Him: [after telling worldly and perfectly charming traveling story] Have you ever been to Europe?
Me: No, but once I saw a newborn baby with a full head of hair.
Him: [after telling worldly and perfectly charming traveling story] Have you ever been to Europe?
Me: No, but once I saw a newborn baby with a full head of hair.
I wrote a thing about not knowing how to deal with things.
The One with the Cancer
A few weeks ago, New York Magazine published a delightfully thorough article entitled “Why Are 23.4 Million People Watching The Big Bang Theory?” In it, writer Adam K. Raymond provides a formulaic deconstruction behind the country’s most popular sitcom, analyzing it based on characteristics ranging from Time Slot to Apartment Setting—the latter giving the show what former Seinfeld producer and writer Peter Mehlman describes as a “French farce feel.” The apartment is crucial, serving the double purpose of inciting future plot points as well as comforting viewers of the plausibility of characters popping in and out. I am no stranger to this “French farce feel.” As a gay man and a writer, I exaggerate. As a burlesque performer, I occasionally visit the realm of the extravagant. And as a 22-year-old student in a creative field, I am what people 23 and older call “absurd and foolish,” or as my brother might put it colloquially: a dumbass. Not to beleaguer the point, I know this “French farce feel” because I live it, breathe it, and, when I’m dancing on stage in metallic gold briefs with “K-I-S-S” bedazzled on the rear as part of a burlesque performance and fail to realize that there is blood trickling down my right knee from an injury I incurred from falling a little too passionately to the floor during an impromptu air guitar solo halfway through Prince’s “Kiss,” for instance, I feel it (or, technically, don’t feel it), too. In moments such as these, I also have trouble with plausibility. Instead of handling a situation appropriately, by, say, seeking immediate medical help, I surrender to the surreal, often verging on sociopathic behavior, but, like, you know, in a fun, hilarious way. Typically, I tend to resort to some version of the same coping strategy in times of great times of crisis: Laugh it off. Wipe off the blood. Keep on dancing.
By methodically providing categorical insights as to what makes The Big Bang Theory such a remarkable success, Raymond meticulously answers the question on many-a-producer’s mind: What makes a television show a hit? This is a subject my family has spent decades pondering. When it comes to television, we are somewhat of amateur scientists, all-in-all bona fide work-a-holics. For example, when our satellite dish quit on us a few months ago, I listened to my mother yell a particularly profound line at a phone representative in her pithy, Hispanic accent: “We don’t have no TV! We don’t have no nothing!” Not to underestimate the extent to which my mother’s maternal guidance shaped my current self, a substantial chunk of what I learned about the world came from the tiny people living in my television. I harbor no ill will toward her whatsoever. Aside from her work in protecting our cable, she is also a single mother who spent most of my adolescence working the 3 a.m. shift at the airport Starbucks hawking scones to flight attendants on the run. She was busy. There wasn’t exactly a childcare budget. Hell, there was barely a child budget. When my mom said, “We don’t have no nothing!” she wasn’t lying. Suffice to say, I spent a lot of time planted in front of the television and grew up with a patchwork of values strung together from Malcom in the Middle re-runs and episodes of America’s Next Top Model. From these I took “Don’t be poor, but if you have to be, at least have good eyebrows.” So, when Arthur, my best friend since the 8th grade, told me he had cancer mid last year, I wasn’t exactly sure how to apply this lesson to the situation.
Raymond’s article is very cut and dry. By no means does it make any attempt to instruct readers how to live their lives. Even less should its data be applied retroactively to the behavior you exhibited when your best friend told you he had Thyroid cancer. However, like many other young people in a world where television is ubiquitous and childcare is not, I was raised by wholesome Anglo sitcom families and fiercely emotional reality TV contestants. I am not generation X or Y. I am generation TV, and we welcome the young, old, downtrodden, and chronically poor all alike. Here is a typical generation TV narrative: I remember watching an episode of Sex and the City as a 15-year-old professional blank slate and learning for the first time, “Oh, so sex doesn’t have to come with hang ups! Also, I guess I’m gay,” then finishing up my Algebra homework before marching off to bed. That day I learned about autonomy and, more importantly, that I’m a Miranda. As a consequence, most of what I know about human behavior came from the box in my living room. Taking this into consideration, is it really that far of a stretch to assume that the building blocks that make The Big Bang Theory the most popular sitcom at the moment might have something to do with who I am today? The characters that populate the series, the beliefs they spout, their senses of humor, their relationships to one another, what they eat, drink, wear: While not completely responsible for my perception of the world, they are immense contributors to the overall zeitgeist and, so, even if only on a micro level, it is my belief that the show has played a part in the shaping of my own, tiny, not totally but mostly insignificant spirit, in a roundabout way, like, launching-a- boomerang-into-orbit round. This is why I felt betrayed when last year, on a Tuesday afternoon, I received a phone call from my best friend telling me that the doctors had informed him that the lump in his throat turned out to be something much more serious than we’d imagined. Already, there is so much wrong with this.
For one, the timing’s completely off. According to Raymond’s article, Americans all over the country tune in Thursdays at 8 p.m. for a laugh. This is how it has always been since The Cosby Show’s premiere in 1984. Accordingly, it is one of myriad reasons why The Big Bang Theory, which airs at the same dependable time slot, is such a colossal triumph. But in daylight, on a Tuesday no less, I was wholly unprepared by my reaction to Arthur’s news. When your best friend tells you he has cancer lodged in his throat, you might find yourself sobbing in line at Starbucks. You might walk in circles in the rain asking yourself the same questions, usually no more than one word and typically reverting to the tools of information-gathering you picked up when you were 11 years old to answer questions about Charlotte’s Webb: Who? What? When? Where? Why? Are you kidding? Why? You might ride off into the Kalahari with a knapsack overflowing with gold tied to the back of your steed. You will definitely, without fail, learn a valuable lesson about yourself. This is what my television had taught me, anyway, and it makes sense. Bad news always leads to tears, right? They have to, because without tears, there is no opportunity for redemption, and without redemption, say goodbye to a neat happy ending. One would expect that if since 1984 the country has been socially conditioned to laugh at 8 p.m. on Thursday night, then Tuesday at 2 is when we all collectively gather and… what? Precisely. Tuesday at 2 is a crap time to get this news. It means nothing. No one gathers data for Tuesday at 2. Tuesday at 2 doesn’t come with any predetermined emotions. There is no schedule to follow, rules to adhere to. Tuesday at 2 is soap operas and Maury, meaning I can either fall into a long coma or get into a fistfight with my trashy cousin twice removed, neither of which seem like appropriate responses to your best friend telling you he has cancer. Or I can ask follow-ups.
This is how I find out that you don’t just outright tell someone they’re sick anymore. That would be too straightforward. Besides, why do so when you have the opportunity to milk the news out over an entire season? We are a people of extreme caution. This is different than the fear of tall grasses and certain crawling beasts our ancestors carried. We will hesitate to tell a neighbor their zipper is down unless their cock and balls are out. Even so, we’d be iffy about saying anything unless the trio sprouted a mouth and called us fags for staring. So it wasn’t that Arthur had cancer, he told me after further questioning, rather that he had tests. Here’s his character arc. We find out he might be ill—and this is television, so of course he is—but there is still hope. Despite that there’s a lump as big as a—as big as a? There’s a poetry to medicine but it does not belong in fruit analogies. There is still hope. There are still tests, and tests before those tests: prerequisites to x-rays, an entry exam for a biopsy. These are tests you cannot study for but nevertheless you must take excruciating measures to prepare in advance. Some things you know to do because you are told to do them: do not eat for twenty-four hours before this; avoid alcohol for seventy-two hours before that; when we maneuver this needle down your throat, it is imperative that you do not swallow, move, attempt to speak, or contemplate theories on the final episode of Lost because you will inevitably swallow, move, and attempt to speak. Other things you can pick up from any episode of Grey’s Anatomy: you should invest in cashmere grandfather cardigans early; you will wake up one morning and discover that you own a Scrunchie for every day of the week; here’s some good news: suddenly you are great at baking. So on that Tuesday at 2 p.m. I am let down by television for the first time. It has taught me how I should handle placing second on American Idol—with grace and poise, while hugging the winner a little too snug. But cancer? I know what I’m supposed to do if my lover or I have it—Bake. Bake every minute of every day. Bake an absurd amount of pastries of all assortments and varieties. Pastries that require a level of culinary expertise that rivals Julia Child. Bake such an obscene amount that all parties involved are so unanimously disgusted that the cancer aborts ship for a less gross host. Bake till all hell and all cancer breaks loose—but when you’re just the friend, just a side character with his own side story line you are still expected to complete, I’m at a loss.
The answer to why I find myself at such an emotional stump lies in the casting. Big Bang, Raymond’s piece says, has a leg up on many other sitcoms because of its cast of comedy pros. Even breakout star Jim Parsons had a recurring role on Judging Amy before landing the part of hopelessly awkward Sheldon Cooper. I, on the other hand, am a cancer ingénue. “I understand that my friend is ill, but why would I cry? Wouldn’t that be making this about me?” I might ask my frustrated director, to which he would say: “Because you are devastated! You have just as much a right to be sad as he does! You can be both emotional and supportive!” or, “Shut up and just stand there and don’t be a nuisance!” The latter is what I ultimately do. Stand there. Work on my blocking. When Veronica thinks Cassidy killed her father after he blows up the airplane that is supposed to be carrying him in the season 2 finale of Veronica Mars, Logan is there for her when she collapses into his arms in sobs.
“Maybe they’ll replace your neck with a metal neck and you’ll be able to make it stretch and fight crime like Inspector Gadget,” I tell Arthur, doing my best Logan.
“They told me there’s a chance it’ll change my voice and I won’t be able to sing,” he says. Of course this happens to him.
“When they do the biopsy can you ask to keep the stuff they take from your throat? What if it tries to find you like the bolt in Iron Giant? And when it does it activates something in you and you find out you’re a machine sent to destroy the Earth?” I say.
“I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t sing,” he says. Of course this happens to the person that studies social work for two years before deciding to scrap it all and major in theatre.
What do you say to that? Why couldn’t this have been an arc on What I Like About You? Then I’d know what to do. I would just do whatever Amanda Bynes does and at the end of 22 minutes we’d move on from cancer to something easier, like the episode where she gets an iPod except it’s the early 2000s so they can’t call it an iPod. “Bob Dylan couldn’t really sing,” I try.
“You’re right,” he says. “I’ll just be Bob Dylan.”
Every good sitcom needs a catchphrase. Urkel had “Did I do that?” Tia and Tamera always handled their pesky, meddlesome neighbor the same way: “Go home, Roger!” Raymond attributes a portion of the show’s sensation to Sheldon’s “Bazinga!” My catchphrase during Arthur’s cancer becomes “Are you okay?” and it faithfully appears every episode. Are you okay? Are you okay, now? Were you okay when I asked you if you wanted to see a movie on a Friday night and you told me you were too tired and wanted to do your own thing that weekend? Were you okay when I forgot for just one second and asked you to help carry some of my books up a flight of stairs? Were you okay after you first told me over the phone and I hung up on you and drank four cups of coffee so that it was all I could do to sit still on the couch in my living room and pretend I was still the kind of person who could watch Friends? Except that I could. That’s the worst of it. My best friend had just told me he had cancer and I could still laugh at “The One Where Chandler Spends Thanks Giving in a Box.” Am I making this about me, again? Sorry. Are you okay? Should I do something funny? Needless to say, it’s no “Bazinga!”
He kept me updated like it was a joke. The logline to an episode of his life. There was “The One Where Arthur Took Radiation Pills.” “When I pee, I have to immediately scrub the toilet down with bleach,” he described to me once. “For three days, I’m a radioactive come dumpster.”
Jokes are important, too. And pacing. Raymond compares the successes of three popular sitcoms along with their average joke per minute ratio, with 30 Rock landing 4.6 jokes per minute and Curb Your Enthusiasm at 2.3, leaving Big Bang to fill the sweet middle spot with a score of 4.3. “Not too fast but not too slow,” Raymond says, but still, it sounds exhausting.
I tried to keep up with the laugh track to an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond as a silly experiment one night during my freshman year of college. Cultural commentator Chuck Palahniuk once wrote, rather cynically: “Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950’s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead.” As I followed the episode, laughing obediently in sync with the audience, trying to keep up with the unremitting slew of one-liners and hysterical guffaws that immediately followed, I soon found myself gasping for air, breathless in a tyrannical joke vortex, literally laughing so hard and so often that it hurt, praying that for just thirty seconds no one would make a pun and instead please sit the fuck down for a single moment of quiet reflection. After fifteen minutes, I found myself wondering if it’s not only the people on the tracks, but the audiences that are expected to laugh in real time that are dead as well. If sitcoms are setting the standard for what’s funny, and something funny is expected to occur between 2.3 and 4.6 times a minute, is it really that surprising that I have a near zero aptitude for dealing with trauma when half of my life is spent drowning between punch lines? No, my life is not a sitcom, but sitcoms are where I have picked up the essentials of being a human. Anyone who watched the episode of Saved by the Bell when Jessie gets addicted to caffeine pills knows: Don’t do drugs the same week as finals while also trying to shoot your debut music video. Like that, 21 years of comprehensive sitcom knowledge had taught me something else: Don’t be sad. Laugh it off. Wipe off the blood and keep on dancing.
It’s hard to know what to do. One month, Arthur’s mom decided we needed to rip the carpeting out in his bedroom and look for mold that may have been aggravating his cancer. She bought six heavy boxes of “premium vinyl wooden tiling” and told us to do the damn thing. That was a popular episode. I didn’t even get mad when his sister sprayed bleach on my Converse. I think they look cooler now, anyway.
Under the carpet we found pennies. A shocking amount of pennies but only one nickel. So much dirt we had to sweep and vacuum twice. In a corner of his closet we saw a sour looking growth and all gathered around it, pointing with our fingers as if each of us needed the other’s direction. “Mold!” we said emphatically. “Mold!” as if it was the answer to a $500 question on Jeopardy. “Mold!” as if now that we had spotted the source we could send the cancer packing on its way.
“Not mold,” his sister’s boyfriend told us on closer inspection. “It’s part of the foam that was gluing the carpeting down.”
He barely kicked it and it disintegrated before our eyes.
“See?” he asked, and we saw. Just like that we were back at nothing.
We ordered a pizza and ate it sitting Indian-style on the hard but surprisingly smooth foundation. We listened to Selena. We did the damn thing.
“Look on the bright side,” I said. “Your house is worth at least like, 20 more dollars now that you have premium vinyl wooden tiling!”
So the cancer didn’t start with the carpet. Then when? This is a question of inherent versus gradual. Is the cancer there when you are a newborn? Is it like collecting points in a cancer piggybank? You eat a burger and fries when you’re fifteen and don’t know better: one point. You ask a friend for a cigarette to mask the smell of weed on your clothes because you need to head home soon to your mom and her nose: three points. For two years before the studies have been done on it and still one year after, you put artificial sweetener in your morning coffee and drink a Diet Coke with every other meal: seven points. One day you decide to take a peek inside to assure yourself you’re doing fine and discover you’ve accumulated enough for a malignant tumor and a weekend at the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute. Why did you sign up for this game, anyway?
According to the article, an estimated 84.2 million people have tuned in to at least six minutes of The Big Bang Theory this season. One reason for this number: Classic TV Relationships. There’s the Odd Couple bond between Sheldon and Leonard. Penny and Leonard: Will-They-or-Won’t-They? Audiences love archetypes. They provide an easy guide for whom to root for and remove all ambiguity from difficult situations. By merit of their very existence, they are there to teach you a baseline understanding of how you should react to certain people and situations. The music crescendos and Ross kisses Rachel to collective “Oohs” and “Ahhs” and that’s how you know that love is a warm, sugary thing that happens to two people who deserve it, so when you have your first kiss it feels like more than one isolated moment in time but the accumulation of seasons of built up tension, it feels like the kiss is greater than you, a universal marker, a moment in history. But when Arthur told me he had cancer, I had no prior television cues to point to. This was an entirely new, confounding experience with no precedence, no soundtrack. In a way this is a failure of television. For something I had expected would teach me everything I needed to know to have a prosperous future, a Hit Life complete with a mansion in Bel Air, it has fully and utterly failed me. I am no better off for watching three seasons of Grounded for Life than if I had turned to books or the outdoors for the answers instead. The wonder of being human, however, lies not in how much we know, but in how much we don’t know. It’s our capacity for surprise. This is what makes season finales so tantalizing: you never know what’s going to happen. So in another sense, television has succeeded. It hasn’t shown me what to do in the face of cancer. At that, it has failed spectacularly, despite its exhaustive spins on the subject. When I was 15 and discovering sexual autonomy with my pal Samantha Jones, it didn’t help me finish my algebra homework. That was never its job. In a culture riddled with pleas for no spoilers, television has kept to itself the greatest plot twist of all.
Here is how cancer is treated, for the most part, in television: Tears. First there are endless swells of tears and hugs. Then there is hope. A montage. The person with the cancer eats a salad, trains for a marathon. A supportive friend or spouse shaves their head in solidarity. Health is in sight. Then, just as things are looking up, when hope has reached its peak, suddenly, unexpectedly, the person dies. Only it is not so unexpected, because in the final few minutes of the season—because this is a season closer—the aforementioned friend or spouse discovers a letter, naturally narrated by the recently deceased, that reads, in short: “The time I had left on this planet was only made all the better because I had you. I will always love you. I will always be around. Thank you for everything you have given me. Also, I was in the CIA the whole time or something.” This, ultimately, is television’s place in my life. It filled many of my lonely afternoons in middle school with the love of kind, predictable families. This is what I needed at the time.
People say you’re born alone and you die alone, but that isn’t really true. You’re anticipated by a group of people who want nothing more than for you to just be okay. Straightaway you’re wrapped in warmth, wiped and fondled all over, coddled by strangers. Passed around like a collection basket, nurses pronounce your figures like litany: “Six pounds, twenty-one inches, congratulations you have a son!” Gradually you become less holy, less a miracle. You become faceless data used to quantify the popularity of a television show. You pay for your coffee and the barista tells you to “have a good one, man,” an endless supply of good ones at his disposal except when you really need them. He’d be better off handing you your drink and snapping your picture. Here’s your latte. You are worth remembering. That is what television gives us. The validation that our lives, however small—not totally but mostly insignificant—are important, because 84.2 million strangers will tune in, even for just six minutes, to watch people fall in love, lose their jobs, break up, laugh, sit on a couch and talk about sex, do, as Seinfeld famously did, nothing. A billion dollar industry exists to reflect the world I live in. It’s not that I am mimicking Amanda Bynes but that she is taking notes from me, toning her own reality down to play someone normal because normal is what’s interesting. Television is not supposed to teach me how to live my life. Its job is to remind me that I am important, and that Arthur’s story matters, and that how I react to a catastrophe isn’t a matter of right or wrong, laugh or cry, rather as simple as tuning in to my experience and seeing where the moment takes me. In essence, it’s a reminder that life is precious, so (try to) have a good one, man. And when your best friend since the 8th grade tells you he has thyroid cancer, just do your best, even if that just means standing there.
My best friend has a face too cute and a booty so fat.
Earlier this year I had a photographer take my head shot. The day I was able to meet her was a hectic one, I had been up the entire night beforehand studying for a test, had gone to school early that morning and had been working until late that afternoon. I had recently broken out pretty severely due to the stress that accompanied being freshly dumped by the first boy I ever loved and constantly feeling sick from the medication and treatments I was going through. I also had a very noticeable scar from a surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from my throat months earlier. When the photographer sent me my head shot I was over joyed, I thought “Wow at least I don’t look at terrible as I always feel.” Shortly after she sent me the unedited version and I was forced to look into the eyes of the real me. The tired, sick, bumpy and scarred authentic reflection of what I actually look like. I was shattered. I had been so excited by the idea that I might be good looking that I had not even noticed that she had Photoshopped out my scar. She Photoshopped out the permanent badge of what I have overcome in my life, I fought for that scar, I earned that scar. She made something that has become a huge factor of who I am disappear because she thought it was ugly and that made me want to disappear with it.
It has taken a very long time and a lot of work, but I can finally look at these photos side by side and say that I like the way I look, even without glossy perfect Edward Cullen Skin, scars and acne and tired eyes and all. Months later, after joining a burlesque troupe and embracing body positivity into my life I am finally able to say that I am beautiful. I am beautiful because I am real and flawed and human. I am beautiful because I decided that I am beautiful. It was not easy and it is something I still have to work at every second of every day to accept. Finding confidence in yourself is in all honesty more difficult than going through radiation therapy (which for those who don’t know suckz with a z) but I’m finding it and I will never cover up my scar again.
Recently my grandmother found out I’m queer. Her response was to tell me that she disapproves of me living with my “friend” (i.e. my girlfriend) and that I should give up my vile queer ways and become a Christian (Lol). She even sent me a bible. Here are its remains, which I made into black-out poetry.
Poem 1: Bisexual (from Leviticus 19:9)— “Have sexual relations with her. Have sexual relations with him. Have sexual relations with both a woman and a man. Have sexual relations with yourself. Vomit on everyone who does not respect you.”
Poem 2: Fisting (from Judges 8:5)— “water/ lap the water/ drink/go down to drink/your hands/go down/I give into your hands/go down/encouraged/down/on the seashore/the whole hand/your hand/inside/I get to the edge/and shout/grasping/crying out/Beth/Beth/Beth/Beth/Beth/God/I came”
Poem 3: A Letter to the Exiles (from Jeremiah 28:13) — “Ze said: ‘Do not let lies name you, nor harm your heart. Gather. Raise the sword against them. They scorn and reproach, for they have not listened— again and again have not listened.’ “
Poem 4: Child (from Ezekiel 16:22) — “Your father and your mother rubbed salt in. No one looked on you with pity or had compassion enough for you, for on the day you were born you were despised. Live! Grow. I looked at you and saw you were enough.”
Poem 5: Father (from Ezekiel 16:22) — “You never adored us. You became very angry. You took some out on us. Your sons and daughters were not enough? You slaughtered— in all your detestable practices— our youth.”
Poem 6: Misandry (from Acts 27:41) — “Dangerous men should be broken.”
I work at a flip flop store and every night I close I’m supposed to send my manager an email with how much money we made and a list of any brands customer’s request that we don’t carry. Every couple of days I’ve been sneaking in Shaq’s and if I keep this up long enough there’s a chance we’ll buy a bunch of Shaq’s and try to sell them. I know this will only hurt me in the long run because no one wants to buy Shaq’s but omg what if I singlehandedly make Shaq’s a thing again?
I have an essay up on The Rumpus (with artwork by a real art human!) today, but you should probably just watch Elaine Stritch: Live at Liberty today instead.
(or do both: http://therumpus.net/2014/07/boys-club/)
Trigger Warning (glamour, beauty, mass transportation): Kim Kardashian tricked me into being in a photoshoot with her and made me take the bus there.
Having a The Dreamers moment
Me (taking bag from elderly clerk): Thank you. Have a good one.
Arthur (on our way out): What did you mean by “Have a good one”? Have a good what?
Me: Fuck. I hope she has a real good fuck tonight.