Sunday, July 31, 2005

Roadshow Dreams

North Dakota State Capital Building
When Boo takes it into his head to do something, prepare to buckle your seatbelt. Boo is my partner, companion, spouse, etc. The origins of the Boo moniker are some 13 years old at this point, and frankly, I forget. The main thing to know about Boo is that when he gets an idea in his head, he becomes a force of nature. Resourceful, frighteningly organized, and borderline obsessive, he will have means of execution and likely accomplices lined up before you can say, um, "boo!"

Thus it happens that for the fourth Monday this month, I find myself returning from a trip. This particular trip took shape over a course of weeks, originating on a fateful Monday just a few months ago. Not frequently home on Mondays, Boo was delighted to take the opportunity to watch Antiques Roadshow. As the show closed, he was even more delighted by the announcement that soon the Roadshow would be traveling to Bismarck, North Dakota. As a person who spent his brief college years in remotest Georgia while escaping almost every weekend to Washington DC, New York City, and the like, this is akin to hearing that the Roadshow will be stopping practically next door. What's a six hour drive? And thus a plan is formed, ticket lotteries entered, friends called. And the culmination, to cut this long story shorter than it could be, is a trip to North Dakota this past weekend with two friends of ours, a couple like us, one of whom went to the road show with Boo, while the other drove around with me, looking for something, anything, remotely interesting in the Bismarck area.

North Dakota is neither particularly beautiful nor particularly ugly. The gentle sweep of its rolling hills is both sturdy and plain. However, the scarcity of trees and the long empty vistas criscrossed only by the march of high tension power lines seems both deserted and desolate. Every thing seems measured and sensible and deeply lonely, like a sad-eyed farm wife with red hands and a faded dress.

In such an uninspiring landscape, it should come as no surprise that the two "large" cities we visited, Bismarck and Fargo, are particularly uninspired cities. Both crouch in basic 19th century grids along the Great Northern Railroad Line in broad shallow river basins of the Missouri and Red Rivers respectively. Between the bitter winters, frequent spring floods, and low population and wealth, both cities seem primarily designed out of utility and neglect. Stodgy downtowns cling to life, while the freeway junctions celebrate warehouse architecture - giant block sized buildings housing the usual suspects: Holiday Inns, Home Depots, and Walmarts. The State Capital building is unlike any other I've seen - no romantic celebration of the classical past here, oh no. The Capital is the tallest building in North Dakota and principally evocative of the phrase "All work and no play". Fortunately, the people are nice. Pleasingly plump and overly fond of mullets perhaps, but very nice. Boo was rather bemused at the mall to have a woman young enough to be his daughter call him "honey". As in "Can I help you find something, honey?" Kind of sweet, really.

Boo's sojourn to the Roadshow was uneventful, and untaped, so like much of North Dakota history will probably fade rapidly from memory, but he had a good time. Because all of the Bismarck hotels were full on Saturday night, we went in the direction of home, stopping at Fargo. And it is here that I found North Dakota's redeeming feature, the pearl in the oyster, the jelly in the Jaffa Cake.

There were only two entertainment options listed for Fargo, a gigantic wrestling tournament being option A. Now I'm not opposed to wrestling by any means - sturdy lads grabbing each other in improper ways and forcing each other into uncomfortable positions has a certain resonance for me to be sure. However, the fans and crowds at wrestling events give me the willies, and the complete denial of anything homoerotic amongst the joint-wrenching and blood-letting seems pathological. So that left option B. Option B was to attend a show put on by a local arts school and camp, and with a car containing 3/4 theater geeks and visions of a low rent version of Camp dancing in our heads, the choice was obvious.

So, after scarfing some truly horrid food at a so-called pizza buffet (it was fast, and it met the needs of the pickiest vegetarian I know), we headed off in search of Trollwood Park, and the Trollwood Performing Arts School.

Trollwood. Holy shit. This was no low-rent version of Camp! Rather, Camp is a low-rent version of Trollwood. We paid general admission and were rapidly packed onto bleachers facing an open air stage backlit by the setting sun. The mainstage performance was Disney's Beauty and the Beast, a musical that nicely showcases Alan Mencken's most inventive score, and some of the late Howard Ashman's most witty lyrics.

I freely admit that I'm a sucker for live performance. I can find entertainment and thrills in often seriously flawed shows and concerts. None of that was really relevant here, because this show was, if not flawless, considerably lacking in considerable flaws. It was easily better performed and staged than the London performance of Bombay Dreams that I had the misfortune to attend in 2004. Technically, it soars above the last over-miked and over-amplified road performance of Rent that I saw at the Ordway in 2002. It was one amazement after another, from the beauty of the sets, to the intricate and lovely costumes - not rented but sewn by crews at the school, to the technically amazing puppets used in the prologue and to represent the wolves, to the jaw-dropping Be Our Guest, with flying, singing candles and the athletic choreography and backflips of the terrifically campy Gaston. Aside from the technical aspects, the actors gave committed, professional, vocally on-the-mark performances displaying overwhelming talent and timing. And not one of them is over 18 years old. Absolutely a perfect evening.

It's one of the greater joys in life to have your expectations circumvented, your hopes exceeded. It's also one of the greater joys in life to see a full embodiment of the magic of music and theater. Therefore, it's quite likely that I'll be back to North Dakota at some point. Huh. How'd that happen.

Monday, July 25, 2005

What's Cookin'?

You'd think I could get three entries in a blog without resorting to recipes. Of course, you’d also think that a town that is 6 miles from the ocean could produce a community cookbook that has at least a couple of decent seafood recipes in it. You’d think. You’d be, of course, sadly mistaken if the town you are thinking of is Toledo, Oregon, and the blog writer is Randy Wylde.

Just a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting my parents, who now reside in Hillsboro, some miles west of Portland. As mentioned previously, much of the week involved looking through Mom’s rather brilliant photo albums (Mom doesn’t read my blog, so this isn’t blatant kissing up, I promise. That isn’t to say that I’m not completely biased, however.) During this orgy of wistful reminiscence, Mom happened to mention that it is Toledo’s centennial this year, around which several centennial activities have been planned.

Probably the most terrifying to imagine is an “all-classes reunion” for the high school. Class years are meeting all over town (you wouldn’t think there would be enough buildings, but maybe some years are sharing locations). My class year is supposed to meet at the Elks Lodge, which I remember as being permanently smoky (I think they host a bingo night, which would explain that), but remembered fondly because both of the college scholarships I received interviewed me there. Not that I’m planning to go; I have limited vacation, and touching base with people I’ve spent 20 years comfortably forgetting just doesn’t feature as being worth the airfare and car rental. At least one of my two sisters is planning to attend, however. But then she’s become increasingly strange over the past few years.

I think she’s mainly looking forward to the all-classes cross-country fun run, which is the only thing I think is remotely appealing about the centennial event. However, having buried many toxic and oozing barrels of teen-aged lust in my heart and loins for several of my team mates on the cross-country team, I think it would feel a little weird to meet them as an out gay adult. As conversationally challenged as I usually am, I'd be terrified of what I might actually say. “Hey Mike, good to see you! You know, I was just remembering the other day how I used to peek surreptitiously up the leg of your shorts on bus trips! Damn you had hot legs, then!”

So, what does all this have to do with cooking? I’m surprised you remembered to ask. Or that you’re still reading and even care. Anyway. In conjunction with this centennial event, Toledo has produced a community cookbook commemorating the event. Now, Toledo is on a bay. A big one with a nice bridge. It's about 15 winding miles along the edge of the bay to the docks of Newport, or 6 relatively straight miles over Hwy 20 to the same destination. Newport has canneries. It has Trident Seafoods. You can go out on the docks and purchase live Dungeness crabs, fresh oysters, and whole salmon directly from the boats. It's about the only fucking thing I really miss about the area! You can live in the forest, watch the beauty of the ocean whenever you want, and you can eat fucking fresh fish and seafood!

Minnesota is about as far from either coast as you can get. I have really good fish, like, twice a year, if I'm lucky. It all has to fly in, and most of the time, fish arrives here jet lagged and irritable, slightly dehydrated, and smelling like it could use a good shower. It then hands you the bill for its plane flight, and you decide you'd rather make a pork roast.

In Toledo, however, they apparently have the same taste as my neighboring Midwesterners for whom fish comes out of a can or pouch, is promptly combined with mayonnaise, onion, and pickle relish, and spread on toast. Couple slices of Wisconsin cheddar and a brief blast under the broiler, and voila! The height of Midwestern seafood cookery: The Tuna Melt.

Six miles away from salmon so fresh you'd have to slap it AND wash its mouth out with soap, and how many recipes in this book use it? One. One recipe with salmon. From a can! Canned salmon! Inconceivable!

Cans and Jell-O feature to an alarming degree in this cookbook. It's appalling. What the hell are they thinking? If someone asks for my best, or my favorite recipe, you can bet I'm going to do a damn sight better than "5 Can Casserole." This is the best you can do? This is your favorite? If this is your favorite, how often do you eat it? One can of cream of chicken, one can of chicken noodle, one can of Chinese noodles, one can of tuna and one can of evaporated milk heated in the oven makes you happy? Are you insane? It sounds like a recipe for stage vomit! As for other recipes, well, four kinds of Jell-O diced into cubes and combined with whipped cream is NOT a cake, rainbow or otherwise. I know from both cakes and rainbows, and I'm certain of this. Oy.

I don't know whom to blame for this state of affairs. It makes no sense to me. The best I can do is offer a recipe as an antidote. Maryana Vollstedt is a wonderful Pacific coast cookbook writer. She is clearly not from Toledo. This recipe is basically hers, if I recall correctly, but I usually just wing it on a few of the measurements, and I'm too lazy to look it up for the exact measures. Mom made something like this while I was out to visit, and nirvana was achieved, albeit briefly. And that's better than nothing.

Pacific Sole

2-3 lbs of Petrale sole filets
½ cup filberts, toasted at 350 for about 20 minutes, and chopped.

Combine equal handfuls of flour and cornmeal. Season with salt, pepper, and paprika, about ½ tsp each. Or use your own judgement. Dredge sole filets. Saute over med-high heat in about 1 tsp of butter per filet, turning once, about 3 minutes per side, just until done. If you've got the temperature right, the fish should be just done when the outside gets lightly golden brown. For the love of Pete, please don't overcook it. Petrale sole is a magical, delicate, slightly sweet whitefish, whom God hath given as a gift. Treat it gently, and heaven shall be yours. Set filets on a warm serving dish.

Melt about 2 tablespoons of butter (not margarine, no. NO. I said, NO, dammit). Chop a good handful of parsley so you've got about a ¼ cup. Maybe a scallion, too, if you've got one. Add to the butter. Add a teaspoon of lemon juice, and a pinch of the grated zest. Add the chopped filberts. Stir it up, add salt and pepper as desired, and drizzle over filets. Serve it forth, with a brilliantly cold and steely chardonnay.

Five. Can. Casserole. Fuck, it makes me weep.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Trouble With Harry

Photo by *BGP*, learn more at
I was thinking about Harry the other day. I was visiting my parents, and mom is quite the avid scrapbooker. Flipping through my old photos is always kind of disconcerting – I see the smile on my face or catch a glimmer in my eye and I’m constantly reminded that appearances are deceiving. I have this whole history in hard images in which I’m a happy well-adjusted teen, and all these undocumented memories that I was anything but. Mind you, I don’t do anything to extremes, so don’t get your hopes up too far. Anyway, I was flipping through the pages documenting the high points and highlights of my teens, and suddenly, there was Harry, grainy and half-toned in a yellowed clipping from the Newport News Times.

Now some of you are seeing Newport News and thinking Virginia, but you are a good 3200 miles too far east. Newport is a small tourist destination on the Oregon coast in the area where I grew up. It is a town in which the breathtaking beauty of the northwestern Pacific meets the plummeting foothills of the Coast Range; dotted with cottages, crappy concrete motels and condo developments, and galleries and shops specializing in misty watercolors, driftwood curios, and salt water taffy. Founded in the 1880's, it still has a strong fishing community that adds a grounded charm to the more obvious tourist-driven tackiness.

Mind you, that isn’t where I lived. Six miles east on Highway 20, you can reach Toledo, Oregon, which, if you follow the Newport News Times link above in the same week I publish this, you’ll find is celebrating Toledo Summer Festival, and is proud that Kari Mabe is on the Oregon Fast Pitch team. I went to school with her father and aunt. It's that kind of town – if you see a name in the paper, you probably know who it is. There were 70 kids in my graduating class. Though nestled in some serious forest, Toledo is well-distant from the shore and typically about 15 degrees warmer and less foggy than Newport, but otherwise was neither charming nor breathtaking. Unless you were gasping for breath next to the largest industry and employer in town: Georgia Pacific paper pulp and plywood mill. Anyone with any experience of settling ponds knows what I’m talking about, but that’s not breathtaking for a good reason, now is it? Though incorporated in 1905, most of Toledo’s growth, such as it was, occurred in the 30’s with an influx of Okies and Arkies fleeing the dustbowl and Depression for greener shores. Much of the Ozark clan structure seems to have arrived intact with them; thus the Mabes, above, are relatives of the Steenkolks, who are related to the Ebrecks, who know the Marthallers, who are related to the…you get the idea. Redneck, white, and blue collar. A slice of Americana that really never could afford the fireworks.

So, I digress. Harry. Enriching one’s experience within the environs of Toledo was a priority for my parents (who I think felt somewhat guilty at times for moving us to such a backward place) so, we often found ourselves on the way to Newport, which, being twice the size of Toledo and much more interested in appealing to city folk, had considerably more to offer culturally. Well, it had art galleries and a community theater, anyway. My dad actually got involved with the Porthole Players first; I just took it and ran with it. Between 1978 and 1981, I appeared in 5 productions. One of the last of these before I went to college, was Guys and Dolls. Harry played Nathan, good ol’ reliable Nathan, Nathan, Nathan Detroit.

God only knows what Harry was doing in the area; I never actually asked (teenagers are incredibly self-centered). He certainly must have found himself a fish out of water in Lincoln County – A New York Jew now living in Yachats (pronunciation guide: YAH Hots. Yeah, I know), he was 3000 miles away from home living in a state whose entire population is less than half of New York City. Yachats is a tiny coastal village of about 500, some 20 miles south of Newport.

I pegged him as gay within 5 minutes of meeting him – he was theatrical, and there’s that other thing that some people call gaydar. I just knew. On the other hand, he was urban, he was out, and he strangely (to me) didn’t seem to give a shit what anyone thought, so it wasn’t exactly a psychic revelation either. Unaccountably, we got paired up for some stupid theatrical exercise at the first rehearsal. I’m not sure what director Dick Poole’s intentions were, but it certainly turned out to be a pivotal exercise for me.

The exercise started by pairing each person with someone they didn’t already know. We then had 30 seconds to make polite chatter. Dick would then call out an emotion (“Happy!”), and we were supposed to change the conversation to reflect this. Guys and Dolls has minimal chorus and crowd scenes, so again, I have no idea what was the point. Anyway, so Harry and I are rolling along with this stupid thing when Dick shouts “Angry!” Harry, who could talk extremely fast, starts berating me for being a clueless teen, for being badly dressed (almost certainly true), and for being straight. I was barely keeping up with “Hey, you don’t even know me, city guy” when that last hit, and I immediately, thoughtlessly, said, “and what makes you think I’m straight! You’re even stupider than you look!” The exercise probably didn’t end abruptly at that moment, but it makes a better scene if I say that it did.

That was it, I was suddenly out. I’d never told a single soul before then that I was attracted to men. Don’t take that the wrong way, however. I’d already had sex with far too many men for someone of my age; I just hadn’t talked about it. I knew what I might be (might?!); I just didn’t have any idea how I was going to be that. At that moment, it became time to start figuring it out. Near the end of rehearsal, Harry tried to ask me some questions; you can probably guess which. I had regained considerable composure, and was curt, but I didn’t backtrack. My sexuality at this point was still a confusing muddle that I hadn’t been able to name, but I had prepared for the idea that it might come under question at some point. I had prepared a response that was truthful – I didn’t want to lie. I was expecting the questions from family or friend, but so be it.
“Are you gay?”


“But you’re not straight.”


“You’re really cute, do you know that?”


Okay, so I wasn’t prepared for the last one. Fortunately, fate stepped in. Remember, this was my fifth performance with Porthole. Also, I’d gone from being a gawky freshman in my time with them to being a slightly less gawky senior. Enter Shelly. I think Shelly’d actually had her eye on me since she was 11 and I was 14, and we were both in the chorus of Oklahoma!. God knows why. I understand there are girls who want to date aliens someday, so there you go. Probably something like that. Shelly’d been waiting all night, with the enthusiasm of someone newly 14 and allowed to go out with boys at last, to get close enough to me to remind me that she existed. Seeing me standing alone with Harry, she made a beeline. And I grabbed it. “Shelly! How have you been! Bye Nathan, I mean Harry, see you tomorrow!”

Well, you can’t unspill milk as some Iowan relative of mine no doubt once said, so on with the show. Rehearsals were frequent, Harry was a star, and we were going to be seeing a lot of each other. I knew that if I didn’t want to be the very loud talk of the very small town, I needed to set some ground rules with him post haste. I laid down the law with him at the next rehearsal. “Look, I don’t want to talk about this in front of anybody. I’m in school, my parents don’t know, and you could really fuck things up. If you do, I will kill you. Or I will kill myself.” To his credit, he didn’t laugh, and he didn’t condescend. He just said okay. And he asked me to go home with him.

Harry had no way of knowing what I’d been up to for the past couple of years, and at this point I’m not going to go into it. Maybe in October. Fall is a good time for horror stories. But at that point, senior year, 1980-1981, there was simply no way I was going to sleep with him. It was far too late to save myself for marriage, but it was not too late to decide to save myself for someone I actually liked. And while Harry was nice, he was 20 years too old, 50 pounds too heavy, and lived 100 miles too close to other people I knew. So, no.

He kept trying, surreptitiously, and not so much. He followed my rules, up to a point, but he didn’t quit. He suggested me to Dick when the original Benny Southstreet that Dick had cast went, uh, south. So I got a bigger part, and got to spend even more time rehearsing with him. He’d smirk at me when Shelly hung all over me, and as rehearsals went on, when another Hotbox dancer, Jennifer, began hanging all over me as well. (Y’all understand how rare teenage boys are in community theater right? I might have been slim pickings, but it’s not like they had several to choose from). He gave me greeting cards with naked men on them professing his love. I hid them in the bottom of my sock drawer under the 1968 newspaper it was lined with. He gave me a book on Leonard Matlovich which I also had to hide, and told me they’d been lovers, which I didn’t believe. He’d sing along backstage with Sky Masterson on "I’ve Never Been In Love Before", while making eyes at me, which was going a bit too far. He’d make up lewd lyrics to other Broadway standards and try to make me laugh, and while an obscene version of "Try To Remember" IS funny when the refrain is "swallow, swallow, swallow", I had only to note the expressions of some of the people around us to remember that I needed to look shocked also.

After 10 weeks of this nonsense, we went on, had a great show, wowed the locals. Done. Cast party was his last chance, and I spent the entire night cuddling Shelly and Jennifer and surreptitiously downing red wine. When I was about to leave, I realized that I really should say goodbye, and I found him and said goodbye in a mostly private hallway. I let him kiss my cheek. He’d brought a final card. He told me to call him. I said that I might. I kissed him back, once, when he asked. I never saw him again.

In the grand scheme of things, Harry isn’t that important, even to me. I never even think about him, and when I saw his picture in Mom’s album, I had to read the caption to remember what his name was. But he’s the first person I came out to. He’s the first gay person I ever said more than two words to. And he’s the first gay person I ever met who wasn’t sneaky about it. Everyone in the entire cast knew about Harry. At the time, I naively believed no one knew about me. He wasn’t the best of role models, but I don’t judge him too harshly – it’s a bitch to be gay and lonely in a small redneck town. What he showed me that has the most lasting value is that you can be gay in a small redneck town, and you can set your own rules for how they should treat you, and if you can do that in a small town, maybe you can do it anywhere.
He was in your face, obnoxious, and lewd. He was sweet, expansively romantic, and inappropriately flirty. And he didn’t give a damn what other people thought of him. Except maybe me for 10 weeks in 1980, and it’s taken me far too long to say I’m glad I knew him.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Welcome. Now Run!

Hey. Everyone else is doing it. Just be aware that I have nothing of any importance to say. Therefore, most posts here will be me waxing on about my misspent youth, whining about my uncertain future, and tossing around philosophical ideas with no particular expertise and more than a few fumbling crashes. I'll try to include indecent amounts of detail so as to better live up to the title I've given this mess. So, you've been warned. If I run out of ideas I'll just start posting links to stupid stuff that you've probably seen before. Won't that be fun?