So. Tonight will be my third solo as the host of the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club. Our usual facilitator, N., is in rehearsals all this month for the new musical for which he's written the book and lyrics. Huge undertaking. I've agreed to sit in for him this month.
Rather uniquely, each month, N. selects a new book for our discussions, and every Wednesday of the month, leads a discussion with a number of regulars, and any number of new people. Changes week to week. Miss a week? Come the next. It is a formula that has worked quite well to date, though ultimately the success of this arrangement has had everything to do with N., his unique enthusiasm, his experience and skill as someone who knows how to run a book club, and his remarkable stamina. My role in the proceedings has been to suggest titles for consideration, and then show up for one or, at most, two of the meetings per book, and gab. I usually have had something to contribute in the way of the biographical and or historical context, but it has never been my show.
A month or more back, when he had another commitment one Wednesday evening, I filled in for N. We were discussing, I think, Gide's The Immoralist -- though I can't swear to that now. I just managed to see the hour out without anyone getting up and walking out.
I am not one of life's joiners. Whenever I've supported a particular cause, or felt compelled to participate in any but the most menial way in a group activity, I've done my best, but always with considerable reluctance, really, only when I felt that to not do so would be cowardly or wrong, or when I've been shamed into going along. So long as all that's asked of me is setting up chairs, or marching in a mob, or seeing that the phones are answered, I've done alright. When I've taken on any more responsibility than that, I've struggled not to make an ass of myself. Not a struggle I've always won. When I was considerably younger, I volunteered for more, and more often: working committees, community support organizations, other people's projects, political struggles, party-clean up. I'm glad that I did the little I did, even proud of some of the small contributions I made along the way to various worthy causes and undertakings at work or in the community. On some very rare occasions, I even managed to initiate something that, I still I like to think, worked. So long as whatever I was doing was not dependent on seeing to other people's responsibilities or subject to lengthy discussion, best of all, when what I did could be done with a broom, or with minimal collaboration, or just in the company of friends, I was happy. Which isn't to say that I do not play well with others, even strangers, but I can be impatient, thick, and reduced to sullen helplessness in a surprisingly short time, when called on to work cooperatively in a larger group, or as the leader in anything more important than a conga-line. As an organizer, as the designated go-to, as host, one might say, I rather suck.
Clubs, of any description, even "Book," I have assiduously avoided until now. At various times, in various settings, I've been asked along to writing groups, author appreciation society meetings, and any number of book discussions. I am frankly still amazed that, having described to me the agonies, for example, of listening to a lengthy critique of one's writing from some semi-retired housewife/aspiring composer of greeting-card-verse, that anyone would ever willingly return to a writers' group, let alone invite one's friends. Whatever little direct experience of this sort of thing I've had has only convinced me of the prudence of staying well away. Once, I went with a friend -- just as moral support -- to her presentation to an "artists collective" she was desperate to join. I can honestly say, I would rather have auditioned for a place in the chorus line of "Showgirls," ("Ice your nipples") rather than go through the Maoist rigors I witnessed my friend subjected to by that bunch, forgive me, of sign-painters, macrame weavers and tinsmiths. I know, I know, many people actually find this sort of thing helpful, the "feedback" genuinely valuable, even inspiring, but not me, brother. Clearly, I lack the requisite intestinal fortitude. (Better I just noodle away here, all alone, in my nightshirt.) As for book clubs...
At my present employer, I once agreed to start a book club, centered on biography and or literary classics -- depending on to whom I was speaking when -- but thankfully, nothing came of that. When my good friend R. began hosting a book club in San Francisco, his experience actually sounded quite encouraging. My friend N., as I've said, is an old hand at this sort of thing -- been runnin' one for years -- and when he asked for my help with his new Gay & Lesbian Book Club, I was enthusiastic, so long as it was understood that mine was to be a supporting part, and given largely from offstage. With the passing months since we started, I've come to enjoy most of the little time I've spent in the actual discussions. That's surprised me. The regular participants are a delightful bunch; thoughtful, rather more serious than not, careful in their reading and articulate in discussion. But the juice in most of the meetings I've attended has almost always come from the careful squeezing of our excellent, permanent host and master of ceremonies, N. In his absence, or better say, with me in his chair, the discussion can dry up faster than a condemned man's whistle on the way to a hanging.
N. understands how and when to ask a question, and how not to answer questions directly, instead he turns most comments artfully back to the group. I tend to ask and then answer. Awful. My friend has a kind of genius for being both provocative and reassuringly affable when leading off. I tend to lecture and or grow nervously voluble.
My first assay at hosting this month got off to a deadly start when I rather impatiently described a word-game I'd read about in my research for our book this month, Isherwood's A Single Man. I distributed slips of paper and pens and then... well, just say I made a mess of it in minutes. Doesn't matter what I was thinking this might lead to, because it led to little more than an awful silence, filled by the unpleasant sound of my own droning, indeed, drowning gasperating. (I can close my eyes now and see the confusion, still feel the chill.) Things got a little better thereafter, but the evening never quite recovered. I talked entirely too much, to no one's surprise, even my own. And, rather than explore the reservations expressed by a number of the participants about the book's ending, I finally had to be told, by one kind soul, "I want to talk about the ending," before I was moved off my damp little patch and into a discussion proper.
Last week, I will admit, things went rather better. Dear A. and I had at last seen Tom Ford's movie adaptation, which we both thoroughly enjoyed, and so there was that to talk about. (The casting, I thought, of the supporting boys was particularly interesting, and not at all what I'd expected. It's all about the casting, really, isn't it?) Recognizing that I am very much miscast myself as the host of these meetings, and having the week before hardly given the kind of entertainingly reliable performance everyone has come to expect from our usual leader, I tried not to be quite so... overdone, and relied more on the other players. Bless them, all so good. I tried myself very hard, in fact, to fade.
But now I face not one, but two more discussions of the same book -- my choice by the way, this slim novel. I dearly love Christopher Isherwood, and I am of that opinion that holds this novel to be not only his best, but historically and artistically significant. But now, I'm just thinking...
What will we talk about?!
That is, if anyone can be induced to return to the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club again before N. returns to his usual role in March, if I haven't closed the show by then. (I'm bringing Orley Farm with me, just in case I'm left quietly alone to read in a corner for an hour.)
N., speaking for the group, we miss you, desperately.
(Hope he's enjoying rehearsals.)