A homily for Sondheimas

22 Mar

Although there will likely be video at some point — vaguely dreading that, to be honest — I’ve decided to share the homily I delivered last night at Sondheimas, the annual celebration of our birth and savior Stephen Sondheim. It was a thrill to take the stage at 54 Below and nerd out over a man who is, without question, one of the most significant influences in my life. What follows is the homily as I wrote it. (I ad-libbed a bit on stage, so if you happened to be at Sondheimas and thought my homily was much better as you remember it, you’re being really picky. But you might also be right!) Anyway, without further ado, the homily.

Steve be with you.

The Bette Midler Gypsy came out when I was seven, a decade before I did. I’ve always connected the two, if for no other reason than being gay seems to be some combination of nature and nurture, and if watching the Bette Midler Gypsy every day for a year doesn’t turn you gay, you’re not trying hard enough. The funny thing about the Bette Midler Gypsy is that I never saw the whole thing until years later, when I learned that my diligent parents had been stopping the VHS tape after “Together, Wherever We Go.” That means that for years I had no idea that Gypsy was about a stripper. It also means I missed Christine Ebersole’s iconic performance as Tessie Tura. In retrospect, I’m lucky I still turned out gay.

The Sondheim musical my parents did let me watch start to finish was Into the Woods, which my dad had taped when it aired on PBS’s American Playhouse in ’91. I was four years old, still a few years shy of the Bette Midler Gypsy and barely old enough to follow the fairy tales that inspired the musical. But I knew that the Baker’s Wife died. I’m not sure why the trauma of Into the Woods was inflicted on me while I was spared the knowledge that Louise becomes a stripper, but like most parents, mine had a harder time explaining sex than violence. I guess they hoped I would miss the giant wolf dick in Into the Woods.

I probably did, at first. I missed a lot of things during those early repeat viewings, which were even more frequent than those of Gypsy. But unlike the Bette Midler Gypsy, the PBS Into the Woods has been a constant in my life. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t watching it. That worn VHS tape, which I eventually upgraded to a DVD, has been a lifelong companion and friend. Sometimes I fear I’m touched. And when I wasn’t sitting down friends to watch Into the Woods, nervously gauging their reactions to decide if we could actually keep hanging out, I was watching it again on my own, taking more of it in each time, my understanding deepening the older I got. I know things now.

I don’t want to put all of my emphasis on Into the Woods because it wasn’t the only Sondheim show that moved me during my adolescence. I remember seeing Company a week after getting my first hickey and bawling during “Being Alive” because somebody had held me too close and then stopped returning my calls. I experienced something close to a goth phase when I became deeply obsessed with Sweeney Todd. I saw an all-Asian production of Pacific Overtures and an all-Asian production of Merrily We Roll Along. Both were great. For those not in the know, the East West Players is LA’s premiere Asian American theater organization, and they do a lot of Sondheim.

But nothing could ever replace Into the Woods for me. The connection was too strong. No matter how many thousand times I listened to the original cast album, I found new relevance to my life. Lyrics from Into the Woods comforted me in times of turmoil. When I came home from college to a city that didn’t feel the same: “And you think of all of the things you’ve seen, and you wish that you could live in between.” When I made my first online dating profile: “But then what if he knew who you were when you know that you’re not what he thinks that he wants?” When a close friend died suddenly: “Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Do not let it grieve you, no one leaves for good.” And, of course, when David asked me if I wanted to deliver this homily: “Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.” Which I’m pretty sure is a James Lapine line, but work with me here.

I know I’m not the only person in this room who looks to Sondheim for guidance or context or inspiration. His songs are so intricate that they force you to engage: “Every moment makes a contribution. Every little detail plays a part.” You can’t not think about his words long after you’ve stopped listening, and you can’t not find meaning in every line, whether funny, tragic, or somewhere in between. Sondheim helps us think and feel. And if you’re anything like me, you need all the help you can get. Sometimes the best way to process that which we cannot understand is through Sondheim.

The other day at work I published a list of quotes I commissioned from various performers, composers, and directors who have worked with Sondheim or have a special relationship to his music. At the risk of losing you all with a Glee reference, I want to read what Chris Colfer wrote, because I think he sums it up well. Sorry, haters. Chris wrote, “Performing Sondheim is more than just singing a song; it’s exposing a soul — sometimes a character’s, sometimes your own. Listening to Sondheim is like handing over the keys of your psyche. Every lyric and every note is so beautifully assembled, it instantly levels your mood to whatever emotion is being portrayed. It takes a true gift to make audiences feel music as much as they hear it, and a performer couldn’t ask for a better tool.”

It’s a really nice quote, right? Almost makes up for the horrifying Auto-Tuned cover of “No One Is Alone” that Glee did. I digress. Chris’s quote really resonated with me, even though I’m not a singer. Because you don’t have to be a performer to be grateful for that lyrical journey Sondheim takes you on. You just have to be a human being. With really good taste.

At this point in my life, I still turn to Into the Woods the most. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve watched and listened to it so many times that it’s now deeply rooted in my soul. All I know is I can’t remember the last time I made a decision that didn’t involve consulting “Moments in the Woods.” It’s the perfect anthem for someone as anxious and indecisive and Jewish as I am. The older I get, the more I realize that having it all is a fallacy. Believe me, I know: I’ve tried to be bicoastal. But I’m also OK with life as a sometimes disappointing but often wonderful work in progress. Things are complicated: No matter what my parents would have me believe, Gypsy doesn’t end with “Together, Wherever We Go.”

So do your best, be kind to one another, and maintain your faith in a higher power, whether it’s Stephen Sondheim or one of the lesser deities. As my therapist has been telling me for years, “Live in the moment.” Now I understand. And it’s time to leave the woods.

My 20 favorite films of 2014

22 Feb

Believe it or not, there are still films from last year I haven’t seen, but if I don’t do this now, I may never actually get aroud to doing it. Also, I feel like the day of the Oscars is the official cut-off point for posting your list of the best movies from the preceding year. (I’m basing this on literally nothing. Just work with me here.) I’ve decided not to rank these, in part because I do enough ranking for work, but also because how do you compare 22 Jump Street and Selma? (I’m sure there’s a way to do it. Feel free to email me with your suggestions.)

So here, in alphabetical order, with some thoughts on each, are my 20 favorite films of 2014:

1. 22 Jump Street21 Jump Street was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2012, but the biggest surprise was that 22 Jump Street was even better. Channing Tatum got plenty of accolades for his performance in Foxcatcher, but honestly, he’s way more in his element in 22 Jump Street. His chemistry with Jonah Hill is extraordinary, and the film as a whole is that perfect blend of action and comedy that many movies aspire to but few attain.
2. Boyhood. While it’s probably going to lose the Academy Award to Birdman, which I really didn’t like, Boyhood is perhaps my favorite “Oscar movie” of 2014. Much has been written about Richard Linklater’s unprecedented feat of filming the same actors over 12 years, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive to watch. And Patricia Arquette’s “I just thought there would be more” scene, which will win her an Oscar, is heartbreaking and perfect.
3. Citizenfour. Say what you will about Edward Snowden — actually spare me, because I’m not really interested in having that debate right now — Citizenfour is unlike any other documentary I’ve ever seen. It’s that rare combination of unbelievable access and a stranger-than-fiction story. Even though you know where the story is going, because it played out over international headlines, it’s still a thrilling, relentlessly challenging journey.
4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It did earn one technical Oscar nomination, but I’m a little disappointed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was so quickly forgotten. I was a big fan of Rise, which aptly rebooted the dusty Planet of the Apes series, and Dawn expands on the story with some exceptional world-building and gorgeous character development. Caesar is truly one of the best developed characters of any 2014 film.
5. Edge of Tomorrow. Another underrated sci-fi gem, Edge of Tomorrow was a pleasant surprise on every level: It breathed fresh life into the been-there-done-that Groundhog Day conceit, it gave me a newfound appreciation for Emily Blunt’s badassery, and it made me like Tom Cruise again. Seriously, he is great in this movie, playing a total coward who emerges as a hero only because he has no other option, a gorgeous subversion of the roles he usually plays.
6. Enemy. How did this film slip under the radar? Jake Gyllenhaal delivers one of his best performances as two different characters in a psychological thriller that keeps you guessing and leaves you breathless with its stunning mindfuck of a final shot. Without revealing too much, Enemy can be interpreted literally or as an extended metaphor, and it works either way, grounded in solid acting and tense, restrained filmmaking.
7. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s not like I had any doubts about embracing a Persian feminist vampire flick, but I still loved A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night even more than I’d expected. It’s such a uniquely realized vision, a seductive blend of style and substance. Ida earned praised for its gorgeous black-and-white visuals — and rightfully so — but, as far as I’m concerned, Girl is just as beautiful a viewing experience.
8. The Guest. It’s rare to find a movie that’s as fun as it is expertly made. The Guest is a taut thriller with a wicked sense of humor, and I’ve come to expect as much from director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett. They’re so good at blending sharp dialogue with shocking bursts of violence, and making it all look seamless. They are two of the most creative minds working in film, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.
9. Happy Christmas. Like other Joe Swanberg movies, Happy Christmas is quiet but endlessly charming, the kind of film that washes over you and continues to grow on you long after you’ve finished watching. The largely improvised dialogue gives it a wonderful authenticity, but it’s anchored by some terrific performances from Melanie Lynskey and Anna Kendrick. Not to mention the finest baby acting ever captured on screen. A tiny Oscar for baby Jude!
10. Jodorowsky’s Dune. The thing about Jodorowsky’s Dune — the film he tried to make, not the documentary about the film — is that I’m reasonably certain I would hate it. I’m not really a fan of Jodorowsky, and maybe that’s a failing of mine, but no matter. The documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune is still stunning as a reflection of the futility of artistic pursuit, and the persistence of creative minds in spite of the odds.
11. The Lego Movie. Yeah, that Oscar snub hurt, because The Lego Movie isn’t just a lot of fun — it’s also a thoughtful, engaging, and beautiful artistic achievement. When the film hit theaters (over a year ago, at this point) I already knew it would be one of my favorite movies of 2014. That’s rare for me, but it’s also rare to watch something that’s such an overwhelming pleasure from start to finish. Also, best Batman ever, if we’re being honest.
12. Nightcrawler. Jake Gyllenhaal was incredible in Enemy, but he was even better in Nightcrawler. (I’ve had such a crush on him for so long that sometimes I forget what an amazing actor he is.) Nightcrawler is one of the best LA movies I’ve ever seen, a wicked satire of the city’s class divide and bloodthirsty media culture. It’s the Network for our generation, and the fact that so many people seemed to miss the point just makes me love it more.
13. Obvious Child. I’ve loved Jenny Slate for several years, so it’s nice to see the rest of the world catching on. But she’s just one part of what makes Obvious Child one of 2014’s best films. As a staunch advocate for women’s health, it’s refreshing to see a film that is entirely about abortion without treating abortion as anything but a fact of life. There is something so progressive about that, and it still doesn’t feel like an “issues movie.” An impressive feat.
14. Selma. Yeah, it got a Best Picture nod, but in so many ways, Selma still got shafted. The film wouldn’t be what it is without lovely, nuanced performances from David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo. But most importantly, it’s a singular achievement because of director Ava DuVernay’s vision. She deserved a nomination for transforming Selma from a white savior story into the most complex and human portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. ever committed to film.
15. The Skeleton Twins. Full disclosure: Co-writer and director Craig Johnson is a friend of mine. But long before we connected, I was blown away by his talent. The Skeleton Twins looks very Sundance-y on paper, but it manages to eschew all the obvious clichés despite being a film about depression. And that’s a credit to the script and the multi-dimensional characters it offers, brought to layered life by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.
16. SnowpiercerI’m actually not always big on sci-fi — the fact that it’s well represented on this list is a credit to how many thoroughly original and well executed genre films there were in 2014. Snowpiercer got attention for Tilda Swinton’s hilarious turn as Mason — and she’s great! — but the entire ensemble does exceptional work. And the overarching concept, however unbelievable, is perfectly realized and perpetually surprising in the best ways.
17. Still Alice. I’ve seen people criticize Still Alice and say that the only good thing about the movie is Julianne Moore’s performance. I find this assessment rather baffling. I found the film to be devastating without being emotionally manipulative, which is hard to pull off. It’s an honest and measured portrayal of Alzheimer’s, not unlike the equally heartbreaking Away From Her. It’s also a great showcase for the criminally underrated Kristen Stewart.
18. Two Days, One Night. One of the only good surprises in terms of Oscar nominations this year was Marion Cotillard earning one for Two Days, One Night. She’s truly fantastic in the role, but it’s one of those subtle performances that too often go overlooked in favor of showier fare. The entire film catches you off-guard because of its deceptive complexity. It’s a very simple story told in a straightforward fashion — and suddenly you find yourself sobbing.
19. Whiplash. There’s more to Whiplash than the two performances at its center, but they’re unequivocally the very best thing about it, and that’s not a bad thing. J. K. Simmons has wavered between playing affable and intimidating characters, but in Whiplash he is a terrifying force of nature. He is so scary, it’s impressive — and so impressive, it’s scary. Let’s not overlook Miles Teller either: He brings his own brand of intensity to his role.
20. Wild. I went into Wild thinking that I would hate it, and by the end, I had broken down into heaving sobs. The thing about Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl is that you want to judge her for her ignorance and her privilege, but she challenges you at every turn. It’s her subversion of audience expectations that make Wild such a thrill to watch. She refuses to apologize for her past mistakes, and that’s such a liberating moment. I felt her catharsis, and it moved me.

Honorable mentions:

Blue Ruin. A stressful, minimalist thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat and shocked me into laughter.
Ida. Beautiful on every level, even when the plot delves into the specifics of gruesome past atrocities and their aftermath.
The Immigrant. Another flawless performance from Marion Cotillard elevates a somewhat old-fashioned melodrama.
Into the Woods. One of the most faithful adaptations of a musical ever made, it works best as a gift to lifelong Sondheim fans.
Jamie Marks Is Dead. Strange and tonally confused but ultimately a memorable portrait of a teenage outcast.
Maleficent. As misunderstood as the character at its center, Maleficent deserves more credit for its unabashed feminism.
Under the Skin. Another uniquely feminist subversion of its genre, with some of 2014’s most stunning visuals.

38 random things you might not know about me, and probably didn’t need to

7 Jan
  1. My favorite film genre is horror. It wasn’t, until I took a summer course at Berkeley that changed everything for me.
  2. I was an extra in the drag horror comedy All About Evil. I have a close-up and everything.
  3. I’ve read more by Stephen King than by any other author.
  4. The movie that made me realize I was gay, at least to some extent, was The Object of My Affection.
  5. The first person I ever came out to was an older guy from my high school who started chatting with me on AOL and asking me increasingly personal questions about my sexual desires. He was a creep.
  6. The first NC-17 movie I saw in theaters was The Dreamers. I had it bad for Louis Garrel.
  7. I was mugged by five guys when I was 18. They punched me in the back of the head, but I don’t remember any pain.
  8. I’ve had two minor surgeries: wisdom teeth, obviously, and the extraction of a benign bone tumor in my big toe.
  9. I was adopted at birth.
  10. When I was in third grade, I appeared in my Jewish day school play A Symbol of Hanukkah. I really liked being onstage.
  11. In middle school, I went to theater camp, but not the prestigious kind you have to audition for. That’s probably why I got a couple solos. Humblebrag!
  12. I also did choir in eighth grade. And then I suddenly became terrified to perform again until my twenties.
  13. I love storytelling and I think I’m reasonably funny, but I’m afraid of trying stand-up comedy.
  14. I speak Italian, but I’m out of practice. I used to speak Hebrew and Spanish, but I’ve mostly forgotten both. I can still understand a lot of Spanish, because Los Angeles.
  15. I took Italian in college because French was full.
  16. I’ve always lived in California. I was born and raised in LA, went to college in Berkeley and stayed there for a few extra years, then moved back here.
  17. Outside of Los Angeles, the cities I’ve spent the most time in are Manhattan and La Jolla.
  18. My first boyfriend was named Mark. We dated for a few months when I was a freshman in college.
  19. My first kiss happened when I was a senior in high school. It was awkward, and my mom was home at the time.
  20. When I was a kid, I briefly played piano and guitar, both poorly.
  21. I was also forced into tennis, gymnastics, and t-ball. I excelled at none.
  22. I have a serious phobia of flying and take Xanax whenever I have to do it. I have recurring nightmares about getting on planes and forgetting my Xanax at home.
  23. I’m very insecure about my appearance, but I like my lips and my calves.
  24. At one point, I dyed my hair reddish-brown. At another point, I had blonde highlights.
  25. My Bar Mitzvah portion was Noah. I still feel an attachment to the story, if not to Judaism.
  26. My Bar Mitzvah party theme was television. All of the tables were different shows. My table was The Simpsons.
  27. When I was 15, I spilled chocolate milk all over a girl’s bag, and I still feel bad about this.
  28. When I was 17, I said that I didn’t think I was a feminist, and I still feel bad about this.
  29. All of my grandparents are dead.
  30. I can count the number of funerals I’ve been to on one hand. I’ve been to even fewer weddings.
  31. I’m allergic to cats and dogs, but I had a hypoallergenic dog named Lily. She was a Bichon Frisé, and I still miss her.
  32. Other pets I have had: a tortoise, a hamster, hermit crabs, a pair of rats.
  33. I once wrote Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfic. It was not erotic.
  34. I have a scar on my left index finger from when I cut it while slicing bread on Ambien. I have told this story before, but it’s too good a useless fact about me to not share.
  35. I sucked my thumb until I was 10. I know.
  36. My nails are usually long because I hate the way that short nails feel. I get chills thinking about it.
  37. Sometimes I write because I don’t know what else to do with my time, and then I feel a little embarrassed about expecting anyone else to read it, but I’m publishing this post, anyway.
  38. I wrote a sex column in college. My mom loved it.

How the internet made me a real boy

18 Dec

“I’ve always wondered about the assumption that our online personas are more fake than our physical ones. I often feel awkward and nervous in real-life situations; I almost always feel like I’m saying the wrong thing and am unable to articulate what I really think and feel. Online, I have plenty of time and unlimited space to consider what to say and how to express myself. It’s an advantage that makes me feel more like myself, not less so.”
– Summer Anne Burton, “Social Networking: A Love Story”

I don’t know where I would be without Twitter. I think about this often — sometimes I’m embarrassed by how often — but there’s no denying the tremendous impact it has had on my life, both professional and personal. Twitter is not the most important thing in my life, despite what some of my haters would have you believe, but it is the means through which I found some of the most important things in my life: my closest friends, my job, and an audience I never thought I would have, gracious enough to read everything from 140-character musings to 7,000-word articles I’ve spent months reporting.

Reading my colleague Summer’s lovely retrospective on her 20 years on the internet, I was delighted by how much I connected with it. Delighted but not surprised: One of the most important lessons the internet taught me is that there is always someone out there feeling the same things I’m feeling. There always has been, and there always will be. In my experience, the internet has never been about alienation or isolation, but rather an endless source of connectedness and comfort. My offline life is so much richer for it.

Inspired by Summer, I wanted to take my own trip down memory lane — a briefer jaunt than hers with just three stops, the three sites that have dominated my internet experience and most dramatically influenced my life. This is where I went and what I learned there.

LiveJournal

LiveJournal taught me to never stop writing. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. (One of my earliest memories is sitting at a restaurant with my parents and writing stories that were essentially titles with illustrations. I repeatedly asked my mom how to spell “the,” because the word “the” didn’t make any sense, and frankly still doesn’t. I digress.) But LiveJournal made writing a part of my daily life again. It taught me that writing was an escape when I desperately needed one. The more I shared, the better I felt. In those early days, I had very few readers and I knew who they were — though, of course, my LiveJournal was public because I was too naive to think twice about that — but I was writing as much for myself as I was for anyone else. And yet, I can’t deny the gratification that came from a positive response. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit LiveJournal also taught me the thrill of instant validation, one of the internet’s double-edged swords.

Soon enough I was meeting new people on LiveJournal. Roxy and I were introduced through a mutual friend, but the internet is where we forged a real connection. It wasn’t until we were older and she was driving (I was late to that) that we relied more on IRL hangouts. And even then, we continued to communicate through LiveJournal comments, because that was the world we knew and the language we spoke. Through LiveJournal, I met the first boy who ever broke my heart, the first boy who ever got me to admit to myself — and soon after to a few trusted friends — that my feelings for the same sex weren’t going away any time soon. That boy, whom I found through a shared interest in Buffy, left me comments on my posts that melted my teenage heart, until we took it to AIM and stayed up all night talking about kissing each other. (That’s how innocent it was.) And when that boy moved on, because he was a year older and an hour away and maybe it was all just a game to him anyway, I went to therapy for the first time. My therapist asked if I liked boys or girls, and I didn’t hesitate before answering.

LiveJournal taught me to step outside of my comfort zone in a way I never thought possible. I was uncomfortable in my own skin, awkward around new people, and deeply afraid of most social interactions, but suddenly I was making new friends — and connecting in new ways with old friends — without breaking a sweat. I had a photo on LiveJournal, but it was carefully selected and cropped and flattering enough that I didn’t cringe to look at it. I rarely posted any other photos at all. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was being judged not for my looks, but for my words, and my words were where I thrived. I didn’t feel fat or ugly because my words weren’t fat or ugly, and even if I still felt out of place at high school, I knew that there was a haven to which I could always retreat. It was a place where I could speak freely and people would listen. I could talk about my crush — I used the gender-neutral acronym O.O.M.O. (“object of my obsession”) to refer to him — and my parents and my anxiety. And I was not alone.

Facebook

I got Facebook the summer before I started college at Berkeley, back when it was still only available to certain colleges. (And you better believe I had a superiority complex about that. I was 17. Give me a break.) I envisioned it as a way to keep in touch with my high school friends, so many of whom were going to Facebook-approved schools like UCLA and USC. And it was that, for a while. But Facebook quickly taught me how to distance myself from high school, and from a version of myself I was never all that comfortable with. It wasn’t my first social network — I’d been on Friendster and MySpace — but it was the one that somehow meant the most. (It’s also the only one I still use, which certainly means something.) It was through Facebook that I discovered the ability to fashion an online persona, not drastically different from who I really am, but slightly cooler and more confident. With Facebook, I could choose what I wanted to present to the world, and that was such a rare gift. I didn’t feel like I was stumbling, because I was crafting my own path.

“Online persona” has a negative connotation, and I get that, but I wasn’t trying to be someone else entirely. Even in the pre-Catfish days, when I probably could have gotten away with it, I never pretended to be anyone other than myself. If anything, Facebook allowed me to be a truer version of that person, someone who could honestly declare The Rules of Attraction to be one of his favorite movies, and Maurice by E.M. Forster to be one of his favorite books. My so-called online persona turned out to be composed of the aspects of myself I’d been repressing out of fear and discomfort. One of the most pivotal moments in my life — and again, this used to embarrass me, but now I don’t care — was adding a sexual preference to my Facebook profile. I am Louis Peitzman, and I am interested in men. It was paradoxically so simple to do and an incredible feat. Before Facebook, I didn’t have the means to announce myself with the click of a button. What a thrill to be brave and lazy at the same time.

After that things changed quickly. My new out status on Facebook brought in an influx of friend requests — it was a small enough community back then, relatively, that some people took notice — and I was suddenly confronted with the idea of meeting people from the internet. The “stranger danger” alarms went off in my head, but Facebook had stripped away a certain level of anonymity that I’d always associated with internet friends. There was a very sweet boy who added me and told me I was cute, and one night I let him come over and kiss me in my bed. I didn’t feel unsafe — my roommates were home at the time — but I must have felt something, because I shivered the whole time, even when he held me. It was exciting and terrifying to know how easy it was to make a connection, whether that meant someone to fuck or someone to fall in love with. As Facebook grew so did the possibilities, and at times I felt paralyzed thinking about all the people, the vast majority of whom I would never meet, but I also felt a little bit of cautious optimism because I knew some of those strangers might one day become my friends or lovers or more.

Twitter

I’ve written a lot about Twitter and what it’s done for me, but I can’t leave it out of this trifecta. Apologies if I’m repeating myself, though if you’re still reading this, that’s on you. I joined Twitter because I wanted to share my writing and find an audience. That happened. But what I found that truly changed everything for me was how much I enjoyed laughing and making people laugh. In very little time, Twitter went from a tool for self-promotion (hey, not that I’ve moved past that entirely) to a place where I could explore and refine my comedic voice. I am not a comedian or a humorist — I guess at the end of the day I’m just a writer with a sense of humor. But I found so much joy and laughter following some of the funniest people I’ve ever known. And the ability to keep up with them, or at least lag behind from a minimal distance, gave me a newfound confidence in my writing. As committed as I was and still am to journalism and entertainment writing, I pushed the boundaries of what I thought I could do with my words. Twitter, which I had joined as a tool, turned out to be a new outlet entirely.

And with that confidence, I did something I never thought I would do: I got on stage. Not as a stand-up comic, which still terrifies me, but as a storyteller, which felt much more in my wheelhouse. Twitter unlocked something in me — many somethings really: among them, a desire to make people laugh and a need to perform, both of which had been suppressed by intense social anxiety. The more I perform, the more I realize how much it’s always been inside me. Twitter merely facilitated that by letting my find the comedic voice I needed to tell these stories, and to make the connections that gave me a stage to tell them on. I’ve written about this before, and I’ll probably write about it again, because I still marvel at the fact that typing words into a tiny box on a screen somehow allowed me to overcome a lifelong fear of standing up in front of an audience. I don’t have delusions of making my living as a performer or a TV personality, so maybe it’s all inconsequential. But what used to terrify me is now something to look forward to. To me, that’s a powerful thing.

What means more to me, than anything really, are the friends I’ve made through Twitter. I know how ridiculous I sound when someone asks how I met any number of people, and I answer with the same deadpan “Twitter” because I don’t know what else to say. But I also know I’m past the point of caring. LiveJournal taught me that the friends you make online are sometimes better than the friends you make in person. You can bond with people based on shared passions and senses of humor instead of being thrown together by circumstance. Facebook let me continue that exploration, opening my world up and letting in people I never would have met otherwise. By the time I started to connect with people on Twitter, I understood the power of the internet to create and foster relationships. As silly as it may sound to some (it sounds a little silly to me), I found my chosen family. But I’ve also found myself, an ongoing process that involves stripping away insecurities and speaking out without being ashamed. That’s what the internet has done for me. I’m a little embarrassed to be this gushy and grateful, but the internet has also taught me that sometimes sincerity works, too.

I visited your grave today

23 Nov

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I visited your grave today. There was no gravestone, only flowers. I wanted to see your name on the off chance it would give me some kind of closure. I know the more likely scenario is that I’d see it and I’d be hit hard with the reality of your absence. I’d buckle to my knees, sob hot tears onto the grass. But as it was, I simply sat there amid the flowers and imagined you were somewhere else entirely. I wanted to feel close to you but today it was more comforting imagining that you were very far away.

Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary, and I’m no closer to understanding any of this than I was then. And yes, I still reach for my phone to call you, and I check to see if you’re online, and I feel a pit in my stomach because I think, “It’s been too long since I’ve seen Roxy,” and then I remember and the pit deepens and threatens to swallow me whole. At times I feel like I’ve been grieving you forever. Other moments it’s like you never left.

There’s so much I want to tell you, and I wish all of it were good. I wish I could say that things were better than ever, that I had found a way to not be lonely or, even better, that I had learned how to let someone else in. I wish I could tell you I had gotten myself into shape or that I had decided to love myself as I am. It’s terrible to know that I’m incomplete, because that means you never got to see me whole. Not that it’s about me at all, really, but so much of my self-worth was tied into showing you how far I’d come, even knowing I had a ways to go.

On the way to the cemetery, I drove past my high school. My 10-year reunion is fast approaching, and I can’t count all the reasons I’m not going, but today I remembered how spending time with you was my respite from all that. I don’t want to go back to high school because, even now, with a job and a life and a place of my own, I can’t survive high school without you. I don’t even want to try.

Most days I’m fine. “I’m fine” becomes a mantra in its meaninglessness. But I know you, more than anyone else in my life, could understand the value of being “just OK,” that sometimes leaving the house is its own tiny victory, and not letting dread consume you is an ongoing battle. I know you wouldn’t judge me when the darkness takes over, but I still want to be better because I know that’s what you would want for me. And I want to make you proud the way that you made me proud.

I want to write a book just so I can dedicate it to you.

Usually when I write about my grief, I hope that it serves a purpose past my own self-indulgence. But sometimes I just need to document it all. Like today, I visited your grave and I didn’t know what to bring, so I didn’t bring anything. And I’m leaving you this instead.

But alone is alone

24 Jun

It occurred to me at 4 a.m. this morning that I was lonely.

It was an odd but familiar sensation, a sort of sinking in my stomach battling for prominence with the two bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch I’d decided to eat when I was half-asleep and hungry and justifying poor dietary decisions as a really early breakfast. I felt grossly full — and also, kind of gross in general. But the feeling I couldn’t really pinpoint was the one lingering underneath that, whatever subtle nagging urge had me curled up on my bed with my head near the foot so the fan would be even closer, even though for once I wasn’t sweating. And I realized, with sudden unwelcome clarity, that what I was feeling was loneliness, a state of being I once knew so well but has since become something I’ve come to regard as a childish affectation. Being lonely is for teenagers who write poetry and read Camus and make declarative statements about love two months after receiving their first kiss. (This is not me. I read The Stranger, but only when it was assigned for class.)

Logically, I know that loneliness is an incredibly common emotion, which is probably why human beings are always obnoxiously wrapping our arms around one another. I, too, crave physical contact, but at this point, I accept that begrudgingly as an irritating side effect of not being a robot. Companionship, while nice, is something I don’t often feel I need, and I say that as someone who genuinely loves the people in his life. It’s not a reflection on them, but on me, and the way I’ve learned, sometimes by necessity, to be comfortable by myself. And I go through phases, yes, where I truly do feel the need to be surrounded by people I love as often as possible, when I’ll double-book myself just to ensure I don’t have to spend too much time with my thoughts. But even then, if plans fall through and I’m left as solitary as I’d feared, it’s not loneliness I feel. Frustration, annoyance, and boredom, sure — not loneliness.

That’s why I was so caught off-guard at 4 a.m. this morning. It felt so absurd to me that I would be experiencing this useless concern I’d grown past. But of course, it’s completely normal and human, and the only truly strange thing is that I’d ever believed myself to be beyond loneliness in the first place. I don’t think of myself as a cold person. I’m not withdrawn. I guess it’s more that I’ve come to resent the idea of living your life with the purpose of finding someone else to share it with. And that’s not cynicism so much as hope that we can all be self-fulfilled, to the extent that any sort of coupling, conscious or otherwise, we entertain is an added benefit to an already complete existence. I still believe that, to some extent, even though it’s perhaps a bit short-sighted. And I still maintain that far too many people stuff themselves into relationships that very clearly don’t fit out of the vague but terrifying dread of dying alone. All of this can be true, and I can still have felt lonely at 4 a.m. this morning, without any real prompting aside from the fact that the pillow I was clutching to my chest had become too warm with body heat and I had to let it go.

But I guess this is all to say that, rationality aside, I could stand to let a little more loneliness into my life. And maybe someone else, if it came to that, but it’s OK if it doesn’t.

12 longform BuzzFeed pieces you should read

18 May

BuzzFeed: it’s not just cat GIFs, jackass. That’s not our slogan, but sometimes I think it should be.

At this point, people who read BuzzFeed know that it’s not just a site for cute animal pictures and personality quizzes. I mean, it is those things, yes — but it’s also home to some of the best investigative reporting and longform writing on the internet. I’ve worked at BuzzFeed long enough to not be surprised when people don’t get it, and I no longer feel the need to get overly defensive about it. I’m proud of the work I do, and I’m proud of the work my colleagues do, and I feel like the work speaks for itself.

But given that it’s Sunday evening, and Sunday evening is the ideal time to read long articles you’ve been putting off all week, I’m going to share several of my favorite longform BuzzFeed pieces. This is not to discount the lists and quizzes that also populate the site — because believe it or not, those take a shit-ton of work to put together, too. (Seriously, I have spent so many hours perfecting quizzes. Unless you’ve done it, you have no idea.) But in the interest of celebrating the kind of work people still seem surprised to find on BuzzFeed, I’m focusing on essays, reported pieces, and other longform features.

Some of them are recent. Some are older. You’ve probably read a few already. And I’m leaving out dozens and dozens of pieces I love so as not to make this too overwhelming. With that in mind, I’ll probably end up doing another installment of this in the future. Anyway.

1. “The Secret History of Britney Spears’ Lost Album” by Hunter Schwarz. Hardcore Britney stans may have already known about Britney’s lost album Original Doll. I was not one of those people. Hunter did some impressive reporting on this piece, which not only covers Original Doll, but also offers insight into the psyche of one of the most confounding figures in pop music. On a personal note, it was exciting watching Hunter dig deep into a subject he doesn’t usually get to write about. The results were equally thrilling.
2. “How Smash Became TV’s Biggest Train Wreck” by Kate Aurthur. I loved Smash so, so much. I miss it more often than I’d like to admit. Kate didn’t set out to write a takedown of creator Theresa Rebeck — and that’s not what this piece is, regardless of how Rebeck may feel about it. It’s revelatory and occasionally damning, but it’s also very fair. You can tell there’s no agenda here past trying to understand where Smash went wrong, and for a fan of the show — and a fan of television in general — that’s incredibly important.
3. “The Summer I Tried to Save Memphis” by Saeed Jones. Saeed started at BuzzFeed shortly after I did, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching him expand the LGBT section, combining great reporting with some of the most stunning personal essays I’ve ever read. And Saeed, aside from his skills as an editor, is an exceptional writer. This piece is undeniably powerful, but what I really love about it is its specificity. He writes with such gorgeous detail about an intensely personal experience — with, yes, larger cultural implications.
4. “‘Something Terrible Has Happened Here': The Crazy Story of How Clue Went From Forgotten Flop to Cult Triumph” by Adam B. Vary. We’re not huge fans of the term “oral history” at BuzzFeed, and with good reason. As a format, it’s a little played out, and very hit or miss. So while Adam could have done an oral history of Clue — which would have been great, too, I’m sure! — he turned his interviews into this excellent written-through feature instead. It’s just as fascinating, and even more fun to read.
5. “‘That Dead Girl': A Family and a Town After a Cyberbullied 12-Year-Old’s Suicide” by Ryan Broderick. We hear awful stories on the internet all the time, and more often than not, we don’t follow up. Following up is what this heartbreaking piece does. It’s the perfect example of BuzzFeed going deeper — not simply reporting the surface story, but diving into the hard truths of a suicide and its aftermath. Ryan’s unique understanding of the internet also really helps here, adding valuable context to the story.
6. “How Melissa Leo Became an Overnight Sensation in Just 30 Years” by Doree Shafrir. I’ve been lucky enough to have Doree edit my work — she completely changed the way I felt about the editing process. But Doree does so much at BuzzFeed that she rarely gets to publish her own pieces. When she does, they’re always a treat. I love this interview feature on Melissa Leo, which, again, could have made an interesting enough Q&A. As a feature, though, it’s far more memorable. Worth noting that the photos are pretty wonderful, too.
7. “Why I Bought a House in Detroit for $500″ by Drew Philp. In addition to having a staff of some incredibly talented writers, BuzzFeed also recruits great freelancers. This piece, which you’ve probably seen since it went mega-viral, is by a contributor. Plenty has been written about Detroit over the past few years, but this is a different story and perspective, which I think is why it shared so well. Again, it’s specificity that speaks to the larger issues at hand. Also, how cool is it that longform writing can go viral? (Very.)
8. “Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls” by Anne Helen Petersen. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a lot of Jennifer Lawrence-centric content on BuzzFeed. People love her, clearly, and if you need more proof of that, note that this piece also went viral. Page views aside, it’s such a great essay, placing Jennifer Lawrence in a historical context that most of us probably hadn’t considered. Celebrity culture is easy to deride, but it’s so much more interesting to analyze, and this feature does that brilliantly.
9. “It Gets Better, Unless You’re Fat” by Louis Peitzman. Am I seriously including one of my own pieces on this list of articles you should read? I’m an asshole. But listen. When people ask me about writing I’m proud of, this is the piece that most often springs to mind. It took a lot out of me to write. And even though it’s not very long, I think it packs a punch. While I feel a little guilty self-promoting, I’m including it because I’m so grateful that BuzzFeed gave me the freedom and encouragement to share this little piece of my soul.
10. “My Father, All That Jazz, the 1980 Oscars — and Me” by Kate Aurthur. Yes, another article by Kate. I was reluctant to double up, but I just had to share this one. Kate’s personal essay was one of the first I read on BuzzFeed, and it was so exciting to know that this kind of writing was something we could do. It’s a moving, bittersweet piece that completely subverts expectations of a first-person account of attending the Oscars. And like so much of Kate’s work, both before and at BuzzFeed, it’s been a big influence on me.
11. “36 Hours on the Fake Campaign Trail With Donald Trump” by McKay Coppins. The controversy this piece brought about — especially the glorious freak-out from professional troll Donald Trump — was fucking delightful to watch. But let’s not ignore the fact that the article itself is truly great. I’ll admit I don’t read much political reporting, though I certainly admire my coworkers who write it. This goes beyond simple reporting, however: It’s a completely riveting character study. And sorry, Donald, I believe every word of it.
12. “Why I Stay Closeted in Asia” by Connor Ke Muo. Before Coming Out Week at BuzzFeed, I felt about coming out essays the same way I feel about coming out films: enough already. But Saeed made a point to collect personal essays that weren’t like anything people had read before. This one, in particular, has stuck with me over the past seven months. It’s honest and it’s painful, the kind of piece I felt immediately compelled to share with gushing praise across all my social networks. If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself the favor.

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