A Vacation From Being You
This is going to veer all over the map, but let’s start with a story…
A flashback to 1988? To 1989? Whichever the case, I’d been volunteering at a charity hospice where my role was to drive terminally ill people to their support groups. Sometimes we’d strike out for the beach or the mountains—some scenic place a dying person wanted to gaze at for the last time. But mostly I took them to meetings for group sessions of guided meditation or talk therapy.
One week a therapist phoned me to ask why I wasn’t at her group. You might remember her as the group leader in Fight Club, who led the guided meditation into the “palace of seven doors” and the “cave of your power animal.” Both standard destinations in meditation. Visiting your “inner child” was also popular. Here she was phoning to ask why I wasn’t there: in the basement of a church, sitting with a slew of people who were all dying at greater or lesser speeds. In the ever-changing flow of dying people, I’d become a regular face, sitting in her support group as I waited to drive my client back to their hospice bed.
To tell the truth, I’d burned out. After a couple years of ferrying people, people whom I’d talk to and get to like, people who’d never get well, people who’d become my friends and all eventually die, well, I needed a break. In a recent group, an idea had hit me: What if two strangers were slumming at terminal-illness support groups … and what if they ran across each other. Each would see their own deception mirrored in the other. And they’d fall in love. I use the term loosely.
I’d fallen in love with that idea. A romcom about death.
The therapist wasn’t buying it. Over the phone, she said I owed it to the group to attend, and that I’d suffer by not engaging with my own mortality. She said a lot of things. I told her I needed a vacation. During this same time, my friends were hopping from place to place, sampling life in cities around the globe. They worked picking nectarines in Australia or selling record albums in London, always with an eye to relocating in Vietnam or Germany. For reasons of my own, I’d been stuck in Portland, Oregon.1
Undeterred, the therapist insisted over the phone that there was no vacation from life and death. And I said, “No,” I said, “this isn’t about escaping death.” I told her, “I just need a vacation from being me.”
Which gets us to Halloween
Who doesn’t love getting dressed up as a different person or monster? More accurately, who doesn’t love dressing up as their own true self, even if it’s for just a night?
Instead of being you-you, dress-up lets you be the person you dream of being. You, but as the person you dream of fucking. You as your own fantasy. The lover or monster or power broker of your own dreams. Watch the documentary Paris Is Burning and you’ll see that same age-old longing to role play. On tour I sat on a flight watching the 1990 film for the hundredth time, and a young man seated beside me instantly commented about how much he also loved it. It’s interesting to consider how in Answered Prayers Truman Capote wrote about this same series of drag balls in Harlem. In 1950s Harlem, Capote recorded that it was Irish bank tellers and Italian busboys strutting the Harlem catwalks as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. The impulse is eternal.
The only drawback is that Halloween is only one day per year. But … but what if you could wear your costume, or a different costume, every day for months? And not just the clothing or makeup. What if you could immerse yourself in new lines of thought … new speech patterns … a new worldview … for an extended period of time?
Yes, I’d still have to wash the stupid breakfast dishes, but I could wash the dishes as Tyler Durden.
Which brings us to Character Comedy
During the years I’d been volunteering, the actor Lily Tomlin had been performing a one-person show in smaller cities around the country. A few weeks here, a few there. The show was In Search of Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her then-partner, Jane Wagner. In Portland,2 Tomlin performed in a small garage that had been converted into a theater. With every audience, she took note of what moments got a reaction, and which did not, and she and Wagner tweaked the script nightly. The pair did this in small venues for weeks—months?—before opening their show in New York City, where it ran forever and won a Tony Award. All those little failures and tweaks had paid off.
Which brings us, finally, to Character Comedy
Mention Lily Tomlin to most people, and they’ll answer back, “Isn’t she Edith Ann?” Or, “Wasn’t she Ernestine, the telephone operator?” We know each character’s body language and verbal tics. Both Edith Ann and Ernestine were holdovers from the golden age of character comedy. Think of Gilda Radner’s creations: Emily Litella, Roseanne Roseannadanna, Lisa Loopner. Think of Flip Wilson as Geraldine Jones or Reverend Leroy. Think of Red Skeleton as Clem Kadiddlehopper or the boxer Cauliflower McPugg.
Yes, this borders on split-personality territory, but what if you could celebrate Halloween every day for as long as you chose? The “costume” goes far beyond clothing. Consider how the actor’s entire body becomes the character’s. The phrasing and speech patterns. Beyond just a Halloween get-up, the actor’s entire point of view conforms to the character.
It’s not lost on me that the shift from character-based comedy to comedian-based stand-up parallels the popular shift from prose fiction to memoir. And that the shift also marks the increase in identity politics. The culture used to find fuller, mutual expression by wearing a mask, but now lets it all hang out. But does that ease the underlying unhappiness or just reinforce it? Just asking.
As Tom Spanbauer writes, “Everything is drag.”
My sophomore year in college the Portland State University newspaper, The Vanguard, sent me to interview a local celebrity. The world’s oldest drag queen, according to the New York Times, Walter Cole—aka Darcelle—was 93 years old when he died last March. He was the world’s oldest performing drag queen, as well as a confidant of director John Waters, and when the student-me sat down to profile him in 1981, Cole told me the following. Television, he said, wasn’t any great social-justice liberator. Cole said TV just went where the money was. Novelty drew eyeballs, as did controversy. So if we were seeing more Black and queer characters on television it was only because such characters helped ratings. Ratings set ad rates. The then-twenty-year-old me didn’t want to hear such cold ideas, so that’s likely why I remember them to this day.
Born in 1930, Cole hadn’t put on a dress until 1967, not until his partner had become the choreographer for a much earlier celebrity, Gracie Hansen. The only reason the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle had turned a profit was due to Hansen running the hugely popular stripper concession. On Halloween 1967 Cole’s partner had smuggled home one of Hansen’s gowns. Cole had worn the gown to a party, and also mimicked the brash voice and big mannerisms of Hansen, and became successful doing the same routine for the next sixty years.
In this age of memoir we forget that we are each a character we create. Me, I recall the first time I opened a door for my family, at the Grigg’s Discount Department Store in Pasco, Washington. I’d seen men open doors for people in movies, so I ran ahead to open some door, at an age when the door seemed impossibly heavy. People walked through, all of them saying some version of “What a little gentleman!” and I’d still be standing there if my parents hadn’t come back to collect me.
If a behavior works, we adopt it. If we admire it, we adopt it. Call it appropriation, but it’s how we assemble ourselves.
Yes, I know, Write what you know, but…
The problem is that I know what I know. You know? It’s more work to write from within an invented character. To keep every act and statement true to a specific character. But that’s also where the vacation is. It’s an on-going Halloween, if only in your head. Yes, you’ve still got to drive to work, but you’re driving as Gracie Hansen.
Consider the idea “Write from what you don’t know, yet.” Fitzgerald wrote, “Personality is an unbroken series of successful actions.” Well, so is writing. We’re all tweaking and retweaking ourselves moment by moment, a la Lily Tomlin.
That, and it’s not as if anyone escapes. As for the talk therapist, the person who conducted the guided meditations. The person who’d phoned me and said that writing wasn’t actively wrestling with my own mortality. In February 1997 she died of a heart attack. She’d missed several appointments, and the police found her on the floor of her bedroom. Well, they found her body. She never saw the movie. She never saw the actor being her as she guided a roomful of actors pretending to be me, as we guided the audience in an even larger meditation. It’s just as well.
As for you, if you’re as exhausted as I am from the news—can you say “doom scrolling”—take a vacation. Even if it’s just in your own head.
This winter, fall in love with an idea.
For what it’s worth, November is National Novel Writing Month. It’s also No Nut November. Are the two related? One has to wonder. It’s also No-Shave November, the month set aside for growing novembeards and mustaches.
As for me, I’ll be happy to crank out a holiday ghost story. Last year I wrote Kingston, and this year a group of friends have banded together to publish an anthology of Christmas ghost stories for next year, in time for the holidays. So, think holiday ghost stories.
In workshop this week, Tricia suggested we resurrect the Children of the Porn anthology, stories about finding aged, printed porn magazines in an unlikely natural setting. It’s such a relatable experience—almost everyone I’ve met has found nudie magazines stashed on golf courses, in trees, among sand dunes—that the theme screams to become a story collection.
Whatever the case, as the daylight hours shrink, we’re all called inside. It’s time to tell stories to one another. Time to circle the wagons against the cold world.
A big shout-out to Maegan Heil. Your booklet, Split Lip, is beautiful, and I’ll feature it in an up-coming post.
Everyone is trapped by some circumstance. It’s interesting to note how so-called recluses have found an entire world inside themselves. For example, Flannery O’Connor and Emily Dickinson.
Portland, Oregon audiences have become famous for giving standing ovations to almost everything. So much so that touring road shows will often plan Portland as their first stop in order to give the cast and crew a feel-good kick-off. In other words, Portland is what’s known as an “easy audience.”