Thanks for Letting Me Cher

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One night in 2009, when I had like 6 months sober, I was leaving a meeting in Santa Monica and I heard it coming from a SUV. It was a familiar, campy jingle jangle intro of a seventies song I had heard about 4,000 times since childhood. “I was born in a wagon of a travelling show. My mama used to dance for the money they’d throw,” she sang. Of course I was leaving a gay meeting that night and of course it was a Cher song. I had to laugh out loud the minute I heard it. “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” Perfect. Like that title pretty much describes all of the attendees of every 12 Step meeting I’ve ever been to. Clearly, I was in the right place.
Having grown up in more of the Madonna generation than the Cher-Barbra-Bette era of young gay men, the diva was already on her 750th comeback by the time she won her Oscar when I was a teenager. But it was hard not to love Cher, even though I was more of a goth- new wave kid and she was recording Bon Jovi in fishnets music at the time. Cher was an outsider, a rebel and she didn’t care. Those were all things I aspired to be so she was added to the lengthy list of celebrities I was obsessed with in about 1989. As I got older and into my mid-twenties, Cher had her 751st comeback with “Believe” and I was fully out of the closet both as a gay man and Cher obsessive. The closest I ever got to the Cher-o-sphere in person was when I was 28 and working at a clothing company. Per the request of her stylist, I sent Cher some samples of the arm bands and gloves that we made. She sent me back a signed cd which meant we were basically best friends.
I also saw her in concert as art of her farewell tour that wasn’t really a farewell tour in 2005. This concert is harder to remember. Hard to remember because I was wasted drunk during that concert so every detail is fuzzy. Also hard to remember as in difficult. The whole memory because it still kind of stings. Here was this diva I loved for years and I barely remember a thing about that concert. I blacked out somewhere after “Take Me Home” and before “Heart of Stone.” I was sloppy drunk and it was an evening I regretted even before it was over. I do remember we had drinks before the concert we met a couple who was excited that The Village People were opening for Cher. “I can’t wait to do the YMCA for real,” the woman said. “I’ve only done it at weddings and bar mitzvahs!” I also remember the men’s restroom being the cruisiest gay spot I’d ever been to outside of a San Francisco leather bar. Other than that, I got nothing. Which is too bad. I really wish I had a magical Cher moment to pass onto you but I do not. I will however take this opportunity to discourage anyone who thinks drinking a lot and walking down the hills of the Hollywood Bowl sounds like a fun idea. It isn’t. Ugh. What a mess. I think I owe myself a Cher amends at some point.
Back in the rooms of recovery of 2009, I hope I would have made Cher proud. After all, she’s a self-professed member of Al-Anon, presumably after being married to Greg Allman. However, Allman was such an accomplished alcoholic that I think even if you purchased his greatest hits, you’d qualify for Al-Anon. But more than that, I hope I embraced the honesty that my idol had always proudly displayed. She always said what was on her mind and now I needed to do the same if I wanted to stay sober. To be fair, I didn’t learn how to share in meetings from Cher. I learned it from other alcoholics and addicts.
Week after week, meeting after meeting, I would hear people share about trying to stay sober when life got bad. We lost a member of our group who died of cancer but died sober. We lost others who relapsed. We lost a few to suicide. We also had people stay sober through good times like job promotions, weddings and financial successes. You know the kind of things you’d drink over to celebrate. People share about that too. I remember complaining once to my sponsor about a guy who bitched every week about his neighbors. To which my sponsor replied, “Well, he’s not drinking over his neighbors, now is he?” Fair point.
The other thing I noticed was the people who really shared what was going were the ones who stayed and stayed sober. The others who sat silently? Not so much. Being “wonderfully verbal” as a friend of mine once described me, I tried to jump right into sharing at meetings. I ALWAYS had something to say and I was sure that it was genius. I was also sure everyone else was obsessed with what I shared too. One night after a meeting and after a long and scattered share, I said to my friend, “I hope my share made sense.” Totally deadpan, he replied, “You shared tonight?” When I picked up a year, another friend said, “you’re a lot less crazy than you were when you got here!’ Turns out, my shares weren’t that memorable. But what was happening is I was feeling better. I was also for the first time ever trying to come clean about what was really happening. I was sharing about all the things I never wanted anyone to know for fear that I would be ridiculed. But as time went on, the reverse happened.
The harder something was to talk about, the more it connected me to others. When I got my HIV diagnosis at seven moths sober, I shared about it. Immediately, tons of gay men from my homegroup rallied around me. They told me they were positive too. They told me I was going to be okay. They told me where to go to get meds. They told me I didn’t have to drink over it. And I believed them. Shame, lies and self-hate drove me to he brink of death and now sharing the truth had brought me back to life. It was a comeback of my own that surely Cher would approve of.
In the cult classic Burlesque, Cher sings “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me.” The song, like “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” could be for every alcoholic too. Those of us who fought to stay alive and stay sober feel it in our bones when La Cher sings, “I am down but I’ll get up again.” But I won’t unless, I open my mouth. Each time, I write or speak or podcast or even share at a meeting, I’m fighting to stay honest and to stay here. The more I tell my story and tell on myself, the less power my alcoholism and addiction have.
So sadly, no you haven’t seen or heard the last of me but I hope I haven’t seen the last of you either.

Get this essay and others in my new collection Now That You’ve Stopped Dying available now! 

power ballad through it

1txyhkXCA8x-4KchjK67CoAWeird, weak and maybe wonderful things happen at the end of a long creative project. Maybe you hit a wall and decide, “Fuck it. It’s done.” Maybe something elusive shows up at the last second to save the whole thing. Maybe a last blast of steam moves you to turn the whole thing around like a goddamn creative action hero! Or maybe you just fall into a puddle of tears while blasting power ballads. The latter was exactly what happened to me over the summer as I finished my first collection of essays, Now That You’ve Stopped Dying.

All was not well on the ranch last July. Sure, everything on a cellular level around my home was fine. More than fine. It was great. But inside of me? Disaster. The thing that nobody ever tells you about bleeding funny, dark personal stories on the page is that it really takes a toll on you. I’d been editing tons of personal essays as well as creating new essays for months for this collection. Sure, I had more than enough previously published pieces to fill a few volumes but I wasn’t feeling it, dawg. I wanted them to make sense together. I wanted them to hit all the right notes. I wanted them to be a gift to people in recovery who had the same dark, funny fucked up thoughts that I did. But the catch was I had to dig up a bunch of new painful shit, throw glitter on them and be funny too. Trauma but make it fashion.

The new pieces got written and the old ones were spit shined but it came at a price. After so many months of listening to my own voice over and over again, I started to go mad. Not mad like a Sylvia Plath moment but certainly not acting like myself. For example, the last two days of writing, things had gotten really desperate. All I wanted, no, all I NEEDED to finish writing was Starbursts and a never-ending musical supply of power ballads. This is cause for alarm for a lot of reasons but primarily because I’m a strict chocolate, coffee and Stevie Nicks kind of guy when I’m on a deadline. Something about stirring up years of personal shit flicked a switch in my brain. It was Starburst in varieties of flavors and the chest thumping anthems of Celine Dion or this book was not happening.

Thus I did what I’ve done my whole life when a significant moment needed to be less painful, I made a soundtrack. Back in my teen years, my drawers were filled with sad mix tapes that charted every heartbreak and mistake. Today, my benchmark life moments, good or bad, get their own playlists and this moment certainly deserved one. Entitled “power ballad thru it” the playlist hit all the inspiring, dramatic and delightfully codependent notes you want with such a collection. It starts with “Alone” by Heart because it’s one of the best ever and I will refuse to hear anything different. Plus the sisters Wilson had previously helped me write my play The Singing Room so their musical magic couldn’t hurt. Checking more boxes were tracks like “Time After Time,” “Listen to Your Heart” and “Without You”-the Mariah version. Duh. These sometimes triumphant, usually heartbreaking songs were perfect for a project where I hopefully left it all on the page, emotionally, while somehow managing to be hilarious too. It’s  also really helpful for me to have something to sing along to and do expressive hand gestures to while editing. Hemingway and Faulkner did the same thing. Trust me- my fist bump during “Show Me Heaven” as Maria McKee sings “I’m not denyin’!” is a sight to behold. Plus, the overt theatrics of these songs helped me laugh at myself and take this whole bleeding on the page thing a little less seriously. Nothing like an epic lip sync of “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” by Celine Dion (who has two other gems on this playlist) to lighten the mood while editing a piece on PTSD.

The thing is, and this has happened with me finishing big projects before and will undoubtedly happen again, I was just ready to birth the damn thing. Months of tinkering on my own oh-so-humorous thoughts gets exhausting. That’s a fuck ton of time to spend inside my brain. I got tired of myself and of the essays. I lost all objectivity. Self-doubt slipped in more than once, that hateful bitch. She told me, “These essays suck. You’re not funny. Why are you even bothering?” Thankfully, I turned up the music and wondered why Laura Branigan is still so unappreciated instead of wondering if self-doubt was actually right. The day I promised it would be done by crept even closer and with that date approaching came another fear: I wasn’t going to finish. As a decades long flakey alcoholic and drug addict finishing anything other than a bottle or a baggie wasn’t really my strong point. But I wolfed down more Starbursts and didn’t listen to that one either. I’m not sure why other than I’ve grown up. The things that used to paralyze me don’t really anymore. Or they don’t for long, anyway.

The day my book was due, I didn’t work at my day job. I took the day to finish the damn thing, once and for all. The power ballads were at full volumes, the candy had been replenished and the coffee was non-stop. I got to the final essay. It was a rework of a pice that I wrote for urtheinspiration years ago. It meant something to me at the time because it talked about how I learned how to ask for help and to be honest with other alcoholics. Also? It was rich in Cher references. The new version was an expansion on those ideas but  now filled with reflections as a person with over nine years sober. Maybe the piece itself was emotional. Maybe it was me. Maybe I was tired. Or maybe all of those things are true. But as I wrote, tears fell down my face. I couldn’t help myself. I was a very Joan Wilder moment. Cher sang “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me Yet” in the background. The whole experience was way too much. Here was this drunk, coke whore actually finishing a book!?! It took time, candy, caffeine and power ballads but I finished the fucking thing.

And not just that. It was a book I was proud of. I wrote it for everybody who got sober and then thought, “Well, now what?” I wrote it for every queer person who struggled with self-esteem and addiction. I wrote it for every dark motherfucker who has a sense of humor about all of this stuff. I wrote it, finished it and now after months of life’s curve balls, I can’t wait for you to finally read it this spring!

 

 

 

out of service

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It all started by a waterfall with cliff divers.  Okay and there was also a mariachi band and a large orange monkey. There was also magicians, an old drunk couple with guitars and the gloppy enchiladas that should probably be considered a hate crime against Mexico. Little red flags popped up and me and a bevy of other teenagers would magically appear with chips and salsa and sopapillas (this puffy, fired dough pillow creation best eaten at mouth scorching temperatures and drizzled with honey.) Later, they’d tear me away from all of this glamorous action and sequester me to a hot steamy kitchen where my loud thin Vietnamese manager Hong would yell at me, “Do something!” Suffice to say, I didn’t last very long.

Yep, it all started nearly 30 years ago when I was 15 and working at a ridiculous Mexican restaurant/theme park/Denver anomaly called Casa Bonita. The “it” in question is my almost 30 year on and off again career of waiting tables, working behind retail registers and dealing with the general public. These restaurant/retail gigs have always made for good money makers while I’ve persued drugs or writing or getting sober. Now at age 44, my time behind the counter and I’m sad to report by fake waterfalls with cliff divers has come to an end.

While I won’t say, “I’ll never go back!” to working in cafes, shops or restaurants, I will say for the time being it looks like that chapter of my life is officially done. On Saturday, I said goodbye to the part-time gig I’ve had since I moved to Portland at a culinary shop/cooking class hub. While aspects of it were fun, I did feel a little like the daytime stripper way past her prime. Bitter, slow and armed with one liners ripe for any possible thing that could come up, it became clear that my time in this arena had run its course. The fact that no one got stabbed and my sobriety remained in tact means my time there was success. My new adventure, working as a peer counselor for the State of Oregon will put in me in an entirely different realm of the word service but will certainly take me out of this weird wonderful, fucked up world that I have known since my teen years.

It’s an over-simplification of the highest order and a snap judgement anyone can and has made probably any time they’ve left their house, I can confirm that people are the worst. Entitled, rude, awkward, racist, homophobic, cheap, dishonest, mean-spirited and generally awful, people put it all out there when their shopping and eating out. I also happen to be people too so I know this is true for myself as well. We like to think “everyone’s doing the best they can” but I’d argue that when we’re shopping or eating out that we are often on autopilot and the first things to evaporate are our common sense, manners and general non-shittiness. Like we don’t go places with the intentions of being awful but we don’t exactly set out into the world with the opposite intention either. However, I will say after you’ve worked with the public long enough, you no longer flinch when cray-cray shit flies out of their mouths. Somewhere around Year 500 of me working with the public, I developed a protective shield, one that kept me free from reaction while also making everything and everyone seem funny, human and really not that bad. Naturally curious and nosey, I do actually like talking to people, the big weirdos. So as I took on these gigs in sobriety I was able to have fun with them and promptly forget them when I went home.

Back when I was waiting tables, a friend once optimistically chirped, “But as a writer waiting tables must be a great insight into people, right?”  I’m sure I agreed and muddled sure, sure, sure then followed it up by some insightful, funny story about customers. Yet now I’m not so sure. After all, it’s a micro-glimpse into their lives and not really who they are. Yet I will say as a person who loves to write dialogue, working with the public has been invaluable. Plus, people are really vulnerable(read: insane) when they’re eating and shopping so you get to see them in a heightened state which is great for dramatic purposes. Yet for all the drama and all the years waiting tables only a few good stories remain and they are simplistic at best. Here are a few of the most memorable:

That time I waited on Isabella Rossellini. For obvious reasons– duh!

That time I watched a sleazy guy cut his girlfriend’s steak for her. Despite watching people vomit or get in fights, this sticks in my brain as one of the grossest and oddest things I ever saw waiting tables. I don’t know why but it’s forever lodged in my conscience.

That time I got to escort Harrison Ford backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. Harrison. Goddamn. Ford.

That time a customer posted a negative Yelp review of the place I worked at and singled out my shitty, snotty attitude. She wasn’t wrong.

That time I got to send clothes to Cher’s house for her to try on and she in turn sent me a signed cd.

That time I helped Roseanne pick out body glitter and punk rock records.

That time a couple had sex in the changing room at a boutique I worked at.

That time Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks sang Happy Birthday to her friend at the restaurant I worked at.

That time Rene Russo ate in our restaurant while her kids ate Domino’s in her car.

That time I got hit on by a customer at lunch and later hooked up with him in between shifts.

That time a D-List actor rudely yapped on his cell phone and ignored his 4 year-old kid while dining at my work. He even left the kid(!!) alone while he went to the ATM and he didn’t tip.

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That time, despite being really high/drunk I actually made a lot of money. Okay. That was most of the time.

Did I mention Isabella Rossellini already? The point is the fodder isn’t nearly as juicy as you might think. And without the celebrity sightings the cache of my illustrious customer service career completely bombs. I’ve mainly learned that people want to be heard, people want to be noticed and people shouldn’t be fucked with if they’re hungry. Also, this makeshift career of helping other people has oddly opened the door for me to want to help them even more, beyond bringing dessert menus or helping them pick out body glitter.

Service, as fate would have it, is a necessary part of my recovery. At nearly 9 years into this jam, I am constantly on the hunt for new ways to be of service. They say helping others keeps people like me out of our heads and I am all for that. Thus my new career and even writing have pushed me into a life less about Sean. Or at least that’s my hope. Plus, if all else fails I can return to this old wacky world. That’s the thing. Once you’ve conquered it you can do it anywhere and at anytime.

Meet me by the waterfall and I’ll bring you some menus.