The Interestings

9781594488399_custom-a82317e37abed747b8112d39b71b8b84724c22fd-s6-c30I do not think I would make a good reviewer.  My reviews would be divided into “I liked it” or “It was…okay” or “I hated it.” The body of my reviews would be, “I don’t know, I just really enjoyed reading it or watching it or listening to it.”  This is not a review of The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, but even though I’m only on page 248 of the book’s 468 pages, I could give you my review, were I in the review business: I love it.

I know there are much sadder things in the world than this, but I have not finished a book since December.  For the last three months, I have picked up books that I’ve slogged through, then given them up somewhere within the first 150 pages.  The books would sit untouched on my side table, and I’d look guiltily at them every time I’d glance in their direction. It’s kind of my own fault; suffice to say, if you’ve read the biography of one gay alcoholic 20th century writer, you’ve sort of read them all.  

A few months ago, my friend Sienna, who I’ve been in the same room with twice and our friendship is mostly cultivated on Facebook, told me that I would love The Interestings.  You can learn a lot about people from their Facebook activity, and Sienna, in her acuity, nailed it.  I do love it.  It’s about New York in the 1970s and New York in the 1980s and current New York and New England summer campers.  The only thing that could make it more interesting is if the characters all went to an Amy Grant concert in Central Park in the 1990s.  Unlikely, but, you never know, I still have over 200 pages left.

If you are a reader, I think you can relate to that feeling you have when you’re reading a book that you love, when it’s the last thing you read before you go to bed at night or you wake up thinking, I could read for 30 minutes before I have to get ready for work.  And wherever that book is set, you are there for the duration.   I wasn’t the only 20-something that spent weeks in 1970s San Francisco while feverishly reading the first six Tales of the City books.  I wasn’t the only midwestern teenager who spent a few days tooling around Holden Caulfield’s Manhattan. And I’m not the only person, with fond but complicated memories of summer camp, intimate but complicated relationships with more successful old friends, that has read and connected with The Interestings.

At work yesterday, a few of us were talking about books. Kristin talked about how she loved when a book was so interesting she had to read it while she walked to the bus stop. Ian confided that he had not finished a book in 10 years. “I wish I loved reading books,” he lamented. But books are just a method of taking a journey and Ian loves movies and television the way others loves books. We are what we are.

And right now, I am in the middle of a journey and I think about my new friends Jules and Ethan and Ash and Jonah Bay constantly. I don’t know what’s ahead, as I said, I’m only on page 248. Will Cathy Kiplinger resurface? Probably. Will I forgive Goodman for what he did? Unlikely. Will one of the Interestings die before the book ends? I have a feeling. But I am in, absorbed, captivated, interested. And I have to wrap this little post up and get back to my book, because I still have 10 minutes before I need to get ready for work.

What Susan Said

1072354In the summer of 1992, I worked at a summer camp in Maine. In the first few days of being at the camp, I fell into a friendship with another counselor I’ll call Steven. Steven and I became fast friends, both Midwestern, both religious, both bespectacled. Steven was 19 and I was 22.

That summer, there was a Rich Mullins song that I often listened to on my CD Walkman called What Susan Said. It starts off, “Two lonely-eyed boys in a pick-up truck
And they’re drivin’ through the rain and the heat
And their skin’s so sweaty they both get stuck
To the old black vinyl seats
And it’s Abbott and Costello meet Paul and Silas
It’s the two of us together and we’re puttin’ on the mileage…” I felt like Rich Mullins had written this song just for me and Steven. We’d borrow his friend’s pickup and we’d go for drives. One day off, we drove from Maine, through New Hampshire, into Vermont and back to camp, talking about the kind of things two people talk about when their friendship is new. Over the course of two weeks, I felt like he was the best friend I’d ever had. I was, at this point, ostensibly straight. We talked about girls and God and I talked a lot about how I’d been a youth minister, just less than a year before. But one night, when we were sitting on the roof of the main bunk house, I told him something that had burdened me. I told him that I thought I was gay. He was the third person I ever told. He told me that he’d kind of been wondering if maybe I might be. Earlier in the summer, he told me that he’d had a friend who was bisexual and the way I’d asked a lot of questions about that guy stuck in his mind. When he did not freak out over the first piece of information, I told him that I thought I was in love with him. He was very quick to tell me that he was straight, that I knew that he liked Claire (one of the other counselors). He also started to cry. He told me that he thought I just wanted to be his friend. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation played out, but at the end, I did think that we would remain friends. As it turned out, we never really talked at length again. He called his mother to tell her about it and she told him that I was one of those gays that preyed on young men. (Again, he was 19, I was 22.) For the rest of the summer, he kept his distance. If the Rich Mullins song had affected me one way before my confession to Steven, I clung to it that much more after our friendship was severed. I’d listen to the song as I lay in bed at night, hoping and praying that I would either not be gay or that Steven would love me.

As it came to pass, neither prayer came true. When camp ended, I moved back to New York and began the process of coming out to myself. Steven was the last straight I guy that I fell for.

Rich Mullins was a singer that I saw a lot of when I was growing up. He would be at week-long youth conferences I attended, so besides being on stage, I witnessed the way he interacted with others. Long before I heard What Susan Said, before he even wrote it, I thought that perhaps Rich and I had something in common. (I have no validation of my theory.)
I’ve attached a YouTube video of the song. I’d hoped to find a version of Rich singing it in concert instead of the generic video I’m posting. If you ever attended a Rich Mullins concert, you know he had a gift. He was funny and serious, humble and arrogant, simple and erudite. There is another line in the song about how love is found in the things we have given up more than in the things we kept. I often wondered and still wonder if Rich Mullins had a Steven in his life. Someone must have inspired such an intimate song.

Years have passed since that summer. Rich Mullins died in 1997 in a tragic car accident. Some would think it ironic that a Christian song would have played such a reflective part in my own coming out process. But when I hear the song, it takes me back to those days when I was on the precipice of my journey to become the person I am today. And Steven, I sometimes wonder what happened to him, but I hope that if I ever come into his mind, as the final words of “our” song say, I hope he’ll have the strength to just remember, I’m still his friend.

Summer Camp Friend

photo-26My friend Eboni left LA last week, moving back to New York with a promise to return to LA as soon as possible. I am one of many Angelenos who hope that she will be back sooner, rather than later. She moved here in February, in part, to take an acting class, that’s where we met. With a little help from me, she got a job where I work and as it turned out, she moved into my neighborhood. We became fast friends. And there was something about the intensity and brevity of our time together that made me think of several Summer Camp friends that I only saw in the summers, and to this day, they are among my favorite people.

Thanks to Facebook, a few of these people are still in my life. My friend Melinda, who was the second girl I ever kissed, btw, is now a missionary in Africa. Her sister Michelle is a published writer who wrote a book about her years working for a carnival in Tales from the MIdway. There’s also Dawn, who reminded me of Michelle Perry, the prettiest girl in the class of ’83 in my high school. At camp, I would follow Dawn around camp like a puppy dog and do anything to make her laugh. All it takes for me to trip down memory lane is to hear the word haven and instantly, I’m a 16 year old at Hidden Haven Christian Camp. It was the awakening of so much who I am or was to become. In my hometown, I was made fun of a lot, I held back from doing things because I didn’t want to be ridiculed, but at camp, I sang solos and wrote skits and “testified.” It’s where I learned that I liked being in front of people. I developed crushes on my fellow campers, boys and girls, and it was more than a little confusing at the time. In the boys dorms, I’d have a friend that we would talk into the night, so proud of ourselves that we could chat about so many things until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. In my world at home, I did not feel interesting, but at camp, when I spoke, people listened to me. It’s the first place I heard an Amy Grant song. And every Friday, after we said our goodbyes, my Mom would take me home and I’d take a long, hot shower, then tumble into bed for an afternoon nap. As I drifted in and out of lucid dreams my heart would still be electrified by the events and people of the week.

Anyway, seeing Eboni leave last week, it brought back those memories of camp. We had such a fun time getting to know each other, working together, sharing a class together, taking walks in the neighborhood. If it sounds like I’m boasting when I say I introduced her to some of LA’s best Happy Hours like this and this and this, well, then I have to own my braggadocio! Every day at work before she left, I’d sing Michael W. Smith’s Friends to her. I have a hope that Eboni will move back to LA and our friendship will resume and even grow, but we never know what life holds. She and I may never live in the same city again. Still, I’m grateful and electrified by the time we spent together talking mai-tai’s and Tennessee Williams and baked goods and Alfre Woodard. And regardless of geography, just like Michael W. Smith says, there are some friendships that are forever.