Taking a Twitter Break

I’ve been on a Twitter break for the past two and a half weeks.

A couple of Sundays ago I decided to avoid Twitter for the day. I just needed a break from the constant news misery. One day became two days, which became three days, and now it’s been 18 days. I’ve tweeted a couple of times, and I’ve looked at a couple of non-news-related Twitter accounts once or twice, but I have not actually checked my feed since that Sunday.

I’ve still been following the news, but only by going directly to particular newspaper websites, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, and occasionally a news magazine site or two. I’ve basically turned the clock back on my information consumption about ten years.

I don’t miss the constant updates and anger and doomsaying about every news event large and small, and you-know-who’s looming presence over everything.

I do kind of miss seeing friends’ updates on what they’ve been up to and having jokey Twitter exchanges with acquaintances – the things that pass for being social on Twitter.

I will see how long this lasts. Even though I miss some things, I’m afraid to re-engage with the blue bird, because it has an addictive quality that I find I want to avoid. For now, it’s nice being away from it.

The 2019 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

I attended my second American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this weekend. Socially, it was wonderful — I got to reconnect with old friends and make new ones, and a couple of people even recognized my name from my NYT puzzle with Derek Bowman a couple months ago.

As for my performance: it’s complicated.

Last year I came in 105th out of 674, making the top 16%. My goal this year was to do better than that. During the last two weeks I did a lot of prep: I did dozens of crosswords. On paper. As fast as possible. I tried to get better at reading more than one clue at a time to speed things up. And: at previous tournaments, ACPT and Lollapuzzoola, I ruined several potentially perfect grids by making stupid errors, thereby forfeiting valuable bonus points. So I vowed that this time I’d check my grids before turning them in, making sure nothing looked obviously wrong. I was going to do better.

And I achieved my goal — I came in 95th out of 741, in the top 13%.

Now, if someone had told me going in that that would be my result, I’d have been thrilled. But instead I was really annoyed at myself, because of how I got there.

After the first four puzzles of the tournament, I was actually in 20th place out of 741 people. My puzzles were all error-free. I was so, so happy. All my efforts were paying off.

And then Puzzle 5 happened.

Puzzle 5 is traditionally the hardest, trickiest puzzle of the seven-puzzle tournament. This year it was by Evan Birnolz, constructor of the weekly Sunday Washington Post crossword. I love Evan’s puzzles, and I’ve met him in person — he’s a great guy. But for some reason, I was just not on the wavelength of this puzzle. I couldn’t figure out the theme. I first noticed something was weird when I tried to write down ROMA and the A was conflicting with the I in PHONE BILL. I couldn’t figure out why. Was it a rebus? Was I supposed to enter both letters in the square? Then in another part of the puzzle, the R in A MINOR clashed with the E in TEST (as in “Beta TEST,” or so I thought). What the hell? I kept re-reading the puzzle title and the blurb and trying to figure out what they meant and why the hell this puzzle wasn’t coming together for me, as the minutes kept passing and I started panicking more and more. Finally I had the whole grid at least filled in, and I realized I wasn’t going to get anywhere by spending more time looking over the grid and losing more points as the time continued passing (you lose points the longer you take). So I decided to cut my losses and turn it in.

Ultimately that puzzle wound up being a total car crash for me. I had THIRTEEN wrong squares. Before puzzle 5, I’d been ranked 20th; after puzzle 5, I fell to 138th. Jesus. I learned after the fact what the theme was. But I just hadn’t been able to figure it out.

Next was puzzle 6, and I rebounded. It was nice and smooth, and I completed it error-free. That was a relief — but I still felt so glum the rest of the evening about puzzle 5.

Sunday morning was puzzle 7, and again – no errors!

So ultimately, puzzles 6 and 7 pushed my ranking back up to 95th place. And if I’d known before this weekend that that’s where I’d rank, I would have been really happy. But if I’d known how I would get there… I don’t know.

Puzzle 5 was a total mess for me and it ruined my score. But on the other hand, I’ve clearly improved my fundamental crosswording skills since my last tournament. I completed six puzzles without stupid errors and with great times. I did well enough that even with my disaster, I still finished in the top 100.

There’s always next year. And more importantly, I got to hang out with terrific people for a whole weekend. Ultimately, nobody else but me cares how I ranked. Making friends and spending time with great people is more important than a crossword tournament ranking.

But I’ll conquer you next year, puzzle 5.

Total Eclipse

The total eclipse was amazing.

I learned more than a year ago that there’d be a total solar eclipse from coast to coast in August 2017, and I saw that my inlaws’ house was just within the path of totality, so I’d thought for a while about going down to visit them. In the last few weeks I started to think about it more seriously, and I decided that if the weather forecasts a few days beforehand for the big day looked good, I’d do it. Last week it seemed like there might be thunderstorms on Monday, but as it got closer to the day, the forecast turned clear. Finally, on Thursday morning, I bought a plane ticket to Chattanooga. I flew down on Sunday afternoon. Matt couldn’t make it because it’s a busy time of year at work for him, and at any rate, he didn’t think it was a big deal!

My inlaws live just north of Chattanooga. Last week they scoped out Dayton, TN, which is about 20 miles north of their house and would get 2 minutes and 21 seconds of totality. So yesterday morning, we drove up there, beating the traffic, and set up a standing tent in a ballfield around 10 a.m., along with chairs, a table, and a cooler full of food. I was with my inlaws, my brother-in-law, and some close friends of my inlaws who I’ve gotten to know over the years. Only one other car was there when we arrived, but as the morning went on, more people showed up. It was never crowded – we were on the edge of a big field with plenty of empty space.

The weather was perfect: a totally clear sky, with just a few clouds only at the horizon. A puffy white cloud did pass overhead at one point as the partial eclipse progressed, but it went by pretty quickly and never covered the sun.

We walked around a bit and got to chat with some of our fellow viewers. There were some locals and some people from farther away. One woman had driven up by herself from Mississippi, and she called herself a “weather nerd.” She had chemo last year and had decided that if she survived to this year, she’d come up and see the total eclipse. There was a couple who came with a tripod and camera and recorded the whole eclipse from start to finish.

The eclipse was an awesome experience, literally.

At around 1 pm, through my eclipse glasses, I could just barely make out a concavity in the sun, so subtle that I thought maybe I was imagining it. But then it became more visible and more defined. For the next hour-plus, the chunk got bigger and bigger.

Totality was scheduled to begin at 2:31. About 15 minutes beforehand, the quality of the light around us started to change. It got dimmer, but in a way I’d never experienced before. I felt like I was on another planet, under an alien sun. As the light continued to grow dim, I began to feel like I was wearing sunglasses, even though I wasn’t.

The sun had been beating down on us all day, but now it wasn’t very hot at all.

The strains of a bagpipe played in the distance. It added to the contemplative atmosphere.

It got to be 2:30. Through my eclipse glasses, the visible sliver of sun in the sky got smaller and smaller, until suddenly it disappeared, and we were in a total eclipse! Everyone cheered. We all took off our eclipse glasses.

I looked up and a black circle had blotted out the sun, just like in all the pictures I’d seen. I could see the corona very clearly. I tried to take a quick photo, but it didn’t come out well at all.

I looked around me. It was twilight, with a 360-degree sunset. A bright star or planet was visible to the right of the sun. The lights in the nearby parking lot came on. A couple of cars on the road drove by using their headlights.

We began to hear crickets. A radio played “Sunglasses At Night” and then “Dancing in the Moonlight.” In the far distance, I saw fireworks.

I lay down on the grass and looked up at the eclipse. Just looked at it.

And then, too soon, the Baily’s Beads and diamond ring began to appear and the sun started to re-emerge. I put my eclipse glasses back on. It was over. The 141 seconds had passed by so fast. It all happened too quickly. There was so much to see and experience and feel and not enough time for it all.

Slowly the sky began to grow lighter, the crickets began to stop, the daytime bugs started up their songs once more, and the air gradually grew warmer. About half an hour later, things felt sadly normal again.

It was an amazing day, and I’m so glad I got to experience it. I’m ready to see another one!

A Response to Modest Mom About Disney and LGBT Issues

On Twitter today I saw a link to a blog post by a woman who wrote that she has cancelled her family’s trip to Walt Disney World because Disney is including a gay character in the new live-action “Beauty and the Beast” movie.

Today, she wrote about the hate mail she received.

I left a comment on that post. I don’t know if the comment will get approved, but here’s what I wrote.

* * * *

Hi. I don’t know you. I’m sorry that someone called you a pig. It can be startling when you write something for your usual friendly audience and it somehow goes viral and gets read and shared by lots of people who don’t normally read your blog. That can happen on the internet. But it’s wrong for someone to call you a pig. People have every right to disagree with you and tell you why you’re misguided, but it’s not helpful to call you names.

Insults aside, it might be useful for you to try and understand why people criticized you.

For one thing, you said you were “forced” to cancel your Disney World vacation. But you weren’t forced to. You chose to. Framing it as something you were “forced” to do makes it sound like you’re trying to portray yourself as a victim.

Second, you said that the reason you decided not to go Disney World is because you don’t like the fact that some men love men and some women love women. Sorry, but that’s a very silly thing to be uncomfortable with. Being gay doesn’t hurt you or your children or anybody else. It doesn’t make the world a worse place. In fact, it makes the world a better place, because when people are allowed to be who they are – when they are happier, and when the things that make them happier do not harm themselves or other people – the world’s net happiness is increased. It seems puzzling that someone would be against increasing net happiness.

You also seem confused about what Disney is doing. It’s not like Disney is going to show gay sex on screen. Do they show heterosexual sex on screen? Do we ever see Prince Eric being sexually intimate with Ariel, Prince Charming having sex with Snow White? No. Little kids don’t need to know about sex. But we’re not talking about sex. We’re talking about portraying someone who has feelings for someone of the same gender. Human love. That’s all.

Third, and here’s a big one: plenty of people who have the same opinion about gay people as you do have done actual harm to gay people over the years. They condemned their gay fellow human beings who contracted HIV and died of AIDS in the 1980s. Instead of giving compassion and – more importantly – funding for anti-AIDS research, they criticized them and told them they were going to hell. More recently, people who hold your beliefs actively worked to try and prevent us from getting married. Getting married is a pinnacle of human happiness, but people actually tried to keep us from realizing that happiness. They didn’t want me to marry my husband. What kind of a person would try and prevent such a thing?

Fourth, you don’t just talk about your beliefs in your post. You actually encourage action. You tell people to sign petitions and participate in a boycott to try and prevent Disney from providing role models for little boys and girls that are going to grow up to be gay. Do you know that LGBT teens have a higher-than-average rate of suicide? Why are you against something that is going to make the young version of me that much less scared to grow up and be who he or she is? Why are you trying to prevent this?

There are plenty of Christians who do embrace gay people and support our full rights as citizens. I would ask how you reconcile your beliefs with the willingness to take action that hurts an entire segment of your fellow human beings.

I guess you don’t see it that way. I imagine you’re probably a good person in many ways. You love your family and your children. It’s great that you feed the poor and clothe the hungry. I honestly mean that: it’s more than most people do. But you seem willing to take action that will harm millions of other people, just because of your feelings.

It was still wrong for someone to call you a pig. But maybe you could try a little better to understand where other people are coming from.

Books I Read in 2016

Here’s a list of the books I read in 2016, in chronological order:

  • Interactive Data Visualization for the Web, Scott Murray
  • Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham
  • The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter Isaacson (first part)
  • The Magic of Math: Solving for x and Figuring Out Why, Arthur Benjamin
  • The English and Their History, Robert Tombs (first half)
  • Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World, Chad Denver Emerson
  • Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church, The Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe
  • Three Years in Wonderland: The Disney Brothers, C. V. Wood, and the Making of the Great American Theme Park, Todd James Pierce (first few chapters)
  • The Oxford History of the French Revolution, William Doyle
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
  • Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, Simon Baker
  • John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit, James Traub
  • America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union, Fergus M. Bordewich
  • Test-Driven Development with Python, Harry Percival (most of it)
  • Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, Volker Ullrich
  • The Nix, Nathan Hill
  • Death’s End, Cixin Liu
  • Time Travel: A History, James Gleick
  • Herbert Hoover: A Life, Glen Jeansonne
  • Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency, Charles Rappleye
  • The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution, Michael J. Klarman
  • Moonglow, Michael Chabon
  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon
  • Jefferson the Virginian (Jefferson and His Time, Vol. 1), Dumas Malone
  • Jefferson and the Rights of Man (Jefferson and His Time, Vol. 2), Dumas Malone

Day 6

Sorry, Trumpolini, you can’t win me over by saying that you believe same-sex marriage is “settled,” for three reasons.

(1) You’re a pathological liar who will say anything and change any position if it gives you what you want, which is power.

(2) You’ll appoint right-wing judges.

(3) You can’t divide your enemies by giving some of us crumbs and hoping you’ll peel us off. Even if I were a straight white Christian male with a large estate, you’d still disgust me because of what you’re going to do to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, people without means, people who need birth control, people who need abortions for reasons that are not ours to judge, and others.

Nice try.

Day 4

My therapist hosted a group session today for any of his clients that wanted to discuss how they’re feeling about the election. I went. There were five of us there, and it was really helpful.

He said he’d decided to do this special session because in his 26 years of practice, he’d never experienced a week with his clients like this one. Not even after 9/11. People have been upset, scared, worried, and depressed, and he thought it would be helpful to get folks together to share their thoughts and feelings.

I met some nice, interesting guys, and it was cathartic to hear how they’ve been dealing with the last few days.

As for me, what I took away from the session was that I don’t have to feel bad about feeling miserable about what’s happened. Some people are emotionally resilient and can easily compartmentalize their thoughts. That kind of thing is a little harder for me. Some people are moving immediately to anger and protest. I’m not really up for that right now. It will take me as long as it takes to return to normalcy, and that’s okay. You have to be who you are and you have to know what you need. As they say on airplanes, you should put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.

My therapist decided that in lieu of a fee for the session, we’d pay him whatever we wanted, and we’d collectively choose a charity to give the money to. We’ve decided to give it to a Muslim rights group – not sure which one yet.

I’m really glad he did this.

Day 3

I’ve been feeling emotionally and physically better today than in the last few days. It’s because I was able to catch up on some sleep last night. I mean, the world still sucks, but taking care of your physical and mental health helps a lot.

Day 2

Fortunately, I had therapy last night. I sat down, sighed, and paused for a few seconds.

“I don’t even know if I want to talk about it,” I said.

He smiled sadly. “Well, then you’d be my first patient today who didn’t.”

But of course we talked about it. And it was helpful, for a time.

The world has turned upside down. So we talked about how to engage in self-care, self-maintenance. Self-soothing. Be good to yourself. Focus on the things you can control. It’s amazing how much your mental and emotional state can affect how you feel. (Which I know is a tautology, but still.)

Some people have expressed rage and anger and are gearing up to fight the coming battles. But I don’t have the emotional or mental energy for that right now. I’m too depressed and drained. And I still haven’t had a good night’s sleep.

I talked to my dad last night and my mom this morning. My dad’s away on business right now. It was great to commiserate with him. And my mom always has amazing insight.

There’s a lot that I’m scared of.

As a gay man, I’m scared that federal recognition of my marriage will be taken away.

As a Jew, I’m scared because we as a people know what fascism brings.

As an American, I’m scared for what’s going to happen to the country and to the world. A guy with the attention span of a gnat is going to be in charge of the U.S. military.

I just… can’t.

And imagine being a Muslim-American, an immigrant, or a person of color right now.

Some of my fears are less likely to come to pass than others. But it’s hard to know which ones. I mean, the unthinkable has already happened, so who knows anymore?

I feel like sometime on Tuesday night we passed through a wormhole into an alternate universe. The darkest timeline. It really feels that way. I mean, obviously this is reality.

It just doesn’t feel anything like reality.

The Day After

I’m terrified.

And I feel ill. Physically ill, in the pit of my stomach.

I’m trying to hold it together, but it’s really difficult.

It doesn’t help that I didn’t get much sleep last night.

This morning, I walked around the corner to the grocery store. The vibe on the street felt like post-9/11. A collective, communal shock and despair. Same thing later, on the subway. Everyone being quiet and polite to each other.

I walked past the Javits Center on the way to the office. I stared at it and broke into tears.

But it wasn’t really about her. It was that she was the only thing saving us from disaster. And she lost.

I was very dejected when W won, and then when he won again. But I wasn’t terrified like I am now.

I’m terrified for the future of our country – socially, financially, and in other ways. I’d feel that way if any Republican had won. But because it was this particular person, I’m also terrified about our civil liberties, about impending fascism, about geopolitics, about what’s going to happen to the world.

Our country doesn’t survive this.

It’s like a nightmare, but I can’t wake up from it.

So, where to go from here?

Self-preservation. Be good to myself. Find new hobbies. Start to pull back from following the news. I hope I can do that.

Other than that – sorry, I got nothing.

My First Crossword Tournament: Lollapuzzoola 9

On Saturday I attended my first-ever crossword puzzle tournament: the ninth annual Lollapuzzoola. It’s the second-largest crossword tournament in the US, and the only one held in New York City.

I’ve loved puzzles forever. When I was a kid, my dad used to buy Games Magazine, edited by the great Will Shortz (who is now the longtime New York Times crossword puzzle editor and the nation’s puzzle master), and bring it home from work. When he was done with the issue, I’d take it and do the puzzles myself.

I’ve done the New York Times crossword every day for years. I can’t remember the last time I missed one; when I go on vacation, I do the ones I missed when I get back. I do them by hand — I like the tactile feel of writing on paper — and in pen. (Some people marvel that I do them in pen, but it’s not that impressive; it just makes for a sloppy puzzle when I get a letter wrong and have to write over it really heavily.)

I can do a puzzle pretty fast, but I don’t usually solve for speed. I like to savor the jokes, the witty wordplay, the words I’ve never seen before. Still, I was curious to know how I’d do in a tournament. I just missed out on attending last year’s Lollapuzzoola, because I didn’t learn about it until a week after it had happened. But I downloaded the puzzles on my own and my times were pretty good, so this year I decided I’d sign up and compete in person.

The tournament is hosted by Brian Cimmet and Patrick Blindauer, and it takes place in a church basement on the Upper East Side. This year there were about 230 competitors (a few competitors were pairs, but most were solo). The competition consists of five puzzles, three in the morning and two in the afternoon. Each one is timed. There are two big digital clocks in the room, and it’s on the honor system: when you’re done, you write down your time on the puzzle and raise your hand, and someone comes over to collect it.

Scoring on a puzzle is as follows: the fastest person gets 3000 points, the next fastest gets 2995, the next 2990, and so on, in decreasing five-point intervals. You get a 100-point bonus for completing a puzzle with no errors, and you lose 10 points for each square that’s incorrect or empty.

There are two individual divisions: Express (anyone who was in the top 20% in the previous tournament), and Local (everyone else). At the end of the day are the finals. The top three scorers in each division come to the front of the room and compete against each other by doing a puzzle on a whiteboard while wearing noise-canceling headphones. The Local and Express finalists do the same final puzzle, but the Express clues are harder than the Local clues.

So, how’d I do? Really well! After the three morning puzzles, they posted the scores, and at that point I was 29th out of 230 overall. I was #6 in the Local division, and I was the #2 rookie, i.e. it was my first time at the tournament (designated by an R):

Lollapuzzoola 9

The rookie ahead of me at that point — by a huge margin — was Paolo Pasco, a 16-year-old crossword puzzle constructor.

Someone at my table told me that if I kept doing well and some of the other Locals stumbled, maybe I could make it into the top three. I was hopeful, but I wasn’t counting on it.

After lunch, I did well on puzzle number 4, except I had my second error: The Karate Kid takes place in the city of Reseda, not Peseda. (The first letter crossed with a theme answer, and had I understood that theme better, I might have gotten it right.) But I was still hopeful.

And then, on puzzle number 5… I collapsed. Ugh. Some of the puzzles had been quirky, but this one I just could not get. I couldn’t figure out what was going on with the theme or how the puzzle worked. There were blank lines at the bottom and you were supposed to write something in them. Letters? Words? What was going on? It wasn’t clicking. The seconds ticked by, and other people at my table were finishing before me, while I’d been the first one at my table to finish every other puzzle. I got panicky.

Suddenly I had an aha moment and finally realized what was going on. I turned in the puzzle with what I later realized was an error. (I’ve seen The Apartment twice and Promises, Promises once, so I really should have gotten it right.)

So anyway, I didn’t make it into the top 3 of the Local division. I ended at #12. And I wound up being the #3 rookie. Overall, I was 49 out of 230, which is still very respectable. And since I just missed the top 20%, I get to compete in the Local division again next year.

Oh, and guess who showed up in the afternoon? Will Shortz. I got up the nerve to go over and introduce myself to him. I told him I was a fellow UVA Law grad and that I’d been a fan of his ever since reading Games Magazine as a kid. I was really excited, but I think I played it cool. And I got a photo:

me and Will Shortz

I had a blast at Lollapuzzoola and got to meet some great people. I’m looking forward to going back next year!

Books I Read in 2015

Time for my annual list of the books I read in the past year. As usual, it was mostly history and nonfiction, with a smattering of fiction, mainly sci-fi this year. My reading fell off in September, when I began my three-month coding bootcamp at The Flatiron School. I haven’t finished a book since September, although I started a few that I got tired of.

By far the best book I read this year was Mark Lewisohn’s two-volume, 1,600-page story of the Beatles from their ancestors and childhoods up through the end of 1962, when they were on the brink of nationwide fame. (Beatlemania wouldn’t come to the U.S. for more than another year!) Reading this took two months and some discipline, but it was so worth it, and I look forward to parts 2 and 3 of Lewisohn’s trilogy.

In fiction, The Martian was great, as were parts 1 and 2 of Cixin Liu’s trilogy, and Hugh Howey’s Wool.

Here’s the list:

  • Franklin Pierce (The American Presidents Series: The 14th President, 1853-1857), Michael F. Holt (1/1-1/7)
  • Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow (1/8-2/2)
  • James Madison: A Biography, Ralph Ketcham (2/2-2/20)
  • Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America, Nick Bunker (2/24-3/7)
  • A Monarchy Transformed: Britain, 1603-1714, Mark Kishlansky (3/8-3/16)
  • Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, John M. Barry (3/18-4/3)
  • Bigger Leaner Stronger: The Simple Science of Building the Ultimate Male Body, Michael Matthews (3/26-3/27)
  • How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism, Eric Hobsbawm (approx. 1st half) (4/5-4/12)
  • Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, Stephen Kotkin (4/13-5/16)
  • The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (5/18-5/25)
  • The Martian, Andy Weir (5/25-5/29)
  • Wool, Hugh Howey (5/30-6/5)
  • The Beatles – All These Years – Extended Special Edition: Volume One: Tune In, Book 1, Mark Lewisohn (6/10-7/5)
  • We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, Caseen Gaines (7/2-7/3)
  • The Beatles – All These Years – Extended Special Edition: Volume One: Tune In, Book 2, Mark Lewisohn (7/5-8/4)
  • Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Peter Ames Carlin (8/12-8/23) (about 30%)
  • The Dark Forest, Cixin Liu (8/24-9/18)
  • Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (9/21-?) (first few chapters)
  • Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow (10/5?-?) (first few chapters)
  • Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham (11/10-currently reading)

On Marriage Equality

As of today, thanks to the United States Supreme Court, gay Americans are fully equal citizens, nationwide.

In his 1995 book Virtually Normal, Andrew Sullivan called for an end to all public – that is, government-directed – discrimination against gays and lesbians:

What would it mean in practice? Quite simply, an end to all proactive discrimination by the state against homosexuals. That means an end to sodomy laws that apply only to homosexuals; a recourse to the courts if there is not equal protection of heterosexuals and homosexuals in law enforcement; an equal legal age of consent to sexual activity for heterosexuals and homosexuals, where such regulations apply; inclusion of the facts about homosexuality in the curriculum of every government-funded school, in terms no more and no less clear than those applied to heterosexuality…; recourse to the courts if any government body or agency can be proven to be engaged in discrimination against homosexual employees; equal opportunity and inclusion in the military; and legal homosexual marriage and divorce.

We’re there.

In 2003, gay sex was decriminalized across the country. In 2010, we were permitted to serve openly in the military. In 2013, the federal government recognized our marriages. And as of today, we can get married and stay married all over the nation. Legal gay sex, legal military service, and legal marriage; we’ve won.

Private discrimination still exists in housing and employment, and we’ll see what happens with private parties who provide wedding services. But when it comes to how our governments directly treat us, the governments we fund with our taxes and support with our allegiance, we are equal.

I’m a married gay man, and now Matt and I are married all over the country, even when we visit Matt’s family in Tennessee. When I was young and alone, and scared of these strange feelings about other boys that wouldn’t go away no matter how hard I tried, worried that my parents would disown me if they ever knew, I never could have imagined that I’d live in a world like this – a world where a majority of the Supreme Court supports my equality and the president of the United States (a black man, at that) praises that decision.

I wish I were 20 years younger. Maybe 30 years younger. I wish I’d grown up knowing that I could marry a man as an adult, that I’d live in a country where our public institutions and the head of our government supported my equality. I wonder if my parents would have been more accepting more quickly. I wonder if I wouldn’t have had to come out to them at 19 only to go back into the closet for another five years because they couldn’t accept it for so long. I wonder if I would have started dating earlier than age 24, gotten more relationship experience under my belt, been able to live it up in my college years, enjoyed more of my youth. Maybe I would have even gotten into more than one college if I’d been openly gay; maybe I’d have gone to a school more accepting of gay people than the University of Virginia in the early 1990s. Maybe I wouldn’t have put so much of my life on hold for so long.

But you can’t choose when you are born. You can only choose what to do with your life today, now. There are people older than me who didn’t live to see this day, people who never even found someone to marry. I’m glad I’ve got a long life ahead of me, knock wood.

I’m glad I’m young enough to live in this world and appreciate the rights I have – today.

Thoughts on “Falsettos”

“Falsettos” is coming back to Broadway next year.

I have complicated feelings about this show.

“Falsettos” was the first Broadway show I ever saw by myself. It was May 1992. I was 18. I’d just come home from my first year of college in Virginia a week and a half earlier. I’d only recently started to deal with my sexuality; toward the end of the academic year, I’d made my first gay friend — a fellow student named Kirk — and come out to him. He was the first person I’d ever come out to besides my therapist. I wasn’t sure whether I was gay or bi, but I knew I liked guys. I’d still never had a sexual encounter with anyone, but I was excited to have told someone, yet terrified of what my parents would think if I ever told them. Would they hate me? Disown me? Stop helping me financially? I’d grown up following the rules, staying within the lines. I didn’t know if I wanted to live a “gay life,” whatever that even was.

And then one Wednesday morning I took the bus into the city by myself and bought a matinee ticket for “Falsettos.” I can’t remember whether Kirk had told me about it or I’d read the review in the paper myself the previous month, but it was a gay musical and I wanted to see it.

I was probably one of the youngest people in the audience. For someone who was 18, sexually ambivalent, worried about going against what his parents wanted, and scared of AIDS, it was overwhelming. A story about a man who leaves his wife and breaks up his family so he can be with his lover, and then the lover dies of AIDS at the end? How was that supposed to make me feel? I was terrified. If that’s what it meant to be gay, no thanks.

And although some of the music was lush and complex, much of it was irritating, like jackhammers in my brain. And I didn’t like the Jewish stereotypes: a number called “Four Jews In a Room Bitching,” a number about how Jewish kids couldn’t play sports, Chip Zien’s entire character.

I came home that night and my parents asked me what show I’d seen and I told them, and they joked about how the audience must have been filled with male couples. I laughed, uncomfortable inside.

A few weeks later we watched the Tonys, which included an excerpt from the show. A few days after that, we got together with my aunt and uncle, and the Tonys came up in conversation, and they all said how terrible the show seemed from that baseball song. I cringed, because although I thought maybe they were right, I also felt like they were unknowingly insulting me.

The summer went by and then I went back to college, where I now lived across the hall from Kirk. He had a copy of the Falsettos double album, and I borrowed it from him and listened to it by myself a lot. That fall he went up to New York and saw the show by himself, and, as he later told me, he sat in the front row and bawled. (His father had died the previous year.) Michael Rupert made eye contact with him from the stage. When Kirk got back to Virginia, he wrote Michael Rupert a heartfelt letter, enclosing a play he’d written and his phone number. Michael Rupert called and left a message on his answering machine – he said he’d read the play and it was quite wonderful. He played me the message.

That’s about it. I bought the “Falsettos” CD for myself and played it occasionally, until I eventually moved on to other things

More than 20 years later, I’m still not sure what I think of the show. The score is alternately beautiful and annoying. The Jewish stereotypes irk me. The show takes me back to when I was 18 and confused and was shown a vision of gay life that was scary and sad and too much for me.

I’m sure I’ll see the new production next year. I’m curious to see if my opinions will have changed.

Getting Back in Shape

My belated New Year’s resolution was to go back to the gym. After being asked by three different doctors in the last few months whether I exercise, and sheepishly answering, “well, I walk sometimes,” and being told in response that regular cardio is important, I decided it was time to get back in shape. I have a decent body to begin with – high metabolism, pretty lean — but I’m 41 and not getting younger. Fortunately, there’s a gym right across the street from my Manhattan office, so I joined it last week, which has made it really easy to go.

Originally I was just going to do cardio. But my gym membership included a free training session, and I guess the business model succeeded, because the free session made me realize that I missed working with weights, and I wound up buying a package of sessions. So in addition to cardio, I’m going to try to build muscle tone and strength.

I enter into this warily, because when I tried putting on muscle several years ago, I couldn’t. I exercised regularly, I drank protein drinks, but I couldn’t seem to put on any muscle.

Maybe I didn’t eat enough. One problem for me that I have IBS, so it’s hard for me to eat large quantities of food without various types of discomfort. Thus, in addition to the gym, I’ve also begun trying the low-FODMAP diet to see if it helps me. It hasn’t alleviated my symptoms yet, but it’s only been a couple of days.

Anyway, I want to look good, and more importantly, I want to feel good. I’m an anxiety-prone overthinker, and if I can shunt some of that mental energy toward physical energy, that can only help, right?

I’ll see.


Books I Read in 2014

Here’s my annual list of books I read this year. I tend to read mostly nonfiction, but this year I read six whole novels, which is a lot for me. As always, I followed my interests wherever they took me.

Early in the year, during the Oscar season, I got into books about movies. Early spring was dominated by Richard Evans’s Third Reich trilogy, about 2,000 pages in all, but worth it. In late spring/early summer I got into science and communications; summer was history and fiction; after a fall trip to Walt Disney World, I re-read a terrific Walt Disney biography; and the last part of the year was British monarchs and more fiction.

Here’s my list:

  • Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Patrick McGilligan (first few chapters)
  • How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, and Beyond, James Monaco (first half)
  • Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists, Steven Bach (1/27-2/8)
  • Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage, Will Swift (mid-February to 3/6)
  • Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941, Lynne Olson (3/9?-3/23)
  • The Coming of the Third Reich, Richard J. Evans (3/23-3/28) (re-read)
  • The Third Reich in Power, Richard J. Evans (3/28-4/6)
  • The Third Reich at War, Richard J. Evans (4/6-4/24)
  • Thinking the Twentieth Century, Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder (4/24-5/3)
  • The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet, Robert M. Hazen (5/11-5/18)
  • The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, Jon Gertner (5/24-6/3)
  • The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, Tim Wu (6/5-6/14)
  • Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, Susan Crawford (6/17?-28)
  • The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark (7/1-7/25)
  • The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Rick Perlstein (7/29-8/24)
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami (9/1-9/8)
  • 10:04, Ben Lerner (9/8-9/12)
  • The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (9/14-9/27)
  • Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Neal Gabler (10/4-11/4?) (re-read)
  • Victoria: A Life, A. N. Wilson (11/8?-11/23)
  • The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince, Jane Ridley (11/24-12/6)
  • All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (12/6-12/12)
  • The Metropolis Case, Matthew Gallaway (12/13-12/22)
  • The Good Lord Bird, James McBride (12/22-12/27)
  • Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, Brenda Wineapple (currently reading)

(Here’s last year’s list.)

Working in Midtown

A month ago I began working in midtown Manhattan. This has long been a dream of mine – at least since 1999, when I finished law school and moved back up north – but things kept getting in the way.

First, after law school I didn’t have a job lined up. I eventually wound up working for a family friend in central New Jersey, so I moved down there; it took over an hour to get to Manhattan by commuter train. After a year, I got a legal clerkship in Newark, but it was a state job that required New Jersey residency, so I stayed in New Jersey but moved as close to Manhattan as possible: Jersey City, right across the river via PATH train.

I stayed in Jersey City for five years. During that time I met Matt, and eventually we moved in together in Manhattan — but I was still working in New Jersey, as a lawyer for the state.

I looked forward to my next job being in Manhattan, but: no. My next job – my current job – was also based in Newark. I couldn’t seem to escape the Garden State. Eventually that job moved even further into New Jersey; I had to commute an hour and 40 minutes out to the suburbs (via subway, New Jersey Transit train, and company van), but only twice a week; the rest of the time I could telecommute from home.

That was my schedule until a month ago. Our Manhattan office moved to a new space, and it has room for people from my division. My division has no assigned cubicles here, and I still have to go to the New Jersey suburbs once a week, but the rest of the week I’ve been working in the Manhattan office – and it’s been terrific.

My commute is 25-30 minutes by subway. I don’t have to sync my schedule to a New Jersey Transit train that leaves once an hour. There are people around. Lunch options abound — and since a lot of people I know work in midtown, maybe I can be more social, both during lunch and after work. When the theater season starts up in the fall, I’ll be able to meet Matt at the theaters nearby.

The office is newly renovated. It has a nice color scheme. It’s environmentally friendly. It has a coffee machine that grinds Starbucks beans for you. One side has a great view up Park Avenue. All the cubicles are within viewing distance of windows.

It’s so nice to have an alternative to either schlepping out to the suburbs or working from home. Telecommuting could be great, but it was isolating. I could sleep in, but then I’d sit at my laptop in my sleep clothes until noon, when I’d finally realize I should shower and get dressed.

I’m 40 years old and I’ve wanted to work in this neighborhood since I was 25 or younger. I’m so glad I can finally do it.

Better late than never.

Why I Like Twitter More Than Facebook

I like using Twitter, but I never post on Facebook. In fact, I dislike Facebook. There are a few reasons why I prefer Twitter.

One, I’m a news junkie. Other than the New York Times, I get most of my news from Twitter. People do post links on Facebook, but they’re usually just links to viral quizzes or Upworthy-style listicles, and I’m not interested in those. Twitter has a higher substance-to-fluff ratio than Facebook.

I rarely go to Facebook just to see what random people in my feed are saying. If I go there, it’s to check up on a particular person. I type the person’s name into the search box, bring up the feed, and see what he or she’s been up to. Of course, that requires going to the Facebook homepage first, and I usually see a few status updates from other people that catch my eye. But I rarely go there just to pass the time. I use Twitter for that.

Two, I feel like Twitter approximates the community that used to exist around blogging. I miss that community; I met lots of interesting people back in the ’00s, all because of blogging. (Including my husband!) Many former bloggers are now on Twitter, especially the gay blogging circle that existed 8-12 years ago. People who took the time to maintain blogs back then had interesting things to say, and now those interesting people on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Facebook is what AOL used to be. Everyone is there: family members, distant relatives, New York friends I haven’t seen in ages, random acquaintances from high school and college. If I were more of an extrovert, perhaps I’d be be more interested in knowing about the random facts of all these people’s lives. But I really only want to know what’s going on with my closest friends. If you want me to know something, you should tell me directly.

That’s one reason I follow only about 100 people on Twitter. I would probably feel overwhelmed if I followed, say, 200 people. But maybe that’s because I’m sensitive to information overload; I’m an addictive link-clicker, but I’m also very wary of getting too sucked in to the internet and falling into a timesink. A shorter feed keeps me from drowning in internet stuff.

Three, I feel silly posting Facebook status updates. Unless it’s about something major, like getting married, or posting my thoughts about a college reunion where the people who will want to read it are fellow alumni who will only find it via Facebook, I don’t know why everyone in my life could possibly care about my thoughts or actions. Because of the larger, unfilted audience on Facebook, status updates feel too much like self-conscious performance. Tweeting feels a litlte bit like that, but not nearly as much. I can avoid all the awkardness by not posting on Facebook at all.

On the other hand, at least Facebook users are nicer about giving you feedback and gratification when you write something. On Twitter, I’ve written countless tweets that I think are funny or interesting only to get completely ignored by my followers. No favorites or retweets or anything. I guess I must have a weird sense of humor, or a weird sense of what’s interesting. I should probably be more thick-skinned about being ignored, but it’s hard.

The final reason I don’t like Facebook is because I don’t trust it. I know that Facebook basically exists to mine my data for advertisers. That makes me uncomfortable. On Twitter I don’t even have to use my real name.

We live in weird, weird world.

Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich Trilogy

I spent the last few weeks reading Richard J. Evans’s masterful trilogy on the history of the Third Reich.

The first volume (which I had previously read a few years ago but decided to reread), The Coming of the Third Reich, covers the origins and causes of Nazism, culminating in Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The second, The Third Reich in Power, covers Nazi Germany from 1933 to the onset of war in 1939. The last, The Third Reich at War, covers Nazi Germany from the invasion of Poland to the end of the war, with a little bit of what happened after.

This was almost 2,000 pages of reading. Here is a short summary, for my own benefit, of what I took away from these books. Some of this I already knew, but it was useful to see it all connected together in book form.

Volume 1, on the origins of Nazism:

Nazism was not inherent in German history or philosophy or in the German people. In fact, historically there was a strain of human rights in German thought. But we can’t escape the fact that Nazism happened in Germany, not elsewhere. Why? It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the ingredients really began to take shape under Bismarck; militarism, German nationalism, an overheated political atmosphere, the rise of science and a “scientific” approach to racial hygiene, antisemitism not just as a religious concept (which could be avoided by religious conversion) but as a “modern” racial concept (something inextricable from one’s identity). Hitler grew up in this milieu, absorbed it, and synthesized it into something that could appeal to people as a unified concept, and it came at a time when people were looking for a solution to their problems. Would Nazism have happened without Hitler? Perhaps or perhaps not, but all the ingredients were already there. He didn’t create them.

The post-WWI Weimar Republic never had much of a chance; few people truly loved it, and it was actively undermined by communists on the left and by conservative German nationalists on the right. Once the Depression began, any hope for its success disappeared; the political center disintegrated, leaving the Nazis and the Communists to fight each other for power. The Nazis won through shrewd use of propaganda and the political system, although interestingly, they never actually received majority support in any popular election; but they received pluralities, which was enough. Once Hitler gained power, he ended elections, and eventually most people were willing to accept Nazi dictatorship if it meant German economic improvement and success. Much of the population was actively pro-Nazi, but many were just going along, not fanatically in support or opposed. (And there were those who were quietly opposed, or even not so quietly – and some who were not outright opposed but at least uncomfortable with them.)

Volume 2, on Nazi Germany before the war:

What was Nazism about, once in power? Quite simply, it was about the alleged superiority of the German “race,” and about preparing for war in order to achieve “living space” (lebensraum) for the German race; and it was also about hatred of Jews more than any other group of people. While other racial groups, such as Slavs and gypsies, were seen as racially inferior and wholly dispensable, the Jews were seen as worse: not just racially inferior, but dangerous villains bent on subversive and insidious world domination, the “Jewish bacillus.” The Slavs, the gypsies, the mentally and physically handicapped, and the homosexuals were seen as obstacles to the propagation of the superior German race, but the Jews were seen as terrible villains bent on world conquest.

Later in the twentieth century some political scientists tried to categorize Nazism as anti-communist and pro-capitalist; but Nazis saw Jews as controlling both the communists and the capitalists. Hitler purposely appealed to (non-Jewish) business leaders to win their political and financial support, but Nazi Germany was not philosophically a pro-capitalist free-market economy; big business and industry was useful only as a way to build up armaments for war. When government control and direction of industry became necessary to further the military buildup, so be it. The ultimate goal, again, was war in order to achieve living space for the superior German race. The overriding philosophy of Nazi Germany was not about the role of government; it was about race.

Volume 3, on the Third Reich at war:

The Nazis went to war in 1939, but they had essentially lost by 1943. At first Germany had the advantage of surprise (in the blitzkrieg), but ultimately Germany never had a chance against the industrial and demographic power of the United States, Britain, and — importantly, as we in the West often forget — the Soviet Union. The last two years were a slow, but expected, German defeat. As Germany began to lose, and the Western allies began to bomb German cities, German morale deteriorated and Nazi Germany collapsed, but not before millions of Jews, and smaller but still substantial numbers of others, were horrifically murdered. The book goes into grim detail about the Holocaust, which makes for difficult reading at times.

We must always remember Nazi Germany, but there will never be a Fourth Reich; if Nazism revives, it will more likely happen elsewhere. The Nazis are a cautionary lesson not just for Germany, but for humanity.

Observing Passover

Last night was the end of Passover. This year I stuck to the holiday’s dietary laws more closely than I had in a long time: no bread or other products with leavened flour, no corn or rice or oats. (So much for my morning oatmeal.) I did eat beans, and we had a container of eggplant spread that apparently contained breadcrumbs, although I couldn’t detect them. But this was the most strictly I’d followed the laws of Passover in many years.

I think it’s because we hosted our first seder this year. It was small, just me and Matt and my immediate family, but it made me more aware of the holiday than usual. Even though I don’t believe in God, I’m still Jewish, and it was nice to be reminded of the cultural traditions in which I grew up.

Of course, the best part of following the Passover laws is the end of Passover. I had a burger last night on a bun. I had oatmeal for breakfast. I had a sandwich on a bagel for lunch today.

Delayed gratification never tasted so good.