone these days, I totally live paycheck-to-paycheck and not all the Latin classes and ballroom dancing of my childhood is ever going to change that. That doesn’t keep me from missing the fantasy though, from feeling as if I have always been in exile, even if the adult reality of my childhood upbringing would have strangled me dead.

But one thing that always made that exile both less relevant and easier to bear is my queerness, and, often, my masculine of center gender identity. Which seems perhaps a strange thing to say when I’ve been growing my hair out and wearing makeup every day.

Because my whole life, people have asked me if I’m a dude. It actually happens more when my hair is long, when I wear makeup. I don’t know if it’s because my femininity when I’ve got it going on is so performative, or if it’s just my willingness to take up space.

Basically I’m a person who often looks like a dude when she’s trying to look like a chick, and often looks like a chick when she’s trying to look like a dude. Are you confused? Sure. But try being me, at eight years old, when the other parents asked my mother how she got their son into the all-girls school we couldn’t afford. Please note, I’m an only child, assigned female at birth; there was no son.

At any rate. Being able to be both a boy and a girl has been — as an adult — one of the great blessings of my life. It’s an incredible amount of fun being me. And anything I’ve ever wanted in a man or a woman I’ve generally been able to find in myself. This has, in turn, lessened my sense of exile incredibly (if I am not just a girl, I do not just have to wait about to be chosen). It has salved me when I have felt like a failure.

Practically, through the years, what this has looked like to people outside myself is that I go through phases as said in that derogatory sense often leveled at the changeable. But we all go through phases — seriously, go look at what you were wearing in the ’90s; I’ll wait — and we all change a lot during our lives. Some of us more than others. But one luxury I do have now is to embrace it.

So, lately, I’ve been on this very feminine kick. And for that you can blame two things — celebrity wives and writing romance novels. In fact, I exist now in a world where it is often my job to consider and objectify men; hence those crushes and their lovely wives.

Yet the men I write are often less men I desire, and more men I am

Seriously.

In fact, Erin and I have a book coming out in March 2017 and I know my ex is going to see himself in one of the characters and it’s like, dude, no…no… that’s about me. I’m that guy. I’m Callum. Trust me.

So the outcome of writing down the men I am in these books is that I suddenly have all this room to be the women I am, or at least was raised to be. Just without the budget or the assistance or the rewards of even approaching the perfection all women — regardless of resources — are supposed to be striving for.

It’s kind of weird.

It sort of sucks.

And if I think about it too hard I become furious. At the rigged, unwinnable game; at how far women’s equality hasn’t come; at my recent collusion in it.  And at the inescapable black hole pull of it all. Do you know I actually got a beauty-related spam the other day about how curly girls like me should straighten and then re-curl their hair so they can look well-maintained and on-point?

Thankfully, I have my limits.

But lately I do wear eye shadow. I have perfume (Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb by day, Tom Ford Black Orchid by night. Not because you care, but because I needed to share the absurdity with you).

And I have realized than I am, actually, strikingly beautiful in all the too much of my face and my sadly-shaped eyes. I am that very creature of pride and endurance, elegance and sorrow, I was raised to be. But I am at least my own. And it brings me a lot of joy.

Except when it doesn’t.

Because unfortunately, this recent experience of being a girl means I have also become terrified of aging, am legitimately losing my mind over a dental appointment I have on Monday, and find myself in the middle of confronting for the first time in decades all the women I will never be.

My eyes may have a natural sadness to their shape, but I also have a natural melancholy to my soul.

Meanwhile, I scroll through my Instagram account, comparing the true but heavily-curated version of my life presented therein with those of all the celebrity wives I follow (and let’s reiterate, I don’t envy them their men, just their support staff, their relation to the world, and all their seeming surety).

I suspect, more often than not, that we cry about the same things. And so, as I keep trying to figure out how to be a girl, I often wonder if any of them have ever been boys — the way I was at 8 and at 28. In that wondering, my exile from the gendered obstacle course of my childhood feels less pronounced.

But of course, that’s the funny thing about exile. The cure and the disease are so often the same.

On unearned holiday greetings

While I was getting my face waxed today (I’m Sicilian and hairy) I got wished a Happy Mother’s Day, and I kind of wish it hadn’t happened.

Unlike many friends who are also grimacing their way through the the holiday, my mother is alive, we are not estranged, and I am not struggling with infertility or child loss.

But I am 43, childless, and deeply ambivalent about it. Ambivalence implies a lack of strong emotions, and to some extent that’s true. I mean, here I am, no kids, had other stuff to do. But lately my ambivalence looks like a constant yo-yo’ing between gasping relief at my freedom and locking myself in the bathroom at work to sob, because Erin and I have just written several novels with pregnancies and children in them and it’s been close to the bone for me.

In fact, I have a number of pretty spectacular essays about all this sitting on my hard drive. So why haven’t I posted them yet? Or submitted them? Or finished them?

Well, all sorts of reasons. Including wanting the books in question to be out first.

But I’m also cognizant that as a queer and genderqueer woman who has opted out (or simply hasn’t been able to secure) so many of the culturally rewarded milestones of womanhood, that when I say my experience of my womanhood is to feel like Hermione Granger with no awards to hang on her wall, three things are going to happen:

First, people will show up in the comments, express relief that I have no children, and call me either ugly or a narcissist.

Second, people with children will decide that my comments about my own psychological landscape are an insult to them. Maybe because I’ve been careless in my phrasing. But maybe because women are put in the constant position of having to defend their choices and circumstances no matter what they are.

Third, there will also be endless advice about late in life pregnancy and/or adoption that has nothing to do with me and my body and my life or all the research I did for the book with the 48-year-old heroine.

And it’s just going to be awful.

So what did I do at the face  wax? I sucked it up and said thank you, and then wondered if I looked old, and then wondered if I looked accomplished. In the end, I suspect, I just looked tired. And none of it did anything to dissuade me from my conviction that being a woman is, at core, about endurance.

 

Not-exactly-an-uptown-girl at the Zuckerbaeckerball

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Zuckerbaeckerball 2016, Vienna

I’m currently in the slightly bizarre position of writing a personal essay in the voice of a person who doesn’t exist, because the two-book mini-series (surely someone will excoriate me if I use the admittedly absurd word, duology) Erin and I are currently writing involves, among other things, a travel writer who can’t get his manuscript about Vienna right.

I was in Vienna for my day job in January and February 2016, in the midst of ball season. I found out that ball season is even a thing that exists about a week before I got on the plane. While I was uncertain if I would actually go through with attending one (ticketing is somewhat complex, involving admittance, seating, and a number of other items, all assembled separately into a single ticket), I packed a formal gown (let’s be real, a multi-purpose bridesmaids dress), spent as much time on Google translate as I could, and then as the date of the one that seemed likely approached, wavered back and forth.

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Debutantes, Zuckerbaeckerball 2016

I don’t speak German, although I have gotten to a point where I can do social niceties and follow the gist of a conversation had in my presence. My contemporary social dancing is adequate at best, and while I can do the sort of waltz favored in the U.S., a Viennese waltz is completely beyond my skill set. Strangers scare me. Men, at this point in my life, are largely a foreign country. And Viennese social customs, as I am given to understand them, suggested none of this would even matter, as the let’s-make-temporary-friends with strangers behavior common in the U.S., and that I’ve often encountered in the U.K., doesn’t seem to be a thing there.

If I went to the ball I would be alone, confused, unable to dance, and with little opportunity to engage strangers should I have even found the nerve, which I tend to do once I cycle through the sort of fretting above.

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Attendees, Zuckerbaeckerball 2016

In the end, though, I bought tickets to the Zuckerbaeckerball, as it was recommended to me by a random Tumblr person and was one of the few to fit in with a heavy work and travel schedule. Held at the Hoffburg Imperial Palace, a short walk from where I was staying, the Zuckerbaeckerball is put on by the sugar-baking industry (cakes not breads!) and like any proper ball has debutantes.

While I grew up with debutantes (I’m still not joking when I compare my childhood to Metropolitan), I was certainly not one myself. My family wasn’t that type of important, didn’t have those sorts of means, and didn’t really see me as part of the social whirl that was expected by the world in which I was educated. Sure, I went to balls, like the Gold and Silver Ball of the Junior Committee of the Junior League of New York (a name only typed here so you can experience the full ridiculousness of this stuff), but they were practice for events of the sort I never graced. It’s all useful fodder for writing now, but I might have been better served as a person if my parents had just said no.

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Debutante presentations, Zuckerbaeckerball 2016

At any rate, every ball in Vienna has debutantes. And, arguably, everyone in Vienna who wants to be a debutante can be. With hundreds of balls each year representing industries and social clubs, and with balls being unavoidable in the city’s social scene, young men and women who wish to make their debuts, most certainly do.

At the Hoffburg, alone, I crowded into the main ballroom to see their presentation. I watched as row after row of girls kneeled as their dancemasters and ball officials passed before them. On their knees for ten minutes at a time, maybe more, as their escorts stood beside them, some of the girls shook. One, near me, had a fabulous butchy undercut, that had been smoothed down with product and had tiny flowers clipped into it.

After the debuts, the main ballroom floor was opened for a Viennese waltz. My feet aching, and with no hope of a dance partner, I fled to sit, but without a purchased seat (it felt too weird, to be stranded at a table of people whose language I did not speak, who would not welcome a stranger), I had nowhere to do so until I found an out of the way bathroom on a mezzanine level of the palace.

From my cubicle I listened as girls sixteen to twenty slammed in and out of the bathroom, fretting about make up and shoes and boys and parents. I, meanwhile, fretted about the hundred euros I’d spent to hide in a bathroom.

So I put my shoes back on, stood up straight, and remembered that years of my life had been dedicated to how to comport myself in this entirely unlikely circumstance. And so I found a perch on the edge of the ballroom from which to watch the proceedings and wait for some serendipity to find me.

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Me, in my office before the ball

It came when the music switched to American standards, and the bandleader played Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” As I stood there, thinking about my Upper East Side childhood and how I was never meant to be — and never could be — the girl in that song, I wondered to what extent the song made sense in Vienna. Surely, no on there knew about the ten blocks that defined my childhood, but also surely there was a Viennese equivalent to it, and the song, and girls like me — with the song’s hot blood and wedged poorly into an an archaic social structure as beautiful as it is offensive.

I smiled as tears rolled down my cheeks. Serendipity. The most perfect moment. Even at a ball where I could not dance.

Today, I’m faced with describing a very different version of that moment as experienced by a lonely male writer, ten years my senior, who fit in exceptionally with the shared world of our childhoods, and for that, has managed far more contempt for it than I ever have, to his much greater happiness.

Reboot

I keep stopping and starting.

Long ago and far away, I didn’t just write personal essays, I blogged them. Over time, I stopped doing that, because while decades of people on the Internet telling me to shut the fuck up never worked in the moment, over time it erodes you.

This site then sort of morphed into my occasionally talking about my life and more often talking about media I loved. Think really hard, and I bet you can guess how that went too. Then Erin & I got a book deal, and another, and other, and most of my blogging was done over at Avian30 in service to that: New releases, my complex feelings about romcoms, the latest somewhat political dust-up in Romancelandia.

And then a funny thing happened on the way to the literary HEA (Happily Ever After for you non-romance types). The genre I was writing and publishing in suddenly and abruptly connected me to the past I had learned not to write, or even talk, about. My childhood — unhappy, sex-segregated, and intensely privileged although actually outside of my family’s means — abruptly made sense, as did the nature of my exile from it. It had been Pride & Prejudice with different dresses, and I had escaped it and the social tragedy of never marrying well by choosing my queerness —  not just in regard to my bisexuality, but in regard to my appearance and politics — over everything else.

That lightbulb means I now have a lot of things to write about — including a memoir I long swore I had not interest in. Much of what I have to say, here and in that project, centers on the themes already found here: queerness, class, exile, and loss. Being a tween and teen in the ’80s in New York means I grew up clumsily amid two dying worlds. The first, a New York Society that didn’t know how to stop believing in its long-expired relevance. The second, the New York arts scenes collapsing under the weight and terror of AIDS. My parents were painters.

For all that I once talked about these parts of my life enough to be scolded for doing so, I’ve never really talked about them. I showed people what was beautiful about them, even when I was trying to describe what was terrible. In part, this happened because I didn’t really understand them or what had happened to me in them. For me, wounds have always been a seductive thing, as has been the attempt to borrow privilege to salve them. Sometimes, it seemed the only way I could survive.

At 43 I have been partnered to a woman for nine years, have just started wearing makeup every day in the last three months, and am, at the moment, working on a romance novel about two people who are utterly different from me but who happen to both be evacuees from childhoods not so dissimilar to mine.

I’m going to start posting more here. Not, for the moment, systematically. Or, perhaps, with any great art. But I have stories to tell that live at the intersection of one world that probably should have died out by now, and another that should never have incurred the great losses it has.

That’s strange. And cut into me and difficult. And it deserves my words, in large part because it’s how I acquired the ability to do anything of interest with words. We’ll see how it goes.

 

King Charles III: A dire matter of tradition

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, mostly, I’ve been writing romance novels with Erin McRae, as well as writing (with Patty Bryant) and producing for Serial Box Publishing‘s Tremontaine, a text-based web serial that is a prequel to Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. (Yes, this is a professional endeavor Ellen herself is involved in).  But in the land of romance novels, the project about to go out the door is called A Queen from the North.

A Queen from the North is about Amelia Brockett, the youngest daughter of an Northern earl and recent grad-school reject who winds up agreeing to a marriage of convenience with the Prince of Wales in a modern Britain where the Windsors never happened. In the Britain of our book, fault-lines from the War of the Roses remain deep and mistrust between the houses of York and Lancaster remains strong. Along the way to Amelia and her prince actually falling in love, prophecy, tradition, and the prince’s niece — a fox-faced witch girl who looks like Anne Boleyn and has nightmares about the Tower ravens dying — make Amelia’s life as challenging as her ridiculous family, her sex-obsessed best friend, the prying hordes of the Internet, and the entire nation of Canada. Canada, by the way, saves the day in the end via a Tim Horton’s shop girl.

It was with that book in final edits for submission, that Patty and I went to see the sublime, haunting, and ritualistic King Charles III on Broadway last night. This would be an easy play to miss. No one really likes Charles, and another play about the British relationship with the tabloid press and the royals as tourism industry doesn’t seem particularly fresh. The marketing of the show also does it no favors, suggesting a light satire instead of the classically inspired tragedy that it is.

King Charles III, written largely in blank verse, borrowing heavily from Shakespeare (from Richard II to Hamlet to the Scottish play), and staged with flickering candles and live music and chanting for great moments of state (a death vigil, a coronation) is the type of theater that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It taps into what is primal and dangerous, about tradition both maintained and upset while also conjuring the totalitarian fears of those of us who remember the Thatcher years.

It is a glorious, clever, wicked, and dark thing, that features Princess Diana as a limping trickster ghost that promises too many men they will be Britain’s greatest king. And while the play will seem at points to advocate for any number of uncomfortable political positions on the vagaries of constitutional monarchy, it ultimately condemns them all, suggesting the glory of monarchy rests only in our discomfort with it.

King Charles III is running in New York City only until January 30. The cheap seats (and rush tickets) all have excellent site lines, and if you can get to this show, at any price level, it is an absolute must see.