…was published on the beautiful PrettyQueer.com New Year’s Day 2013. PQ isn’t operating anymore and so this piece has been off line for a while. But there’s a postscript (because, life) so even though this essay is more self-revealing than what I normally write, I decided I wanted it out in the world.
Being the youngest child of a rural family that loves alcohol and ambition in equal parts, I’m never wholly impressed with New Year celebrations. You call that drunk? We puke up more vodka before 9 am than most people drink all day.
You call that planning for a New Year? My dad read us Brian Tracy’s “Seven Goal Setting Habits” in our cribs. Of course, if you want to bypass the alcohol and go right to ambition, you’ve got to keep really really busy, so my wall is always covered with post it notes detailing my quarterly goals and foci no matter what time of year it is.
Adult children of alcoholics overcompensation notwithstanding, I’m a sucker for a good slogan and I’ve been thinking about one for this next year. I’ve decided on “just hit send”
“Just hit send” was a mini-meme created by the thoughtful Anne Elliott at the New York book release for Cheryl Burke’s My Awesome Place in October of this past year.
Cheryl Burke (aka my beautiful girlfriend) wrote this amazing memoir about her escape from New Jersey and parents who break plates of pasta on your head for getting into a good college, a descent into booze and drugs and really bad relationships with dudes and chicks, tearing up the 90s New York performance poetry scene, finding a community and a home of her own and ultimately getting sober. It was a damn good book, funny and heartbreaking with the sardonic humorous spin that was very engaging and very much the way of Cheryl.
She wrote it, and rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it. And then, of all things, her beautiful, vegetarian, nonsmoking, sober for over a decade self developed Hodkgkin’s lymphoma and within eight months she was dead from a pulmonary reaction to the chemo they gave her to cure it.
Her writing group, who had been working with her manuscript more than a half dozen years worked with Cheryl’s literary executor Sarah Schulman to polish the book as much they could. Sarah arranged for Topside to publish it. Cheryl’s other friends jumped in with help editing and promoting the book. Her community, her Awesome Place, showed just how awesome they are.
Thus, at the book release in October, Anne Elliott, a member of the writers’ group that put the manuscript together,a performer and a writer who had known Cheryl for almost two decades, read from her favorite part of the book, and addressed the work they did with it: “Well we didn’t do that much to it. It was substantially done. She was just afraid to hit send.”
It’s true. The situation was slightly more complicated than that, because humans are pretty complicated (dead ones especially so, since you can’t chat with them to figure out what they’re thinking) but Anne had a rather poetic knife to cut through to the sad truth: Cheryl had been afraid to hit send.
There were good reasons Cheryl was afraid to hit send. She had been through some shit, both personally and in her career, major setbacks, artist on artist cruelty, rejection, bad relationships, losing a day job she had for a decade to a 23 year old blonde with big boobs and no qualifications. It’s possible (but not likely) that she was afraid of her family’s reaction. I know she was worried about how publishing a book about her worst years of drinking and drugging might effect her ability to make a living. And also, she damn sure didn’t think she would die. At least not yet.
I know this because as she was in the ICU, struggling to breathe, she rolled her eyes in the way that only Cheryl could and said “when I thought about dying young I always pictured something much more glamorous. If you would have asked me if I thought I would go this way,” she gestured to the machines of the hospital, “or get attacked by a pack of wild dogs, I definitely would have said the wild dogs.”
My life has been such that I’ve watched a fair number of people die. Close up and personal. It makes me a great party guest. And although it’s infrequent that a dying person’s last words are Lifetime TV worthy (seems to be me it’s always something like to be “cheese is the new pig” or something else nonsensical addled by medication and pain) I have to say that almost everyone I’ve been with has echoed this feeling of mild surprise.
Well, I gonna fuck up the ending for you.
You are going to die.
Probably not this year. Maybe not this decade. There’s a very good chance it won’t be from a weird reaction to bad medicine that’s supposed to save your life. But you are definitely definitely without a doubt I can guarantee you, going to die.
And when you die, and when I die, every reason we had for not hitting send, for not putting our most authentic work out there in the world, all our fear of rejection, all our fear of being misunderstood, all that legitimate stuff, is going to be bullshit. And even if you have great friends like Cheryl had, and they manage to hit send for you, guess what, you’re still going to miss your own book release party on account of being dead.
It’s absurd that I’m slipping into lecturing mode here, since I’ve been living with the “hit send before you die reality” for a few years now but still in the last few months needed outside encouragement to practicing what I’m preaching. I am an almost middle-aged stand up comic who has lost two partners in five years to cancer, both at age 38, both after horrible suffering. I also have been very involved in Haiti earthquake recovery, both in Haiti after the quake, and with old family friends who now live here but lost a ton of family members, and a fair amount of limbs on January 12, 2010. Musing about death, dying and trauma is like making small talk for me.
So this is what my comedy is about. Not completely, but substantially. And when I finished my last CD, Why Is The Fat One Always Angry, which includes some really hilarious pieces like “Fun and Games at Widow Camp” and “I’m Here, I’m Queer, the Tubal Ligation Didn’t Work” I found all sorts of reasons to not hit send. The files weren’t good enough quality. It had been too much time between recording and the release. Something in there might hurt one of my dead girlfriend’s feelings. But the truth was, I was afraid to hit send. I was afraid of what would come back to me. People become comics because they want (or maybe even need) to make people laugh. I was worried the CD was too tragic to be comic.
Some friends encouraged me to put the CD up as a pay what you can on my website (you can still listen to most of it for free right here) I thought it would helpful, at least, for a few people. Instead, the feedback I’ve gotten from multiple sources has been incredible. One local comic who suffered a devastating loss when his best comedy buddy of many years died this past summer said he downloaded the CD, listened to it in the dark and laughed and cried until he felt like he could get up and face the world again.
As an artist, that’s almost a cliché. I’d have to be an asshole to complain about great feedback like that. So that’s my New Year’s slogan, I guess. Polish that shit up, make it the best I can, and just hit send.
Because when my friends are scattering my ashes in front of the stone lion on the 42nd Street New York Public Library and trying to figure out whether anyone really wants my collection of black tee shirts or whether they should probably just recycle them for scrap, my fears of being the funny person obsessed with serious things won’t matter.
What will matter is if I hit send.
POSTSCRIPT SUMMER 2017
I wrote that a year after Cheryl died. A few things have happened since then. I have a different apartment, new room-mates, an awesome day job, some limited queer community stand up success, a new niche book or two. I’m even dating someone new and awesome (no cancer history. promise) which takes its own kind of joyful courage.
But recently a fellow queer comic took me out for drinks and challenged me “You’re just doing the same things over and over, you’re not stretching yourself. You can do more than you’re doing. It’s 2017, don’t be so afraid of mainstream auditions. Start reaching higher. You’re playing so small.”
Oh damn. Apparently, it’s not enough to hit send.
You have to keep on hitting send.