Water, Water Everywhere

We were supposed to turn into the Strait of Magellan (following the red line on the map), but instead we went around the tip of Argentina to Ushuaia.

We were supposed to turn into the Strait of Magellan (following the red line on the map), but instead we went around the tip of Argentina to Ushuaia.



Sailing south of Puerto Madryn, we were supposed to turn into the Strait of Magellan for a day of scenic cruising and then dock in Punto Arenas, in Chile.  But high waves and gale-force winds compelled the captain to deliver the bad news that the ship couldn’t turn into the strait without tipping over.  So instead of two days of sightseeing, we got two days of riding the open ocean—and what a ride that was.

Even before the captain’s announcement, we’d already had our taste of rough seas; one night, the ship rocked from side to side so badly that I lay in bed, in near-total darkness, trying to remind myself that this kind of rocking was likely nothing worse than what most sea travelers endured, and not the coming of the next Poseidon Adventure.  But even that didn’t prepare me for the two-day ride in store for us.  I felt I was riding on a carousel horse, or a slow-moving kiddie roller coaster, except that this was no two-minute amusement park ride.

Even so, the scene from the ship’s outside decks – once they opened the outside decks to the passengers, that is – offered a constantly-shifting landscape of striking images.  The play of waves and clouds, of sun and shadow, supplied its own drama.  I can only imagine what the first seafarers , those explorers who navigated these waters in much cruder vessels than the one I was standing in, must have imagined when they first contended with these cold, harsh, dangerous waves, the wind gusting ceaselessly into their faces.   As for me, the worst I had to contend with was the boredom – and the drained swimming pool.


I took this picture off our balcony shortly after the captain's announcement.  With the wind and the ship's rocking, I was too scared to get close to the railing to snap the picture.

I took this picture off our balcony shortly after the captain’s announcement. With the wind and the ship’s rocking, I was too scared to get close to the railing to snap the picture.

I took this picture after the captain deemed the outside decks safe for passengers.  The sky, the clouds, and the waves made for ever-changing scenery.

I took this picture after the captain deemed the outside decks safe for passengers. By then, we’d been on the open ocean for three straight days.

I took this picture only a couple of minutes after the picture above.  The waves, clouds, and sun made for ever-changing scenery.

I took this picture only a couple of minutes after the picture above. The waves, the sky, and the wind made for ever-changing scenery.

One of my favorite sea pictures, in which everything seemed to turn black and white.  The sea foam seemed frozen onto the wrinkled surface of the water.

One of my favorite sea pictures, in which everything seemed to turn black and white. The sea foam seemed frozen onto the wrinkled surface of the water.

The bird in the upper right is not a gull, but one of the many giant petrels that followed our ship.

The bird in the upper right is not a gull, but one of the many giant petrels that followed our ship.

A group of Cape petrels riding the waves, many miles from shore. There's a flying Cape petrel to the right.

A group of Cape petrels riding the waves, many miles from shore. There’s a flying Cape petrel to the right.








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For The Love Of Penguins

Two days later our ship docked early on a cold and windy morning in Puerto Madryn, Argentina, about 825 miles (1,330 kilometers) southeast of Buenos Aires.  From there we took a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride across the empty Patagonian plains to one of our most anticipated destinations of the trip:  Punta Tombo, a nature reserve where tens of thousands of Magellanic penguins make their homes in the spring.

I’d seen penguins in their natural habitat two years earlier, on a trip to southern Africa, and I couldn’t wait to see them this time around.  I used to love watching them do laps at the New England Aquarium in Boston, but to walk among them in their natural habitat is to see them for the wild birds that they actually are, not some cute animated figure on a Hollywood movie poster, or a Santa-hat-wearing mascot on a glitter-spangled Christmas card.  On the bus ride to the colony our guide had joked that Magellanic penguins swam to Brazil in the winter “to do the samba,” and in that phrase, I think, she captured why the penguins have such appeal.  I can hardly imagine a pigeon or a seagull doing the samba.

African penguins testing the water near the Cape of Good Hope (Sept. 2010). Watching them only whetted my appetite to see penguins again in the wild.

When we got to Punta Tombo, I must admit, I was disappointed.  I was expecting to see thousands of them crowded on a beach, like the hordes of penguins in the famous Gary Larson cartoon in which a single penguin in the crowd sings “I gotta be me.”  But it wasn’t like that.  I needed a couple of minutes to spot my first penguin, then another, and then another, until I looked around and realized the colony stretched for miles.  The landscape reminded me of a U2 album cover:  black-and-white birds, about a foot-and-a-half tall, artistically spaced apart from each other on the scrubby, sandy, wind-lashed terrain.  The penguins certainly acted like rock stars while we were there, seeming very much accustomed, and not at all concerned, about the human beings walking along the pathway, looking, pointing, leaning in as close as possible to snap one picture after the other.

Our penguin visit lasted all of forty-five minutes.  We were given strict orders to return to the bus in order not to miss the ship. While we walked through Punta Tombo, trying to take as many pictures as we could, the cold wind sliced through us.  And right before we were due to leave, a chilly rain began to fall.  I had just traveled thousands of miles, first on a plane and then on a ship and then on a bus, to get forty-five measly minutes hiking around a bunch of birds who frankly couldn’t care less that I existed.  Would I do it all over again?  Oh, God yes.

Penguins at Punta Tombo: more U2 album cover than Gary Larson.

Penguin striking a pose. Like the celebrities they are, they seemed quite used to the constant snapping of cameras.

Penguin hanging out in his nest under a thistle bush. Many penguins make their ground nests under these bushes to protect their eggs and chicks from predatory seagulls.

Penguins guarding the castle.


Penguin charging the paparazzi.

Penguin chillaxin’ on the wooden path that snakes through Punta Tombo. Signs along the path warned us to cede the right of way to the “pinguinos.”

Penguin eggs. The fact that I could see them made me nervous for their safety.


The stark, forbidding, altogether beautiful landscape, especially under the lowering clouds, was itself worth the trip.


I managed to snap this photo right before I had to get back on the bus. (It had just begun to rain.) Looking at this picture now reminds me how sad I was to leave Punta Tombo.


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Kitchen Secrets

Thanksgiving at sea. The cooking — and cleanup — occurred well out of our view.

One of the many illusions — perhaps the biggest illusion — that a cruise offers is the constantly available food.  We’d wake up in the morning, walk up a short flight of stairs, and there the food was waiting for us, ready to be put on our plates by smiling servers.  And so it went all day.  I don’t think our species can get any further away from its hunter-gatherer roots than a couple of weeks on a cruise ship.

For the first couple of days at sea I tried to dupe myself into the notion that the meals I was being served was something out of Hogwarts, that there was some Albus Dumbledore in the main dining room to clap his hands for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, not to mention the desserts, from opera cake to Baked Alaska to Poire Belle Hélène,  to magically appear.  To cure myself of this, I eagerly stood in line to take a tour of the ship’s spotless kitchen, a large, windowless, clinical-looking space that snaked a path next to the main dining room on the seventh deck.  And here I saw first-hand the tremendous effort put in by the ship’s staff to bring the plates to our table.  The place seemed to operate like a Swiss watch: every meal, every garnish, every glass and fork and spoon, seemed broken down to its tiniest component.  If you ever find yourself on a cruise ship, then a tour of the kitchen is an absolute must — a feat of human ingenuity to create the most unnatural human eating environment.

Meals under construction.

Chocolate Eiffel Towers, also under construction.


Hobart mixer, presumably to help process some of the 2,700 lbs. of butter and margarine, 1,300 lbs. of sugar, and 2,900 lbs. of flour that the ship estimated was consumed each week.

Detail from a poster providing a visual aid for every meal served on the ship.

Flowers and shakers waiting to be used for stateroom service. Yes, the flowers are real.

The finished product (opera cake). I still find it hard to imagne how the staff made every single dish look like this one.







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Much of the architecture in Montevideo made me think of Europe.

A night of sailing down the Rio de la Plata brought us to our first port of call, the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo.  The morning was as bright and as placid as the sun that adorns the Uruguayan national flag.  Until that morning, Montevideo meant not much more to me than as the answer to an eighth-grade Spanish test.  So I disembarked with no expectations of the city, no idea of what I might see.  And what I saw was a congenial port city of over a million people (in a country of roughly three million):  tree-lined streets and plazas, beautiful old buildings, and the high doors and tall shutters of homes I usually associate with those in Rome or Paris.

I walked around Montevideo that morning with the same attitude as I had when I walked around La Recoleta three days earlier.  I’d never learned Uruguayan history or culture at school, and I didn’t have time to study Uruguayan history or culture for my one-day stopover.  So I figured I’d have more fun to guess about the city — how it got here, who lived here, what stories might be hiding behind its doors and shutters — than to know for sure.  So at the Plaza Independencia I relied on my imagination to fill out the biography of the man whose colossal horseman statue dominated the center of the plaza, even though I was fairly certain that the guy probably had his own Wikipedia entry.

But now that I’m home, after doing a little research for this blog post, I kind of regret not knowing one indelible piece of Montevideo history — particularly as it relates to “La Cumparsita,” the iconic tango.  (If the title seems unfamiliar, it’s the song most people think of when they think “tango.”) La Cumparsita, I later learned was composed at the site of one of Montevideo’s most striking buildings, the Palacio Salvo, which rises prominently in one corner of the Plaza Independencia.  To think that I’d stood near the spot where one of the most recognizable songs int the world — a song so famous that it’s practially woven into human consciousness, a musical Mona Lisa or Hamlet — had been written!  And in a place that not a week before I scarcely knew existed!  I was more connected to this strange place than I realized.

Even more than architecture, what struck me most about Montevideo was the art — not only the vivid murals that covered many of the outside walls of the buildings, but also the art for sale at the galleries in the city’s Ciudad Vieja.  Of these, our favorite was the Acatrás Del Mercado, and of the many artists represented in that shop, our favorite turned out to be the Montevideo-born Alvaro Bonilla, whose depictions of freighter ships seemed to have — to me, at least — a haunting, almost human dignity.


Keeping an eye on Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja.


Sign advertising “chivitos,” a steak-ham-cheese-egg sandwich that’s a Uruguayan national dish. I didn’t think I had the guts — either literally or figuratively — to try one.


Artigas among the air conditioners, Plaza Independencia, Montevideo. I wondered about the people who used those air conditioners almost as much as I wondered about the man on the horse.

The skyline-defining Palacio Salvo, Montevideo. One of the world’s most famous tangos was composed at a café where this building now stands.

“Crazy monkey” art, Montevideo.

Bookstore, Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo.

Leaving Montevideo. The Palacio Salvo is at center right.


Thanks to its national flag, the sun shines every day on Uruguay. And thanks to a street vendor selling flags, the sun shines every day in our basement.

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Buenos Aires On Foot

The entrance to the  San Telmo market. Booths lined the street outside the market for several blocks.

Our time in Buenos Aires was unluckily short:  we got there on a Sunday, and left on the ship on Tuesday.  But we did have the good luck to get there in time for Sunday’s bustling, carnival-like San Telmo flea market, where amid browsing through the many booths and shops, I got my first glimpse of tango dancers and watched a young blonde woman do a funky, sexy rendition of “The Barber of Seville” on her electric violin.

At the Recoleta cemetery, we ran into an American couple who enthusiastically advised us to take the subway, but with the weather so pleasant and our time so short in Buenos Aires, we decided to keep ourselves above ground.  Below are some of my favorite pictures from our urban hikes.

Near our own hotel was a much fancier hotel, where a new bride had just climbed into this carriage, waiting for her husband. The horses seemed considerably less blithe than she did.

A sure sign I was in another hemisphere — a flowering jacaranda tree in the middle of November. In my hometown of Oakland, the jacarandas are in full flower in June.

The Argentine national guard marching toward the Presidential Palace.

The main entrance to the Casa Rosada, or presidential palace. I can only imagine what it must have been like to stand in front of this building, amid throngs of other onlookers, to watch Eva Peron make one of her famous addresses from the balcony.

Leaving Buenos Aires.

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The End As The Beginning

I’m so glad to be back home after a fun, interesting, and badly-needed vacation to South America.  Dan and I flew to Buenos Aires on Sunday, Nov. 17, and spent two nights there.  Then we got on a cruise ship that took us down the coast of Argentina, around Cape Horn, and up the Chilean coast to Valparaíso.  We got home, very badly jet-lagged, on Tuesday, Dec. 4.  I’ll probably be spending the rest of my life sorting through my thoughts (and pictures) from the trip, but I thought I’d share a few highlights over the next few days.

View of La Recoleta from our hotel balcony

We had the good fortune to stay at a hotel right next to one of Buenos Aires’s top landmarks, La Recoleta cemetery, where Argentina’s most famous resident, Eva Perón, is buried.  Upon entering the cemetery we were given a map as well as directions on how to find her family’s mausoleum, but they weren’t necessary:  all we had to do was follow the other tourists who were heading over to her to pay homage.  Evita may have died 60 years ago this July, but considering the number of picture-taking people who had crowded outside her family’s mausoleum, and the number of fresh flowers wedged into the crypt’s door, as well as the commemorative plaques affixed to the front of the crypt, she might as well have died last week.  I felt very much like a tourist as I took my pictures:  all I know of Evita is that she inspired a Broadway musical that inspired a Hollywood movie starring another influential 20th-century icon.  I’ve never seen the musical or movie.  I knew even less — oh, all right, let’s say, nothing at all — of the many other famous Argentines housed in the cemetery’s crypts.  And yet, for me, the not-knowing only added to the place’s sense of mystery.  I couldn’t help walking down the rows of mausoleums and thinking that inside each one, a family history resided.  Who were these people?  How did they get here?  It seemed more fun to guess than to know.

Flowers for Evita. As mausoleums go, hers struck me as modest compared to some of the others I saw.  She also doesn’t hve the greatest real estate — the mausoleum seemed crammed into one of the side paths.


Weather-beaten, stone-carved angels made for a dramatic skyline.


My favorite expression of grief in the cemetery:  “My heart and my eternal pledge.”


A “street” of mausoleums.

One of the more creative mausoleums. The statue seemed almost like a ghost to me.

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After The Sweep

The election already seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?  All that worrying over whether voters would deny same-sex marriage rights in the states of Maine and Maryland and Washington?  When I was writing last week’s blog, I told myself, but didn’t dare say out loud, that I’d be satisfied if pro-marriage equality won in Maine, thrilled if Washington followed suit.  As for Maryland, where the polls seemed evenly divided, and Minnesota, where voters faced the question of enshrining discrimination in their constitution, as voters in thirty-one other states had done before it, I had assumed that the other side’s coded homophobia would ultimately win out.  A clean sweep seemed so fanciful, so unlikely — I couldn’t allow myself to hope for it.  And so let me extend my most heartfelt apologies to the good people of Maryland and Minnesota:  I underestimated their commitment to equality, their desire to be on the right side of history.

How could I have been so wrong?  Most likely, I had gotten discouraged from reading about Frank Schubert, the über-bigot who spearheaded the passage of Prop 8 in California in 2008 and was helping orchestrate the anti-marriage campaign in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington this year.  Last month, he told the New York Times that “no doubt we have a challenge.  That said, at 32-0” — referring to the number of wins his cause had racked up so far — “I still like my chances.”

Well, how do you like your chances now, Frank?  Will you still be able to raise untold gobs of money for your despicable cause when people from different corners of the country voted decisively last week for marriage equality?  And then there’s Brian S. Brown, the president of the anti-equality National Organization of Marriage, who lamented in a statement issued immediately after the election that despite raising a record $5.5 million, they’d been heavily outspent by wide margins in all the states — deep blue states, as Brown pointed out.  Now what, Brian?   “Even though we fought valiantly,” the NOM wrote on its blog, “none of us accept losing. I promise you we will be chewing through the data, re-evaluating what worked and what didn’t, and figuring out and sharing with you how to forge new pathways to new victories.” Good luck with that, assholes.  Just remember: you can’t brag about your unblemished winning streak anymore.

But for me, less than a week after the election, I still feel restless, unsatisfied.  That’s the thing about success for me — once I get a taste of it, I want more and then still more.  Marriage is available to Americans in only nine states, when it should be available in all 50.  As much as I’d love to take part in the drive to bring marriage equality back to California, I’d much rather see Prop 8 get overturned in the U.S. Supreme Court, since, after all, as same-sex advocate Adam Umhoefer told the Times’s Adam Liptak, “Fundamental constitutional rights like marriage should never be subjected to a popular vote.” On the other hand, the NOM’s Brian Brown told Liptak that he thought the election results showed that the court wouldn’t take up gay marriage this year.  “It bolsters our case,” he told Liptak. “It’s very difficult to say you need a federal resolution of this question if states are resolving it for themselves.”

Poor Brian Brown.  If the Supreme Court declares same-sex marriage constitutional next year, how will he earn his bread, raising millions to defend the indefensible in a grueling, state-by-state battle of attrition in which he and his fellow homophobes will ultimately turn up losers?  Well, in the meantime, let’s all raise a glass to the four states who voted for equality on Nov. 6, 2012 — a date that I hope will go down in history as the beginning of the end of the anti-gay marriage movement.

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Four More Years

It’s been four years since I woke up on the Wednesday after Election Day, 2008, to learn that California voters had approved a consitutional amendment to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples.  I remember how hollowed-out I felt on that day and the days that followed, and even now I still can’t believe it.  When Dan and I got married, at the top of the grand staircase of San Francisco City Hall in August of that year, I remember how joyful I felt, and how lucky I felt to be living in a state that allowed such marriages.  I thought of the generations of gay people who came before me — generations who probably would never dream of exchanging vows in public.  And there I was, standing in the middle of City Hall, getting married to a dude!  This was progress! Or so I’d thought.

So when the marriage ban passed, I wanted revenge.  I wanted voters to overturn the law in 2010; I wanted them to do the same this year, in 2012.  Four dreary years have passed in California with the stain of bigotry still blotting the constitution — I know the fight continues in the courts, but I’m tired of waiting for the judges.  I want our rights back; I want them now.

This year, the signs look promising in other parts of the country.  Will this be the year that voters approve statewide marriage equality?  And, if so, which state will it be?  Will it be Maine, where a recent poll shows that a vote to allow same-sex couples to be married enjoys a 13-point lead over opponents?  Will it be Washington, where marriage-equality opponents have mounted a fierce propaganda campaign, prompting the Seattle Times to note in a recent editorial that the opposition’s “canned arguments against Referendum 74 have long passed their pull dates”?  Will it be Maryland, where supporters of marriage equality are running neck-and-neck with opponents? I’d be ecstatic if we got all three, but even Maine and Washington would be good — equality marching in from both coasts.  I’d also be happy if voters in Minnesota reject the gay-marriage ban currently on their ballot; gay rights supporters face a tough battle there.

Though I can’t vote for marriage equality in my own state this year, at least I’ll be voting for the presidential candidate who had the guts to speak out in favor of it in May:  Barack Obama.  I wish he’d been there to support us in 2008 when we needed him, but, hey, better late than never.  (And his opponent? Please.  He’s the guy who signed a pledge to support anti-marriage equality efforts.  The guy who needs the votes of anti-gay bigots in order to get elected.  You might want to consider that if you support both Mitt Romney and marriage equality.)  I have to admit I have professional reasons as well as personal reasons to want gay people to have the choice to marry.  It’ll open up so many possibilities for fiction.    My favorite books — “Anna Karenina,” “The Scarlet Letter,” “Twelfth Night,” “The Custom of the Country” — have all revolved around marriages (and divorces).  In fiction, the stakes seem always to go up that much higher when a marriage is involved.    Is a gay “Custom of the Country” possible?  Not while marriage is barred from us.

So vote, you good people of Maine and Washington and Maryland!  I’ve got books to write!  Besides, voting for marriage equality is the right thing to do.  And if you’re considering voting against marriage equality even though “some of your best friends are gay,” please don’t kid yourself:  a vote against marriage equality is discrimination, pure and simple.  And don’t give me any horseshit about how domestic partnership is the same as marriage.  I’ve been domestically partnered, and I’ve been married, and I know:  domestic partnership isn’t marriage.  Only marriage is marriage.  And we all have the right to choose it.


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Sex, Art, & Film

As I was saying last week, I’ve learned that for reading from your work at an open mike, it’s important to put yourself out there.  So last Wednesday, at the Magnet event in the Castro, I stepped to the mike and read a passage that included the following gay love-scene passage.  (Warning:  it’s tame by Internet standards, but it’s still adult content.)

He took Peter by the shoulders and nudged him onto the mattress

I once made the mistake of reading a “tame” scene in front of the Smack Dab audience, and I could practically hear the crickets by the time I was done.  This time, I was determined not to repeat the same mistake.

The artwork Peter sees on the wall of his lover’s bedroom in the passage is Andy Warhol’s 1982 painting Querelle, which you can view and read about here.  I suspect this movie poster has been adorning the bedroom walls of many a gay bachelor pad for the past thirty years.  The blue-painted version of this movie poster is the poster I envisioned Peter looking at as I wrote this scene.

The Grifters (1990).

All that said, You Are Here doesn’t have that many sex scenes.  I got my general philosophy toward sex scenes from none other than my own mother about twenty years ago.  We had just watched on videocassette one of my favorite movies of all time, Stephen Frears’s 1990 noir masterpiece The Grifters, and after the movie was over, my mother commented that the filmmakers had done the sex scenes right — that is, they showed enough sex to let her understand what was going on, but not so much sex that she got embarrassed or uncomfortable.  I’m pretty sure she forgot ever saying that, but I didn’t.  And I think her advice holds true for “Querelle.”  Warhol used bold colors — particularly the red-painted tongue — to heighten the eroticism of the two young men in the picture, but in no way that feels offensive.  This is the kind of art I aspire to — art done right.

One final note:  so as not to give the story away, I changed the name of Peter’s lover in the audio clip to “the man.”

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Smack Dab

Last Wednesday night, on a night so unseasonably warm that I drank a cold lemonade at an outside café beforehand, I took a turn reading aloud from my work at Smack Dab, the open mike hosted by the inimitable Larry-bob Roberts and Kirk Read and held at Magnet, the Castro-based health clinic.

Unseasonably warm in San Francisco, third Wednesday in October, 2012.


I owe both Larry and Kirk a large debt for selflessly hosting Smack Dab, which takes place on the third Wednesday of every month and is open to anyone who has a poem, story, or song to share with the public.  Best of all, the event is totally free.  The space, the mike, and Larry-bob and Kirk’s banter to open the show, all of it costs nothing to both readers and listeners.  Kirk explained to me in an e-mail that he and Larry-bob started the show in 2003  because there were no ongoing performance events in the Castro at the time, and that he and Larry-b0b wanted to create an event “that was free and didn’t happen in a bar.” (On top of their hosting duties, Larry-bob and Kirk are also published authors:  How I Learned to Snap (Kirk) and The International Homosexual Conspiracy (Larry-bob).  I think they’ve got day jobs too.)

As I’ve written before, my one big regret when I published The Love Thing is that I never read aloud any tricky passages to a live audience beforehand.  I learned of Smack Dab only several months after publishing The Love Thing — too late for me to practice any drafts before a live audience.  But for You Are Here, I was ready.  In the months leading up to publication, I made the journey to the Castro and read the attack scene from Chapter One, the ‘curse’ scene from Chapter Five, the plead-for-life scene from Chapter Nine.  Larry and Kirk are nice guys, but they really don’t want you reading longer than five minutes, and so I practiced reading my passages at home, repeating the words aloud again and again, to make sure I could read the sentences out smoothly, without wanting to cringe or laugh out loud, within that time limit.  If I could read the toughest passages with a straight face in front of that crowd, I figured, then I’d have no trouble sending the book to print.

What still surprises me is that for all the experience I’ve gained by reading at Smack Dab, I still haven’t quite mastered the dread I feel in the hours leading up to those five vulnerable minutes in front of that mike.   My mouth still gets bone-dry when those five minutes are over.  But, on the other hand, my hands don’t shake when I hold the book in my hand, and I more or less have learned to keep my voice steady. I’ve also learned the trick of speaking directly into the mike — if you don’t, no one hears you.  That said, I still don’t like standing near the mike, which feels too much like an intrusive stranger.  By now, I’ve learned that reading at an open mike lays bare the fear that all writers face when they expose their work to the public — and the courage they must summon if they want to be heard.  And I’ve witnessed that courage, that naked honesty, in many of the other writers who’ve stepped up to that mike.

So, how did I do last Wednesday?  What, exactly, did I speak into the mike for thirty or so people to hear?  That’s a topic for another blog post.



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