Category Archives: 1980s

Book Review: Tomboy Survival Guide, by Ivan Coyote

tomboy-survival-guide

For several weeks, I’ve been hinting about a new freelance book review gig. I’m thrilled to announce that I am a new contributor to the popular book site Shelf Awareness.  My first review for Shelf Awareness was Ivan Coyote‘s memoir Tomboy Survival Guide about growing up transgender in the Yukon during the 1980s and their process of discovering and accepting their gender identity.

As coincidence would have it, this review was published last week — on Election Day, no less — and I share it with you now, during Transgender Awareness Week. In these uncertain and frightening times, Ivan’s voice becomes even more important.

Read more about Ivan’s story and my full review of Tomboy Survival Guide in the Biography and Memoir section of Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, November 8, 2016.

sunday salon/currently …moment in time

Sunday Salon 4

Sitting out here on the deck, with the sunny and 75 degrees and no humidity weather as perfect as it gets here in Pittsburgh, this feels like a moment in time. Summer is definitely winding down. Only two days remain before school starts, and it’s a milestone one: this is the year we turn a corner and become the parents of high schoolers.

“I remember thinking, back when we were in the NICU, that their high school graduation year of 2020 seemed so far away,”  The Husband commented on Wednesday, as the four of us sat in the school’s auditorium for high school orientation.  This is where it all starts, the principal said, the plans and decisions and classes that shape the next four years.

Of course, he was careful to say that there’s still time to decide on a post-graduation pathway; nothing needs to be determined this week.  But the message was clear: time’s a-tickin’. Time keeps on tickin’, tickin’ tickin’ into the future …. 

It’s all a bit unsettling. Even without a new building to navigate and new school personnel to get used to, the beginning of school historically tends to be a difficult, stressful, anxiety-levels-through-the-stratosphere transition for our family. Much of this past week has been spent trying to mitigate as much of that as possible. To put it mildly,  it’s been exhausting on every level.

Bright Precious DayOne of my go-to coping strategies has been to seek out a mindless read, and Jay McInerney’s latest, Bright, Precious Days is fitting that bill perfectly. It’s another incarnation of the insufferable lives of Corrine and Russell Calloway, the protagonists in two of McInerney’s Brightness Falls and The Good Life. Just like his earlier works, Bright, Precious Days is yet another one of McInerney’s name-dropping romps through the New York City playgrounds of the glitterati.

If you’ve read any of McInerney’s earlier novels, you know what you’ll be getting with any of his subsequent books. Bright, Precious Days does not veer from the formula that has made him successful. It’s a navel-gazing, salad-eating, charity-gala-going, Chanel-wearing, hedge-fund managing narrative set in New York (of course) between 2006-2008.  Hillary is running for president against a guy named Barack whose only major political experience is a short stint as a Senator;  the subprime mortgage crisis and the recession hasn’t yet happened, and people still carry flip phones.

It all seems like an ancient time, as much of a relic from the past as the cocaine-laced ’80s that define McInerney’s characters own bright, precious days. Those they lost in the era of drugs and AIDS, as well as the horror of 9/11, are still very much part of their present.

Like I said, sometimes you just need a book where you don’t have to think much and if I was in a different state of mind, this might not be holding my interest. But it’s doing its job right now by being an effective diversion, so that’s something. And even though The Husband and I never were nor will ever be in the same social and economic class as the Calloways, there’s a part of me that can relate to them.  At 47, we don’t feel old enough to have kids in high school, despite my insistence to The Husband at the school orientation that we are, in fact older than the typical parents.  At nearly 50 (the age of the Calloways), it seems we should have our act together by now, have done more, know what we’re doing with our lives.  Instead, the decisions we’ve put into place and the assumptions we’ve made about our future feel shaky, at best.

It’s twilight.  The clouds are aflame, there’s a slight autumnal chill in the air. All any of us really have in this moment in time are these bright, precious days.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #84 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

Mrs. Thomas’ Long Week (an encore post from The Husband, in honor of Elvis)

Cleveland Weekend - Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (21)

Longtime readers may be familiar with this post, written by The Husband. It’s one that I feature here on the blog every August 16 to commemorate Elvis’ passing, not because I’m an Elvis fan — I have a strong visceral dislike to all things Elvis, which is another post altogether — but I think this is one of The Husband’s best pieces of writing and I love it.  (And him.) Feel free to leave him a comment, if you wish.  Photo taken by me at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, August 2012, where Elvis’ Lincoln Continental is, indeed, in the building.  

Beginning 39 years ago today – early in the evening – Mrs. Thomas took to her room after crying out, quickly calling her mother and telling her to “get the hell over here” and plopping her 8-year old son in front of the television to await his grandmother’s arrival.

Mrs. Thomas didn’t come out of her room the rest of the night. Nor did she come out the next day. Nor the following day, either.

It was only on the fourth day after the sudden death of her beloved Elvis that she finally emerged. Her hair was a tangled mess. Her eyes were red with traces of days-old mascara running up and down her cheeks.

She showered, got something to eat, and returned to her room for two more days.

I know this because I was an 8-year old witness to much of it.

On the evening of August 16, 1977, I was watching television when CBS News ran one of their 30-second national news briefs. A photo of Elvis Presley was in the upper right corner of the screen as the anchor – probably Roger Mudd or maybe Morton Dean – said something to the effect of, “Reaction continues to roll in from around the globe as news of the death of Elvis Presley today at the age of 42 has brought a throng of thousands of grieving fans to his home in Memphis…”

I remember turning to my mother and saying, “Mrs. Thomas is going to be in trouble.”

I was friends with Mrs. Thomas’ son, who lived across the street from our first floor duplex apartment. It was from my friend and his mother that I first learned about Matchbox cars, NASCAR racing and Elvis Presley. Shortly after the Thomases moved in, I was invited over to play. In a tour of the apartment – which took about 7 seconds, although at the time I was too young to know that we were just barely making enough income so that we were always just a little bit behind – I saw an enormous portrait hanging over Mrs. Thomas’ bed.

“Who is that?!?” I said to my friend.

I heard a gasp from behind me, where Mrs. Thomas must’ve have overheard me. If I’d have said the same thing about the enormous portrait hanging across from Mrs. Thomas’ bed – that of Jesus Christ – she would not have been as upset with me.

“Who is THAT?!?! THAT is Elvis Presley! How have you gotten this old [seven, at the time] not knowing Elvis?!?!”

I’d put that about mid-1976. Over the next year or so, then, it was rare for me to be over the Thomas apartment and not hear Elvis on the stereo, or see Elvis on the TV – as the Thomases were the first people I ever knew with a VCR.

(Which is funny because they had no more of a pot to piss in than we did, yet there was this incredibly expensive primitive video player. Might not have been called a VCR, as I don’t remember any tapes.)

Anyway, Mrs. Thomas had every single one of Elvis’ movies – whatever format it was in – and they were always on. I remember not liking the movies terribly much – even at that age I realized it was essentially Elvis Presley playing himself in some unrealistic setting like Hawaii or a 19th century western town. The music, though. Well, the music was incredible. I can’t tell you the first song I heard, but the one that I remembered liking immediately was “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck.” Just a great tune, with every element of Presley’s talents all over it. Never liked ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ [still don’t]. But all of the others I soon knew pretty well.

It became ‘normal’ to see the large bust of Elvis that rested on Mrs. Thomas’ bureau, not to mention that painting, and just accept the fact that Elvis was that important – that of course you’d have a bust and portrait of him in your house, you idiot. It was vintage 1970s; in retrospect, I swear that damned painting was on a velour canvas. I just remember it was fuzzy to the touch [although we never let Mrs. Thomas know we touched the damned thing, believe you me].

So it was on that mid-August night 39 years ago that I saw what was going on there on the TV and told my mother that Mrs. Thomas was going to be in trouble. What I meant, of course, was that she was going to be a holy emotional fucking wreck. I just didn’t know some of those words at the time, so ‘in trouble’ was my way of saying, ‘she’s going to be majorly fucked up by this news, mother.’

And, indeed, she was. It was too late to walk across the street to check on my friend and Mrs. Thomas. At least that’s what I remember my mother telling me. I remember looking at the window across the street at the Thomas’ second-floor apartment front window. The room was black but I could see the neon-like images of what was the television screen in the living room. By that time, I figured out later, Mrs. Thomas had plopped my friend in front of the TV and retired to her room. The next day, early, I walked over and sure enough there was my friend and his none-too-happy grandmother. She, no doubt, figured her days of raising an 8-year old had long passed.

I asked my friend’s grandmother how Mrs. Thomas was doing.

“Not good,” said his grandmother. “She’s crazy. She wasn’t this upset when her father died.”

Just then, I vaguely remembered one time when I overheard Mrs. Thomas calling her father something along the lines of a ‘lazy, no-good boozing prick’. I chose not to share that with my friend’s grandmother that morning. At first, I was scared for my friend. I could hear Mrs. Thomas crying in her room over the sounds of Elvis’ music.

My friend and I went out to play [back in those days, ‘what are your kids doing this summer?’ meant that moms across the country simply opened their front doors, turned to their offspring and lovingly said, ‘Get out!’]. We came back for lunch and the soundtrack – Mrs. Thomas’ shrieking with Elvis providing back-up – were still going strong. Same thing at dinner. By this point, my friend’s grandmother looked like she wanted to strangle her daughter but was afraid to open the door to her room to begin doing so.

The next day, when it continued, I remember asking my friend what he thought of all of this. How did he feel about Elvis’ death? “He’s Elvis, man,” my friend said. “He’s Elvis and he’s dead. It’s too weird.”

That was about as introspective as we two 8-year olds got that summer. When, about a week later, Mrs. Thomas was well enough to go back to work and slowly resume what now seems, in retrospect, to have been a very sad and mundane life raising a son as a single parent, I noticed that more Elvis memorabilia had somehow been acquired. Maybe it’d always been there and I’d never noticed it. More likely, Mrs. Thomas had instructed her mother to bring the stuff with her, as her mother still lived in the house where Mrs. Thomas grew up a young girl in love with the 1950s Elvis.

Over the years, I’ve encountered others who had a similar Elvis-worship. While I thought the Elvis portrait Mrs. Thomas possessed had to be a one-of-a-kind, amazingly a few years later I saw the same damned thing over another friend’s mother’s bed – no lie. I guess that was the painting you put over your bed. While I encountered other Elvis-worshippers, Mrs. Thomas is the one I recall most vividly simply because she was the only one I witnessed suffering in the aftermath of Elvis’ actual death.

As I say, the music was something I dug right away, and always have. Throughout my life, I’ve maintained that if you don’t like Elvis, and you are American, then there is something very, very wrong with you. In your soul, I mean. I know that sounds ridiculous, but Elvis is so quintessentially American, that to not like the music [hey, I agree: the movies suck], the persona, Graceland, etc, meant that somehow you’d missed the whole point of America. At least as it existed in the second half of the 20th century. I can’t quite explain why – in words – that I feel that way. It just is.

[Note from Melissa: I’m so not an Elvis fan. Never have been. Never will be. Never liked him. I don’t get the whole mystique and appeal. Infer from that what you will. Carry on.]

So, today, on the 39th anniversary of The King’s death, I think of him and his music. I think of Mrs. Thomas, too. All of these years later – assuming she’s still alive – I wonder if this day still fills her with the kind of grief it did back then – the shock of it aside, of course. Now that I’m five years older than Elvis was when his head hit that porcelain toilet as his heart finally gave out, I still love the music, and the persona [the movies still suck, though].

I also still think that Elvis is as quintessentially American as any other icon of the 20th century. That he’d be 81 years old also reminds me just how young he was when he died.

And, just how young I was, too.

zombies

Halloween Parade (19)

Front row to Halloween. Taken by me, October 2008, somewhere in central Delaware.

“All You Zombies” shuffles onto my Spotify playlist
as I pull into the parking garage
late for work on a Thursday
but because The Hooters are a track
on The Soundtrack to My Life
available on 45, cassette tape, compact disc
I remain seated in my car
(my paper-laden desk can wait)
because me and Jen and Seunah are singing
on a cold January night in an overheated gym
where we paid five bucks to see Philly’s hottest band
because someday they would be really, really big,
someday in our big scary future.

meeting judy (44/99)

You will, I hope, forgive the lack of a real post tonight.

After all, it’s not every evening that you meet a literary icon, a beloved author revered by millions of readers, and a champion of the written word.  (Oh, and one of the people responsible for your dream of being a writer.) Judy Blume - Tickets

Yep. I just spent an hour and a half in the company of the one and only Judy Blume.

And then meeting her during the book signing afterwards, during which I just said “thank you” repeatedly.

 

You’ll forgive me, then, for not having the words for a coherent blog post quite yet.

But I will.  Soon.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #44 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

 

 

 

She Knew What We Did Those Summers: Remembering Lois Duncan (1934-2016)

I Know What You Did Last SummerKilling Mr. Griffin

My teenage summers were spent poolside at the Valley Club,  sharing secrets with my best friends over orders of French fries blanketed in Cheez-Wiz.  We lounged on beach towels with our Sony Walkmans blasting ’80s pop music loud enough to drown out our immature siblings’ screeches of “Marco! Polo!” in the deep end of the pool. We doused ourselves with enough Hawaiian Tropic oil that made us as bronzed as an Olympic medal.

When we weren’t in the pool or discussing Luke and Laura on “General Hospital,” we were reading anything we could get our hands on.

Maybe it was characteristic of my group of friends at the time or the pre-Internet/pre-smartphone era, but we read A LOT. Like everything and anything.

All the time.

And perhaps it was because of our rather uneventful, vanilla, goody-two-shoes suburban middle-class upbringing (and attending school with peers whose families were in much, much higher economic echelons), but we seemed drawn to darker stories with just enough thrill factor to keep us turning the pages.

Aside from Judy Blume writing about our deepest insecurities and rites of passages and V.C. Andrews’ creepy as all freaking hell Flowers in the Attic series,  young adult author Lois Duncan’s teen suspense novels are the ones that are seared into my memory from those years.

Thrillers about a car accident involving well-off teens that resulted in murder (I Know What You Did Last Summer, 1973); sinister cousins (Summer of Fear, 1976) and a high school prank intended to scare a mean teacher that goes horribly wrong (Killing Mr. Griffin, 1978) were stories as drop-dead real as anything we saw on the evening broadcast of Action News. (These were the years when people still watched the news.  And when the world had to be ending for the news to be considered “breaking.”)

Lois Duncan’s fiction was chilling and terrifying and made those of us who led a relatively sheltered and privileged life wonder if such horrendous things could really happen. Through her groundbreaking writing for teens, Lois Duncan showed us that, at least in fiction, they could. As we got older, real life would have no shortage of atrocities — one only needs to look at the past week for proof of that.

Sadly, Lois Duncan herself experienced personal tragedy in 1989 when her daughter Kaitlyn was murdered — ironically, just a month after the publication of one of Duncan’s novels with a similar plot. For years, she devoted her life to writing about her daughter’s still unsolved murder and supporting others whose loved ones were homicide victims.

Lois Duncan died on Wednesday, June 15 at age 82, leaving a rich literary legacy of children’s books, young adult novels, short stories, magazine articles, and nonfiction. Those of us who grew up in the late ’70s through the mid-80s enjoyed what I believe was a golden age of young adult literature by writers who bravely took chances with their work and were trailblazers for many of today’s equally outspoken and daring young adult authors.

Until I read her obituary in Publisher’s Weekly, I had no idea that Lois Duncan Steinmetz was a Philadelphia native, which endears her to me even more. (Her family moved to Florida when she was young. Still, in my mind she’s a Philly girl like me, making my days of reading her novels while growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs especially nostalgic.)

I think the hallmark of a great writer is someone whose books are remembered decades after reading them. Even if some details of the plots have faded, we can immediately recall how books like Killing Mr. Griffin and I Know What You Did Last Summer always made us feel.

Deliciously chilled to the bone, even on the hottest of summer days.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #19 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

 

 

 

 

like flashy sparkles in the water or stars in the sky

Storybook Ball (2)

“It’s not easy being green.
It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.
And people tend to pass you over ’cause you’re not standing out
Like flashy sparkles in the water or stars in the sky.” 
“Bein’ Green” – written by Joe Raposo, sung by Kermit the Frog

I hate television.

I really do.

And right now I hate it even more than usual because ABC cancelled “The Muppets” after only one season.

The MUPPETS, people.

Who the hell cancels The Muppets?! I mean, you really must have one dark, shriveled, corroded soul to pull the plug on Kermit the Frog.

According to Variety, along with “disappointing ratings” in the 18-49 year old market, critics said the series was “not family-friendly enough and out of step with the history of the characters, created by the late Jim Henson.”

That, my dear Kermie, is pure bullshit.

Having watched every episode of the newest incarnation of “The Muppets,” this show more than did the late Jim Henson proud. The irony isn’t lost on me, either, that this news comes on the heels of today’s anniversary of 26 years since Jim Henson’s sudden and heartbreaking death. What a way to remember and honor the legacy of this creative genius.

As for not being family-friendly enough, the new “Muppets” had plenty of innocent laughs for the younger set combined with an abundance of in-jokes for those of us who remember with nostalgia days when iconic performers like Carol Burnett, Milton Berle, Lena Horne and many, many more were sidekicks to floppy, colorful, zany characters.

And really, since when is “not family friendly enough” a barometer for keeping a show on the air? Have you seen what crap supposedly passes for family-friendly TV these days? If we’re going to make that a criteria, then all we’d be left watching is a blank screen.

Maybe “The Muppets” were doomed in this entertainment culture.  As The Husband wrote in this post (“Remembering Sammy and Kermit: When Entertainment Was the True Reality Television”) which I published here six years ago,

“They were part of an era when ‘entertainment’ meant more than watching some fat bastard try to lose weight, some chick with enormous boobs and not-so-enormous talent try to win a karaoke contest, or some incredibly dysfunctional psychopaths try to raise eight children on television in an attempt to become famous. 

It meant real talent. Real magic.”

Real talent, indeed.  Those Muppets had it.

And we’re not likely to see their real magic ever again.

photo by me, taken at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, Pa, May 2009