Sunday, January 3, 2016

What I Didn't Write: Terrible Tragedies, Tempests & Teabaggers

Penn campus Ben Franklin statue
In setting a pair of novels from 1979 to 1983, I had the fortune of discovering historical events that matched the stories I wrote. But omitting several other events, while big on a local scale, weren't relevant to the stories. And recent odd controversies, gave me a bit of anachronistic relief for not including them.

Pennsylvania played a strong part in establishing the setting of Every Time I Think of You, my fourth novel. The energy crisis and the nuclear plant accident at Three Mile Island in Harrisburg are given a mention. But narrator Reid is distracted by his boyfriend Everett's situation. His mother even shows surprise at nature-loving Reid's disinterest in the environmental hazard. 

I've written before about Philadelphia as a setting, and how I almost didn't make it possible for the sequel to be set there. Central Penn State was almost Reid's college selection (with at the time the best Forestry degree program), but a horrid sex scandal made me abruptly change his college to Temple University. The Jerry Sandusky were not yet known, but its associated taint inspired that change.

Philly Fact-Finding
But three years of historical events in Philadelphia and in the U.S. were a lot to take in. Then-President Ronald Reagan's assassination, Philly expat Grace Kelly's death, and an early 1980s Gay Pride March were a few of the events that I included, which gave the book a sense of place in reality.

When the partner of poet and teacher Kelly McQuain corrected my choice of a hotel in an early chapter of Message of Love, that led to a change to set a scene in the then-existing hotel where the Legionnairre's Disease outbreak took place.

Among my scans of yearbooks and newspapers, a lot of coverage was given to an April 1982 gala held in honor of Princess Grace. I even drafted a chapter where Everett's wealthy mother attends, then boasts about it the next day on a visit to her son's apartment with Reid. 

But the entire event had nothing to do with the main story, so I cut it. While I had an affection for Mrs' Forrester's calculating charm, and her reappearance would have been fun, her life event - which would have included celebrity references (including Liz Taylor! see photo) would have upstaged the more important ones of "my boys," Reid and Ev.

None of the included events changed the plot much, but became references that grounded my fictional work in reality, as did many actual events on both the Penn and Temple campuses where boyfriends Reid and Everett attended.

Penn lacrosse match, early 1980s
Others led to entire chapters and scenes. In Message of Love, when Reid and Everett attend a lacrosse match, it understandably brings up some emotional baggage for Everett (read 'Every Time.." to find out why.). 

From yearbook stats, I figured out the exact date, opposing team, and final score of the match, because I could. Those details led to a new character, who stirs up a minor conflict, and for me, made for a good scene.

Similarly, a later exhibition wheelchair basketball game at Penn with the visiting Israeli team led to the boys attending, and a political debate with them and a mutual friend.

Names and locations of gay bars were important, while mention of Wawa convenience stores and cheesesteaks were kept to a minimum.

And what of Reid's internship and later employment in state parks? Certainly, there were historical references to the abandoned kudzu-infested areas of Fairmount Park, which was in poor condition for the years in Message of Love. 

But I doubt he would have imagined a park being taken over by right-wing militia nuts, as has happened this past weekend in Oregon. 

Contemporary Controversies
The back story is, basically, some rich greedy ranchers fought for the right to illegally poach on government land to let their cattle graze and drink water they didn't own. Sounds like an old Western. 

Now, some related right-wingers have taken over the government offices of a state park,
the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building southeast of Burns, Oregon, and the redneck traitors have been dubbed "Y'allQaeda."

What's astounding is the near-coddling tone the corporate media has given the group, which is basically a terrorist cabal. Because they're white, gun-toting right-wingers, the warped Fox News and other media have practically served as the seditionists' PR firm. 

This conservative website, while skeptical, offers an expansive and somewhat sympathetic perspective on the Bundy and Hammond clans and their absurd anti-government paranoia. Esquire calls it nothing less than armed seditionAddictingInfo cites the media white-washing double standard as well.

I can't imagine what junior park ranger Reid would do in such a situation. Glad he's in a simple (yet at times difficult) romance where nothing like that happened.

Racism plays an issue in the double standard when covering white insurrections and riots, as well as a seemingly innocuous parade in Philadelphia.

The annual Mummers parade wasn't at all important to the story of Reid and Everett's Philadelphia college years. Given the New Year's timing, they would not have been in town anyway.

But this year's parade drew national attention for racist, antigay and transphobic aspects. Not satisfied to parade in pseudo-drag costumes, some participants carried signs maligning gays and Caitlin Jenner. 

Since when did this silly parade become a space for bigoted and political stances?

A clip of the parade broadcast, editing and shared on Facebook, shows white people wearing black bodysuits over bee costumes. Maybe they thought being "bees" would cover up the clearly racist look. Maybe they're just stupid.

One Mummer (in drag and make-up, mind you) carried a sign comparing Caitlin Jenner and his former self as Bruce, while chanting "Fuck gays!" and some other rubbish. Philadelphia Gay News reports that the individual was banned from the group, and future marches.

Among the apologetic statements: “We hope that people realize that the vast majority of thousands of Mummers put forth entertaining and family-oriented productions.”

But no officials prevented this doof from spouting off his hatred until afterward.

Homophobic jackass Mummer
“Unfortunately it’s completely consistent with the history of the Mummers,” said Elicia Gonzales, executive director of GALAEI: A Queer Latino/a Social Justice Organization,  She added that mention of marchers in past years who participated in blackface or acted as immigration officers rounding up people to deport.

“The thing about it was, the announcers were completely silent,” she continued. “They were commenting about how the Mummers are all about family and friends. It’s conditioning kids to think transphobia is acceptable.”

So, understandably, recent and historic events could have shaped my last two books. Fortunately, they didn't, because they would have completely upstaged the main intent of my stories. And I'm glad that some of the worst of Philly's past is not included in my books.

A great example of the melding of recent historical events and a compelling story is colleague Tom Mendicino's new novel, The Boys from Eighth and Carpenter. Even a pre-presidential visit from Barack Obama doesn't upstage the personal family story.

A longtime Philly resident, Mendicino and his partner Nick Ifft (a pivotal doctor in the early HIV front) were incredibly helpful in sharing insights into the events in the gay community, and the early influx of pre-AIDS events, which shaped my last novel. Mendicino also helped with specific references when he told me that Reid's home town, Greensburg, was also where he grew up!

The lesson is, when writing about the past, take stock of what is relevant to the main story you want to tell. While historic events can enrich your knowledge of the era, they don't all have to be included.


  1. Glad to read your report. One note: Mendicino does live in Philly and has done so for quite some time, but not lifelong (he's from.... Pittsburgh!). -- Gabriel Lampert

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