Monday, December 31, 2012


My First Smoke

Sonia in my apartment over Thanksgiving.  We're still friends.
I had my first cigarette at age fourteen with Sonia Saxena, at the pond that passes for a lake in Twin Rivers, New Jersey.  I had just met Sonia – she was my friend Laurie’s fancy friend that went to the fancy private school (Peddie) down the street for my decidedly mediocre public high school (Hightstown High).  My high school's motto was: Pride in Performance.  Please note, quality was not a prerequisite for this pride.  The only part of my high school that really excelled was a Humanities program that integrated English and History and basically taught me how to think and make connections.  But I digress. . .

Just Say No
The day I met Sonia, I was still part of the brainwashed “Just Say No” generation.  I hadn’t yet realized that drugs, like most things, can be great when done right and terrible when not.   Smoking was wrong.  But Sonia smoked.  And Sonia was cool.  So smoking was cool.  I had a cigarette that afternoon in August, choking down the smoke of the Marlboro light, and a few cigarettes later, I even enjoyed the sensation a little. 

I didn’t become a smoke overnight, but the next summer, at the Summer Shakespeare Program at McCarter Theater, I met a few fellow drama-rama teen smoker kids like myself.  Back then, you could smoke indoors, in the green room, and doing it made me feel like one of the professional actors.  That was also cool. 

Marlboros and Camels and Parliaments, Oh My!
By the time I got to college, I was downing a pack a day.  I was up to Marlboro Reds (I’d demote myself to Mediums when they came out, shortly thereafter) by then, but would also smoke  Parliaments with their recessed filters, Camels with their phallic brand logo, Benson & Hedges (coincidentally, the heir to either the Benson or Hedges fortune was rumored to live down the hall).  Lecy Goranson turned me on to American Spirits, and even though they were more expensive and almost impossible to get (we’d have to drive to a store in New Paltz) I loved those the most.  The light yellows, the normal Blues, the semi-light light-blues, the organic reds, the unfiltered browns, the special blacks.  It’s a testament to my memory and their packaging that I still remember all the variations.

The first time I tried to quit smoking was when Garland Wright died, in July 1998.  I did it cold-turkey.  Then a few weeks later an evil wizard possessed my brain and convinced me that having one again would be okay.  And so I did.  And it was okay.  It was better than okay, like meeting up with a good friend after years apart, and finding out you still have a lot in common.  The evil wizard convinced me to have a few more.  By the next month, I was smoking a pack a day again.

By that point, taxes were up and I was rolling my own.  It was messy and weird and an interesting conversation starter, and I liked all those things.  Loose tobacco, like loose women, wasn’t taxed.   I also liked being able to control the size of my smoke.  In spite of my sausage fingers, I’m good with my hands, and I mastered the skinny five-minute toothpick cigarette and the fatter ten-minute fatty.
The last time I played poker,  my pocket aces got busted by 10/J.
I made a few more half-hearted attempts to quit over the next few years that involved patches and gums and carrot juice.  The next time I quit for real was when Wendy Wasserstein died in January of 2006.  I lasted longer this time, a few solid months, until my dalliance with online poker drove me back to other unhealthy addictions (as opposed to healthy addictions?).  In December of 2006, broke, single, unemployed but miraculously with health insurance from a directing gig at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I went to my PCP and told her that I wanted a prescription for Welbutrin.

I chose my quit date:  January 1.  I started taking those little blue pills.  I would eye the date nervously on my calendar as December progressed.  At first, nothing changed.  But then, whole hours of being awake would elapse before I realized that I hadn’t smoked.  Or even wanted one.  That was Welbutrin’s real power: it took the wanting away.  Given that almost every day since I was 18 started with a cigarette, this was its own Xmas miracle.  


I smoked my brains out that New Year’s Eve, at a friend’s party in Queens.  I woke up on January 1st, 2007 and haven’t had a cigarette since.  The Welbutrin had some funny side effects.  Since it was developed as an anti-depressant, I got up with abundant pep the glorious three months we were together.  My dreams were also really intense, as they were whenever I tried the patch – Technicolor and epic, like WIZARD OF OZ meets PARADISE LOST.  My three-month prescription ran out in February, and I begged for more, but seeing the manic look in my eyes, my doctor wisely suggested I go off and see if I had kicked the habit.

I hadn’t just kicked the habit. Smoking lay at my feet, bruised and bleeding like I’d just fatalitied the shit out of it, Mortal Kombat style.  I haven’t had a cigarette since – tomorrow, that’ll be six years smoke free.  Not even a puff.  Not like some of you ex-smokers, who can cheat every now and then.  There are some addictions that I trust myself to flirt with, like poker.  Sometimes poker will flirt back, and we’ll go out a little and neck, but I know I’ll have the strength not to call the next morning.  But smoking isn’t like that.  Smoking’s like that ex you hate, the one who will always have some power over you, and even though you know you’re giving that ex the power s/he has, you still can’t stop yourself from doing it.  That’s what smoking is to me.  Or was. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Vegetarians Are Annoying But You Don’t Have To Be


My Killer Tofu Scramble

This post is going to be a cooking post.  My last one was about getting gay married.  The one before that was about getting my book published.  I’m curious to find out which topic (work, love, food) gets the most positive response from you, my eager readers.  I hope your holiday season is choo-chooing along merrily and that you haven’t killed or been killed by your relatives.  I had a lovely three days in Central Jerse with my fam, punctuated by heavy board-game playing with my friends in Central Jerse who make my visits to the suburbs bearable: Billy Reeves,  Christoper Parks and Chris Guild.  I also saw THE HOBBIT, the first third of which reminded me of an awkward Will & Grace episode, and the last two-thirds reminded me of ridiculous drek.  But I digress. . .

Before I get into my recipe, I want to share the menu at Tossini the night Rafael gave me my engagement ring.  My sister, who is shocked by my audacity in using friends’ real names on this blog and asked that I refrain from using hers, pointed out that I promised it in the last post but did not actually include it.  So here goes:

Speaking of great eating, the centerpiece of the Barakiva Xmas dinner this year was a  beautiful crown roast of pork.  My brother did the actual cooking, but I found the recipe, so I figure I can include it in my blog.  It's from Melissa Clark's New York Times column.  Here’s the link to the video and recipe:

And here's a picture of my brother's final product:

It was hella delicious.

A Hearty Vegetarian Breakfast

I'm including a very simple (although rather time-consuming) recipe in today's blog - something that I hope won't intimidate my non-cook friends and still stimulate the ones comfortable in the kitchen.  It's one of my favorite breakfast recipes, a killer tofu scramble.  I’m not someone who especially likes tofu, so when I make something of that ilk, it has to be rather extraordinary.  If you're one of those vegan-types, just cut the cheese at the end and, voila, you're good.

Scrambled Tofu on mini-tortillas

When I was the resident director on DIRTY DANCING in Los Angeles, there was this great diner (don’t ask me for the name – I have no memory of it, much the way I have no memory of most things I did in LA) where I’d have breakfast around the corner from the theater.  They served up a pretty good tofu scramble, so I decided to come up with one myself.  The recipe I’m presenting to you is the result of years of experimenting.


It’s rather labor intensive, but since scrambled tofu keeps for a few days (unlike, for example, scrambled eggs), I recommend making a big batch and eating it intermittently over the course of the week. It’s also delicious served over brown rice or wheat/spelt berries, or with tortillas (use corn tortillas, which are de rigueur in Central Mexico, where Rafael is from.  Flour tortillas are more popular in the North, but Rafael and I look down on them and the people who eat them, because he considers them less authentic and I think flour is the devil’s work).

Like most great recipes (quiches, for example), you can basically make this with anything you have lying around the house, so don’t stress the individual ingredients.  Use capers if you don’t have olives, or feta cheese if you don’t have goat cheese.   The only important part is making sure to add the ingredients that require the longest time to cook first, and proceed accordingly. 

This recipe starts with chopping and onion – this is probably the single most important kitchen skill a cook can have, since so many recipes (savory especially) start like this.  So, I’ve decided to dabble into multi-media and created some very sophisticated video for this post, in which I demonstrate close-up (since that’s the only way I could figure out to shoot this sequence with my iPhone) how to slice, chop and mince an onion.

Tofu Scramble Recipe


A few tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, sliced thin
1 or 2 chiles (Serrano works well if you can handle the heat, but chipotle or something mellower is lovely, too)
1 or 2 containers of tofu (firm or extra firm are used in savory cooking, soft or silky in dessert – again, don’t ask me why – this is just the way of the world)
4-6 oz of mushrooms (those cheap white ones are fine, or baby portabellas work well, too)
3 bell peppers (I like using different colors, but monochromatic works)
A handful of olives (kalamata are my favorites with this, but use whatever you have to give it some brininess )
4-6 oz of spinach
2 oz goat cheese, crumbled (or feta, or any cheese, really)


Bring a very very large skillet or pot or Dutch oven to medium heat.  Remember, we’re going to be making enough for a few portions, so whip out the big guns here.  When it’s hot, pour in the olive oil [MB1].  Don’t be shy with the portion– this is a very healthy dish without a lot of fat, so you can afford an extra splash. 

I slice the onions while the oil is heating, because I’m lazy and hate having to prep.  Once the oil is hot but not smoking, throw the onions in.  If it starts to make a sizzling sound, you’ll know you did it right.  If it doesn’t, you didn't.  Then slice and de-seed the chile [MB2]                          and throw that in with the onion.

While the onions and chile cook, cube the tofu.  The easiest way to do this is to do exactly what I demonstrate in the onion-cutting viedo: cut it into horizontally (maybe two or three parallel cuts per block), then along it’s length, then along it’s width.   It should look something like this:



Once it’s cubed, you have two options.  You can either smush the cubes in your hands, resulting in something that looks like a scramble, or you throw it all in a large bowl and use a potato masher to achieve the same effect.  If you use your hands, you might want to wear gloves because the tofu is really cold.  What’s important is that once you’re done with it, the tofu achieves the same consistency as scrambled eggs.  Throw the tofu in with the onions and chile, stirring it in.


While all of those cook, prep your mushrooms:  cut off the bottom part of the stem, then run a paper towel over their heads.  [MB3]   Once you’re done cleaning them, slice them.

Throw the mushrooms in to the pot, bring the heat to high, then cover for around five minutes, to force the mushrooms to release their water.  They don’t want to do it, but you shouldn’t feel bad about making them.  Then drop the heat back down to medium and remove the lid, so the water cooks out of the dish – like with eggs, you don’t want the tofu scramble to be wet or runny.

While the mushrooms are cooking, cut the bell peppers in half, remove the seeds and tops, and cut them into the strips and then again into squares, so they’re roughly the size of those little square pieces of gums we used to get out of the machines. 

Once the mushroom water has all evaporated, throw the gum-sized pepper squares in with everything else.  Your skillet/pot/Dutch even should be quite full by now, and if you think things are sticking to the bottom, throw some more oil in.  That always helps when things are sticking to the bottom.

Give the scramble a good stir and then throw in the olives, chopped up a bit, obviously sans pits.  Give everything a few more minutes for the flavors to blend, then throw the spinach (baby spinach as is, if it’s all grown up, give it a good chop.  I imagine even frozen spinach could work, but I don’t use frozen vegetables because I’m not a heathen).  When the spinach has wilted a bit (two minutes, let’s say), turn off the heat, and ladle a portion out into a bowl or plate (if you have brown rice or wheat berries, put that in the bowl first), and sprinkle some cheese on top, letting the scramble’s heat melt it.  I prefer to sprinkle the cheese every time I serve it, rather than putting into the mother lode of the dish.

If you didn’t use a chile, some good hot sauce is another nice way to give the dish a kick.   

Stay tuned to find out why a wedding photographer makes more in one day than I do in a month of directing work, why the rebel angels attempted a coup d’etat against God in Heaven.

Until then – happy holidays from Awful Goodness.

Always get your skillet or pan or pot or Dutch hot before adding the oil.  Just trust me here: hot is better, because the point of the oil is to act as a conduit for the heat, and if there's no heat, the oil just gets absorbed and then you'll have to put more oil in the dish and the dish will be well, oily.  To ensure the skillet or pot is sufficiently hot, I like to lick my finger and super-quickly run it over the surface of the skillet.  If it sizzles and I almost burn myself, I know it’s hot enough.  Unless you’re cooking with meat, you don’t want the oil smoking, just glistening in that beautiful way oil does, like a scrying pool or magic mirror.  Yes, I played Dungeons and Dragons as a child.


Most of a chile’s kick comes from its seeds, which carry the oil that gives its heat.  Removing the seeds is a great way to tame the hotter chiles, but when you’re working with the super-hot ones, like serranos, I’d recommend wearing gloves.  As I said in my first post, I have accidentally touched my eyes or nose or other parts after working with them bare, and the searing sensation as the oil penetrates your orifice is anything but pleasant.


Don’t wash mushrooms – they’re already incredibly high in water content.  To clean them, just lightly run a paper towel over their head to remove any dirt.  It’s just dirt, after all.  On average, you eat three pounds of dirt a year, so a little more ain’t gonna kill you.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Getting Gay Married: The Rings

Getting Gay Married: The Rings

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about getting married in a way that’s interesting, because god knows this is not a field starved for literature.  The closest thing I have to a unique insight, I think, is to discuss the ways in which getting gay married is different than getting not-gay married.  I’ll start with the rings.

Rings have been involved in the wedding rite for a very, very, very long time.  It started as a ring presented at the time of betrothal (this was still the case in the Orthodox religions until recently).  Around the time of the Reformation, in England, the ritual expanded to include another ring that the groom gave the bride at the wedding.   It symbolized the material wealth a groom could offer a bride, as is seen in the The Book of Common Prayers (also known as the Eduard VI Book of Prayers, since it was published during his reign in 1549).   After the groom said, "With this ring I thee wed," then said:  "This gold and silver I give thee,"  At which point, the groom would hand the bride a bag of money, usually filled with silver and gold.  I hope Rafael isn’t expecting this, but if he decides to hand me a bag of money at the wedding, I’m not going to say no. 

In some cases, the ring was given in exchange for the dowry, as is seen in this lovely German proverb, incorporated into their Renaissance wedding vows: "I give you this ring as a sign of the marriage which has been promised between us, provided your father gives with you a marriage portion of 1000 reichsthalers.”

Now, I’m not sure what today’s reichsthalers-to-dollars conversion is, but it sounds to me like the groom is getting a pretty good deal here.  I wonder if the bride in this example had some deeply unattractive features, like being a Republican or believing in the nonsense the NRA spouts. 

Eventually, the evil wedding machine realized it could double its ring sale profit by convincing us lay people that the groom needed a ring as well (after all girls, you don’t want your man unmarked do you?  That’s right you don’t), and there you have it.

I knew I was going to propose to Rafael Ascencio Almada on May 24th, 2011, our three-year anniversary.   I knew I wanted it to propose with a ring.  I knew that I wanted to present him a ring when we got married.  Assuming he said yes, of course.  I wasn’t one of those cowards who only proposed after I was assured an affirmative response.  Rafael and I, in fact, had barely spoken about marriage.  Just a brief exchange a few months earlier when he asked me, hopefully, if I ever thought I’d want to get married and I said, simply, “No.” 

I proposed at our very romantic location, a pier on the Hudson River.  I figured if he said no, I could just throw myself in the river, and since I don’t know how to swim, he could either let me drown on jump in after me and save my life, which is the least he could do after dashing my dreams.

But unlike the heteros, for whom all this stuff has already been figured out, I needed to rethink the custom since Rafael has a real job, and I didn’t want him to have to wear two rings – what man wants to wear two rings?

My dear friend Andy Goldberg (brilliant director and teacher – check out his Shakespeare classes at:  

is dating a wonderful man, Mammoun Jabali, who recently left his successful career as an anesthesiologist to become a jewelry and floral designer (I find stories like this inspirational because they reinforce my possibly deluded belief that if I had gotten into a real profession I would’ve left it anyway).

Mammoun and I met a few times, and designed an asymmetrical half-ring.  The idea was simple: I could propose to Rafael with this bottom piece, and then when we got married, I’d have give him the top.

Didn’t it come out heavenly?  Designing the ring was fun, but following Mammoun as he navigated his way through the Diamond District and got it made was amazing.  The Diamond District and Chinatown, I’d say, are probably the last two totally un-gentrified neighborhoods in New York, and I’d highly recommend taking a walking tour of either.

First, I stole one of Rafael’s rings and measured it size (8.5).  Then Mammoun created the cast, and we bought a sheet of 18K gold that would be melted down into the cast to form the ring.  For those of you gold-neophytes, 24K gold is basically pure gold, but rarely used in casting rings because it’s too soft.  18K gold is around 75% gold, and the remaining alloys used to strengthen it up is what determines its variation in hue – use silver and zinc and other white’ish allows, and you’ll get white gold.  Use only pure silver, and your gold will get a green’ish hue. 

Once we had the ring itself, we went to the office of his teacher, this amazing Russian jewelry-maker named Boris with the most beautiful artist’s hand.  He took out a bag of diamonds, and I bought the one I wanted to set in the ring.  He also had the idea to put a few smaller diamonds on the inside band of the ring itself, which I loved, so I bought three little ones more, one for each year we’d been together.

Mammoun and I took the ring and the diamonds to another office in the diamond district maze.  This one had a hard-core security system, which always makes me feel like I’ve come to steal something, even though I obviously hand’t.

The guy there, who I believe was half-Russian/half-Pakistani, gave me a fine-tipped pen and had me draw, on the rings, where I wanted the diamonds set.  He told me to come back the next day.  As I was leaving his office, through the locking doors, I thought how stupid I was for leaving the most valuable object in my possession with a stranger without even so much as a receipt.  But that’s how they roll in the Diamond Disctrict.  Luckily, my half-Russian/half-Pakistani friend didn’t rip me off, and the next day I picked the final product up.

Rafael and I decided that we’d have a ring for me made in time for the wedding, along with the top half of his.  Last night, however, Rafael took me out to Torrisi Italian Specialties (one of our favorite restaurants, even before they won their Michelin Star this year).  $75/person isn’t cheap, per se, but it’s just about the best value for a brilliant meal you’ll get in New York.  Here was the menu. 

Right as our lemon cake was coming, Rafael surprised me with this beautiful piece:

He used 18K white gold and found a stunning black diamond to set in the ring.  I have been wearing it for a total of 17 hours now, and I love having it.  He even found three smaller black diamonds that he put on the inside of the band, like I did with his.

 I know that being engaged is not about having a pretty ring.  Meg Keene writes in her great book, A Practical Wedding:   “The next time someone tries to imply that you are not engaged because you don’t have a dramatic enough engagement story or a ring, firmly say, ‘You know, I like to think of my partner as my rock.’”  I did that a few times in the last months and the discomfort I caused was profoundly satisfying.  It is nice, however, to have a physical representation of the new state, especially, I think, when the legitimacy of gay marriage still hangs in peril in the few places where it exists.

I was happy with the process of creating Rafael’s ring because I did it on my own terms.  I didn’t have thousands of dollars to buy something from one of the stores, and so I tapped into my amazing network of friends and made something unique for him.  I’m using this experience as the touchstone for all of the wedding planning – rather than getting hoodwinked by thieves disguised as vendors, we’re really trying to do it on our own terms, shifting through the traditions that are meaningful, discarding the ones designed to make you spend an obscene amount of money, and create an event that reflects who and what we are.

I'm going to end every getting gay married post with something like this:
Do what you want.  Don't get pressured by crazies into spending a ridiculous amount of money on ridiculous things (the older couple sitting next to us at Torrisi yesterday told us they flew in a ten-piece band from LA to St. Louis to perform at their daughter's wedding, then augmented it with another ten-piece local brass band.  I contemplated asking them to pick up our check).  Figure out what's important to you, and, like you're figuring out a production budget, sacrifice accordingly to make it work.  

The great thing about being gay, and getting gay married, is that it forces you to re-think all the givens, all the accepted conventions, and figure out what you like and how you like it.

Happy holidays, and more soon on the crown of pork my brother and I are making for very unkosher Xmas.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Getting Published


The cover of my book might look something like this.

Firstly, thank you all you wonderful readers – thanks for taking the time to check out AWFUL GOODNESS, thanks for your comments, and thanks for your support.  J'adore.  I do wish more of you would post comments on the actual blog, rather than email them to me under the veil of discretion, like a straight man sneaking out of a gay bar.  Your comments are insightful and witty – why not share them with the world?  And why not bolster my blog by showing that you actually read it?  You have nothing to be ashamed of.  And if you did, I would tell you – don’t worry.

Many people I’ve met, friends and strangers both, have expressed interest in how I sold my first book, One Man Guy (in bookstores in spring 2014).  So instead of dedicating this post to my Paradise Lost project, I thought I’d write about that instead.  My friends, many of whom are incredibly successful and accomplished, appear very impressed by my sold book, but to me, it’s like being a chimera in a field of unicorns.  I’m sure if most of my friends were writers and I ended up on Broadway, the response would be the same. But here’s what happened, for those of you who are interested.


Rafa dancing with Julia.

Joy Peskin was Linsay Firman’s roommate senior year at Vassar (they were one year ahead of me).  Linsay Firman was my last girlfriend before I came out fifteen years ago, continues to be one of my best friends and most amazing people I know, and is married to Shane Rettig, a composer and sound designer of the highest caliber.  She is also the mother of my god-daughter, the unbearably beautiful Julia Rettig. 

Joy and I would run into each other at Linsay’s various functions after college (such as her 30th bday, for which I cooked up an amazing Cuban feast, hired salsa dancers to teach us some steps and went dancing until the wee hours, ending up at Cafeteria after the wee hours before it was SEX IN THE CITY popular).

Around seven years ago, when Joy was at Penguin, we were hanging out at one of said Linsay’s events and she said to me, “You should write me a gay young adult novel.  It’s an up-and-coming genre.”  I was between directing gigs, and I thought, “Why not?”  So I wrote around fifty pages, sent them to Joy, she gave me feedback, I re-wrote them, and we worked that way for around two years until an entire novel existed.  As an editor, Joy taught me so much about writing and how to work with writers, experience invaluable to me as a director when I’m working with playwrights.  Once we felt the product was as good as it was going to be, Joy sent it to her publishers.  We couldn’t get them to bite, and as disappointed as I was, I figured that was the end of the book (at the time called THE SUBURBS SUCK).   

Maybe the point of this project in some large, cosmic sense, I thought to myself, was just to start me writing, and I was thankful for having done it for that reason.


A few months ago, I got a call from my agent, Josh Adams at Adams Literary (Joy hooked me up with them when we couldn’t sell my books all those years back).  I figured he was calling to drop me, because with the exception of a proposal that I hadn’t actually written and a few chapters of an aborted YA Shakespeare project, I had been totally unproductive as a novelist. 

Joy had since moved to Farrar Strauss and Giroux, at Macmillan, and had expressed interest in working on my old book at her new home.  “Would I look at the manuscript and see what I thought?”  Josh asked.  I remember the call came in late March:  Rafa and I had traveled to Mexico City because his father had passed away, and it was exactly the kind of buoyant news one wants during sad times.

I read my manuscript.  Because I hadn’t looked at it in five years, I could read it with clarity, almost as if someone else had written it – the kind of objectivity every artist wants, the kind directors strain for as they sit through their second week of previews, trying to remember what it would be like to be an audience member who’d never seen this show before, sitting in the house for the very first time.

I understood why Joy and I hadn’t been able to sell it all those years back.  The manuscript was bad.  The sentences were clumsily constructed, big lumbering trolls, crashing into each other as they tried marching to a common cause. 

This wasn't the kind of image I was looking for, but I thought it was so weird I should post it.  What's Spidey doing hanging out with a bunch of trolls?

And yet, the characters were interesting, and most of the structure was somewhat salvageable.  And more importantly, Joy had faith in the project, faith that I didn’t necessarily have myself.  Every time I’ve directed a play or written something, I’ve reached a point of utter hopelessness, and the person whose faith I can substitute for my own becomes someone to whom I am deeply grateful.  Joy was that person, not just because she told me to write it in the first place, but because she believed in me and it from the get-go.

I tried to read through without a pencil in my hand, but the editor in me (I worked as Wendy Wasserstein’s typist for five years, often editing her work as I went along) couldn’t help himself, and I began marking as I went.  Sometimes I’d re-arrange on a micro level, sometimes I’d re-order on the macro.  As bad as the manuscript was, I could see a good book inside, trying to get out, trapped by my inexperience as a writer all those years back.  But that was then.  And this was now.

Joy and I agreed that I’d re-write the first fifty pages (I ended up deciding to do sixty – the entirety of the new Act I) and she’d show them to the powers that be at Macmillan and see what they said. 


Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir
Re-visiting the material was joyful for me.  I felt more confident in my abilities, and the distance I had from the old stuff allowed me to re-write it without sentimentality or preciousness.  I came up with a new first scene, showing the main characters, an Armenian family, going out for dinner, because Armenians in a restaurant is a recipe for comedy (see Peter Balakian’s BLACK DOG OF FATE). 

I worked on those pages, gave them to Joy, got her notes, worked on them again, then waited anxiously to hear what the powers that be at Macmillan thought.  The pitch meeting, where editors present their projects, kept on getting postponed, until I finally received the news that they responded to the material, and the project had received a green light.  Joy and I celebrated by going to Almayass, the first Armenian restaurant to open up in New York in years, coincidentally around the corner from Joy’s office in the Flatiron building.


What’s the take-away here?  The first is to let other people’s imagination of you surprise yourself.  Joy looked at me, and instead of seeing a marginally employed theater director between gigs, saw a potential gay young adult novelist.  And as thrilled as I am that ONE MAN GUY (new titled) is going to exist in the world to be read, the most valuable outcome of writing it is not that it will get published, but rather, that it got me writing in the first place, and without that, I’d never be writing this blog, for example, or THE AETHER WILD, the post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy adventure novel I’m working on with Rosemary Andress and Suzanne Agins.

Isn't this image great?

We’re all in it for the long haul, so take your time and have faith. 

I’m going to end this post before I choke on my own sentimentality.  

Next up:  I'm going to switch gears, get into food, and post about my killer tofu scramble recipe.  Then I'll get into some juicy gay marriage stuff.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Original Sin, Mrs. Huxtable and Gay Marriage


Awful Goodness
A Blog by Michael Barakiva

Post #1 - 17 December 2012
Three Amazing Things In My Life

I have a wonderful weird life full of awful goodness, living in New York City as a freelance theater director and writer.  Three amazing things inspired me to start blogging.  The first is that on May 24th, 2011, Rafael Ascencio accepted my marriage proposal.  This is a picture of us that I like, because I think we both look amphibious. 

Me getting married is the result of a series of deeply unlikely personal and political events.  I'm not going to write about my relationship with Rafael, however – I’m pretty private in that regard, and he's very, and I'd be rather appalled by the idea of having strangers read about the fights we get into when one of us (me) insists that the other (him) not use the cutting board reserved for fruit to chop onions and garlic.

(Although honestly, I don’t see what’s so hard to understand about this –the oil from onions and garlic infuses wood, and although that can be lovely in a salad [many cookbooks encourage their readers to rub a garlic clove into a wood salad bowl], the last thing I want for my freshly cut strawberries is to have a savory undertone.  So why, after three years of begging through gritted teeth, does he still do this?)

I am, however, deeply interested in writing about the process of getting married, and gay married especially: figuring out what the ritual means unto itself, as well as what it means to be gay and getting married now, the process of re-creating its ceremonies, and also how to navigate oneself through the incredibly heinous industry that is the wedding machine.  Hopefully, the things I learn might help other gays and straights alike, because really we’re not that different.  Most of the time.  I think.

Original Sin

Second, I’ve undertaken a huge project: a first for me, in terms of scope.  Over the course of the next few months, a group of actors and I are going to adapt John Milton’s Paradise Lost for the stage.  I’m calling our project Original Sin.

This is the text I'm using.  I like it because the footnotes are at the bottom of the page, rather than at the end, the way they are with most scholarly editions.  If you buy it from this link, I make something like fifteen cents!

Here's a list of the actors who’ve come so far.  They’re an amazing bunch, ranging from recent grads of Bard College (I directed Charles Ludlam's Stage Blood up there last year) to true New Yorkers who’ve been in the biz longer than – well, a helluva long time, and have the chops and scars to show for it:

Franca Sofia Barchiesi
Michelle Beck
Paul Bernardo
Kersti Bryan
Lauren Coppola
Stephen Bel Davies
Mark Curtis Ferrando
Lindsey Gates
Erick Gonzalez
Jake Green
Morgan Green
Broughton Hansen
Kelly Hutchinson
Maggie Lacey
Linda Larson
Phil Mills
Rahaleh Nassri
David Scotchford
Roya Shanks
Eric Sutton
Madeline Wise

We’re meeting twice a month, and at a book/session, we’re planning on getting through the entire thing by April.  The impetus for this project was deeply instinctual: I felt a deep urge to work on something big, something without living rooms or couches or doors, something epic with a lot of actors.  And I wanted to create a project large enough that I could invite any of the many artists I know and love in the city.  

Before I meet with the Original Sin company, I trim the book down and assign lines to characters, then we get into a room, work through the text slowly asking amazing questions along the way like:

Can Angels die?   
What is evil?  
 If God is omnipotent, can he create something he can’t destroy?  
 What the hell does this passage mean?   
Does anyone have anything to eat?

 Then we read the whole thing straight through.  In early May, we’re planning on presenting a day-long concert read of our final text with two meal breaks, with food prepared by moi.

Preparing a table for Mrs. Huxtable

Which leads me to the third thing I want to write about: food.  I love food.  I love eating food.  And I love making food.  I don’t have many loving instincts, but I feel a deep, primal, uncontrollable urge to feed the people I care about.  Having grown up in my mom’s Armenian kitchen, cooking has been always been an integral part of the landscape of my life.  And having exquisite taste in food and living on a bohemian budget, I knew I needed to develop mad culinary skills to be able to eat the way I wanted.  It wasn’t until I started going out of town to direct plays, however, that I began cooking on my own frenzied earnest, finding it to be the perfect and least self-destructive way to wind down from a day’s rehearsal in a town full of temptations where I didn’t know anybody.

Last week, I had Matthew LeBaron and Lee Smith, two friends from my gay soccer team (The Ramblers), along with my friend Eric Sutton (a thank-you, since he’s doing the graphic design for the wedding stuff) and his boyfriend Eirikur (prounded Eric-er - he’s Icelandic, so stop snickering at his name and the coincidence of their dating).  It was one of my best dinner parties, I think.  The menu (I'm including some of the recipes at the end, because I haven't figured out yet how to do that fancy thing where you click on it and it takes you to the thing):

First Course – Amuse Bouche
Rafa’s Guac w/pomegranate seeds

Second Course - Appetizer
Quinoa w/curried lentils and onions and carrots

(I don’t really have a recipe for this – basically rinse and make the quinoa as the box tells you.  Then use any lentil recipe you like – just find one online.  The important thing with lentils, as well as any legumes, is not to put the salt in early.  This prevents the legume from cooking.  Put the salt in at the end.  And don't overcook them or they get mushy.  And use french lentils, for gods sake - they're barely more expensive and infinitely more delicious. )

Third Course – Salad/Vegetable
Shaved Brussels sprouts salad with chestnuts and currants soaked in reduced apple cider vinegar

Fourth Course - Entree

Bouillabaisse  (I used monk, halibut, flounder, mussels and clams, along with another fish I forget) served with hand-rubbed garlic crostini. 

I’m not going to post this recipe either because it came straight from Julia Child’s incomparable Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  Buy it from Amazon now and I make money!

Fifth Course - Dessert
Stilton Blue Cheesecake with rhubarb/port compote reduction. 

Because I am selfish, I almost didn’t include the link to this recipe, which I pretty much followed exactly, except I put the compote on top of the cake and skipped the blow-torching/caramelizing part.  It’s so freakin’ delicious, so easy to make, and such a novelty piece that your guests will be talking about for weeks.  Mine still are, I’m sure.  But ultimately, my altruistic spirit won out and I’m sharing it with you.

 I know it sounds whack, but the combination of Stilton’s funkiness with the batter’s sweetness and creaminess and the rhubarb’s acidity and the port’s complexity creates an orchestra of deliciousness in your mouth. 

I forgot to take pictures, but I’ll try to remember next time.

And, as if that wasn’t cool enough, the next day, John Iacovelli (dear friend, collaborator and set designer extraordinaire) stopped by impromptu with Phylicia Rashad (John’s doing the set for her production of August Wilson's JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE at the Taper in LA)   



Luckily, I had bouillabaisse and cheesecake leftover, and was happy to serve them.  If you’re of my generation, you’ll understand how thrilling it was to cook for Mrs. Huxtable.


Some people recommend trying to blog daily, but honestly, that idea makes me want to kill myself, so I’m going to aim for weekly and see what happens.  I imagine that the posts will reflect whatever I’m working on at the time (I have a book coming out with FSG at Macmillan next year, I’m working on another book, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy thing with Rosemary Andress and Suzanne Agins, I’m going to be doing some teaching at NTI next semester), so stay tuned to info on those as well as the recipes for the tofu scramble I made for myself this morning and the brown rice pasta/vodka sauce/kale thing I made for lunch.


Thanks for reading and see you soon!

Michael Barakiva


This Post's recipes:






Adapted from a traditional recipe by Chef Barbara Sibley
6 fully ripened Mexican Hass avocados, halved, pitted, peeled and diced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
¾ cup finely chopped white onion
½ cup finely chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice  
2 fresh serrano chiles, seeded & minced (can also be slightly roasted for a fire-roast flavor) [MB1]

1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Seeds from one large pomegranate[MB3] 
In a medium bowl or mortar, combine avocados, serrano chiles, onion, salt and pepper using a large fork. Do not mash avocados completely, for a chunkier feel[MB4] . Add ¾ cup of the cherry tomatoes, cilantro (leaving a tablespoon aside for decoration), lime juice and half of the pomegranate arils and mix again. Toss the rest of the tomatoes and clilantro with the remaining pomegranate arils on top, finish with a few drops of lime and serve immediately with baked tortilla chips.
For a spicier guacamole, add some of the serrano chile seeds or 1 more serrano chile, seeded.

YIELD: about 6 cups

 [MB1]Make sure to wear gloves while you’re working with spicy chiles.  I have accidentally touched my eyes or nose or other parts after working with them bare, and the searing sensation as the chile oil penetrates your orifice is anything but pleasant.

 [MB2]Fresh, for god’s sake.  If you don’t own a pepper mill you shouldn’t be cooking.

 [MB3]If you can buy seeds without having to de-seed the pom yourself, do it.  I love me a pomegranate, but who has the time to de-seed one of those mofos?

 [MB4]This is important.  


Sliced Brussels Sprouts Salad with Chestnuts and Currants

3/4 cup apple cider
3/4 cup dried currants
1 1/2 to 2 pounds brussels sprouts, trimmed
4 tablespoons olive oil (approx)
7- to 8-ounces  whole peeled chestnuts, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces

Bring cider to boil in saucepan. Add currants[MB1]  and remove from heat.  Let them soak while you assemble the rest of the dish.  Using a food processor fitted with the slicing disk , slice brussels sprouts.  Of course if you don’t have one of these you can slice by hand, but I highly recommend using the good ol’ food processor to do it.


Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large deep heavy skillet over medium-high heat until glistening but not smoking. Add chestnuts and sauté 2 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer to bowl. Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil and brussels sprouts to skillet; sauté 3 minutes. Stir chestnuts back in and currant mixture; sauté until heated through, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a wood bowl and let everyone serve themselves.

 [MB1]These are used a lot in Armenian cooking.  They’re like raisins, but fancier.