Back to the ‘80s?

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that lipstick and shoes are economic indicators: during tough times both lipstick sales and heel heights are up.

So what does it say when Vogue takes a look at ‘80s nostalgia in recent couture shows?   You could chalk it up to some marketing maven’s spin on the more the things change, the more they stay the same. Or maybe there’s something in the air, culturally (not to mention politically) speaking that’s taking us back to the ‘80s.

Think about it. First came American Psycho on Broadway just when the personification of the greed-is-good mindset finagled his way into the White House. 2016 also brought two major Robert Mapplethorpe exhibitions in L.A. that became jumping-off points for an HBO documentary on the artist.

‘Stranger Things,’ the Netflix hit series set in the ‘80s, was spawned that year. I caught up, and fell in love with it, in all its innocence and strangeness, a year later. A stroke of not-so-strange genius in casting Winona Ryder (think Beetlejuice,1987) as the mother who knows like no one else that something is rotten in the town of Hawkins?

Innocence may be the operative word here. After the letdown of the ‘70s weren’t we oh-so-ready for the ‘80s, one day footloose, another day burning down the house? That’s the way it was for anyone who just loved rock ‘n’ roll. Concerts and clubs did not feel like danger zones.

There was glamour and, yes, greed. There was Ronald Reagan. There were hints of a mysterious gay plague no one would ever believe it would be as bad as it would end up being.

Looking back now maybe it had the feel of a last chance, even a last dance. Frank Bruni, in the opening essay to the April 17 issue of the New York Times T Magazine focused on the early ‘80s in New York, reminds us that “People lived larger and louder than they had just years before. They also died younger.” And maybe the revival of so many things that echo the ‘80s is here to remind us what a threshold decade it was. Hippies took a back seat to Yuppies. E.T. cast a spell, the Berlin Wall came down.  We were gripped by a royal wedding, fairy-tale style, a woman became the first Supreme Court justice, another woman the first vice presidential candidate.

The environmental disasters that marked the decade—Bhopal, Chernobyl, Exxon-Valdez—were warnings that gave rise to a certain amount of regulatory guidelines but here we are decades later threatening to turn back the clock.

Maybe that’s the real conundrum of the times in which we live:  there’s no turning back from what technology, ‘90s style and beyond, has wrought, even if it has us longing for a kinder, simpler time.  Put to its best use, that same technology makes it easy to relive—and build on—those ideas and moments from an earlier decade that have as much relevance and resonance now.

Could there be a better time than this for a revival of Tony Kushner’s epic play, Angels in America, with its undercurrent of secrets and lies, love and death, corruption that seems mild by today’s standards?

AIDS may not be the death sentence it once was, but it’s still with us. Celebrities like Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson gave HIV/AIDS a high-profile face but it took lots of good people acting up to make the government pay attention. The decade that saw men beaten up by police for being gay also brought them out into the streets in anger and pride. No small irony that it was a decade also marked by the brutal beating of a black man by a group of white men in Howard Beach, Queens. Decades later, there’s no room for complacency.  We’re still fighting for health care, equal rights, equal pay. Gun control. If the medium is the message, we have Twitter and Facebook at their best, and worst, to bring visibility to the fight(s). We also have the ‘80s to thank for the way it took protest branding to a new level.  The powerful, provocative Silence=Death poster/slogan paved the way for pink pussy hats and Black Lives Matter.

So, let’s put on our red shoes and dance. The Donna Summer Musical is lighting up Broadway.  She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s 1986 debut movie, is having an updated Netflix reincarnation. Cats, gone from Broadway, is on to its next life in a North American tour that includes Providence, Chicago, Raleigh, and Los Angeles. And let’s remind ourselves, it’s not so much about going back as it is about recognizing all we got from an era that changed our lives.

 

Groundhog Day

I love Groundhog Day.  It’s a silly tradition but it manages to work its charm. I always wake up on February 2nd filled with anticipation about all the implications of a shadow. (Did that funny-looking creature with an equally odd name see his shadow? Did he not see it?) The shift to more daylight, so incremental since the winter solstice, suddenly feels dramatic. Winter is on its way out; spring is on its way in.

I know Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t always get it right, and I don’t care. I may be less forgiving with my local know-before-you-go meteorologist whose forecast promised clear skies and left me running for cover in a downpour—just the thing that got Bill Murray’s character in trouble in a cult classic movie that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. What better way to mark the story of a weatherman caught in a comedic time warp with existential implications than for Starz Encore Classic to have round-the-clock showings today?

Putting aside the clever spin ‘Groundhog Day’ (the movie) brought to this very day, for me it’s more about continuity, and the whys and wherefores of legends.

One legend links Groundhog Day to Candelmas, an ancient Christian tradition marking the midpoint between winter and spring during which candles were blessed by clergy and handed out. A sunny, clear day signaled (superstitiously speaking) a long, rough winter; a cloudy sky meant warm weather was on its way.  The legend of Punxsutawney Phil as we know him, seems to derive more directly from German lore in which a hedgehog seeing his shadow on a sunny February 2nd was a sign of a six more weeks of winter.  Early German settlers in Pennsylvania made the groundhog a stand-in for the hedgehog.

This February brings more than a spring alert. As many of you may already know, that novel you got a glimpse of when I asked for your support in a Kindle Scout campaign (which did rev me up even if it felt a little like ‘American Idol’ for book lovers), is coming, April 10th to be exact.  Publishing is a quirky business that demands a great deal of tenacity and faith from a writer.  We write, we revise, we chuck what we think doesn’t quite cut it or we tuck it into a folder if it has some vestige of possibility.  We crave validation, we cry at disappointments that make us question why we do the very thing we could not live without doing.

At the heart of my novel is a young girl’s special relationship with a doting gay uncle and her coming of age during the ‘80s, which were nothing if not a threshold decade. Think about it—AIDS. Ronald Reagan. Glamour and greed.  My fictional mind took me to an era marked by innocence lost. And my metaphoric soul took me to a month on the cusp of spring, the shortest month of the year.

Now it’s here, the novel and the month for which Just Like February gets its name. Leap Year plays its part in reminding us there’s something more at play in how we measure our days. And, yes, the groundhog makes a brief appearance.

 

 

 

Young at Heart

July 1985. I’m behind the counter of Farmhouse, Inc., an East Hampton design shop my husband opened with the man who would have been his partner had he not died. It’s Saturday night. We play Frank Sinatra music, always a draw.

It had all the markings of a good plan. Keith, my husband’s assistant in his NYC interior design business, wanted to open a design shop in East Hampton. He spent half his week in the city and the other half in Sag Harbor where he lived with his life partner, Peter, who had a thriving hair salon. The Hamptons had plenty of antiques shops but nothing focused on contemporary design. Lew liked the idea.

They found a space for rent, gave it a name: Farmhouse, Inc., a gallery of craft/tech. That was February 1985. Another person might rethink signing a lease with someone just diagnosed with HIV. But that other person would not have the spirit of the man I married. By springtime Keith had full-blown AIDS but was holding steady. We had a Memorial Day opening bash filled with friends (including local luminaries), and all the promise of a creative new venture.

 

If pictures truly are worth a thousand words, how’s this one for silliness and feeling young at heart? Please ignore the socks I’m wearing. It was a time. It was a look. Do not ignore the smile on the face of my dear friend, Regina, and me.

By early July Keith was gone.

Can’t say I would ever really fill Keith’s shoes, with all that he would have brought to the partnership but we gave it our best shot. The following July would find me very pregnant and overjoyed by my mother’s visit. Sara would be born a month later.

Why is this on my mind now?

Well first there’s the Frank Sinatra connection. Almost any song on the cassette we regularly played as customers browsed takes me back, but “Young at Heart” puts me there in a flash, the wistfulness of it, hand in hand with a melancholy undertone.

Then there’s the novel I would write, sparked by the need to make sense of a very troubling time. These were the early days of AIDS. Nobody knew what was really happening. Days felt shadowed with clouds.

More and more a sense of innocence lost took hold. All those years of sex/drugs/rock ‘n’ roll free love and now we have sex equated with death. What would the impact of that be on anyone coming of age in the ‘80s? I pictured a girl, a beloved uncle, the mysteries surrounding him. I pictured her born in the summer of ’69, coming of age in the ‘80s, a time when the mysteries give way to tragedy. How does a young person, in all her innocence, make sense of it all? How does she confront the ugliness of that thing we call homophobia?

How does she handle grief?

And, what if her own sexual awakening occurs while her uncle is dying?

There you have it, the seeds of Just like February, which will at last be published next April by Spark Press.

In the words of the young narrator’s quirky grandmother: “If you live long enough, you see everything.”

Speaking of which, here I am, another July years later, the kitchen renovation I recently wrote about brought to completion but forever holding all that’s contained in those moments defined by before and after.

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