In connection with my new short story in The Paris Review, I wrote a short essay about Raymond Carver and the Pet Shop Boys for Redux, the Paris Review’s newsletter about revisiting its archives. I believe the newsletter with my essay in it is going to go out this weekend, so if you’d like to read it, sign up for Redux here!
I have a friend who, whenever he eats a vegetable, uploads what he calls a “vegetable accountability post” to social media. I am long overdue for a Cross Fit accountability post. I have been going for three and a half years, and so far I’ve only written about it once, which is fearful reticence.
Three and a half years! Minus about nine months when there was this little pandemic. Still, three and a half years is a long time. Cross Fit, for those of you who haven’t been initiated, is a group gym class with a coach. The program varies daily but usually combines gymnastics, weightlifting, and aerobic training. It’s famously kind of intense. Last Sunday, for example, the aerobic component of the class, known as the workout of the day, or (unfortunately) “WOD,” consisted of 50 double-unders (a double-under is when the jump rope passes under your feet twice per jump), 50 sit-ups, a 130-meter run, 40 double-unders, 40 sit-ups, another 130-meter run, 30 double-unders, 30 sit-ups, another 130-meter run, 20 double-unders, 20 sit-ups, another 130-meter run, and finally 10 double-unders, 10 sit-ups, and one last 130-meter run. All of which followed a weightlifting complex that consisted of sets of a high hang power snatch, a hang power snatch, and an overhead squat.
Okay, yeah, I’m boasting a little by telling you all that. But I’m fifty-five years old! And I’ve been weedy, nerdy, and gay all my life! Even after three-plus years, I find it incredible that I’m doing this. That I can do this. This is not the sort of thing that middle-age Brooklyn novelists do (though, to be honest, it was a Brooklyn novelist, if a considerably younger one, who told me about the particular Cross Fit gym I now go to).
Some accountability, though: injuries. While doing Cross Fit, I have sprained an ankle, while stepping down from a banded pull-up, which put me out of commission for about a month; have pulled something in one of my shoulders, which required me to do rehab exercises and be cautious with the shoulder for about the same length of time but not actually stop going to Cross Fit; and have thrown out my lower back twice. The first time I threw out my back wasn’t technically “in” Cross Fit, but during a Cross Fit–adjacent Zoom stretching class at home during the pandemic. It sent me on a medical odyssey that lasted about seven months, from which I learned that the heathcare system, as currently configured, is happy to charge you money for back pain but has almost no idea how to treat it. Lesson learned: take the money you were going to spend on an orthopedic surgeon, an X-ray, and an MRI (injections and surgery have been shown to be largely useless, by the way, but even I knew that), and spend it instead on a physical therapist who works with athletes. The second back injury did happen in a Cross Fit class, though not at a moment when I was actually lifting anything. I skipped the doctor and went straight to physical therapy, and was only away from Cross Fit for about a month.
This may sound like a lot of injury, compiled in one place like this. But injury is part of any sport, and what’s more, during the same time period, I also dropped a window sash on my right index finger, necessitating four stitches, which kept me out of the gym for a month and a half, and gave myself an acute case of plantar fasciitis by going birding for three and a half hours in ill-fitting hiking boots, which kept me away for three weeks. I’m accident-prone, is the thing, which has nothing to do with Cross Fit. Most Cross Fit classes begin with a “question of the day,” which is usually something like What’s your favorite breakfast food? or What TV show are you watching these days?. But a couple of weeks ago, the question was How many bones have you broken? and it startled me that in a roomful of athletes, everyone but me said one or zero. In my case the answer is at least four, two of them—a finger and a toe—while playing soccer with a bunch of writers and editors. What’s more, I’ve had episodes of lower back pain since graduate school, i.e., for almost thirty years, and the odds are high that I would have had one during the pandemic even if I hadn’t taken that Zoom stretch class.
So those are the minuses. Now for the pluses. When I wrote about Cross Fit in 2020, I said that what I liked most was learning new skills, and that’s still true, and maybe what I’m proudest of. I’ve learned how to do double-unders, for example (at least when I’m well rested and don’t psych myself out). I can do kipping pull-ups, which are pull-ups made a little easier by swinging between an arched-body and a hollow-body position. I can even do kipping handstand push-ups, which look much trickier than they are (though, alas, as far as strict handstand push-ups are concerned, I only seem to have the strength to do about three, so far). If the stars are aligned, I can do a free-standing handstand for all of four and a half seconds. But I never thought I’d be able to do a free-standing handstand at all, let alone that I would learn the skill at age fifty-five! This list should probably be extended to include movements like the back squat that I may have thought I knew how to do four years ago but I can now definitively say I had no real concept of then, given all the cues that I now struggle to keep in mind when I do one (externally rotate knees, tuck rib cage down, tighten core, breathe into stomach, hold breath as if doing the squat in a pool of water that’s at chest height, keep elbows in plane with body, keep lumbar immobile, send butt out, and don’t let knees drift back in).
I titled the post about Cross Fit that I wrote in 2020 “My new body,” but I didn’t actually describe said body. So here goes. At some point, fairly early on, I noticed that my arms, which used to swing as freely backward as forward, were now on the backswing hitting up against this more-or-less new triangular shelf of muscles attached to my back, apparently known as “traps.” Sort of like the overhang of a turtle’s shell. I had never noticed them before. A little later I became fascinated by new facets on the upper outsides of my triceps, where there hadn’t previously been any distinct contours at all. I got very sharp abs for a while, but then I started eating more (even the liberal New York Timesrecommends that athletes eat about three-quarters as many grams of protein daily as they weigh in pounds, which I didn’t realize you were supposed to do until about year two, when I became frustrated that I wasn’t able to break through a plateau; rest assured I’m still a vegetarian, but it was touch-and-go there for a while; my virtue was saved by Bob’s Red Mill whey protein, the cut-fruits section of the Wegmans freezer department, and a new blender), so they’re no longer quite as pronounced. Maybe the weirdest development was that my knees, which have always been of a lunar knobbiness, filled out a little, some of the concavities flipping into convexities. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. Well, anyway, I can see that my knees are shaped different now, even if no one else can. In general, I’m not markedly bigger than I was a few years ago, but even to myself I feel more solid. Sometimes I think it’s too bad I didn’t discover Cross Fit when I was a bachelor in my twenties, but then I remind myself that I’m so old that Cross Fit didn’t even exist back then. There are moments when I feel awe at the raw sexual power that is now coursing through my thick new very different body, but then I upload a phone video to Instagram, and see a shaky, wobbly little old man who’s found the gumption to do exercises that look like they’re probably good for him. Oh, well; it’s nice to feel like a twenty-five-year-old hottie again even if to the outside world I no longer look like one. My neck and waist are the same size they ever were, but my calves and thighs are a little larger (I had to throw out my pre-pandemic skinny jeans, which luckily had been declared passé, anyway), and my old dress shirts are now too tight in the shoulders, and since I can’t afford to replace them, I look even more robust than I actually am when I wear one. This transformation is mostly very fun. It was heady in the first six months or so, but the novelty has worn off a little by now, though of course I still like it. And yet, and yet. I am, as I think I’ve said a few times now, fifty-five. The transformation is not going to last. It’s all happening in the shadow of my knowing that it’s not going to last. For now I’m still becoming fitter, but the lateness of my embrace of fitness is to some extent obscuring the underlying reality that my body is in decline. (To some extent: when I did the Memorial Day workout known as “the Murph” yesterday—I’ll let you google it—my time was six minutes slower than last year’s.) Going to Cross Fit, for someone like me, is a little like buying cut flowers. They’re pretty, but you have to buy new ones every few days. And the day will come when you won’t be able to do even that. One of the challenges of (late) middle age is deciding you’re okay with ephemerality. That you want fresh flowers in spite of their ephemerality. Maybe even because of it. I don’t know how long this adventure lasts, or where it goes, if anywhere. That said, my understanding is that strength training makes an even bigger difference in old age than it does in earlier phases of life.
I originally signed up with Cross Fit in hopes of jolting myself out of a depression that seemed to be descending. It worked. Or maybe it was going back into therapy that worked—the evidence is all just anecdotal over here. I’ve known for years that exercise helps me. For a long time, I saw a therapist on the Upper East Side, and I used to bike to the sessions from Brooklyn, which I joked was a way of doubling the therapeutic dose. Back when my chosen exercise was swimming, I used to feel that after my allotted thirty-six laps, I was almost entitled to consider myself a different person, so altered was my body chemistry. Cross Fit is a more intense workout than swimming or biking or anything else has ever been for me; in a group, I seem to be willing to work out much harder than I would ever find the motivation to do on my own, maybe because it harnesses the competitive side of me, which turns out to be pretty salient. The reset of my mood system now feels, correspondingly, close to absolute. Workouts this intense seem to burn through toxins that otherwise accumulate in me, the wishes to punish or reproach or second-guess myself, and at this point I have an almost medieval faith in Cross Fit’s power to ward off depression. Is this how people used to feel about bloodletting? When injury or illness prevents me from going, my primary anxiety isn’t about the injury or illness, whatever it might be, but that without the stimulus of Cross Fit, I could become depressed again. And this could happen, I’m aware; cf. the cut flowers.
Some day maybe I’ll write a post about my life in exercise, à la Alison Bechdel’s The Secret to Superhuman Strength, but for now I just want to say that as a gay man, I’ve always felt most comfortable with exercise that was solitary—running, biking, swimming, solo training on weight machines—which I suspect is a legacy of childhood fear. I think I grew up afraid that if other people saw my body, saw me too openly using it, it might betray me—they would figure out I was gay. I’m not sure the fear was logical even then, let alone now. And it turns out that the exercise I’ve most enjoyed, the exercise that I’ve gotten the most out of, as an adult, has been in groups—first the gaggle of writers and editors my husband and I used to play soccer with, in Prospect Park, for a number of years, and now Cross Fit. It’s odd that it didn’t happen until long after I’d given up hiding who I was—that even after I’d given up hiding, the habit of hiding was still with me. The gym I go to now is Cross Fit South Brooklyn, and I adore it so much I can’t be trusted not to become maudlin, so I won’t say much, other than that the owner and coaches have been kind, thoughtful, patient, cheerful, and generous, and the other members friendly, welcoming, and supportive. “It turns out,” a friend and fellow Cross Fitter joked to me, “that having someone say ‘Good job!’ and give you a fist bump after a workout is incredibly powerful.” It is powerful. The joke almost doesn’t read like a joke when it’s written out like that. It shouldn’t make us nervous to acknowledge how powerful it is. I’m hardly the only person who had a troubled relationship with his own body in childhood and youth, and I’m actually pretty lucky, as far as my body goes, in having so far never had a serious illness, other than depression. But discovering, even late in life, that you can enjoy your body, and that you can push it further than you thought you could, and survive, and even become stronger, is a lot to take in, maybe especially for someone who lived most of his life very much in his head, and as a child took refuge in the illusion that the mind was different from the body. It isn’t, which is very strange. But if you need to hack your mind a little, this turns out to be to your advantage.
“Birders have been marooned, kidnapped, and raped while in pursuit of birds. One was eaten by a tiger in India but got pictures of it before his demise.” —Jessie Williamson in Outside on Peter Kaestner’s quest to see 10,000 bird species
“The greatest value of the book is not what it tells us about Heidegger, but rather what it shows about the fecklessness and dishonesty of a certain wing of the academic enterprise.” —Alan Jacobs on Richard Wolin’s Heidegger in Ruins
“Something put on your bucket list by your enemy.” —Michael Hofmann in the NYRB on Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe
“The person at Spotify who gives these new clusters names is Glenn McDonald, the company’s ‘data alchemist’. McDonald has created a website, Every Noise at Once, that maps all of Spotify’s ‘genre-shaped distinctions’—six thousand in total—on a single chart. Scrolling through it is like staring at a galaxy, with McDonald the astronomer responsible for naming each new star. Genres to the left are said to be denser and more atmospheric (cryptic black metal, epic black metal, Greek black metal); those to the right are spikier and bouncier (rave funk, hard minimal techno). Some of the genres listed are purely functional: ‘sleep’, ‘Pilates’, ‘pet calming’. Others are baffling: Spotify distinguishes between ‘small room’, ‘big room’, ‘deep big room’ and ‘escape room’.” —Daniel Cohen in the LRB on Spotify
I hope you enjoy this newsletter, but my fiction is the writing I put the most into. Please also check out my new short story, “The Ellipse Maker,” in the latest issue of n+1.
[This post is also available as an issue of my newsletter, Leaflet.]
This weekend Peter and I went to see The Gold Room, a play written by Jacob Perkins and directed by my friend, Gus Heagerty. It’s at HERE, at 145 6th Avenue in Soho, until November 5.
The Gold Room is about shame, and the way shame structures and compromises human relationships, a subject that one’s natural first impulse is to look away from, but which the play makes riveting—a testimony to the intelligence and art at work here. When the play opens, its two actors, Scott Parkinson and Robert Stanton, present themselves as gay men of a certain age—slightly self-ironized, battle-hardened in the wars of love. At the outset, they’re in the getting-to-know-you-over-drinks stage of an app-enabled hookup, which progresses, as they talk, but in a Beckettian way, never quite arrives anywhere. After a while, their encounter comes to seem less like an overture to sex than a meditation (or maybe it’s more accurate to say, a meditation in the form of an enactment) on the way disclosure and non-disclosure are staged, the way the narrative of a romance is scripted and produced by its participants—and by their psychic scars. Do you believe what this stranger you’re attracted to is saying about himself? Would you rather not believe, or even not know? What’s at stake in letting another person become more than just a stranger? The writing and staging take full advantage of the resources that are only available to theater: intimacy and presence. No other medium can make the dynamics and cadences of human relationship so visible and palpable, and Parkinson and Stanton, under Heagerty’s direction, are in beautiful control of their rhythms and intonations, and of the way those rhythms and intonations can call new feelings and meanings into existence.
Just as the audience is starting to feel confident where the scene is headed, its premises shift. The same two actors, wearing the same clothes but holding different drinks, now seem to be two different men, having a slightly different interaction. Maybe the first two characters are playing out new roles; maybe we’re seeing earlier selves, alternative selves, dreamed selves. The framing context that connects the first scene to the second is left open. Which is just as well, because the premises soon shift again. In fact, they keep shifting, throughout the play’s sixty minutes. We’re with a writer and a producer in a studio in L.A. We’re in a doctor’s office. We’re witnessing a long-term couple’s quarrel. We’re in a childhood home. We in the audience start to notice continuities between the different situations, patterns that repeat with alteration as in a theme and variations. In every scene, we’re able to sense the presence of something that isn’t said, of a limit being created by the impulse (or command) to look away, of the occluded damage that is typical of shame.
The Gold Room is a challenging and insightful work, unnerving, surprising, and at times very funny. The play is only running for a few weeks, in a theater with limited seating, so if you’re interested, don’t hesitate.
[An issue of my newsletter, Leaflet]
Should you keep reading a book if it insults the kind of person you are? In the old days the answer was: if it’s good, yes, you’re supposed to. Good as in of high literary quality. Nowadays, though, you’re free not to. You’ll still be considered a serious reader even if you put it down. It’s up to you.
A couple of months ago, I started to read Frederick Seidel’s Selected Poems, having liked poems of his that I had run into in magazines over the years, and having long heard him highly praised by friends. I thought I should see what the fuss was about. The persona of every Seidel poem was born into money, is passionate about riding Italian motorcycles, and is a libertine. Knowing this much about him had long put me off. I suspected he was going to be like James Merrill but straight and dickish—a suspicion that wasn’t entirely wrong. He writes lines like “I live a life of laziness and luxury,” and “I want to date-rape life.” A kind of provocativeness that trusts the reader to be in on the joke is part of his act. He’s sort of goofy, though, too, and his style is part Edward Lear (surrealist and singsongy), part Robert Lowell (crystallized and confessional), two poets I’m very fond of. Yes, Seidel brags about his Ducatis, his Huntsman suits, and his women, but he doesn’t come off as trying to make the reader envious. (Or maybe he is trying to make the reader envious and it doesn’t work on me because I don’t happen to covet any of those things? I’m going to try to stay open here to the possibility that my aesthetic reaction is a merely personal one, for reasons that will hopefully become clear.) He seems, rather, to be trying to synthesize and then bottle a sort of perfume, an attar of his pleasures, which is the kind of condensation of lived experience into language that I think of lyric poems as being for. Also, there’s something a little manic and fatal about his effort. There’s an undertone of desperation, a suggestion that his go-for-brokeness is somehow on account of having no choice, of having access to no other, more ordinary means of consolation. (And his poem, “The Blue-Eyed Doe,” about his mother’s lobotomy, is probably where one might start looking for the source of that desperation.)
In short, it turns out I quite like Seidel’s poems. But only a few pages into his Selected, reading a long poem titled “Sunrise,” I was stopped cold by these lines:
A gay couple drags a shivering fist-sized
Dog down Broadway, their parachute brake. “Why
Robert Frost?” the wife one pleads, nearly
In tears; the other sniffs, “Because he
Believed in Nature and I believe in Nature.”
The wife one. Okay. Well, what do I do with that?
It’s worth noting, before going any further, that a Black reader of Seidel will meet a similar challenge. Seidel is famous for having written bluntly, in poems such as “Bologna” and “Boys,” of the way his childhood self perceived the Black men who worked for his family. Indeed, in “Boys,” Seidel doubles down on the problem, and his narrator recalls one of those Black men as “probably a homo,” apostrophizing him thus: “Ronny Banks, faggot prince, where are you now?” There’s arguably a defense in the retrospective aspect of the poems about Black men: the poems are trying to recapture a perception that the poet had as a child, not a perception he necessarily still has today. Because the gay couple and their toy dog are perceived in the present tense, however, no such out is available.
Reader, I had feelings! My first, once I understood what Seidel meant by “the wife one,” was not very sophisticated: What a dick. On second thought, though, I remembered nights I had spent in gay bars in Manhattan, in my twenties, watching endlessly repeated video clips of two straight Black comedians, Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier, doing impressions of sissy film critics. I had had mixed feelings about the skits even at the time, but they were sometimes very funny, and they seemed to be taken to heart by almost everyone around me in the bars, perhaps because we gays back then felt a kind of hunger for representation in the mainstream, even for mocking representation. Maybe, in fact, a mocking representation was something we were especially hungry for, because mockery shone its spotlight on the elements of gay identity that were most stigmatized, elements that then seemed beyond the pale of a tolerant liberal understanding.
Seidel’s poem was written at least a decade before the “Men on Film” skits. Maybe he wrote the line having in mind a gay reader of an earlier era who would appreciate being sent up, in the way I remember appreciating “Men on Film”? That’s very possible. In his poem “Fucking,” Seidel recalls drinking at “Francis Bacon’s queer after-hours club” and being saluted by one of the regulars, who shouted, “‘Champagne for the Norm’! / Meaning normal, heterosexual.” That suggests a sort of interpellation across the border of stigma: You’re not one of us, but we recognize that you came to our turf. Hi, Norm! I’m convinced, perhaps irrationally, that there really was a gay couple who had an argument as they walked down Broadway with a small dog, and that Seidel noticed them, overheard them, and remembered them. I believe Seidel was paying attention, in other words, and attention is a gift. Mostly.
But but but. The phrase “the wife one” sounds to me like a straight man’s psychic shorthand, not like an attempt to borrow the voices that gay men use to talk about themselves, not even like an attempt to borrow in the parodic way of Wayans and Grier. I just don’t think a gay man would say “the wife one” except in jesting reference to the way the straight world sometimes perceives us. Not because it’s not respectful (gay men of my generation, left to our own devices, do not tend to treat ourselves qua gay with all that much respect), but because it’s not, by and large, the way gay couples work, in my experience. Sometimes it is the case that one partner in a couple is more effeminate than the other, but it seems to happen just as often, and probably more often, that both or neither are effeminate. The interaction and allocation of sex roles, gender roles, economic roles, and other social roles inside a gay relationship is just not as straightforward as a phrase like “the wife one” suggests (any more than the phrase accurately captures such matters inside a straight relationship, I suspect). A phrase like that simply isn’t useful. To cite just one complication: in his book Out of the Shadows, the psychotherapist Walt Odets notes that sometimes, for the sake of keeping a relationship in equilibrium, “a partner who holds the balance of power outside sex may be more sexually passive and receptive.”
So I don’t think this is a case of a straight writer borrowing a gay self-deprecation. I think what we have here is the appearance in a poem of a straight’s deprecation of gays. Which doesn’t mean there’s no ironic distance between Seidel the poet and Seidel the straight man (as it were)—between the Seidel who’s observing himself perceive and the Seidel who’s doing the perceiving. This is a defense that won’t convince some readers, but I think in a poet of Seidel’s sophistication, such an irony is always present, and I think it may be the strongest defense possible: this is who he was, and how he was, at the moment of this perception, and it’s impossible to capture perception fully while filtering it.
How badly is a defense needed? How terrible is it, really, to say “the wife one”? If you’re in a gay marriage, and you’ve never been asked by a straight man which of you is the wife, then you are luckier than me. I survived just fine, but I have to say I didn’t like it much. On the other hand, if you’re in a gay marriage, and you’ve never talked, fought, or joked, inside the safety of it, about which of you is behaving more as the wife, at a given stage of your relationship, then you are farther above the fray than I will ever be. In these jokes, arguments, and negotiations, though, I think what’s being hashed out is how to balance two careers, and how to divide the responsibilities for a shared household. The debates are about whether one person is feeling obliged to more often take the role of homemaker, not about whether one person is more womanly. (Gender isn’t a zero-sum game the way doing the dishes is, and at the end of the day, there isn’t, or shouldn’t be, anything offensive about describing a man as effeminate.) In other words, nothing is at stake that would be legible to someone who saw you and your husband walking down the street.
What were the gays in Seidel’s poem arguing about? Was “the husband one,” to coin a phrase, planning to ask for a Robert Frost poem to be read at his funeral? Was he planning to write a book or an article about Robert Frost? Was he merely claiming Frost as his favorite poet? In any of these cases, why would his partner “plead” for an explanation, “nearly in tears”? I think the reader is meant to find humor in the idea of a gay resident of New York City espousing Frost because of a shared belief in nature. Which I get. The canonical lines about gays and nature are Oscar Wilde complaining that “Nature is so uncomfortable. Grass is hard and lumpy and damp, and full of dreadful black insects,” and Frank O’Hara insisting that “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” But Peter and I had a friend read a Frost poem at our after-wedding get-together, and I defy even Jonathan Franzen to take better bird photos than I do.
I’m not sure I’ve walked in a wide enough circle around this problem yet. Did I feel insulted? Yes, a little, I guess. Do I care? I put Seidel’s Selected down for a while, but later I went back to it. I’m on my guard a little with Seidel now, but I should probably have learned long ago to be on my guard with every writer. I seem willing to forgive F. Scott Fitzgerald, say, for writing of a “pansy” character in Tender Is the Night that “he was so terrible that he was no longer terrible, only dehumanized.” Being dehumanized is worse, I think, than being called “the wife one.” I’m aware that I could pretend to care more than I do, in order to have an axe to swing. I sometimes wonder if, as a general public appreciation of literary qualities per se has weakened—as a willingness to make distinctions of literary value in public has declined—it has become more and more tempting to take up an axe. There are days when it seems like the only blades that still cut are those with a social or political edge. On the other hand, it would probably be a mistake to pretend I don’t care at all, to fake transcendence. A critic I didn’t agree with about much once warned me against accepting “the phantom bribe of straight culture,” and while I suspected him of issuing the warning in order to try to scare me off the middle ground that I wanted to occupy, I knew exactly what he meant. One aspires to catholicity as a reader—one wants to be broadminded even in the face of narrowmindedness—but one doesn’t want to be a pushover. I think my personal verdict would be to recommend that people read Seidel but not blink the moments like the one I’ve written about here, which are, after all, a deliberate part of his persona, and of the membership he claims through his poetry in a sort of freemasonry of the bad and wild (which more than a few gay men, of my generation anyway, have also felt they belonged to).
Peter and I thoroughly enjoyed the HBO Max show It’s a Sin this weekend. Set in London in the 1980s, it follows a group of young gay men as they come out of the closet and are beset by AIDS. Not every character in the show is gay. Parents play key roles, and much of the action is seen through the eyes of a young woman, apparently straight, who is a friend and roommate. I think my favorite character in the show was Colin, a phlegmatic, responsible, incontrovertibly gay but decidedly unflashy young man from Wales, who works as an intern at a Savile Row haberdashery and seems too cautious to act on his sexual impulses. Most of the characters are types rather than individuals, in the way of TV shows, but Colin was a type I hadn’t seen on screen before, so I never knew what he was going to do next, which I liked. The show hits a few wrong notes (which I’ll get to), but I laughed and cried and at times found it almost overwhelmingly evocative.
The soundtrack has a lot to do with how evocative. Soft Cell, Yazoo, Erasure, Wham, Kate Bush, the Eurythmics, and of course PSB: in my recollection, these were in fact the songs that we were listening to. “Music was so much more fun then,” I muttered to Peter, early in the first episode, as the middle-aged are wont to do. Artificial, calculated, trivial, effeminate, decadent songs. More pleasurable than songs should have been, and pleasurable to a part of me that I felt I probably wasn’t supposed to be indulging. Since a few of the show’s actors speak with strong British accents and a certain amount of British slang, to us impenetrable, Peter and I watched with the subtitles on, which meant that when the closed-captioner mislabeled a cover of the song “I Feel Love,” Peter muttered, “That’s not Donna Summer. It’s Bronski Beat.” And when the closed-captioner characterized the intro to a Pet Shop Boys song as “melodramatic music,” I harrumphed. (I mean, yes. But . . .) Peter effortlessly remembers the release dates of almost all these songs and reports that the songs keep pace with the imagined moment of the TV show’s story with an almost military rigor.
That imagined moment doesn’t exactly match the timing of my own debut into gay life. The show begins in 1981 and ends in 1991; I came out in 1989. Some amateur, armchair sociology: apps have probably changed everything now, but in the old days, gay bars were the stage for the public drama of our lives, and my sense back then was that as a general rule, one got to tread that stage from roughly age 20 to 35, making a gay man’s generation a rather short fifteen years. I overlapped a little with the generation portrayed in the show, and I knew many people who were in that generation, but I wasn’t quite in it myself. And in terms of the history of AIDS, the half-generation separating us was crucial. Before I came out, I knew that AIDS was a lethal sexually transmitted disease caused by HIV, and I knew that I could lower my risk significantly by using condoms or modifying what I did in bed. When the characters in the show started having sex with one another, on the other hand, not even scientists knew any of that. My gay generation lived in the shadow of AIDS, and it shaped nearly everything about our romantic and sexual lives, but we did not bear as heavy a burden of illness and death as the men who preceded us.
Which doesn’t mean we bore no burden, nor does it mean we weren’t completely petrified. When the central gay character in the show, a charming, fey, bumblingly but also ruthlessly narcissistic aspiring actor named Ritchie Tozer (played by Olly Alexander, who in real life is a pop star who has collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys), neurotically examines himself for spots and sores, I identified, uncomfortably. Also, sitting in a clinic waiting for one’s name (or pseudonym) to be called, terrified to hear the results of one’s HIV test: twenty-five years later it’s still a little too real and maybe also too soon? Not all the memories that the show brought back were grim. I also recognized the way some of the characters went to bed with each other as a way of becoming friends, a lighthearted aspect of gay life that the HBO show Looking largely overlooked in its focus on the drama of Finding the Right Man. I hope that in the age of apps, hook-ups still sometimes undergo that kind of evolution. It would be regrettable if the freemasonry of pleasure were to give way to an assortative rationalization of it (he says from the safe, ignorant harbor of middle-aged monogamy).
To add a little amateur history to the amateur sociology: The hinge for my gay generation came in 1996, when researchers proved that treating HIV with three different antiretroviral drugs at the same time boxed the virus into a metaphorical corner that it couldn’t mutate itself out of. In a wealthy country like America—or, rather, in zip codes in a wealthy country like America where people could afford healthcare—everything about AIDS changed once this treatment became available. Life expectancies dramatically lengthened, and the reigning social understandings of the disease were transformed. From the virus’s perspective, unfortunately, the new treatment figured only as a speed bump, if that. The rate of HIV infection in the U.S. population has only declined moderately since triple-drug treatment debuted. Given current rates of infection, one out of six gay or bisexual men in America will still contract HIV during his lifetime. Meanwhile, AIDS remains the leading cause of death in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa and death rates from the disease also remain high in Russia, Thailand, and parts of the Caribbean and South America.)
The show ends, as I said, in 1991, so that, medically speaking, it depicts a world where the cavalry never arrives. (It’s thus a big weepie, be forewarned.) It’s maybe irrecoverable now how potent the fear of death combined with the centuries-old stigma around homosexuality then was. A few instances of ostracization are dramatized in the show, but what maybe can’t be put on screen is the subsonic rumble of silence, the rarely voiced distaste of the larger society. (It wasn’t until June 15, 1987, for example, that the New York Times allowed the use of the word gay as a value-neutral synonym for homosexual. In the mid 1990s, a boyfriend of mine kept on his wall a front page of the New York Times that he had had framed because it used the word three different times, which impressed him as a milestone.) Many times, in the past twelve months, I have had the morbid thought how much nicer it is to go through a plague that straight people are dying in larger numbers from, too. It’s a relief not to have to worry about upsetting them if one fails to hide or downplay sufficiently one’s fear or grief. It has been liberating to listen to them loudly and confusedly arguing about what matters more—the meanings and pleasures available through human contact, or the safety that can be afforded by isolation. There’s an enjoyable perversity in noticing that people who prioritized safety over contact during the AIDS epidemic were tagged as conservative, while those who prioritize safety during COVID-19 are thought of as liberal. In It’s a Sin, a distraught mother exclaims that society would react very differently if there were a disease killing as many straight men as AIDS was killing gay ones. The claim isn’t speculation any more; as of this past year, it’s proven historical fact.
I seem to have got distracted from the criticism that I was going to make, but maybe in the end it’s more an observation. The generation who hit the gay bars in 1981 was to a startling extent wiped out. If you were to try to sell a nostalgic TV show just to them, you’d have almost no audience. The scriptwriters of It’s a Sin have understandably made a few adjustments. One is putting at the center of the story not a gay man but a young woman named Jill, who ends up being more dedicated to AIDS activism than most of her gay male friends. That in itself isn’t a distortion of the historical evidence. There were many such women in real life, many of them lesbian (Jill’s sexuality is left undefined). (Full disclosure: though I had friends in the activist movement, and felt sympathetic with it, I never took part myself.) Another modification is a shift in political sensibility. In one scene, when a somewhat dotty neighbor volunteers that she thinks AIDS victims are angels in disguise, one of the gay characters is so outraged that he throws a traffic barrier through her shop window. That felt like an off note. The movement’s displays of anger were almost always directed toward authorities and institutions—government, churches, pharmaceutical companies—and they were strategic, planned carefully in advance. To meet misguided sympathy with violence seems more a Twitter kind of mood—a retrojection. Similarly, in another late scene, a character berates a dead gay man’s mother, blaming on her all the shame and stigma that gay men dying of AIDS have been made to carry. I’m afraid I cringed. It sounded to me like something a teenager might wish he could say—or something a TV producer might imagine a teenager wishes to say—but not like the sort of thing that one grieving adult would say to another, no matter how misbegotten the other person’s understanding of sexuality might be. It’s a common move nowadays on social media to write people off, but one of the brilliant tactics of the AIDS activist movement was to engage with opponents, win their respect, and sometimes turn them into allies. (Cf. Larry Kramer and Anthony Fauci.)