YEAR END SAMPLE: My Top 5 Audiobooks of 2015

 

My name is Paul Hagen, and I am an audiobook addict. I’ve yet to meet a two-for-one sale at Audible that I did not convince me I needed two books I never wanted, and I’ve even suffered the slings and arrows of my public library’s audio lending quagmire. My tastes lean heavily toward non-fiction, preferably read by the author, and that describes all five of my five favorite titles to hit the metaphorical electronic shelves in 2015. Listen up:

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

You gotta give Amy Poehler credit. She was following in some pretty big memoirist footsteps coming after pal Tina Fey, whose Bossypants may be the nes plus ultra of audiobooks (the writing among Fey’s funniest, the performance among her most memorable). So how does one’s BFF follow up such an act? If you’re Amy Poehler, you change the rules — re-imagining the act of reading one’s memoir as a kind of variety show, featuring famous friends such as Carol Burnett, Seth Meyers, Patrick Stewart and – in a particularly inspired turn – Kathleen Turner embodying Amy’s dark side. It’s easy to think of Poehler as we know her post-SNL — dependably super funny and super famous. But it’s also intriguing to follow her road to stardom, including her founding membership of the now-comedy-juggernaut Upright Citizens Brigade. Poehler’s memoir is a  must-listen (and, in fact, I’d dare say better-listened-to-then read).

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

I’ll admit I came upon Jenny Lawson’s first memoir by accidents, suckered in by such praise as “If you like Tina Fey and David Sedaris…” So I dove into Let’s Pretend this Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) with a we’ll-see attitude, and I liked what I saw. The blogger-author’s delightfully off-kilter sense of humor and magically-morbid love of taxidermy charmed me. Furiously Happy takes things way further. It still includes a hefty dose of comedic scenarios-involving-the-posing-of-formerly-alive-animals that made the original so enjoyable, but it is also a frank and fascinating look at Lawson’s own complicated relationship with mental health, reckoning with evolving relationships with depression, therapy, medication, how to feel okay — and how to forgive yourself when you just can’t. Brave, beautiful and delightfully off-kilter: I bet Tina Fey and David Sedaris would enjoy.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

Early on in Modern Romance, Ansari warns the listener that we have made a huge mistake by listening to the audio version of his book because we will not access certain illustrated materials – charts, graphs, etc. I was nonplussed. Not much further into the introduction, he specifically explains that what he’ll have to say about modern romance will not apply to homosexuals – because they very specifically limied the scope of their study. It gave me pause. Nevertheless, I listened on and found not only that the book immensely enjoyable (even sans graphs) but also that many of its lessons — about sexual mores in different parts of the world, among people in different age groups, between people via their smartphones — to be were full of information that certainly be of interest to LGBTs, even if we were not factored into all the raw data. Ansari’s delivery here is more akin to the straightforward voice of “Dev” (his character on his recently debuted Netflix series Master of None) than his intensely-in-your-face “Tom” from Parks and Rec, and it’s a good choice. His earnestness offers the ring of authenticity and the enthusiasm of someone who has collected some interesting data about the world and done some smart thinking about their broader ramifications. If <i>Modern Romance</i> is any indication, it’s safe to assume we can look forward to more thought-provoking work from Ansari.

A Fine Romance by Candice Bergen

For me, one of the great joys of audiobooks is that – when a celebrity reads her or his memoir – it’s like getting to sit down a more-than-ten-hour (admittedly one-sided) conversation about their life. While the formula doesn’t always work out (e.g. I must strongly not recommend wasting your time on Babara Eden’s Jeannie Out of the Bottle), Candice Bergen’s is a treasure. She has led a truly fascinating life that spans from breathtaking travels around India (including the filming of Ghandi), experiencing life at the center of the cultural phenomenon that was Murphy Brown, and the titular “romance” – her surprising, remarkable relationship with the acclaimed film director Louis Malle. Bergen’s voice here is rich and warm and beautifully colored by time. Her stories feel intricate, intimate, touching and honest. I felt lucky to have spent this time with her.

bh5m-square-orig.jpg

Born With Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

Perhaps the greatest strength of the Star Trek franchise in its syndicated TV heydey was following the example set by The Next Generation: always putting at the center of all the outerspace melodrama an actor of intense gravitas. TNG had Patrick Stewart. Deep Space Nine recruited Avery Brooks. And when it came time for that universe to focus on a female captain, they turned to the enormously capable Kate Mulgrew. Born with Teeth (the title is drawn from the fact that Mulgrew was the rare baby born with a full set of teeth) traces her extraordinary life and career that preceded her turn as Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager. Lively scenes from her big, Irish family life, a series of complicated romances, great roles on the stage, and – centrally – a heartbreaking decision about giving up a child for adoption. I’ve had the tremendous pleasure of seeing Mulgrew play Katherine Hepburn in the extraordinary one-woman show Tea at Five, and just as she was able to engage audiences through a two-act evening of live theater, she enthralls in this reading, through each twist and turn of her life. By the time she lands the role of Captain Janeway, you’d be hard pressed not be be joyous over her prospects to live long and prosper.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sometimes It Feels Like the Future Has Been Cancelled

Flag_of_Belgium.svg.png

This morning I awoke, like so many around the world, to news of the bombings in Brussels. As I had in situations like these in the past, I listened to newscasters repeat what little information was available and replay the few eyewitness accounts they had managed to gather. I felt certain things definitely — that strange mix of hungry to sit by the radio a few minutes more in case there was more to know (especially in case the chaos had spread to other cities) coupled with an equally strong desire to press the off button and stop experiencing it.

Unfortunately, I also felt that strange feeling of flashback that I feel each time there is news of a bombing — to the morning of 9/11. At the time I was living dorms just west of Central Park, and I saw friends and strangers alike instinctively returned to our school (in some cases by this point, their alma mater) — seeing it as a place of safety, soot-covered birds returning to a nest. I remember long lines at public pay phones once the cell networks crashed and even longer ones at any place that sold bottled water and non-perishable goods. I remember the smell of disaster spreading over all of Manhattan like a cloud of misery. I remember dashing across Lincoln Center that night to  rent a video the next day so that we could watch anything that wasn’t about the attacks — and seeing people murmur and scatter, clearly wondering if we were running from another disaster and not to merely beat closing time at Tower Records.

But most of all, I remember the feeling that the future had been cancelled. Those attacks happened right at the beginning of my senior year of college. Up until that point, I had been planning to conquer the world. My plan (roughly) involved writing masterpieces for the American Stage — following in the steps of Williams and Wilson and Lapine and Sondheim and then parlaying that success into a life spent exploring all avenues of writing and performance: columnist and commentator, author and host, changer of minds and maker of tastes. That was going to be me.

And then suddenly I became obsesses with the idea that all the dreams I’d developed depended on an almost absurdly overdeveloped world. I wondered why I had not studied agriculture or at the very least architecture — anything that could have given me an edge in a Walking Dead-style world (though this was long before Walking Dead would become a television phenomenon). In response to the authorities telling us to do our best to continue on as normal, I went back to working on my play for that semester’s playwright’s festival but I found myself tremendously blocked. I patted myself on the back when I figured out that I could make use of the experience by writing a play about a guy trying to write a play who found himself tremendously blocked. I felt like I had taken a detour around my fear. I had not let the terrorists win.

In retrospect, I see this moment in my life as less of an unmitigated victory. Yes, I had figured out how to move on but not with the project I had originally started and certainly not with the unbridled optimism with which I’d begun the year. I did not stop writing plays, but I stopped writing plays with the certainty that they ought to be potentially good enough for future generations because I was no longer sure there would be future generations. I graduated and entered the workforce, looking not for a job that would lead to a bright future but for a job that would pay my bills for the moment because — in my heart of hearts — I never stopped believing that this moment was very possibly the last before everything went to hell.

This is not to say that my life stopped. I went to work every day. I took on new projects. I wrote new plays and created a podcast and learned new material to sing at the piano. I found new friends and new ways to explore the world. I fell in love and broke up and fell in love again. I am grateful to these things because of how they have sustained me, they have given me a history to look back on that doesn’t look as though I have been hiding in a bunker awaiting the apocalypse. But if I could point to one thing that joins every aspect of everything I’ve done, it’s a sense of, “Might as well give it one last good try because I could be the unlucky one that gets on the wrong train tomorrow.

Everyone struggles with the swing between two pendulums in life. On the one side, you have the perpetual dissatisfaction that leads people to learn more and earn more and build higher and fulfill perpetually unsatisfied desire. On the other side is the more “zen” sense of trying to be happy with what you have, finding joy in every free gift from the universe, appreciating that pain makes pleasure all the sweeter. I wonder if I let the shock of that terrible day and the reminders that happen with each subsequent attack like today’s have skewed the swinging of my pendulum — if I can only now move so far toward building for the future before swiftly retreating to the safety of trying to appreciate the moment — with my justification being: Won’t it have been silly to have put all that work into building a future that will never come?

I wish I could end this with a bold exhortation “When you’re afraid for the future, build anyway!” or “Don’t get so distracted by the safety of enjoying the moment that you let dreams die!” But I am not qualified to give that advice because I have not been able to do these things. What I will say is to watch your pendulum. When you sense that fear — of terror, of failure, of futility, of the unknown — is keeping you from being and doing more, find someone who, like Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck, will tell you to “Snap out of it!” Because the future has not been cancelled. And even if the worst were to happen, and you don’t end up a part of it because of illness or tragedy or violence, it’s pretty likely that you’ll live a happier life trying to find a balance between living for now and living for tomorrow because when you only live for now, it is you who are canceling the future.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Twas the Night of White Elephant

 

ap_bernie-sanders_ap-photo5.jpg

Twas the night of White Elephant in New York City,

Where fans of White Christmases thought it was shitty

That the weather had lately been warm, by surprise,

Moist and thick like the inside of Paula Deen’s thighs

 

Andrew Springer had said we’d meet up for a few

To pre-game before joining the whole Graceland crew

But when he never showed to join in all our drink-love;

We decided we’d search each gay bar we could think of.

 

We looked over at Ty’s but they only had had bears,

Pieces had bored NYU boys in pairs,

Boots and Saddle had nothing – but every drag queen in

At Eagle they knew him – but they hadn’t seen him

 

At Boxers, no Andrew, just jumbo-tron jocks,

And – what a surprise – at The Cock? Only cocks!

At the Monster, we searched for him under the piano,

We asked at Henrietta’s. They said, “Who? A man? No!”

 

The time of the party was swiftly approaching

And on gay bar crowds we were sick of encroaching

So we threw up our hands and we said, “What the hell!”

Did some Fireball shots, and ran straight to the L.

 

We had hoped once we’d reached Williamsburg, he’d have showed;

And so over to Graceland, directly we strode;

And we made quite an entrance as we always do,

As for Springer, they said, “We thought she was with you!”

 

Well, we tried to be calm. Guessed, perhaps, he’d been lying

About showing up; and some queen started crying;

So we calmed that bitch down and we found her a seat;

Then heard some new commotion down, out in the street.

 

Where, what to our wondering eyes should appear?

But a big campaign caravan now drawing near

As it pulled up, we waited, like simple bystanders,

Then out popped Andrew Springer with old Bernie Sanders.

 

“I just wanted to say this to everyone here,”

Springer shouted. “Vote Bernie – if you’re bi or queer,

If you’re poly or straight-but-not-narrow-with-gays,

If you’re gender’s expressed non-traditional ways.”

 

Bernie spoke next: “On, you, twinks, dykes and queens!

Onto twitter and facebook, on your smartphone screens!

Go speak out! And on November 8, you should note:

Even if it’s not for me, for God’s sake, just vote!”

 

Sanders turned then to Springer. “It’s time. We must fly.

For the wealth of the one-percent’s still much too high.

We’ll protect civil rights, raise the minimum wage.

And explain it’s okay that I look twice my age.”

 

But dear Springer replied, “I must stay with my friends.

A tradition’s no fun if you stop and it ends.”

Bernie shook his head, pursed his lips tight like a bow,

And he said, “That’s a shonda! But I gotta go.”

 

And while Bernie rode off in a reindeer-drawn Prius,

He looked back and he smiled like he’d been glad to see us.

As his hair billowed softly like white cotton candy,

he called back a few words he thought might come in handy:

 

“Thanks for all of your help. Sorry that I can’t stay.

I may act old and straight but I think young and gay.

Go get laid while you can, enjoy each thrust and slurp, please;

Just remember, PrEP doesn’t protect you from herpes.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

#31Plays31Days #31. “PLAYING WITH MATCHES”

phoenix-bird-of-fire-tattoo-1827375

PLAYING WITH MATCHES

(a short play by Paul Hagen dedicated to the memories of Knox Bundy and Everett DiNapoli)

THE GENTLEMAN, wearing a voluminous overcoat and fedora lights a match center stage.

THE GENTLEMAN

The thing is, when it comes to life, you strike and see what catches.

But in the end, the only thing we do is play with matches:

No matter what you do with them, the one thing not in doubt

Is that where there’s a fire, fire eventually goes out.

The first match dies, and THE GENTLEMAN lights another match, now located in a different corner of the stage. It seems as though he got there with a preternatural swiftness.

THE GENTLEMAN

Some never really light or sputter in then out, unused;

The key to dealing with these ones is not to get to bruised;

Not focus on the many things they’ll never let you see.

Just trust the fires they would light were never meant to be.

The second match dies, and THE GENTLEMAN lights another, now in a third location.

THE GENTLEMAN

Some last just long enough to be of service – light a candle

Or a pilot light or cigarette. They’re easy ones to handle;

Though forgettable in their way, they are not easily slandered;

‘Cause there’s not much to remark on when a match is just that standard.

The third match dies, and again THE GENTLEMAN seems to jump through time and space to light a new match on the other side of the stage.

THE GENTLEMAN

A few burn bright enough that they can cause a conflagration

That captures the attention of the world or of a nation,

And fewer still will light something that’s singular, sublime,

To spark imaginations and withstand the cold of time.

The fourth match dies, and THE GENTLEMAN appears, once more, center stage, lighting one last match.

THE GENTLEMAN

Perplexing are the ones who seem to snuff themselves out short

Though many seem bright burners at first, then get out of sort –

Stop burning long before they should, and when they disappear.

Leave us to wonder if they knew how bright they seemed from here.

Before the match can go out,  the GENTLEMAN stoops and lights a fuse, which sputters across the stage to light a grand conflagration on the back wall, where the outline of a phoenix bursts into flame and then all lights go out. End of #31plays31days2015.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

#31Plays31Days #30. “YOU CAN’T SPY THAT”

$(KGrHqR,!kwE8Nu(vfT4BPKOyj(8Bw--60_35

YOU CAN’T SPY THAT

(a short play by Paul Hagen)

The family is in their SUV on a road trip. MOMMY is a chunky, enthusiastic woman wearing a bright, polka-dotted halter top and oversized sunglasses. DADDY is driving – and chain smoking cigarettes and occasionally sipping from a flask of whiskey. JUNIOR is extremely heavy for a boy his age and tearing through a huge bag of gummy worms. MISSY is slim and bookish, wearing thick, round-rimmed glasses that give her a bird-like quality.

MOMMY

Hmm… Let’s see… I spy with my little eye something… big

JUNIOR

Is it bigger than a bag of Gummi Worms?

MOMMY

Yes.

MISSY

Is it bigger than this car?

MOMMY

Yes.

DADDY

Is it bigger than a building?

MOMMY

Yes.

JUNIOR

Is it bigger than a Tyrannosaurus Rex?

MOMMY

Yes.

MISSY

Is it bigger than a building?

MOMMY

Yes.

DADDY

Is it bigger than a mountain?

MOMMY

Yes.

JUNIOR

Is it something inside the car?

MISSY

That’s a stupid thing to ask.

JUNIOR

Why?

MISSY

If it’s bigger than a mountain, how could it also be in this car.

MOMMY

But, Missy, honey, it actually is something that is both bigger than a mountain and also right here inside this car.

MISSY

Oh, no! Not again!

MOMMY

What?

MISSY

Is it also something outside the car?

MOMMY

Yes.

MISSY

Aw, Mommy!

MOMMY

Now, dear, it’s Daddy’s turn to ask a question.

MISSY sighs dramatically.

MISSY

Is it “The Love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”?

MOMMY

Honey, it’s Daddy’s turn.

MISSY

But that’s is, isn’t it? It’s “The Love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”? Again?! Isn’t it?!

MOMMY

Yes, it is.

MISSY

Mom, how many times do we have to tell you: that’s NOT the kind of thing you can spy in “I Spy”? You can pick a water tower. You can pick a cup holder. You can even pick the car we’ve been tail-gaiting for three exits. But you can not pick “The Power of Prayer”. You can’t pick any variation on “Guardian Angels.” And you certainly can’t pick anything even remotely like “The Watchful Gaze of a Gentle and Forgiving God”? And even if you could pick those kinds of things – which you should never ever do – I can’t imagine why on earth you’d think it was in any way okay to spy “The Love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” three times in the same game?!?!

MOMMY

But why not, dear? Those things are real, and they are evident to me.

DADDY takes a big, long swig from his flask, flicks the butt of his cigarette out of a window and lights a fresh cigarette.

DADDY

You know, I would never have guessed from easy you were in high school that you would turn out to be such a truly deluded wreck of a human being.

MOMMY, shocked, snatches the sunglasses from her face. JUNIOR begins to choke on his gummy words. MISSY sighs dramatically. Lights fade. End of play.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

#31Plays31Days Y4 29. “SPINSTER”

Spin-the-Bottle

SPINSTER

(a short play by Paul Hagen)

SEBASTIAN is an eighth grader whose clothes are too neatly pressed and whose hair is too carefully styled to make it likely that he will be a heterosexual when he grows up. He kneels alone in spotlight, presumably in an unseen circle of his peers.

SEBASTIAN

So Spin-the-Bottle? SUCKS for kids like me.

You think this is where I’m meant to be?

Stuck sitting in a circle on the floor

Of someone’s basement with this sad  decor.

Lips stained with fruit punch, oh yes, there’s appeal;

And which half-budded bosom should I feel?

Which braces full of leftovers to taste?

Which kid that I remember eating paste?

Which nose that needs kleenex and to blow?

Which gum that lost its flavor hours ago?

Do I hope for a boy? Get called a fag?

Or get a girl? Pretend that she’s in drag?

Perhaps a tomboy? Well, at least she’s mannish.

Or that shaved-head kid who seem Ku-Klux-Klannish?

But what if I get some girl with nice breath

Who doesn’t try to strangle me to death

With tongue maneuvers like a jungle snake?

What then of that am I supposed to make?

Are we then girlfriend/boyfriend? Well that’s gross.

But if she doesn’t want that? That’s the most

Embarrassing – a memory to haunt you.

When someone you don’t want won’t even want you.

If only I could got someone like me:

How awesome and amazing it would be:

To feel his freshly ironed oxford here;

To smell his dryer sheet scent drawing near;

To know his hair’s pomaded and blowdried;

And that he isn’t evil deep inside.

Except, alas, there’s no one here the same.

I guess there’s no one I can really blame.

With any group as different as we are,

There always are a few who are too far

Removed to find someone who will pair with us,

And be the one with secrets to share with us.

The price of being different? Yes, we’ll pay

With loneliness until at last someday

We find somewhere with people who’ll share more,

Or better taste, at least, in their decor.
SEBASTIAN sighs and spins the bottle. Lights fade as he looks, with distaste, at his circlemates – and the drapes. End of play.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

#31Plays31Days Y4 28. “SPARE SOME CHANGE”

Letter-to-a-Homeless-Person

SPARE SOME CHANGE

(a short play by Paul Hagen)

A PANHANDLER is sitting with a coffee cup containing a small amount of change on the sidewalk outside a fence around a large stone wall – that of a grand church or longstanding school. He wears a cap that has become fused to his tangle of wiry hair and beard. It’s difficult to tell where his clothes end and the stained newspaper with which he’s patched them begins.

PANHANDLER

Does it really matter to you who I am?

When you pass me, do you think I’m pulling a scam?

That at “end of shift” I just pack up and I punch out

And head home to the mansion you’re dreaming about?

Do you think, “I don’t care what he wrote on that sign!

That he’s sick? That he’s homeless? Nah, I bet he’s fine.”

Well, I guess, sure there’s gotta be some of those out there,

Who got some bright idea, took some time, figured out where

They could sit around for a bit, set up shop,

At a place where some fleeceable people will stop,

And amass enough offerings to make a living,

Then move along when passers tire of giving.

But for each of those guys, there are thousands of me

For whom begging for help seems to be destiny.

There were some of us getting the help that we needed

‘Til Ron Reagan decided that we had exceeded

Our welcome and closed mental hospitals, many.

And we went from getting some help to not any.

Or perhaps you think, “Well, if he needed a helper;

Then he could go seek out a bed at a shelter.”

But shelters fill up. Sometimes you get harassed there;

Or sometimes you can’t stand the bugs that have amassed there;

Sometimes people are sick there, and you’ll catch it too;

And, man, you just try having no home and the flu.

And for some of us, this is the plain, simple truth:

Some of us just associate pain with a roof:

Someone hurt us so bad back when we slept inside;

That the great outdoors became our one place to hide.

Life is hard. Make a step ahead, fall three behind.

You show up for free glasses and find out you’re blind.

Doesn’t matter how low or high your tight rope gets,

If you live in a world that’s just all out of nets.

A few misjudged life choices, we could be the same.

I’m not racking up winnings; you think it’s a game?

Shake your pocket and ask yourself: Would it be strange

For you to lose or drop or forget that spare change?

So why not leave it on purpose, instead.’Cause, you see:

That right here, it could really change something for me.

The PANHANDLER picks up his coffee cup of change and walks toward the audience, insistently. When he hits the edge of the stage, he falls forward toward the front row. Lights out. End of play.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment