R words

r words

Wednesday, December 11, 2013 was the day of my last radiation treatment. I had my final chemotherapy treatment the week before, on Tuesday, December 3.



I am done with treatment. I am now in Recovery.



Recovery would be lovely if it took place in a day, or maybe two. It does not. As one waggish commentator said online: “The radiation doesn’t stop cooking you all at once. It keeps simmering for a while.”






Also, there are the naggingly minor side effects, like the sore throat that makes it almost impossible to swallow, and the bizarrely twisted sense of taste. (I long for real tastes, and for solid food. I was reading the biography of Muriel Spark the other day and found a mention of Muriel having drinks with Edith Sitwell – “iced gin with grapefruit juice” – that almost made me burst into tears.)



My energy is returning, which is not necessarily a good thing. I have lots of get-up-and-go, but very little to do. Christmas is useful, because I can use my time making lists, checking them twice, etc. I can organize books on my bookshelves. I can write little feuilletons like this one, when I can summon up enough brain cells to do so.



And I can day by day think about my improvement. I needed less pain medication today. My throat was less obstructed today. I slept a straight four hours last night!



So much for recovery.



There’s another R word that I don’t even want to think about right now, for fear of jinxing myself: Remission.



Remission is the absence of cancer. My radiation oncologist (who is not normally the soul of Christmas good cheer) tells me, with his gargoyle’s grin, that he cannot see any sign of the original tumor in my throat when he looks down inside. (That is, of course, with the naked eye. He is not Superman and does not have X-ray vision.) This is excellent news, and I will be having several more tests over the next few weeks and months to confirm this. Back in September, when this whole cavalcade began, I had a Stage IV tumor (“roughly the size of a Meyer lemon,” according to another clever little Internet source) under or beside my left tonsil, along with an assortment of nastily swollen lymph nodes. Now – who knows? The whole kit and caboodle appear to be gone.



I say again: they appear to be gone.



We Reassure ourselves with the good cheer of our doctors that the treatments Really Really worked. We don’t ever want to go through that kind of treatment again. (The first month or so was nothing at all. The last few weeks were Repulsive.)



So here’s to the future, and to another day of Recovery.



And you know what? The new season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race begins in a month or so.



So I have something to look forward to after all.



(Also: doesn’t the rhino in the illustration above look like a hippo to you?)


RuPaul’s All-Star Drag Race 2012

RuPaul’s All Star Drag Race

I am only half alive when RuPaul isn’t on the air. I have barely survived over the past few months, eating flavorless food and breathing stale air.

But all that changed on Monday night.

Ru’s back, bitches!

This season is different: Ru has brought back twelve of the top queens from the past seasons. We have Nina Flowers, and Pandora Boxx, and Shannel! We have Yara Sofia, and Manila Luzon, and Latrice Royale!

Naturally I have my favorites. I love Manila (though I notice many of the queens on the show aren’t crazy about her; I suspect she’s pretty high-intensity in person). And Chad Michaels is a consummate professional, and I never before realized how very beautiful (both as a man and as a woman) Shannel is. And Nina Flowers is as funny and energetic and engaging as ever, and Latrice is herself (as always).

I’m not a drag queen myself; I have no impulse to dress as a woman. (I only wish I had that much fashion sense.) But I love the energy, and commitment, and bravery that the queens on the show have. I love their humor. I actually think I learn a little something about color and design when I watch them put their outfits together. So I suppose this counts as educational television too.

Also, I think there’s a deeper subtext here, about performance as a natural human act. Don’t we all construct characters and perform them for other people? Don’t you portray one person on the job and another at home? Don’t you act differently with your family than you do with your friends?

I thought so. Me too.

So: if you’re going to create yourself as a character, make yourself a memorable character, or a beautiful character. Or (preferably) both.

There’s a moment in the Mahabharata when Yudisthira, a prince in exile, is sent into exile with his four brothers. By the terms of a wager they’ve made (and lost), they must spend a year in hiding. Yudisthira asks his father, the god Dharma, what to do. And Dharma says: “Let your disguise be guided by your most secret desire.”

So Yudisthira, a gambler, becomes a teacher of gambling. His brother Bhima, a glutton, becomes a cook.

And their brother Arjuna, the greatest and most powerful warrior in India, becomes a woman.

And he goes on, after exile, to win the war.

You go, girl!

RuPaul’s Drag Race, season four


I just need to check in with you on the new season (Season Four!) of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”



Okay.  You know I love it, and I would love it even if it were awful.  So read on.



This season is different, in a lot of ways (and I’m only writing this after the third episode!).  The contestants are edgier, less pretty. Ru is exploring drag, I think; he’s exploring what it says about culture in general.  He mixes it up gloriously.  One of the celebrity judges on the first episode was the wonderful and very funny Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; on episode two we had two basketball players, Rick Fox and John Salley.  What does that say about drag and popular culture, to have two straight athletes judge a drag-queen show?



One of the contestants this season uses a man’s name for a drag name: Chad Michaels.  One of the contestants is a skinny queen with a “meth look,” with the piquant name of Sharon Needles.  We have Latrice Royale, a gigantic (and very nice) black man who’s been in prison.  We have Madame LaQueer, and you really have to be a gay man over fifty to understand how the reclamation of the word “queer” has been refreshing.  Ten years ago I had trouble listening to younger gay men use the word “queer”; now I think it’s wonderful.



A friend has told me that he doesn’t know if he likes this season yet or not.  Too early to tell, I told him.  But you know what else?  The winner of Season One, the very beautiful Bebe Zahara Benet, won $20,000.  This season’s winner will take home $100,000. 



Does the increase in the prize money tell you anything?



RuPaul is, in his very sneaky way, doing two things at once.  He is exploring drag and its relationship with popular culture; he is also creating a funny messy all-over-the-place reality show that anyone can watch, and that people (and sponsors!) are paying attention to.



And, ladies and gentlemen, that takes a lot of brains and skill.



And now it’s time to lip sync for your life!


Television preview: “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” season four


I am in withdrawal right now: RuPaul is on hiatus until next month, when Drag Race resumes.



RuPaul’s shows are delicious, and funny, and entertaining, and enlightening, and I will tell you why.



Drag, for some, is just peculiarity: people dressing up, outrageously; men dressing as women, women as men, et cetera.



But it is so much more.



As we have seen on past seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, there are lots of reasons to dress in drag.  Here are some:



        As entertainers.  Why not?  Lots of Drag Race contenders have been drag entertainers.  That’s often how they pay the bills.  Take Manila Luzon, naturally funny, naturally entertaining.

        As a political statementStacy Layne Matthews, a plus-size contestant from the American South a season or so ago, is an example.  She was great – funny, engaging – but she was mostly there because she was a) black; b) Southern; c) heavy; d) young; and e) generally unaffected by the tidal wave of pro/con gay / Southern / body-conscious opinion in California and New York.   I liked her a lot, especially her chutzpah, and the fact that she was working against a lot of deeply-felt feelings and prejudices.

        As a statement about gender.  I liked Nina Flowers so much: this funny charming queen was also a stocky muscular tattooed little man.

        As a career / personal statement.  Take first-season winner Bebe Zahara Benet.  She was absolutely perfect – lovely, very self-possessed – and I was rooting for her, and I loved that a Cameroonian won the competition. But she’s a model: she dresses, and poses, and looks perfect for the camera.  Personality-wise, she is less than thrilling. I like her, but I do not find her stimulating. 



Is any of this important?



Not really.



Bring on the new season!



(You can see the new competitors here.  Take a look.  I have.  I already know who I like.  We’ll just have to see what happens.)



Can I get a Ru-ha?



Sunday blog: “Cover Girl” by RuPaul


We are in the sad season of the year between the conclusion of “RuPaul’s Drag U.” and the reprise of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” 



I am a little in the dumps. 



But this song perks me up right away!



Cover girl, put the face in your walk /

Head to toe, let your whole body talk . . .



RuPaul_-_Cover_Girl.mp3 Listen on Posterous




I’ll take the low art, and you’ll take the high art



The Bravo Network had a new show this season called “Work of Art.” Its format is the same as that of “Top Chef,” and “Project Runway,” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” for that matter: get a bunch of aspiring cooks / designers / drag queens / artists, throw them in a room, give them a box of crayons and a Taiwanese newspaper, tell them to create something interesting, and then allow a group of “experts” to evaluate the results. (Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of these “experts” before; you’re just asked to assume that they’re well-known in their fields. I grew up in the era when Marcus Welby was thought to be a real doctor, so I can go along with the gag.)


Jerry Saltz, one of the “Work of Art” judges, recently wrote an interesting piece in New York about his participation in the show. This evoked a blizzard of commentary from the readership – much of it revolving around two issues:


  • Art is much too important to be the subject of a competition.

  • Anything created in the context of a reality TV show can’t be good art anyway.


(Some readers also thought that, as an art critic, Saltz was also somehow subverting the creative process. Well, subversion of the creative process is just what critics do. I should know.)


Let’s take those two big points one at a time.


Competition. This is sort of a condition of life, I think. Artists, like the rest of us, compete all the time – for attention, for an audience, for money. Most artists make little secret of it. Beethoven wrote amazingly awful dreck because he needed money. Philip Dick wrote novel after novel at top speed, also for cash. Andy Warhol did magazine illustrations. The Italian Renaissance painters were intensely aware (and envious) of one another’s work and success. Bach and his contemporaries challenged one another to, ahem, organ competitions, and fought and begged for patronage. Picasso said smugly to Gertrude Stein: “I will paint you one apple and it will be as fine as all of Cezanne’s apples.”


Sounds like competition to me.


So much for that.


Low art” isn’t “art” at all. This is the root of pretty much every bit of snobbery in the Art World, even back when I was a schoolchild back in Ur of the Chaldees. In “The Red Shoes,” the dictatorial impresario Lermontov famously declares of ballet that “For me, it is a religion.”


Hats off to Monsieur Lermontov, but not everyone subscribes to his religion. Sometimes, dancing is just dancing.


This “low art = no art” fallacy takes many forms. When the Harry Potter books were coming out, people were alternately praising J. K. Rowling for getting kids to read, and worrying loudly that kids weren’t reading “the right thing.” What is the right thing to read? “The Joy of Cooking”? “Crime and Punishment”? “Guns & Ammo”?


Another fallacy, more central to this discussion: you can’t really produce anything memorable using a “low” medium like comic books, or TV, or graffiti, or reality TV. This is the main point of many of the critics of “Work of Art.” It’s a reality show, and nothing good – nothing worthwhile – can come from a reality show.


Nonsense, nonsense. There’s beauty and meaning to be found everywhere, loads and loads of it. And artists and cooks and drag queens and designers are working like gangbusters to create something new and worthwhile and unique.


And if it makes money and makes some poor zhlub on a cable show successful for a few minutes: fab-u-lous.


Those who disagree can go read “Crime and Punishment” or “Guns & Ammo,” or build a plinth in the backyard, or do a watercolor of the First Cuckoo of Spring, or whatever it is they consider to be a serious use of their valuable time.


I, in the meantime, will be watching RuPaul.


Because, as Ru says so pithily: Girlfriend, if you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?



%d bloggers like this: