Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful...today! A review

Quick, where did the phrase "Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?" come from? If you're a child of the '80s (like other Goonies), you'd know that it's a song by The Waitresses.

But for another generation, that title has a new meaning - the name of a memoir by Kenneth Walsh, the popular New York-based gay blogger and copy editor. I befriended Kenneth at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalism Conference in 2007 in San Diego where we were booth buddies manning the New York Times Co. table. I remember during one of our conversations at a taco place, this tall stylish goateed guy kept lacing his stories with 80s references, something I easily related to being a pop culture junkie and a fan of NBC's "Facts of Life"  and the ultimate girl car, the Volkswagen Cabrio. 

Kenneth takes the good, he takes the bad and he takes them both and puts them to good use in his book. (sorry, '80s reference there). He chronicles his journey as "a nice boy from Michizona" (the suburbs of Detroit and then Phoenix) where he followed tennis stars Chris Evert and  Billie Jean King's every serve to his ultimate bright-lights destination - Manhattan where he dreamed of one day, hanging in the same circles as Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry. Kenneth was desperately seeking New York. (Sorry, another '80s reference there.)

Along the way with a few pet cats in between, Walsh recounts his coming-of-age (and gay) stories with a chatty tell-it-like-it-is manner, as if he's on the other end of a rotary phone or smartphone detailing the events like an old friend. His writing is smart and witty but it's also deeply personal. I expected some commentary on celebrity sightings and gossip items about New York which have become cornerstones of his blog along with photos of shirtless hot men, but I was surprised by the breadth of themes in the book. Kenneth delved into issues that are universal but that may truly resonate with gay men who grew up watching the hairy-chested "Magnum PI" and "Six Million Dollar Man" and listened to Madonna remix cassettes.

In the chapter, "new balls, please,'' Kenneth describes that suffocating feeling of being "different'' in his youth when he believed he'd be voted as "Most Likely To Be  Fag." Kenneth felt different in another way - he had an enlarged vein on one of his testicles which embarrassed him. He also vividly details the time he was bullied by his tennis teammates who cranked call his house at night, telling his mom if they could come over and have sex because they suspected he was gay.

In "Hi, Anxiety,'' Kenneth introduces readers
to his lifelong bouts of "crippling anxiety" which led to frequent blushing and a preference to hang out with people one-on-one rather than in groups. (And that's possibly why he became a copy editor instead of a reporter. You don't really have to talk to anyone on the street as the former.)  He traced this anxiety back to 1982 when he saw actor Kate Jackson booed by audiences of "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" as she talked about a then-controversial movie "Making Love' in which she played the wife of a man (Michael Ontkean) who had an affair with another gay man (played by Harry Hamlin.) At the time, Kenneth interpreted the audience's reaction as hostile and homophobic, which led him to hiding who he really was and the chronic anxiety the came with it. 

But what struck me the most was a chapter called "dad, interrupted,'' that explored Kenneth's alcoholic and absent father during his childhood. The chapter traces the happier times in the Walsh family as well as the more traumatic ones. Christmas gifts that his mom had to re-tape because they were damaged during a late night dispute; the time his drunk father crashed a Datsun into a light pole with Kenneth and his brothers in the car; and the shame Kenneth felt when he had to explain to his classmates that he had a stepfather and
why his biological father wasn't around. Kenneth reflects on how later as an adult, he began re-establishing a relationship with his estranged father who suffered dementia and wound up in a veteran's hospital.

This chapter tugs at the heartwith lines like "there was the horrifying reality of being thrown through a paneled wall as a four-year-old-boy while trying to pull him off my mother during one of his drunken tirades" and "why had this happened to him? He had his problems, but he also had much to live for - like three boys who need his father." If you stick with the chapter, there's a sweet payoff at the end.

To balance out the family and dating dramas, Kenneth included some fun juicy chapters. There's "The Thomas Robert Affair" (which I'm mentioned twice...muchas gracias Mr. K for the shout out.)  Kenneth recalls how he came across some revealing Manhunt photos of the former CNN anchor hunk and whether to post those images on his blog, Kennethinthe212. Helping influence Kenneth's decision:  the throngs of gay journalists who huddled around him over a computer work station at the NLGJA conference so they could all catch a glimpse of Roberts reported buff (and in the buff) body. That chapter also goes on to describe Walsh's (gulp!) awkward encounter with TRob at a New York event later on. 

And then are sweet moments such as the time Kenneth served as a impromptu photographer for Ricky Martin's disabled VIP fans during a book signing in New York. Although Kenneth went there to be photographed with the Latin pop singer, he walked away with so much more.

And the same can be said about "Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful.''  You come into the book thinking you're going to find a series of expanded blog posts about gay life in the 212 but Kenneth gives you so much more than that.


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