The rogue gene

“I have stopped drinking and running around … ”
My dad, top right, with my mom on their wedding day.

In the summer of 2003, I was on a road trip in Mexico when my father sent a rare email to all six of his children. Andy Wolff was an admirer of Humphrey Bogart, especially his hero’s way with a few understated words. The email was short and the tone almost offhand. He was forwarding a letter – FYI – from a man named Michael Wolff of St. Louis, Missouri, his hometown. 

“I don’t mean for this letter to be an intrusion,” the letter began. “My reason for writing is that I was doing some family historical research and I believe that you and I have the same father …”

Sixty-five years earlier my grandfather walked out on his wife and three children and into family lore – a beloved and spoiled son gone bad. Known by his childhood nickname, “Boy,” Andrew S. Wolff Jr. was a dentist like his father, and a jazz musician. A relative spotted him playing saxophone in “a sleazy club” after he’d run off. A more disturbing rumor: he got a woman pregnant, the attempted abortion was botched, and her brother chased him out of town. It’s just as likely that he’d blown his inheritance and was deeply in debt. My dad, the youngest and his namesake, was not yet two when he left. 

My dad’s half brother, Mike Wolff, with my daughter at my brother’s wedding.

The few letters Boy wrote to my grandmother before he disappeared for good were evasive and maudlin. “I have stopped drinking and running around …” “… it was either leave or suicide …” “too much title to live up to – and too much to live down …” 

Dad, in accordance with his personal code, said little about growing up fatherless or his mother’s struggle to support three children. Mom answered questions with curt dead-enders – “He doesn’t want to see his father, and if he ever does, he’d punch him right in the nose.”

But Dad passed on the opportunity to do just that. He was raising his family in a farm town in southern Minnesota when a dentist mentioned that he’d met an Andrew S. Wolff in the dental field – in Rochester, just 45 miles east.

What were the odds? 

Sometime after he left his family in St. Louis, Boy enlisted in the Army. He married Michael Wolff’s mother while he was stationed in Wisconsin – without going to the trouble of securing a divorce from my grandmother. Mike Wolff was born in 1945 and grew up believing his father was a college dropout from Chicago. His parents acted in community theater and made a modest living. “No one in our family knew that my father had been a dentist,” he said.   

My dad’s mother, Marie Porges Wolff, left, with her daughter Eileen, grandchildren, and her mother, Malinda Bentz Porges, with whom they lived when my grandfather left.

Clues to Boy’s true past occasionally flickered across the screen. He bought a clarinet and a saxophone at a yard sale, played them expertly – once – and never touched them again. Still feckless with money, he filed for bankruptcy when Mike was in college. Mike’s brother, who died young from a rare neuro-developmental disorder, somewhere glimpsed a  document showing their father was born in St. Louis. 

Years later, Mike was hired to teach at the St. Louis University law school. One day in 1979, he was walking through a room of old city directories at the public library and decided to make a quick search. Sure enough: there was an Andrew S. Wolff practicing dentistry in North St. Louis in 1910. Before long he’d found the records for his grandfather’s estate, including a tuition bill for Boy. His father had earned his DDS at St. Louis U.

My dad, 45, with a statue of him as a pilot, a gift from my mom (he’d realized a lifelong dream by getting his pilot’s license). If you saw him and Mike together, you’d know they were brothers (the similarities in their voices is uncanny, too).

Boy had been ill for some time, and he died the following year, un-confronted, but Mike’s mother was still alive. She didn’t know, Mike decided, and “would have been deeply hurt to learn, even years later, that she had been deceived by the man to whom she had been married for about 37 years.” She lived until 2002. By then the internet had made it easy to track down his half-brother, who was 66 and living in North Texas. 

Across years and states, the siblings were unmistakably related: wry and prone to questioning authority, with tall foreheads and mischievous, toothy smiles. Perhaps because the parents, wrong and wronged, were gone, they quickly became friends, arranging visits, swapping photos (here’s your father as an old man; here he is young), regenerating an amputated family tree. A Democrat who’d been appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court, Mike didn’t know his great uncle was a Democratic U.S. Congressman during the Progressive era. We didn’t know how devout Presbyterians had become a family of Catholics. It was the wandering Boy – the grandson of a fiery anti-papist who married devout Catholic women. 

My dad died just three-and-a-half years later. Mike flew to Texas to say goodbye before he was gone. 

Sons of an actor at home and onstage, Mike and Andy turned out as dependable as Boy was inconstant – happily married, professionally accomplished. Through their lives and their sons they each gave their father’s name the clean slate he had craved. 

Boy’s death years earlier deprived my dad of a day of reckoning, if he even wanted one. But in their short time together my dad experienced true happiness with his brother – a rare gift even in families that share a lifetime. 

“It may be repetitive,” Andy wrote to Mike the year after they first met, “but your finding us has been a joy.” 

Drag me to the keyboard

On the foundation garments of inspiration
One of John McBurney’s polaroids from the Ponderosa. Story at Outinsa.com.

When you wear a gun, you dress for the gun.*

I moved to San Antonio, Texas, in 1988, just before I gave birth to my first daughter. I was a single mom, one month ahead of being a “teen mother,” and there was still plenty of stigma attached to that status for middle-class girls. It was a prison sentence, living in the beige suburbs with my parents, rock-garden yards, and no sidewalks, and it took me two years to find my first escape: Monte Vista, a grand old 1920s and ’30s neighborhood filled with gently dilapidated Italianate and Tudor mini estates. I rented a two-bedroom apartment for $350.

From there it was a short hop into the gay community, first through my downstairs neighbors, and then via the artists Chuck Ramirez (he and/or his boyfriend at the time lived down the street and threw elegant little dinner parties that often ended in a fight) and David Zamora Casas, whom I met when I was a board member for the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center. Shortly thereafter, one of my brothers came out and moved in with me, at which point my familial relationship with all things queer in SA was cemented.

Highlights of our bond include Fiesta Cornyation**, and Out In SA, a magazine for the LGBTQ community that I launched with Euclid Media in 2015. During my tenure as editor, we ran at least one historical article every issue, filling in the holes in the mainstream public record. One of my favorites was a feature on the drag community of the ’60s and ’70s, and a bar just outside the city limits called the Ponderosa. (John McBurney, the star of story, created my wig when I was King Anchovy for Cornyation XLII).

The drag performers I met during these years were a seemingly bottomless well of creativity and inspiration: how to do it from scratch, against the odds, in the face of disapproval and worse. I particularly appreciate that even as society has embraced the art form, the drag queens I know remain iconoclasts willing to use their platform to critique and question our priorities and values. That’s one reason they’re pivotal characters in my manuscript Public Record. The other reason is that they’ve always been there, pushing the boundaries, expanding our humanity, onstage and off.

The hysterically on-point Tencha La Jefa, photographed by Julián Ledezma for Out In SA.

* Maria Margaronis, relating an anecdote in the introduction to Lost Property

** Some day soon I’ll devote an entire post to the irreplaceable Mister Danny Geisler, who was responsible for my long-term Cornyation relationship

Missing an icon

What Would Shimi Do?

Last week an artist I knew and admired died suddenly. S.T. Shimi was just 49, and in this year of Covid dread, it was a car that struck her down. It’s like we were all looking the wrong way.

She had just stepped off the bus on her way to the pole-dancing and fitness studio where she had reinvented herself almost a decade earlier after a career in performance, arts education, and administration at Jump-Start Theater. Shimi’s work at Jump-Start explored racism, feminism, queer issues and more in complicated and inventive ways inspired by her multi-layered identity as a woman of color from Singapore, whose conventionally accomplished parents didn’t always get her.

We weren’t close friends but we were friendly, and as a journalist and editor I covered her work many times. A couple of years ago she co-founded a male drag troupe, Los MENtirosos (stage name: Butch), and I invited them to perform at an annual garden-party fundraiser for Fiesta Cornyation. Some of the troupe members were still working out their acts, and not all of the largely gay crowd was into it, but Shimi rocked it and sold it, like she always does.

We met for a coffee or a drink several years ago, shortly after Jump-Start had shut down and Shimi was job-hunting. At the time, she was already making a name for herself in burlesque and exploring pole-dancing as fitness and performance, but she was still toying with the idea of finding something more traditional – feeling the financial pressure, really, like all creatives do at some point. We talked about a well-known public relations and marketing firm and I remember getting a sinking feeling for her. If marketing isn’t your calling, doing it for long will curdle your soul*.

So it was thrilling and awe-inspiring when she created a new professional life as her alter ego, Black Orchid, who collected numerous titles while erasing the lines between fit, feminine, and feminist. She also found time to return to school for a masters degree, and posted about it with the joy of an 18-year-old at college for the first time. I’ve thought a lot this past week of her husband, the artist Oscar Alvarado, who championed and shared an extraordinary life with this supernova.

Thanks to social media, and Shimi’s talent for it, I could watch her accomplishments with wonder from afar: luscious-looking homemade dinners, elegant cocktails, screen-worthy makeup, sumptuous attire, and those late-night pole-dancing “noodles.” I would joke with my husband about getting smacked with Shimi’s glittery crotch on Instagram, but really it was so inspiring, the message spinning along with the fringe: There are no contradictions in your dreams. Pursue them all.

*Yes, the world needs marketing people (or they’re particularly good at thriving in our current niche, and even then you have to admire them) but as with MMA fighters, not everyone is suited to it.

A #NaNoWriMo Report Card

This was my first year participating in #NaNoWriMo, and I quickly figured out that my current writing journey wasn’t an exact fit (yes, I could have read the instructions, but I was caught up in the … moment … of the moment). The annual, month-long race to 50K words is really designed for that book you’ve always meant to write – your first or your fifteenth – and while I do have a new WIP, I’m also massaging the finished ms and sending out queries (oh, yes, #amquerying). Call it plausible procrastination, but I couldn’t just focus on the newborn while my toddler is still learning to walk. Naturally there’s a hashtag for outliers – #NaNoWriMoRebels I think – and that was my 2020 niche.

And what a fruitful niche it was. The Twitter exhortations, the #SinC50K community within #NaNoWriMo, and even the hint of a deadline all pushed me toward a respectable finish:

10,737 words on my new WIP, placeholder name: Blue Wave

9,812 in net rewrites for Public Record

This here website (Thanks to an excellent SinC class with author Julie Hennrikus)

A pair of cute pants, made with an organic cotton twill from Mood Fabrics and the Lander Pant pattern from True Bias. #NaNoWriMoprocrastination #procrastination pants

A #NaNoWriMo white flag

According to my official #NaNoWriMo stats, I wrote more than 8,000 words in one day this week, but as you can probably guess, that’s just operator error. If you want to hide something from me, put it in a drop-down menu. On the upside, I’ve saved so much money by having my credit-card declined because I don’t in fact live in American Samoa.

I did, however, write more than 10,000 words so far this month: 8,512 net for Public Record edits and rewrites, plus another 1,500 for the prequel WIP, Blue Wave IV.

They are actually quality, not just quantity (I think) and the secret, I’m so very sorry to say, has been drinking a lot less and full-on exercising. Not just hiking, which I enjoy so much it doesn’t qualify for the “work” in workout, but trail-running — or the beginning of trail-running. This involves running downhill and hiking up, according to more than one guide I’ve read and will not be citing here. All of that virtuous activity leads to good sleep, which results in waking up very early and getting so many things done that sometimes I’m confused about what day it is.

I’ve been so productive, in fact, that it’s precipitating an existential crisis that can only be beaten back by an evening of dinner in bed and bad TV (although the TV I’m watching right now is deliciously great: Suburra). If you are one of those enviable people who just chug along productively, never looking down, you have my admiration.

A short story is in, wish us luck!

Hint: It contains snow and/or balls.

Submitting your work to total strangers is thrilling and terrifying, and in this case, for me size doesn’t matter. I’ve sent a crime caper off for consideration for an anthology. Fingers crossed and all that. Writing it was a nice break from the novels, and I’m eternally grateful to my SinC sisters who did a deep dive and really helped polish this little gem. It’s a blind submission, so for the time being I’m vague-posting about it, but I can’t wait to share it with you — in print I hope.

Public Record is back from the beta

One of my favorite movie scenes is in Chinatown, when Jack Nicholson tears a page from the land records. DO NOT do that IRL.

One of the valuable lessons you learn (I hope!) when you get serious about becoming a published author is that no agent wants to see your work before it’s been through a beta reader, or several. That your-eyes-only copy is not for courting representation, and having your besties love on it does not count. I’m not here to tell you how to find a beta, or why, but I will recommend Sisters in Crime as a good place to start.

SinC is where I found two beautiful beta readers, one of whom has just returned my first manuscript, Public Record, a political suspense novel set in a city much like San Antonio. You can read more about that here while I get to work on edits.