How E.F. Benson helped make me a better gay

Inscription in my copy of BensonThis week I reached up to a high shelf and pulled down my copy of Make Way for Lucia, the weighty compendium of all of E.F. Benson’s Riseholme and Tilling novels. (That photo is the inscription inside the front cover.) This is light stuff, but it’s not Wodehouse; it’s more deftly observed, much more archly written, and much, much, much gayer—although words like that are not only not used, they’re barely hinted at. It was a different time.

Benson, a minor writer but beloved by generations (reportedly the late Queen Mother’s favorite author!), is an author you don’t trip over by yourself, and probably even less now than 25 years ago; someone has to tell you about him. For me, it was an older gay man I’ll call “Ray” whom I used to work with and who took me under his wing (and when I say “older,” well, he was probably about 34 at the time), whom I lost touch with decades ago. The pseudonym is simply so that other people who knew him don’t recognize him; I don’t mind if he recognizes himself, but I’m guessing he’ll never find this, and given his very common name, I’m unlikely to be able to find him.

I was a terrible gay back then; I’d gone straight from the suburbs to a very heterosexual college campus at a very conformist historical moment. So the gaps in my subcultural knowledge were stunningly wide. I thought Ray was amazing. He seemed so amazingly well-read and knowledgeable about art and culture and history, and in retrospect I think he may have been self-taught, which makes all this even more impressive; almost certainly he came from a modest cultural background. He had an intellectually informed, allusive cultural manner, and a set of exaggerated physical mannerisms (which he code-switched in and out of) that you don’t see nearly as much anymore.

In those days, before Jack McBride or Ellen, there was no “gay” on TV, unless you count Jack Tripper; and being comfortably gay and out was seen by everyone as an aggressive act. Writing about this reminds me that I came of age as one gay world was passing away and another was taking its place, which of course every gay person does, but I think that inflection point—1985, let’s call it, the year I turned twenty—was a particularly sharp one. Certainly it looks it in retrospect. As one marker of the change, people my age and younger as a general rule are totally comfortable with their smartphones, for everything from ordering groceries to requisitioning bed partners. And people Ray’s age and older don’t do any of those things with their mobile devices.

Ray was the first adult gay person who treated me like an adult gay person. (When I first started that job where I met him, I was 21, and uptight as the dickens.) He was the first adult gay person who invited me to a dinner party at his house along with other grownups (some of whom were gay, and some of whom weren’t, and everyone was fine with that! and if you’re under 30, it’s probably impossible for you to understand how transgressive that sort of matter-of-factness seemed then). He was the first adult gay person who drove me somewhere in his car. He wasn’t the first adult gay person I knew who had a gay wedding, but he knew that person and was a guest at that wedding along with me.

Along with various other snippets of popular and unpopular culture, Ray used to quote Benson’s novels all the time, and refer to the characters in conversation as though I knew them. I liked Ray and wanted to be like him, so I sought out the books; and once I started reading (in the summer of 1988) I don’t think I stopped until the end of the series. (The other thing I read that summer was War and Peace. I was a pill.)

Given how evocative the memory of reading these novels is for me, and how much I loved them on first reading, 27 years ago (!), I was terrified that they wouldn’t hold up. (Lots of things don’t.) But I’m halfway through Queen Lucia, the first of the series, and I’m pleased to report they are as delicious as ever. So I’ll see you in a few months, when I’ve gotten through 900 pages.

Making time for creative work: a gadgetry approach

Make Time Clock by Fractured Atlas

I admit it. When I heard about the Make Time Clock, the first foray into product development by Fractured Atlas, I admit I was a little skeptical.

But after seeing Selena Juneau-Vogel’s 5-minute IGNITE presentation (basically a modified PechaKucha) about the clock yesterday at NAMP, and talking to Selena for 15 minutes last night, I’m sold, and I just made my Kickstarter pledge.

The idea is simple: create a visual and tactile representation of ongoing progress toward a project or goal that you’re having trouble making time for, to help you move forward on what’s important (what matters to you) rather than what’s urgent (what matters to everyone else).

There are systems out there to help you prioritize and systems out there to help you make incremental progress. But this is different: it’s something that sits on your desk or your kitchen table and gives you (and the members of your family/household/work community, which is not incidental) evidence that you’re putting in the time necessary to make progress: by default in sessions of 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week.

There are three things I particularly like about this approach:

(1) It’s a physical object, not a thing that runs on your computer (or on pieces of paper, or in your mind).

(2) It’s visible to others, not just to you, which makes it possible for you to solicit and receive social reinforcement—again, from people who are physically present in your environment, not just your Internet friends.

(3) It acknowledges that five or ten minutes snatched here and there will not be sufficient. Creativity happens in sessions, not in five-minute increments; there’s a ramp-up and a wind-down.

I’m actually going to use this thing.

They have a little under four weeks left to get another 120 pledges, so get yours in. Tell them that Selena sent you.

Showing up to do creative work

In his opening plenary today at NAMP, Radiolab host Jad Abumrad quoted Ira Glass reminding us of one of the most fundamental truths we all know about our creative work. It’s a truth that comes in two parts: (1) We’re not good enough for a long, long time; and (2) The only way around that is through it. But Glass put it better than I did:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

It’s true. If you do anything professionally creative, or anything that remotely involves the creative impulse, you know it is. You just have to keep working, keep trying and re-trying and optimizing and reshaping, until you get it.

Mormons double down against marriage equality

Temple_Square_October_05_(8)_c-500-x-375We knew it was too good to last. Last week we were hearing some quasi-official Mormon voices saying respectful things about gay people and the law of the land and so forth, but this week a new policy on gay families an actual LDS church document sets forth a new policy on gay families that’s exactly the same as the old policy, except even more so.

Not only will gay Mormons who get married be treated as apostates and excommunicated—their children will be treated as untouchables, which seems like an appalling choice for a movement that claims to be committed to family wholeness to make. This is the circling of the wagons, and it confirms that the church is on a path toward cultural irrelevancy. As John Dehlin, who was excommunicated in February for, among other things, taking seriously gay people’s desire for basic rights,put it: “The inclusion of same-gender marriage as specific grounds for apostasy is surprising only because it really paints the church into a corner, and leaves them less room to slowly finesse a change over time.” That’s exactly right. Like the Boy Scouts, the Mormons are digging themselves into a hole. Except the Boy Scouts, finally, are starting to dig themselves out.