Dead Poets and Comic Geniuses

The checkout line was unusually long at Safeway today. Long enough to give me time to notice the tabloids staring down at me from bins on either side of my cart. All the headlines seemed to be about Robin Williams, promising “intimate details” about his final hours, his last words, where and how and why he took his own life.

I tried to look away. At some level, I didn’t want to know the details. The details were none of my business—and besides, I certainly didn’t trust that a tabloid rushed to print so soon after his death would actually get much right, or that the editors even felt any obligation or desire to get anything right. They wanted to sell papers. And if there were no alien abductions to report this week, then exploiting a man’s pain would suffice.

Surely, I thought, Williams had to have known that this moment of private agony would soon become food for the maw of celebrity culture. If he had stopped to think about it for a minute, he would have realized what his suicide would do to his loved ones, and how it would become the latest obsession of a culture constantly in search of a new obsession.

Stop. To. Think.

But he couldn’t, of course. That’s the point. Depression that deep is single-minded: it doesn’t allow in thoughts about the aftermath. Depression functions by minimizing access to rational thought. That’s its modus operandi.

The curiosity that caused all those papers to be printed is equally irrational. And as the checkout dragged on—the woman at the head of the line was having a long dispute with the cashier about coupons—I finally lost restraint and picked up one of the magazines. I skimmed to the story, but stopped myself after simply gazing at the photos—Robin in various film roles, a shot of the house in Tiburon where he died. I stuffed the magazine back in its bin, unread.

When I was four years old, my grandfather killed himself—a fact that was kept from me for years, of course, but that has haunted me ever since I found out. In high school I took a class called “Insanity in Literature,” where we read The Bell Jar and learned how its author, Sylvia Plath, had ended her own life in a gas-filled kitchen. I was fascinated by the concept of suicide. The romanticism of it appealed to my adolescent “they’ll miss me when I’m gone” attitude.   But there was something else, too: still grappling with the inevitability of death, I was amazed that anyone would actually want to move it up on the calendar. What on earth could explain that, I wondered.

I found out soon enough. My first novel, Chemistry, was inspired by one of my first romantic relationships, a love affair with a handsome 26-year-old man whom I watched sink into a debilitating depression. Just a few months into the relationship, I was thrust into the role of caretaker, witnessing his spiral into uncontrollable despair. He began seeing a psychiatrist and was put on medication whose effects were as unpredictable as the disease itself. And one day he attempted suicide by overdosing on the very pills that were supposed to cure him. He survived and was institutionalized for several months. It was during my frequent visits to the mental hospital that I began to see how depression works, how it pulls you away from the world into a solipsistic universe that admits nothing but itself.

As I learned from that experience, suicide has a disproportionate impact on the LGBT community, particularly our youth. And over the past week, a lot has been written about the increased risk of suicide for middle-aged men. So that covers two of my own demographic categories.

Despite what I’ve learned—through personal experience as well as studies on the subject—I struggle to understand. When I heard about Robin Williams, I tried to imagine what had happened. I tried to see myself in his shoes: walking through a beautiful, well-appointed house on a sunny day, past the mantel where my Academy Award stands guard, past posters of my films and various signs of success and adulation, into a closet full of designer clothes, so I could throw a belt over the rod.

It didn’t compute for me. He had everything he could want—everything I want—and still he did this?

But it’s not supposed to compute. It’s not supposed to make sense. Fame and fortune are irrelevant. The fact that Robin Williams achieved things I can only dream of is irrelevant. Many, in fact, have argued that the pain he suffered was precisely the thing that led him to overcompensate by being so incredibly funny. It may have been the key to his genius. But even that genius couldn’t stop him from reaching for the belt.

As I confront my own midlife crisis, I can’t shake the feeling that it could have been me; it could have been any of us. Our culture encourages men to be externally focused, to make their mark in the world. When you reach an age where new beginnings are hard to come by, disappointment inevitably results. There’s a tendency to believe you’re stuck with whatever it is you’ve created by then. When the second chances are used up and the years ahead are clearly fewer than the years behind, you’d damn well better be happy with what you’ve achieved.

And although I know that Robin Williams’s depression went far deeper than a midlife crisis, I still find myself cautiously observing the people in my life who fall into that demographic—looking for signs. Because a midlife crisis is no longer a joke.

Neither is depression. It made that point clear by killing the funniest man in the world.


The Intersection of Queer and Gay … and Straight?

This post first appeared in the Huffington Post.

My bedroom window looks out on the biggest rainbow flag in town. And that’s saying something for a town that’s draped in rainbow flags like monuments are draped in Christo’s pink fabric. And not just in June.

Indeed, my home, just inches away from Harvey Milk Plaza—the hub of the Castro—is poetically referred to by one of my friends as “the epicenter of faggotry.” I’m sure he means that in the nicest way possible.

My condo was built in 1981, just three years after the assassination of Harvey Milk. That was also the year that AIDS (then known simply as gay cancer) made its first appearance in the media. Those events are linked in my mind as the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, and they seem to come together here, in the shadow of that beautiful, rippling flag.

Directly across the street is the Twin Peaks Tavern, a San Francisco landmark widely credited as the first gay bar in the world with plate glass windows. Of course, it’s also known as the Glass Coffin and God’s Waiting Room, so you can appreciate why it wasn’t until my late forties that I began to visit it with any semblance of regularity.

As has been pointed out in the media of late, “gayborhoods” are going out of fashion, so the moniker Glass Coffin may have a deeper meaning these days. The bar earned that name because its clientele have traditionally been a bit older, but now one could say it’s not just the individuals who are dying out, but the traditional definition of the neighborhood.

Not that property values are declining, of course—far from it—just the old way of life. The Castro is still gay, but then again, so is San Francisco, relative to almost anywhere else in America. But gay no longer means quite what it used to, and my neighbors are a bit more diverse these days. I’m almost as likely to see straight women at the grocery store now as gay men (at least I think the men are gay, though the metrosexuals can make you do a double-take). To confuse things further, the sidewalks are often blocked by baby strollers. Some of those strollers, admittedly, are manned by two daddies, but more often than not, it’s a mixed couple. (I remember when mixed meant Jewish and Christian; only in the Castro could it mean male and female.)

The mail drop at my condo complex says it all: one particular tenant seems to have all her shopping delivered by Google. I can’t tell whether that means she works there or just uses their services; in any event, the hipster vibe is alive and well. The current tech explosion is for geeks what sexual liberation was for gays in the 1970s: It’s the beacon that now brings thousands of new residents to a city that used to be known more for sexual and political innovation than the technical kind.

Real estate listings now routinely refer to the neighborhood as Eureka Valley—a name that hasn’t been used in about 40 years. I suppose Castro has connotations that might put off certain potential buyers.

Personally, I think those realtors should take all potential buyers on a tour of shop windows on Castro Street. If posters of naked men and dildo displays make you think twice, then do: Think twice, and consider whether you really want to live here, as is.

A neighborhood isn’t just a plot of land. It’s a culture. And changing that is a lot harder—and a lot less defensible—than repainting your walls or planting different flowers in the yard.

So far, the neighborhood is thankfully maintaining its open and very gay vibe. San Francisco being San Francisco, the new residents tend to be just as liberal and gay-friendly as the rest of us. But I have to admit that I get a real charge out of the conflict between old and new. The Castro Theatre has taken to presenting sing-alongs of the movie Frozen at practically every weekend matinee. I love nothing more than watching the stream of tiara-clad little girls holding their mothers’ hands and strolling out of the theater, right past the naked protesters outside Twin Peaks. Public nudity was recently banned in San Francisco, so our resident naturists have taken to wearing gold lamé socks on their penises. Try explaining that to your Disney princess.

But we can’t hold onto the past forever. Cultures and neighborhoods, like species, evolve or die. In a world where gay people serve in the military, get married, and vote Republican, the least we can do is open our borders. I just hope we don’t lose our basic values in the process. I was recently appalled by a letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle by a gay father in the suburbs who vowed never to bring his child to a Pride parade because Pride parades are “disgusting” spectacles full of scantily clad people proclaiming the joy of sex. I hope he keeps his promise and stays the hell away. Frankly, I have more faith in my gay-friendly straight neighbors than in guys like him.

There was a day when we could only dream of acceptance. But now it’s sinking in that acceptance is a two-way street. Like Castro.