Author Archives: Joel Derfner
November 29, 2013
MIKE: Hey, honey, how are you?
ME: I’m fine, I guess.
MIKE: What’s wrong?
ME: The history of the fifth century Athenian constitution is very confusing.
ME: I’m fine.
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September 17, 2013
Lawfully Wedded Husband: How My Gay Marriage Will Save the American Family — Available Now!
“I bought more ornaments for the Christmas tree!” Mike called as he closed the front door behind him.
“We already have too many ornaments for the Christmas tree,” I said, not looking up from Persuasion. (Louisa was about to get her concussion, and I’d be damned if I was going to interrupt the story now just because my boyfriend had passed a store with shiny things in the window.)
“I know, but these were so fabulous I couldn’t help myself. Come and take a look at them.”
“But I’m reading.”
“Too bad. You have to come look at ornaments.”
“Fine,” I snapped, dog-earing the page—Captain Wentworth was unlikely to have a change of heart while I wasn’t looking—and walked into the living room, where Mike stood beside the Christmas tree taking things out of shopping bags. (I’m Jewish, but Mike is not, so I seize the holiday as an opportunity to decorate.) I sat down on the couch, picked up the nearest bundle of pink tissue paper on the coffee table, and unwrapped it to find a huge, glittering purple star. “Oh, my God,” I said; I could tell Mike was manipulating me by playing on my weakness for purple, but I was powerless to resist. “You’re right. That’s gorgeous.”
Perhaps this was worth a few minutes before returning to my book after all. I unwrapped another ornament, which revealed itself to be a shiny tin ear of corn.
“Hmph,” I said. Mike is from Iowa and thinks of himself, because it drives me crazy, as a corn proselyte. He feels he has both the right and the responsibility to torment me by doing things like threatening to replace our chandelier with a corn-shaped light fixture or buying shiny tin ears of corn to hang on our Christmas tree. It’s awful, but I haven’t figured out yet how to stop him.
I unwrapped a couple more ornaments, which were, I was grateful to see, closer to the purple star than to the ear of corn. The contents of the last box, however, when I got it open, looked, confusingly, not like an ornament but like a ring sort of thing. It was round and heavy and gold, with an engraved pattern and a little pink jewel—lovely, but far too small to be a Christmas tree ornament. I turned to Mike, puzzled, and saw that he was down on one knee.
“Joel,” he said, “will you marry me?”
And I looked at him, looked at the man who had been my comfort and my support for years, through trials and tribulations greater than I had ever expected to face, gazed deep into his eyes, so full of love, and said, “Hang on a second.”
“I’ll be right back.”
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Okay,” I answered, “I haven’t been an astrology addict for years and years but this is super-extra important so I have to go check and make sure the moon isn’t void of course. Stay right there.” I leapt over the coffee table, ran into Mike’s office, prayed as I woke his computer up that the Cablevision gods might choose to be merciful today and allow us the elusive Internet access for which we so grossly overpaid their earthly representatives, checked the void-of-course ephemeris online, ran back, leapt over the coffee table again, turned to Mike, took his hands, and said, “Yes! Yes, I’ll marry you!”
“I don’t know, you left me hanging a long time. I’ve been having second thoughts.”
“Get away from me.”
“Your shirt is on inside out.”
The ring was a little big; when I pointed out that we’d need to have it resized, though, Mike furrowed his brow. “I don’t understand. I used one of your rings as a guide.”
“The one on the chain in your desk drawer.”
“Are you serious?”
“Honey, that ring is a replica I bought online of the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings. That’s the only size it comes in—they sell it with the chain because you’re not supposed to wear it. Didn’t you see all the Elvish lettering?”
“I’ve always thought you were the greatest force for evil in the world.”
But we spent the evening watching romantic comedies with his arms around me all the same.
September 11, 2013
Okay, so I have a new book coming out and I’ve already gotten my first negative review from somebody who hasn’t read it! (Everything between the first sentence and the last paragraph is quoted from a review on Lambda Literary’s website.)
The book is called Lawfully Wedded Husband: How My Gay Marriage Will Save the American Family, and it looks like this:
I’ll post about the book itself later on, but I’m too excited by the review not to post it immediately:
“As American leadership declines, these messages in a bottle from that quaint and flatulent Victorian empire seem more and more irrelevant every day. Marriage, the refugee camp of the intellectually exhausted conformist, must be dolled up to look like the Academy Awards ceremony. Can these people really think of themselves as superheroes for joining the status quo? Yes they can!”
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May 16, 2013
Several years ago, I decided that I wanted to write a murder mystery set in ancient Greece in which Socrates was a bumbling idiot.
It has taken me a while, partially because I’ve been focused on other projects and partially because certain aspects of ancient Greek society presented obstacles I didn’t know how to overcome. I’ve figured out how to overcome them, however, and am now working on the book.
I’m finding fiction about ten thousand billion times harder to write than nonfiction, but that’s a post for another day.
Today I want to discuss a small problem: Thucydides.
It turns out that pretty much every single ancient Greek person you've ever heard of lived at the same time. Pericles, Socrates, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Herodotus, Thucydides, Hippocrates, Alcibiades, Protagoras, Zeno, Anaxagoras, Pindar—in 449 B.C., every single one of them was alive (and most of them knew each other). Go fifty years in either direction and you add Plato, Aesop, Xenophon, Pythagoras, Aeschylus, and Themistocles. For Homer, Draco, and Solon you need to go back from there, and for Aristotle, Demosthenes, Archimedes, and Euclid you need to go a little forward, but the point is: they’re all mashed up together.
This is great for me, in that I get to write about how annoying Euripides finds Pericles. This is bad for me, however, because, since nobody had last names (well, they sort of did, but using them in genre fiction would be impossible; Socrates’ full name was “Socrates, son of Sophroniscus, from the deme Alopece,”and doing it that way would be worse than a mystery in which everybody went around calling each other “Mikhail Nikolayevich”and “Stephan Sergeyevich”), there are other people with those names as well.
So my current problem is that a major player in my mystery is named Thucydides—but he’s not the Thucydides we all know and love from the History of the Peloponnesian War. He's Thucydides’ grandfather. The Thucydides we all know and love from the History of the Peloponnesian War is ten years old in my book. But there’s a frame, and in the frame the Thucydides we all know and love from the History of the Peloponnesian War has just started writing the History of the Peloponnesian War. So it’s becoming more and more difficult to give the reader a clear guide in how to tell them apart.
Actually I may have it covered; I'm calling them “Thucydides” and “Old Thucydides.” The real reason I'm making this post is that I was talking about it to somebody the other day and discovered that it’s incredibly difficult to say, “The Thucydides.”
Go ahead. Try it.
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March 30, 2013
This passage, while I love it, was simply too long a tangent—it was pretty much completely irrelevant to the section it was in, and it really threw off the flow. But I still kind of love it. So, Michele di Pietro, thank you, and I'm sorry.
I can’t see anything wrong with polygamous marriage, especially since I’ve met exactly one person in my entire life who was interested in being in one. We arranged casual sex online and, as instructed, I showed up at his place, entered through the unlocked door, took my clothes off, and put on the blindfold he’d left for me. We had perfectly lovely sex with a bit of very tame bondage thrown in, and then when we were done he untied me and unblindfolded me and I finally saw him and he gave the impression of nothing so much as a delicate, wan Smurf. Then we went for a walk and talked about lots of things, including polygamy, and then he told me that he wanted me to be his slave. I demurred and went home; I wasn’t interested in having any master but myself, and in the alternate universe where I was, he was not going to live in a mushroom. Thus when the next week the gentleman called and asked me out on a real live date—“Do you want to have dinner on Friday?” he said—I was so taken aback that I actually said, “No,” though when he said, “What?” I backed down and started babbling about not wanting to be a slave in a polygamous relationship and then he said that he was open to all sorts of relationship options and then I pretended that the connection had gone bad and hung up on him, though I did so while I was talking so he would think that I had actually been disconnected and not just avoiding him, because who would actually hang up on himself? He e-mailed me a few months later and asked whether Cheer New York, the gay cheerleading squad I was a member of, might be able to participate in the Polyamorous Pride parade. When I mentioned this to Cheer New York’s coach, he said, “Oh, my God, that guy e-mailed me and I never answered him. I was like, what are we going to cheer? ‘Two, four, six, eight, everybody!’?” I saw some photos of the event later and there were twenty-seven people there; in a city where the annual No Pants Subway Ride regularly draws over three thousand participants, if you can’t attract thirty your cause is pretty anemic (though when I asked a statistician friend to do the calculations he said that with a set of twenty-seven people to draw from there were very approximately a thousand trillion trillion different possibilities for polygamous groupings, or about one tenth of the number of stars in the universe, so perhaps I’m thinking about this using the wrong math). My point: this guy was a nice if somewhat odd fellow, and I doubt there are more than a relative handful of people in America who want to marry polygamously anyway, so I don’t really see the point in stopping them.
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March 29, 2013
The section in chapter 8 about the "Judeo-Christian tradition of marriage" used to be much longer—at one point it was an entire chapter. But then people I showed it to were like, wow, I can tell how much you enjoy research but please stop. So the next few posts are from that section.
There’s a lot of stuff in the Judaic tradition that would get a lot of Christians a hell of a lot more upset than gay people getting married. (Which, come to think of it, it has, which is I guess why Christians have been killing Jews for millennia.) Here’s an example. Genesis 2:18-22 tells us (in the King James version) that
the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. And the LORD God . . . took one of his ribs . . . and made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
Adam looks sad and lonely, so God creates puppies and bunnies and butterflies to frolic around him and keep him company, and then he creates Eve to be his wife. Simple enough, right?
Well, not quite, at least not according to Jewish sages, who aren’t stupid enough to pretend that that puppies and bunnies and butterflies crap will fool anybody. No, says Rabbi Eleazar in Yevamot 63a; Adam was lonely and he was also horny, and one by one, as God created the animals, Adam had sex with them all. It was only after Adam had fucked every animal on earth and still not had a truly satisfying orgasm that God realized he needed to step up his game and pulled the rib from Adam’s side to make Eve. This includes not just puppies and bunnies and butterflies but also the Tyrannosaurus Rex. And the tarantula. And the slug. And the paramecium.
How’s that for the Judeo-Christian tradition, Mr. Santorum?
Or let’s look a little more closely at the first man and woman, shall we? According to the King James version of Genesis 5:2, “Male and female created He them, and blessed them, and called their name Adam.” Later translations, interested more in easy comprehension than in accuracy, render “called their name Adam” as “named them man” or “called them human.” But Talmudic scholars are more punctilious in Genesis Rabbah 8:1; the only explanation for the singular name with plural sexes, according to them, is that Adam was a hermaphrodite. Sages differed on the question of whether Adam was simply a regular person with male and female sex organs (Rabbi Yirmiyah ben Eleazar) or more akin to Plato’s sphere people, with a male face and male features and genitalia on one side of the body and a female face and female features and genitalia on the other side (Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman, who then interpreted taking a rib from Adam’s side to make Eve as cutting the whole in half), but they were all in agreement that the loins from which the human race sprang were intersex.
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March 28, 2013
More about "the Judeo-Christian tradition of marriage." I should note that, when I sent this passage to a theologian friend of mine asking for comments, he wrote back saying this was the clumsiest, most unsubtle view of the history of Christianity that he'd ever seen. So know that this isn't endorsed by your local anybody. That doesn't necessarily mean it's not true.
Before I started writing this, my understanding of the Christian perspective on marriage was: Sex is bad.
I was not surprised to learn that the truth is a little more nuanced than this.
It’s true, it turns out, that the early Christians weren’t so hot on sex and that they regarded marriage as a consummation not particularly devoutly to be wished. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes, “I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide [celibate] even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn” and, though most modern translations disingenuously render this as “than to burn with passion,” even a cursory examination of the relevant texts makes it clear that the smoke of hellfire was in Paul’s nostrils. A century or two later, St. Jerome, one of Paul’s biggest cheerleaders, writes, “He who is in the merely animal state, and does not receive the things pertaining to the Spirit of God . . . is not fed with the food of perfect chastity, but with the coarse milk of marriage. . . . Corruption attaches to all intercourse, and . . . the rewards of chastity cannot belong to marriage.”
Reading these sentiments expressed by the guys who started this whole thing didn’t surprise me a great deal. What did surprise me was finding out what they were really after: they wanted, if I understand correctly, to destroy the world. Jesus’ buddies lived in the midst of a bunch of pagans whose society was chugging along as stably as ever, which they found really annoying, because Jesus had said he wasn’t planning another visit until everything was irreparably fucked up, and they missed him. So they figured that if they just never had sex, they wouldn’t have any kids, and if people stopped having kids altogether, then society would fall apart, the world would end, and Jesus would come back.
In other words, when the Romans sent Christians to the lions, it wasn’t just because it was fun to watch the lions rip the Christians apart, though I’m sure it was; the Romans were protecting their country from terrorists.
After a while, though, everybody’s “The end of the world is at hand!” signs started getting pretty tattered, and the longer the apocalypse kept failing to materialize the more difficult it was for Christians to believe that it would. They couldn’t just say, oh, well, guess we were wrong, however, because by this time there were a lot of them, and their increasing numbers were giving them something they’d never had before: power. Rather than give it up, therefore, Christian theologians just developed another justification for all this celibacy, which was that sex is bad. (They were particularly upset by non-vanilla sex—saying things like, “It is better for a wife to permit herself to copulate with her own father in a natural way than with her husband against nature [orally or anally],” for example—but really they didn’t seem happy about any of it.) Of course most of the people becoming Christians weren’t so interested in celibacy; they just wanted to keep living their lives the way they always had, and the Church—forgetting apparently that its original intent had been not to take over society but to destroy it—turned a blind eye to their infractions (sexual and otherwise), which meant it was easier for more people to become Christians, which meant that the Church had to turn a blinder eye, and eventually the religion that had begun as a revolution established itself as the most powerful protector of the status quo in history.
Protecting the status quo at the time meant, among many other things, that the Church licensed prostitutes, and that priests, while officially celibate, could have as many concubines and kids as they wanted provided they paid the officially established fees. Eventually, though, Martin Luther and his friends were like, we’ve had enough, and one of the things of which they’d had enough was the hypocrisy of the Church’s hoity-toity attitude toward marriage and sex compared with its actual practices, so they said, you know what, we’re taking our marbles and starting our own club, and in our club, marriage is good, though only with pure vanilla sex, because marriage is a “hospital for lust”; any other kind of sex within marriage (and any kind of sex at all outside) is “dreadful, scabby, stinking, loathsome, and syphilitic.” Once Luther had fractured the Church, moreover, there was really no way to unify it again, and disagreeing sects and denominations multiplied over generations, with the result that when the Puritans came over to America a little later—remember, they left England because they wanted the religious freedom to be uptight—American Protestant Christianity was born as a religion that hated sex, the body, and women, but thought marriage was a fine idea.
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March 27, 2013
I tried and tried and tried to find a way to get this in, because I absolutely love it, but I just couldn't find a place where it didn't mess with the flow. I was writing this in 2010, so the 2008 statistics were the most recent I had. It wouldn't surprise me if the trends I discuss continued.
The last argument the Defenders of Traditional Marriage make is that American marriage is already in a precarious enough position and that allowing gay people to marry would destroy it altogether—that if we degrade the institution by letting gay people in, straight people will have an even flimsier standard to hold themselves to.
Let’s look at that, shall we?
In Massachusetts, marriage between people of the same sex was legalized in 2004. If we look at the divorce rate between 2003 and 2008 (the latest year for which statistics are available), we should be able to develop an idea of whether marriage equality has harmed the institution of marriage there.
In 2003, the divorce rate in Massachusetts was 1.21%. In 2008, it was 0.96%. This means that, during the first five years of marriage equality, the Massachusetts divorce rate fell 20.7%. Not a particularly damaging blow to the institution of marriage.
But we’re looking at this out of context. What if, during the same period, divorce rates dropped much more in other states, and Massachusetts was actually dead last in divorce reduction? In that case we’d have to admit that the Defenders of Traditional Marriage might have a point.
Except that the Massachusetts divorce rate fell farther than that of forty-seven of the other forty-nine states. The only states with bigger reductions in divorce rates during the same period were Rhode Island and Maine, with respective drops of 20.8% and 21.2%. That still places them behind Massachusetts in 2008 divorce rates: Massachusetts is in fact the only state in the union with a divorce rate under 1%.
Okay, but maybe all the other states are in more or less the same position—maybe divorce rates dropped 20% or so around the country, and Massachusetts is third among fifty equals. We don’t want to be unfair to the DTMs by creating the illusion of significance without actual significance backing it up.
So let’s look at, say, Alaska, which as it happens was the first state to enact a constitutional ban on marriage of same-sex couples.
In 2003, Alaska’s divorce rate was 1.87%. In 2008, it was 2.20%. That’s an increase of 17.2%.
It’s possible that marriage equality would be the best possible thing for the health of American marriage since the invention of earplugs.
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March 26, 2013
The first draft of Lawfully Wedded Husband was told in present tense—it opened in medias res, flashed back, and then caught up to itself. This was the opening of that version of the book.
It’s 4:09 on Thursday afternoon, December 17, and here is what I have accomplished so far today: gotten out of bed, walked the dogs, masturbated, watched the episode of Law & Order: SVU in which Chris Meloni, undercover as a douchebag exotic-animal-smuggler wannabe, spends an entire scene shirtless almost getting roughed up, taken a nap during which I dreamed about writing a show for three sisters in which they played three sisters who were putting on a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, started to knit a green hat, read the Wikipedia article about Baumol’s cost disease, read many other Wikipedia articles about many other things, including but not limited to a) the fall of the Hawaiian monarchy (poor Queen Lili’u’okalani!) and b) mud, edited the Wikipedia article about historically informed performance of early music, unraveled the green hat and started over in pink, watched YouTube videos of songs from Disney’s Pocahontas in French and attempted literal translations back into English, with only moderate success (falling short of complete triumph would once have been cause for crippling self-laceration but I am now well-medicated enough not to want to kill myself for being ignorant of the French word for “otter”), masturbated, showered, gotten dressed, unraveled the pink hat and started over in purple, gotten ready to leave for the musical theater writing class I teach at NYU, and written this list.
Here is what I have not accomplished today: called the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens to schedule my wedding.
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March 26, 2013
Here's more from the narrative of the Seddons. I think this stuff is fascinating but it slowed the story down so much it made me want to slit my wrists. It's also pretty much irrelevant to the story of the book. And at one point it was even longer because I wanted to go into all this stuff about how poison brought to people's minds not just cholera, which they already didn't want to think about, but also the taint of the Orient, which only reminded them that the British Empire was falling to pieces. And then there was a whole thing about people being horrified by the attempt at class mobility. I'd include that stuff too, except that I never got it into any kind of shape worth my finishing, much less worth your reading.
The 1912 murder trial of my mother’s father’s father’s father, Frederick Henry Seddon, and his wife, Margaret, was a sensation in England. At first glance it’s difficult for me to understand why the proceedings received such wild attention, given that they followed so quickly on the heels of the 1910 trial of the much more extravagant Henry Crippen, who had drugged and dismembered his wife, incinerated her limbs in the stove, dissolved her organs in acid in the bathtub, buried her torso in the basement, thrown her head overboard while at sea on a day trip to Dieppe, and set sail for the United States with his secretary and lover, Ethel Le Neve, disguised as his son, only to be arrested when the ship stopped at Newfoundland. I mean, really: what is feeding your tenant arsenic in comparison with that? (Though I read the other day that the torso from the basement was recently discovered to be that of a male, which means that Crippen was either innocent or even more extravagant than we knew.)
But then I read a book by Harold Schechter called The Devil’s Gentleman, about Ronald Molineaux, accused in 1899 of poisoning his Brooklyn landlady, a romantic rival, and the president of the club he belonged to, and I began to understand better part of why the trial of the Seddons was such a big deal.
The terror of society today, in the twenty-first century, is the stranger who turns out to be a serial killer. That’s why you always go on a first date in a public place, that’s why if you arrange sex with somebody online and you show up and he looks wrong you just turn around and go home, though if his deltoids are incredibly well developed perhaps it’s not an easy choice to make, that’s why parents on the Upper East Side yell so loudly at the nannies they underpay when they bring their kids back late from Enrichment Tutoring or when they suspect them of being the subjects of a Bad Nanny Sighting on isawyournanny.blogspot.com. We’re surrounded by strangers about whom we know absolutely nothing, who can enter our lives without a moment’s notice, who could rape us and murder us and leave us as nothing more than the inspiration for a ripped-from-the-headlines episode of Law & Order: SVU.
Things were different a century ago. Back then, you didn’t speak to people you didn’t know. The days when you needed an introduction from a common friend before you were allowed to talk to somebody you hadn’t met before without being drummed out of society for it may have been over and gone, but you were still circumspect about letting somebody into your life. Nobody had to tell their kids not to talk to strangers, because nobody talked to strangers in the first place. Social intercourse simply wasn’t as free, so people felt far less cause to worry that one day they would meet somebody at a party and he’d show up the next day at their house in the turn-of-the-century equivalent of a hockey mask and disembowel them.
What they did feel cause to worry about, however, according to The Devil’s Gentleman, was what they put in their mouths, because people were finally understanding that, when they bought pills advertized in the newspaper as cancer cures, 1) not only might they not cure cancer, but 2) they might also contain, for example, a combination of opium, arsenic, baking soda, ferrous sulphate, Pepto-Bismol, boric acid (used today as an antiseptic, an insecticide, and a flame retardant), and Vaseline, and 3) this might be bad. Or that they could go to the grocery store and come back with candy colored with oxide of lead, cheese mixed with mercury salts, and lard preserved with caustic lime and alum. It had yet to occur to people that, since what they ate could kill them, it might be a good idea for the government to decide what merchants were allowed to put in food and medicine they were selling, but they were edging toward that notion.
In other words, people were terrified of their food.
Enter Freddy (as I affectionately think of him), whom the Internet calls “the meanest murderer in the history of poisoning.”
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