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Tex and the City: Books for a Cause

Today on Tex and the City: A good cause reinforces Jon Paul’s love of hard covers over e-books.  Guest stars: Daisy Martinez, Patti LuPone (sort of).

Last night, in the midst of a passionate Upper West Side crowd, Patti LuPone was staring at me with an eager, come hither grin.  As I approached, a cutish guy caught my eye, “You’re the first one to show interest all night.”  He was one of the volunteer’s at the Goddard Riverside Community Center 24th Annual New York Book Fair.  And unlike celebrity chef Daisy Martinez who was signing books in-person across the room, Patti had sent a facsimile of herself courtesy of the cover of her book, Patti LuPone: A MemoirWhat must have the contentious discussions been like to come up with that clever title?  Still, after a product plug on Glee from the impossibly precious Blaine, I couldn’t resist taking a peek inside.  After all, it was for a good cause.

Every year the weekend before Thanksgiving, the Goddard Center hosts this fundraising fair featuring 50% off some of the latest and most buzzed about books donated by various publishing companies.  And I can see why they participate every year.  The Goddard Center is an outstanding organization with 27 programs in 21 sites on the Upper West Side and in West Harlem focusing on children, youth and families; homeless people; older adults; and advocacy and tenant assistance.  Thanks to the Whole Foods Market Upper West Side sponsorship of the event, Chef scored me a pass to the gala preview where I shopped for best sellers without breaking the bank.

For Chef, I elbowed my way through the Cooking section picking up Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home and Bouchon at way under market value, while cautioning other buyers that his French Laundry cookbook was really only for the extremely seriously trained culinary professionals.  For myself, I grabbed Mark Bittman’s latest The Food Matters Cook Book.  In the Hot Titles section, I nearly tackled someone to pick up a hard cover cop of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, even though I just ordered it on Kindle.  I’m still having trouble getting my head around reading “important” novels in electronic form.  I have the same issues about wanting to have real copies of “quirky” books, which is why I probably nabbed John Waters’ Role ModelsSuper Freakonomics, on the other hand, is a book I would happily read electronically, but not economist-turned-Chef, so I caved for him.  We even picked a Christmas present for our nieces, a sweet children’s book Me, Frida about Frida Kahlo finding herself and following her dream when she moved to San Francisco with Diego.  The book jacket says the book “encourages young readers to believe in themselves so they can make their own dreams soar.”  Hmm, maybe I’ll hang onto it.

Back at the Entertainment section, I was just putting down Patti’s book, not too impressed with the over-the-top self-congratulatory opening.  Then the Goddard Center Broadway Babies took the “stage” and belted out “Give My Regards to Broadway.”  It was a Glee-come-true, and I decided that Patti should come home with me.

On the subway lugging home all the heavy purchases, I couldn’t thinking about Kindle—hoping e-book craze never puts this cause out-of-business.

Grab your own Patti or Frida at the Goddard Riverside Community Center 24th Annual New York Book Fair, 593 Columbus Avenue @ 88th Street

Saturday, November 20, 2010, 10am to 6pm
Sunday, November 21, 2010, 11am-5pm

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Attention Reader-Shoppers!

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul serves up some Whole Foods value to capture the attention of reader-guests at a book party for 85A.

It’s official—Michael Cunningham is my Writer-Boyfriend.  In our house, Chef and I use “boyfriend” to designate someone on whom we have an enormous crush of respect.  Cheyenne Jackson is Chef’s Broadway-Boyfriend, while Raúl Esparaza is mine.  Secretly, I’ve harbored a thing for Michael, best known as author of The Hours, since I started reading his treatise on the pleasures of Provincetown called Land’s End.  I read it every summer—and nearly came unglued when I spotted the author just two doors down from the house we’d rented in P-town at a Fourth of July party he’d detailed in the book.  At that time, I couldn’t bring myself to even way at him I was so starstruck.

But after Michael’s column in yesterday’s New York Times, if I saw him now, I’d give him a hug and a kiss.  His take on writers and their readers should be required reading for every author.  He explains that in his writing classes at university, he asks his students whom they are writing for?  When they invariably answer, “themselves,” he gives them this lecture:

I tell them that I understand—that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself.  By which I meant that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others.  And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers, albeit separated by time and space.

I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories.  There are a lot of other stories out there, and by now, in the 21st century, there’s been such an accumulation of literature that few of us will live long enough to read all the great stories and novels, never mind the pretty good ones.  Not to mention the fact that we, as readers, are busy.

We have large difficult lives.  We have, variously, jobs to do, spouses and children to attend to, errands to run, friends to see; we need to keep up with current events; we have gophers in our gardens; we are taking extension courses in French or wine tasting or art appreciation; we are looking for evidence that our lovers are cheating on us; we are wondering why in the world we agreed to have 40 people over on Saturday night; we are worried about global warming; we are TiVo-ing five or six of our favorite shows.

What the writer is saying, essentially, is this: Make room in all that for this.  Stop what you’re doing and read this.  It had better be apparent, from the opening line, that we’re offering readers something worth their while.

Amen, Boyfriend Michael.  Which is why I was so gratified that yesterday afternoon friends took time to come to our house and meet writer Kyle Thomas Smith, author of the new book 85A.  My full review appeared on the blog yesterday, but suffice it to say that I believe this is a book deserving of our busy attention, and that to Michael’s point grabs the reader from the opening line, “Every detention, every chip of glass piercing my forearm from the inside, every minute the 85A is late drives me that much closer to London.  I repeat: London, London…”

To help hold the attention—and palettes—of our guests, Chef and I worked to theme the food we served at the party to plotlines in the book.  Whole Foods Market Upper West Side offered to help us out, but threw out another challenge—could we do it on a budget of $100?  Please, as a frequent Whole Foods shopper, and a team-member-by-marriage, I know all about navigating my shopping cart to find the best values for entertaining on a budget!  Here are my tips and menu:

  1. The Whole Deal.  On your way into the store, pick up a copy of this newsletter with recipes and coupons inside.  It will point out some items you might overlook—for my cheese platter I got a 350g wheel of imported Isigny  Ste. Mere French Brie for just $6.99.  Always a crowd pleaser—and I would have totally overlooked at the cheese counter had it not been for the write-up.  I also selected a NY State Toma Pepato cheese (Seamus, the main character, winds up in NYC) and a Cotswold cheese from Britain (Seamus dreams of London).  Serve with some WFM 365 brand Organic Water Crackers.
  2. Hummus.  One of my first Big Apple roommates Shannon told me, “It’s not a NYC party without hummus.”  And I’ve always lived by those words.  In Dallas, we never had hummus—but here, I’m addicted to it.  We decided that Seamus, the main character in 85A, probably had never tasted hummus either until he walked into the hippie bistro in the book.  While you can buy Whole Foods Market’s 365 brand hummus which I found delicious, Chef told me an even better value was making it from scratch.  You can find chickpeas in the bulk section of the store—the night before the party cook for several hours in a crockpot, cool overnight.  Day of party put in Vita-Mix or professional grade blender add in olive oil, fresh lemon juice, garlic powder—really whatever flavors float your boat.  Voila, it’s a party.
  3. Chips & Dip & Veggies.  I like to mix the 365 brand Blue Corn and Yellow Corn chips together.  Slicing veggies yourself cuts down on the pre-packaged costs—some zucchini and carrots and peppers will do.  The WFM brand Artichoke Jalapeno dip has a nice kick to it.
  4. Cucumber Sandwiches.  Funny, but these things fly off the platter.  And perfect for a book starring a kid dreaming of England.  Buy white bread (yes, they have it at Whole Foods), cut off the edges, butter the bread, and place small slices of cucumbers (take out the seeds).
  5. Dessert.  I always like to serve a little something special about 30 minutes before the party is scheduled to end—it’s a sweet reminder to guests that the soiree should be winding down.  I wanted to do something apple related since Seamus ends up in the Big Apple, and they were stacking up on my counter from our weekly CSA.  Mark Bittman to the rescue.  Core the apples, stuff with brown sugar, dates, raisins and walnuts.  Top each with a slab of butter.  If you have some dessert wine around, pour a little over the top.  Place in dish and microwave for 5 minutes or so.  Turn and baste in their juices—add more everything if you desire.  Cut up and serve in a big bowl.
  6. Sodas.  In addition to seltzer, I like to spice up the drinks display with a  few of WFM 365 Italian Sodas.  My favorites are Blood Orange and Lemon—very refreshing, and a festive alternative for guests who don’t drink alcohol.
  7. Wine.  The Whole Foods Market Upper West Side has a Wine Store next door that has a tremendous selection for terrific value—my selections are all under $10.  My go-to afternoon event wine is the Opala Vinho Verde from Portugal—it’s fruity, not too sweet, and has some light bubbles giving it a party feel.  For red, try the Vida Organica Malbec from Argentina—just enough punch to hold its own with the spicy dip.

So grab some Whole Deals at Whole Foods and eat up—and read up—on 85A.  Trust me, it will grab your attention and never let go.

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Catcher in the Wind

Today on Alphabet City: A query on Jon Paul’s blog leads to a new friendship, an intro to a phenomenal new book 85A, and a party.

Sometimes I imagine how Mary Tyler Moore would get along in the age of the Internet—instead of a job as Associate Producer in a TV newsroom, she’d probably be creating online content.  But I like to think Mary would resist the all-too-easy temptation to be bitter in the blogosphere.  Hopefully, she’d remember her Sonny Curtis theme song, continue to “turn the world on with a smile” and remember that with “each glance and every movement” she shows it.  Of course, for the web world you’d replace “movement” with “keystroke.”  Which is why I take reader questions and comments so seriously—the response sends a message to the world.

Back in June, I received a simple question from fellow first time novelist Kyle Thomas Smith.  He’d read an article about me in EDGE, and wrote for some advice on book tour publicity—and I took the reply very seriously.  Writers are all in this together—we need each other.  What I got out of posting a thorough reply would have made Mary proud—I gained a new friend and an introduction to his captivating book 85A.

By the time I secured and cracked open my copy of 85A in late August, Kyle and I had already hung out together a few times.  The most I knew about the book was some of the promotional material on the back cover that opens with this line, “What do you get when you cross Holden Caulfield with Johnny Rotten?”  Honestly, I cringed when I read that—thinking it was a bold claim to make a comparison to one of America’s most enduring narrators from Catcher in the Rye.  So I was a little nervous when I started the book a few days before going to Kyle and his partner Julius’ home for dinner—what would I say if I didn’t think the book lived up to the hype?  That’s a set-up for an awkward MTM episode if ever there was one.

Boy, I shouldn’t have worried.  Instead, from the moment I began my journey across late 1980s Chicago with narrator Seamus O’Grady, I couldn’t put this book down.  To me, Kyle has created one of the most captivating, riveting and engaging narrators in modern fiction—it’s not a stretch at all to compare Kyle’s character to Holden.  As Seamus tells his story while he rides the 85A bus across various suburbs neighborhoods of the Windy City, I bonded with his disaffected, punk rock persona in ways I hadn’t expected.  [NOTE: both here and in my Amazon review, I called Seamus’ route across “suburbs” when in fact, as the author notes, “he lives in the city but in a part of the city that’s in the most wretched fear that minorities will move in. That’s one of Seamus’ big gripes is that the neighborhood is a segregationists last stand in the changing city.” An important distinction–one that adds immeasurably to the layers of this story]

According to the book’s time period, Seamus and I are pretty much contemporaries—except that Seamus is the kind of kid I wouldn’t have necessarily understood or appreciated at my fancy prep school.  Failing out of school and ostracized because of his interest in the punk scene, Seamus feels like the world doesn’t understand him.  It takes a skilled author like Kyle to make me want to get inside Seamus’ head—and moreover, feel sympathy for him.  When Seamus isn’t allowed to do the one thing he most loves in school—my heart breaks for him.  And when he finally discovers the hipster coffee shop where he might just fit in—I cried.  It took me back to the first time I was able to walk into Dallas’ gay bookstore—hoping I found others like me.

The deck seems hopelessly stacked against Seamus, including a horrific home life filled with abuse from a homophobic father and brother, and a mother unwilling to do what it takes to protect her son.  The two people in his corner—a sassy best friend Tressa who opens his world to other possibilities, and his therapist Dr. Stryeroth, both reveal themselves to have much more complicated agendas than originally presented.

But through it all, Seamus’ dream of moving to London keep him moving forward at all costs.  Anyone who has ever experienced being an outsider, being different, not fitting in for any reason, will connect with Seamus’ desperate struggle to find a way to escape and be accepted.

Some reviewers have objected to Seamus’ colorful language—and to that I say phewey.  His use of expletives is completely in character, especially for a kid who feels like the world is against him.  Sadly, the world in which Seamus is bullied and abused is still very much alive 20+ years later as recent current events about suicidal teenagers can attest.  Thankfully, Seamus’ dream of a better life in London is able to keep him alive.

Little did I know it, but Kyle delivered a gift when he first emailed me for advice.  Today, I hope to repay the generosity and take a cue from the folks across the country who opened their homes to me on my book tour this summer.  Chef and I have invited our friends around for an 85A book party gathering at our home featuring the author Kyle.  It’s the kind of thing I imagine Mary would do—yesterday and today.

Tomorrow on ABCityblog: Tips and recipes for throwing a book party for under $100 by taking advantage of Whole Deals at Whole Foods Market Upper West Side.

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La Tierra del Queso

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul and Chef get a little cheesy on book tour in Madison.

Viewer Programming Note: ABCityblog will be “summering” and on hiatus until after Labor Day.  Thanks for your support!

Local cheese from Whole Foods Madison

All I had to do was mention “artisinal cheese,” and Chef’s bags were packed for an Alphabet City Book Tour stop in Madison, Wisconsin.  My sweet friend Jimmy, who makes a couple of guest appearances in Alphabet City, moved there a few years ago with his husband, so it seemed like the perfect add on to my Chicago stop.  While some might have thought the town was an odd choice to be part of our 10th Anniversary trip, not my beloved—he didn’t need any arm twisting for a visit to “La Tierra del Queso” as he likes to call it.

With my Subaru Legacy at the Cheese Chalet

As much as I love living in New York City where I have been able to beat my Texas-born addiction to cars, I do enjoy the opportunity to test-drive a swanky vehicle through America’s heartland.  Subaru stepped up to the plate with an offer to drive around in a Legacy—a titled Chef liked solely because it was the name of a dancer on So You Think You Can Dance.  I, on the other hand, appreciated the sedan’s powerful pick-up that allowed me to outrun some irritating 18-wheelers on I-90.  Even better, the Subaru engineers have placed the cruise controls right on the face of the steering wheel—I hate when I mistakenly activate the wipers when trying to give my leg a break from the pedals.  Most importantly, Legacy was an expert at last minute maneuvering when Chef insisted on a stop at a roadside Cheese Chalet.   Chef bought some famous squeaking cheese curds and indulged in a little Wisconsin wine-tasting (not me, the designated driver), picking up a surprisingly not-terribly-sweet Pinot Grigio.

Pulling into Madison in Legacy we fit right in—various Subaru models were everywhere.  Clearly, the 4WD capabilities make it an excellent choice in a town with 40 days of snow.  And in a city that supposedly has the highest per capita percentage of gay and lesbian citizens in the United States, Subaru’s rainbow flag marketing messages are definitely paying off.  Especially during Madison’s Capital Pride festivities that were in full force.

My 9th Pride Festival of the Summer!

Wisconsin’s state capitol dome presides over all activities in Madison—including the country’s largest farmer’s market.  Now, I always snicker at claims like that.  Who exactly goes around and counts?  How exactly is it measured?  But no doubt was it true.  The stands surround the capitol grounds and by noon it’s as busy as tourists searching for a Chanel knock-off on NYC’s Canal Street.  As Chef perused each and every stall, I listened to young actors reciting Shakespeare lines, and some political theater about the Palestinian conflict getting underway.  Ignoring the bounty of fruit at one table, a young kid said to his mother, “When are we going to McDonald’s?”

Just off the square, a gorgeous cheese shop called Fromagination called out to us.  The store has a terrific selection of local artisanal cheese and wine that definitely captured our imagination.  But here’s a money saving tip: if you’ve got the time head off to Whole Foods Market about 10 minutes away (everything seems only 10 minutes away since there never was traffic anywhere) where you can snag many of the same local cheeses for a little less money.

Whole Foods Madison's bounty for the party!

In fact, the Whole Foods Market Madison helped out with a gift card to support Jimmy’s Alphabet City Book Party—and for less than $100 we loaded up on local cheese (my favs: Carr Valley’s Cocoa Cardona and Cranberry Chipotle Cheddar), and a range of 365 brand chips, hummus, salsa, Italian sodas, and wine.  If there’s one thing that I’ve learned helping plan the many of parties on book tour is that Whole Foods let’s you get local quality for great value—focus on WFM’s 365 brand to economize on staples, and then spend the savings on local products.  It was great to see that the Madison store had a nice selection of local artisanal cheeses that were a huge hit with the locals at the event.

Later at the party, I ran into a former colleague Patrick—we had worked together at Condé Nast Traveler many years ago.  Patrick moved to Madison and started a gay and lesbian magazine for the community called Our Lives that was celebrating its 1-year birthday (and included a lovely write-up of Alphabet City).  He asked me what was my very first impression of Madison.  I thought back to when we arrived, driving down the streets lined with classic two-story homes shaded by towering trees and kids playing in the lawns and beagles chasing chipmunks.

Dixie enjoys Alphabet City

“I wondered if it could possibly be this idyllic,” I said.

“It’s a little bit like Austin—thirty years ago,” Jimmy chimed in.

And so it is.  Not much traffic.  An economy dominated by a state university and government.  Fresh local produce from Whole Foods and a farmer’s market.  Madison definitely has it’s charm.

Just then, Jimmy’s beagles Dixie, Tatum and Silas barked—they were tired of playing with my faux-Oscar and wanted to go chase squirrels.  I smiled at my wonderful summer travels—this book tour had taken me to so many unexpected spots.  What a treat.

With Jimmy at his lovely home

With Chef under the Capitol Dome

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Austin Weird

Today on Alphabet City: While on book tour, Jon Paul participates in final fatherly ritual, and worries about Austin’s weirdness.

“Keep Austin Weird”—the city’s semi-unofficial slogan—has always made me a touch nervous visiting my old stomping grounds.  Is the Weird-o motto a warning that the town’s offbeat charm is being ruined by an influx of immigrants craving Austin’s oddball charm and livable conditions?  Or like “Buckle Up” or “Don’t Litter” is the slogan more of a command—a reminder perhaps—that as a returning (T)ex-pat I have a quirky responsibility to my former home?

When I was in Austin last June writing a story for Bon Appétit magazine about the city’s farm-to-table restaurants, I half-worried that the town was becoming a little too trendy for its own britches.  Old neighborhoods seemed to be bursting at the seams with renovated houses that looked spectacular—with price tags to match.  Could the owners of these showcases possibly be the type of citizens to appreciate—and honor—Austin’s unique sensibility?

A year later as luck would have it, the Alphabet City Book Tour stop in Austin these past few days gave me the opportunity to knock on a couple of those doors, step inside, and find out.  I also had some time to renew my weirdness credentials.

My niece took over the conference room board

First up, my sister Paige—ably assisted by 12 year-old niece Hannah—invited me to peek inside the pioneer of Austin’s original earthy-crunchy healthy eating movement—Whole Foods Market.  This hometown hero’s headquarters is perched above their flagship store on Lamar, and my sister had invited her colleagues to come meet me in a conference room for some afternoon treats of cookies and book readings.  Now usually, I take the stage at an evening gathering where folks have been drinking some wine and spirits to loosen up their laughter (and wallets).  I wondered how a Friday afternoon gig was going to go down with a crowd of health gurus.  But everyone from the company’s Global Cheese Buyer to the communications intern chuckled at my punch lines and lined up for a signed copy of Alphabet City.

Afterwards, my sister pressed me into accompanying her and Hannah for some back-to-school shopping.  Those hyphenated words conjure up images of a sweaty August trip to Dillard’s to choose just the right color of new Polo shirt.  So when we pulled up in front of Whole Earth Provisions, another Austin earthy-outdoorsy institution, I was perplexed.

“This is where we get Hannah’s sandals,” my sister Paige advised.

“Really?  I hope they have cute ones,” I worried.  I glanced down at my own Fendi sandals with the fancy Grecian crisscross straps that I could barely keep on and hurt my feet, but looked great.

“They have cute and comfortable ones,” Hannah piped up.

I rolled my eyes.

Inside, as Hannah tried on some different pairs, I wandered the aisles looking for a new reusable water bottle, considered purchasing Chef a hammock, and finally ended up in the flip-flop display.  Hundreds of Reef brand sandals called out to me with the same tag reading “Ridiculously Comfortable.”  I gave into the advertising, located a not too dowdy pair and slipped them on.

“My God!  They are so comfortable!” I shouted.

“Told you so!” Hannah screamed from two aisles over.

“No, I mean these are maybe the most comfortable sandals, or shoes, I’ve ever put on.  How could I have missed these?”

My sister just laughed at me as we headed to the car, and I thought maybe a little earthy-crunchy comfort isn’t a bad thing to add to my New York wardrobe.

Winedale's Shakespeare barn and cows

I felt like a rebel wearing those sandals on my two-hour drive to Winedale, Texas—both my mother and Chef insist I wear lace-ups for safety while operating a motor vehicle.  But in 100+ degree heat, I needed to be free to enjoy the 40th Anniversary of the University of Texas’ Shakespeare program in the countryside.  My dear friend Valerie had participated in the program while were in college, and it was just like those bygone days.  Out in the country, inside a barn, and under some trees, students from all disciplines—not just drama studies—spend intensive weeks examining the Bard’s texts and performing their insights.  Alumni had been invited back for this special weekend, and I howled with delight at Valerie and her friend Kristin’s interpretation of the all-French scene in Henry V of teaching the young princess English.  All French in iambic pentameter when neither one speaks French?!  The crowd was in stitches, including Terry Galloway, author, performer and Fishin’ Gal Gus in my film GayTV: The Movie.  If you haven’t read Terry’s captivating memoir Mean Little Deaf Queer then please, please, please put it on your list immediately.

Terry and Valerie after the performance

Up to our old Greenhill antics

Back in Austin, I flipped off the Reefs and slipped on my Fendi’s for a Sunday afternoon book party.  Boy, am I glad I did.  Another dear friend of mine Philippa was hosting a get together for me in her gorgeous home.  Philippa and her parents adopted me in high school—one of the core groups of families who made sure I was getting by with a warm meal and a little love.  Philippa went on to become a medical anthropologist—and she demonstrated her talents first hand by unearthing a treasure trove of notes that I had written her while at our fancy private high school Greenhill.  She used those letters to introduce/embarrass me to her fabulous and enthusiastic group of friends.  Once the shock of old high school intrigues wore off, I smiled at the thought that this was the kind of introduction I’d only get in Austin.  And warmed by appreciation that Philippa and her delicious husband had opened their lovely home to an old friend.

The following Monday night’s event was historic in many ways.  Valerie co-hosted the party with her friend Tammy, one of those Southern women who are just a force of nature.  Over the past year, Tammy and her husband have been whipping their Austin home into shape—restoring it to its late 1800s splendor—including meticulously recreated, time appropriate wall paper.  The previous owner, a UT professor, used to hold literary salons in the living room, and so I was honored to be the first author at the home’s “coming out” party.  The gathering included a who’s who of women in media in Austin, as well as my spirited Uncle Cleigh—a Truman Capote ringer if ever there was one—who had been a guest at the original literary salons at the house in the 1940s.

My Uncle Cleigh beside me

Given the history of the evening, I decided to add something special to my selected readings.  By this point on the tour, I’ve pretty much got my shtick down—start with an excerpt about “summering,” followed by my first encounter with Tyra, ending with my Mom’s visit or a peek inside Condé Nast.  But something happened earlier that day that had me going in a different direction.  My sister Paige had asked me while I was in town to be part of spreading some of my father’s ashes.  Despite some rules and regulations that discourage the practice, we decided that somewhere around the UT Law School, his alma mater, under a tree would be the right spot.  Although I still have conflicted feelings about my Dad, I agreed, hoping it would continue to help the healing and closure process.  Under a gnarly tree in 100+ degree heat, we found just the right spot and I whipped out a Flip Cam to record the moment.  My sister asked me on camera, “What do you think our father would say about us flouting the law like this?”

“I think he’d be pretty proud of us,” I replied.

As she spread the ashes in a nearby flowerbed, I broke into an old tune we used to sing on car trips So Long It’s Been Good to Know You.  And then my cell phone’s screaming ring tone interrupted the tableau.  The tune?  Mary Tyler Moore’s theme Love Is All Around…You’re Gonna Make It After All.

The hosts helping me make lemonade out of lemons

With all that swirling in my head at the book party, I decided for the first time to read from the chapter that covers some of my difficulty with my father.  I’ve never been able to read it aloud to an audience, as it’s too emotional for me.  But that night, in the historic home and setting that Valerie and Tammy had created, I felt loved and understood and appreciated.  When I told the group about my earlier adventures of spreading Dad’s ashes, I felt, well, a little weird.  Not in the awkward sense.  More like kooky, crazy adventure, offbeat silly weird.  The kind that helps to Keep Austin Weird.

The next day at the airport, I still had on my Reef flip-flops—too comfortable to take off.  A little bit of Austin on my feet to help me shuffle back into my NYC life.  If Paige, and Philippa, and Valerie, and Tammy are all custodians of Austin’s Weird flame, then I can rest easy.  These citizens carry the unique charm and character of the city—and I know they’ll always make a place for me.

With Valerie, helping me to Keep Austin Weird

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Reading Rainbow

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul and Chef battle a tough crowd of gay boys to sell some books; women save the day.

The JP's tag-teaming an event

Not to get all hot pants about it—but I’m starting to get concerned about literacy in Gay Boy America.  Appearing at a recent men-centric networking event where I was billed as a “celebrity,” here are some rather worrisome nuggets thrown at me after guys willingly approached the Alphabet City display table:

“Oh, I’ve stopped reading.”

Each time I heard this line, I just nodded and grinned my fake PR smile.  I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who made a conscious choice to be illiterate.

“Don’t want to go into too much detail, but I’ve recently had surgery and am not up to reading.”

Already, that’s too much info.  Gone are the days when post-op recovery meant catching up on a pile of trashy novels.

“Maybe I’ll buy it on Amazon.”

It seems online buying habits have so altered consumer behavior that we’re unable to appreciate the beauty of buying something directly from the artist.  The author is standing right there.  Begging for a sale.  Offering to personalize it.

“I’m only into audio books now.  If you recorded one, I might buy it.”

Clever use of a conditional tense—even if I laid down a voice track, I still might not be good enough.

Thankfully, Chef was working the room to bolster my sales.  As a Demo Specialist for Whole Foods, he knows a thing or two about getting customers to sample the goods.  Chef has his own tales of woe about customers taking a bite of his cooking and saying in a deadpan voice, “Not bad, actually.”  As if he’s really going to serve them shit on a stick.  Using the word “actually” indicates that they anticipated the food would be disgusting.  So why did they even try it?

As my personal coach, Chef observed my initial pitch to a couple of gays.

“Hi, I’m the author of Alphabet City, a funny memoir about my life as a gay Mary Tyler Moore.  I moved from Texas to New York, and fell into a job as a publicist for celebrities like Tyra and Whoopi and later at magazine publisher Condé Nast.  It’s a little bit Sex and the City and a little bit Will and Grace.”

Chef offered some hard earned demo strategy tips.

“Good, but watch your audience.  Young guys and immigrants have no idea who Mary Tyler Moore is.  Go right to the celebrities. Also, after the basic pitch, as they look at the book, fill in the silence with a question.”

My next potential victim fan was young hottie, the kind of boy who had a Fire Island summer share.  Per Chef’s advice, I played up Tyra and asked what I thought was a genius question.

“Are you looking for a great beach read?”

“I hate the beach.”

Alrighty, then.  Before I could even deliver my pitch to the next guy, he slammed the book down and yelled.

“Why would I need a guide book to Alphabet City?!  I live in Grammercy just a hop, skip and jump away for God sakes!”

Well of course, how silly of me not to know that.

When I finally did make a sale, it was  like pulling teeth.  Some guys came back to the table multiple times, fondling the book—as if they were purchasing diamonds at Neiman-Marcus.  At $15, the book was less than the Tanqueray and Tonic they’d ordered at the bar.  When a fag finally forked over the cash, I was willing to do anything they asked—including personalizing the book to “Golden Finger Fister.”  Scrawling that gem with my Sharpie, I sealed the door shut on any future political career.

Back in May, when I found myself in a Miami gay bar selling books barstool-to-barstool, I didn’t run into any uncomfortable excuses.  My stereotypical view of those boys had always been they were more interested in working their biceps than brains.  But those hunky Latinos couldn’t have been more welcoming—and I wasn’t even a “celebrity” there.

Maybe Manhattan breeds a quirky, competitive kind of gay accustomed to building defensive coping mechanisms to survive this urban jungle.  Rather than honestly saying, “Good luck with the book, it’s not for me,” they concoct a convoluted excuse like, “My attention span is too short to read anymore.”

But I’m not discouraged.  In Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the famous comedienne advises never to turn down an opportunity—and I ended up selling 15 books and learning a load.  Who knows, maybe I’ll take Joan’s cue and sign-on to some reality show to raise my profile.  America’s Next Top Novelist, anyone?

My biggest lesson so far on book tour is that WOMEN are my biggest readers and most supportive fans—by far.  From the straight sorority sisters of Texas to the lesbian moms of DC, they all have some nurturing gene that encourages literary endeavors from an emerging artist like me.  Better still, they buy multiple books for friends—no hemming and hawing, no excuses.  Once again, Goddess bless the girls who love the gays.  Gary Tyler Moore would be no where without you.

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Alphabet City’s (Re)Designing Women

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul’s pangs of self-doubt are eased by reconnecting with three friends.

Clouds of self-doubt would seep into my mind early every morning in Hollywood—like the June gloom enveloping the LA Temple outside my window.  My body wrestled with time zone confusion as my East Coast early-riser syndrome became certified West Coast insomnia.  Why am I here?  What am I accomplishing?  Is the exhaustion worth it?  Can I be successful and make a living as a writer by pursuing this new life storyline?  As the clouds quickly dispersed under the warm California sun, I became energized by reconnections with three friends (re)designing themselves on the West Coast.

Aimee at the Alphabet City book launch

First up, breakfast with Aimee.  Originally from Beverly Hills, Aimee walked onto the Alphabet City set about midway through its original run as Angela’s wisecracking buddy.  She was a terrific audience for my tales of celebrity foibles, always encouraging me to write down the tales.  This real life Funny Girl’s own storyline took a dramatic turn when she decided to follow her true passion for international relations and entered graduate school in Washington DC.  Honestly, the cast of Alphabet City wasn’t accustomed to characters taking such serious roles, and I wondered how it would all play out.

After an internship at the State Department, she began working for an organization that helps rebuild war torn countries and spent many months in Liberia, and now is stationed in Kabul.  Through it all, Aimee’s wit and humor comes through in every missive she sends from abroad—and she’s still a serious pop-culture scholar.  She’s the first to email me a guess on who’s the subject of the latest blind item in PageSix.  It was the makings of a “very special episode” when Aimee happened to be in LA during my book tour stop—she had some time off from Kabul before beginning her next project there.  Over breakfast, after she had presented me with outrageous gifts snagged from the bazaar in Afghanistan including the Funny Cock, I had an opportunity to tell her how inspiring it was to follow the journey of a friend who was taking big risks to follow her passion.  What I am most impressed with is that the work she is doing is so important and crucial, but Aimee does it with a genuine humbleness and a wry observation that will always make her a terrific guest star on Alphabet City.

Mila & Me at Dana's party

Next, lunch with a true designing woman, Mila.  In the tween prequel to Alphabet City set in a suburban prep school, Mila would definitely be the mysterious, artsy character with the enviable fashion flare.  Much like my friend Kathryn who I wrote previously about reconnecting with in DC, Mila and I weren’t close friends in high school but as in a small class, you pretty much know everyone and I like to think we respected each other’s artistic (dramatic?) sensibilities.  When she popped up on last season’s Project Runway, I was instantly intrigued by Mila’s story of using the show as a way to reconnect with her passion of designing clothes—basically reinventing herself as she was approaching 40.  Boy, did that sound familiar to my own journey.  What a treat then to spend time with Mila, see her holiday collection, and share our various paths.  Although we haven’t seen each in other in a decade (or two), we reconnected with the appreciation and understanding of the trials and tribulations that come with following a dream.  Mila is one talented, sincere and generous designing woman whom I can’t wait to have on future Alphabet City episodes.

Last, evening soiree hosted by Dana.  Alphabet City fans will recognize Dana for the critical role she plays in Episode 16—as a real estate impresario with a life-saving referral to therapy.  Dana’s advice, guidance, support and critical eye have played an integral role in the development of this memoir.  She has always encouraged me to be a writer giving me terrific assignments at Condé Nast Traveler and Bon Appétit.  After reading an early draft of Alphabet City I will never forget her telling me that my writing voice was so engaging, like chatting with a best friend.  It was that early encouragement that gave me the confidence to pursue my dream.   When Dana decided to push forward with her own goal of moving to the West Coast, I was quietly distraught but outwardly supportive.  While I would miss Dana’s companionship, I knew that she needed space to grow and LA was where she needed that to happen.  What a thrill then to see and experience and appreciate the beautiful life she has made for her family at the base of the Hollywood Hills.  Her friends turned out for some Alphabet City fun, and to see how an editor at Bon Appétit would entertain in style.

Sides made with Whole Foods 365 brand accompany whole roasted pig

Lucky me, she pulled out all the stops.  The centerpiece was a whole roasted pig—definitely a showstopper and crowd pleaser.  I snapped pictures and sent to Chef who was supremely jealous of the experience.  Dana took her inspiration for the serving of the meal from the serve yourself buffet at Whole Foods Market 3rd and Fairfax which provided some of the key ingredients.  Grab a Chinese food container—start with a cold soba noodle salad with peanut sauce (both can be made from the affordable WFM 365 brand), add in some of the pork, fresh cilantro—stir together and enjoy.  Dana paired with a crowd-pleasing Moscow Mule vodka concoction whose secret ingredient was fresh squeezed lemons and limes—organic from WFM, ‘natch.

After the guests departed, Dana and I laid down under the backyard lanterns laughing at her dogs desperate for a taste of pork.  And I realized that success of a journey shouldn’t just be measured in tangibles—like number of books sold and amount of money made—but from intangibles like quality connections with readers, and inspiring reconnections with friends.

Funny, the next morning, I opened my windows, and there was no June gloom in the sky, or in my head.

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