🏳️‍🌈 Summing Up Gay Music

It’s time to hoist the rainbow flags! Today is the beginning of Pride Month, the most fabulous 30 days of the year.

I’m kicking off this year’s Gayskool series with two playlists to get you in the mood for Pride. First up: my Super Pride Mix, something I created a few years ago and update regularly.

And here’s a newer playlist: Queers Covering Queers. As you’ve probably guessed from the name, these are LGBTQ artists covering songs originally written or performed by other LGBTQ artists.

Who’s Keeping Score of LGBTQ Music? I Am.

What makes a song an LGBTQ song? No one has created a formula to calculate exactly how gay a song is … until now. Dear reader, allow me to introduce The Daily Dave Song Gayness Rating System, something I came up with about 30 minutes ago a carefully thought-out formula I have been developing for ages:

Performed by an LGBTQ artist or ally+25
Obvious LGBTQ message or subject matter+25
Unstated LGBTQ message or subject matter+15
Theme of empowerment, self-acceptance, or resiliance+25
Mainstream hit+10
Danceability or lip-syncability +5
Artist or band has made anti-LGBTQ comments (a.k.a. the Donna Summer rule)-70

At this point, the maximum number of points for any song is 100,1 but I’ve added some additional factors that amplify or lower the score, because I’ve been overthinking and overcomplicating things all my life, and I’m not gonna stop now.

Can you vogue to the song, or act out the lyrics?10%
Is the singer a bonafide gay diva?10%
Does the song break ground in a genre that typically ignores or is hostile to LGBTQ musicians and themes?10%
Does Dave love the song?10%
Does Dave hit the skip button every time this song comes on because he’s so sick of it?-10%

Anything over 75 points should be considered an LGTBQ song. If it’s over 90 points, you’ve probably got a gay anthem on your hand.

If you’re really nitpicky observant, you’ll notice that I haven’t followed my own rating system when I put together the playlists. There is a totally valid reason for this, which I will share as soon as I think of it. In the meantime, consider the playlists a work of love, not logic.

If you want a playlist programmed by an algorithm, ask ChatGPT.

All that aside, Turn up the music! It’s time to celebrate Pride!

1 But that adds up to 115, you’re saying. And you’re wrong. A single song can’t have both a stated and unstated LGBTQ message.

Oversharing Travel & Food

Traveling Violation

Welcome to Mea Culpa Airlines. I’m your pilot, Dave.

I’ve always prided myself on being non-directive when giving travel advice. When someone tells me they’re heading somewhere I’ve been, I never tell them they must do something or go somewhere.

Going to New York? You gotta go to Margaritaville in Times Square!

Instead, I’ll ask if they would like some recommendations. If they say yes, I’ll discuss things the Complimentary Spouse and I have enjoyed and suggest things they might want to do. And I’ll provide an explanation.

  • Going to London? Britt and I really enjoy walking around Shoreditch to see the incredible street art. We find something new every time we’re there. And then we pop over to Brick Lane Beigel Bake for the world’s best salt beef (aka corned beef) sandwiches.
  • Going to Berlin? You might want to check out the Ritter Sport store on Französische Straße since you love chocolate. You can get varieties they don’t see in the U.S. — and even make your own!
  • Going to Barcelona? I think you’d enjoy going to Josep Tarradellas Barcelona – El Prat Airport. That’s where you catch a flight to Madrid, a superior city in every way that matters.

Isn’t that a great approach to giving travel advice? It’s not about me. I’m not ordering people around. I’m sharing information others can consider as they think about what will make their trip meaningful and memorable.

Hold your applause. It turns out that, with some types of travel advice, I’m not nearly as helpful as I thought.

Me too, Bender. Me too.

Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent Into Jerkdom

“Wait a second, Dave,” I hear you saying. “Is this one of those way-too-long blog posts in which you drill down into one little flaw and blow everything out of proportion?”

Yes. Fasten your seatbelts. We’re about to hit some turbulence.

A few days ago, as I was trading text messages with someone heading to Europe, I realized how bossy, judgmental, and dismissive I can get about one part of the travel experience: the travel itself.

Sure, I’ll give you thoughtful suggestions and considerate advice for things to do, see, and eat when you actually reach your destination. But sometimes, I’m a fucking asshole aggressively helpful when I talk about how to prepare for your trip, get to your destination, and behave when you’re there.

Here are some examples of things I caught myself saying:

  • I’d never do that.
  • No. one does that.
  • Are you kidding?
  • You can’t wear that in Europe.
  • It’s foolish to bring that much cash with you.
  • It’s even more foolish to exchange the money at a U.S. bank.
  • That’s way too much money to spend on a guided tour.
  • That’s a waste of time.

The other person didn’t call me out explicitly on this bullshit, but he dropped enough hints in his replies for me to realize what I was doing.

Marge Simpson says "I'm not sure your advice was all that helpful."
Yeah, Marge gets it.

Federal Law Prohibits Tampering With, Disabling, or Destroying BS Detectors

According to the Twelve Steps in most recovery programs, I’m supposed to make a list of everyone I’ve wronged by my behavior and make amends. Fortunately, I have a blog, so I’m going to apologize to everyone at once — otherwise, I’d probably have to reach out to anyone I know who has ever been on an airplane. Whew. What a timesaver.

I’m sorry, everyone. I pledge to dial down the intensity and snobbiness for this type of travel advice in the future.

(This is the part when you say, “Oh, Dave, you’re blowing this out of proportion! Even when your advice is couched the wrong way, we know that your goal is to help ensure we love travel as much as you do! How could we not forgive you when you mean well and you’re so handsome?”)

Wow, that was a very nice and unprompted response, everyone. Thank you for being so magnanimous.

I apologized to the person I had berated about his travel plans and said he should do what would make him feel comfortable, prepared, and happy, even if it’s not what I would do.

He said thanks and then added that I was judging myself way too harshly. (I can trust that he’s telling the truth about that last part. He’s an honorable guy and the most judgmental person I know. He’s known for having opinions on everything. It seems like he’s always in the middle of a major dispute. No surprise, then, that he spends so much time in court.)

Dave’s Four Pro Tips for Travel

I still want to help people get the most out of travel, so I’ll continue offering recommendations about these kinds of issues when they’re asked for. But I’ll frame my advice as general guidelines, not commands —  just like all my other travel advice.

In fact, I’ve already prepared some:

Don’t just see a place. Experience it: Explore. Sit. Relax. Watch the people. Soak it all in — not just the sights and sounds, which you can capture with your camera, but the mood, tone, character, pace, and feeling of a place.

Lower the barriers between you and the locals: Search out opportunities to interact with locals and do the things they do. It helps to dress so you don’t stand out too much. You’ll probably still get pegged as a tourist, but not as quickly as the folks wearing Kansas City Chiefs caps, cargo shorts, and Crocs.

Be flexible. Call audibles. Don’t feel like you are stuck with a rigid agenda or need to complete a checklist for your vacation to be a success. No one’s keeping score — you don’t lose points if you skip that thing everyone else at home talks about and decide instead to check out something that piqued your curiosity after you arrived.

Don’t worry too much: I don’t want to minimize the risk of bad things happening — but if you spend too much time preparing for what might go wrong, it’s hard to get into the proper mindset for when things go right. It’s impossible to plan for every contingency, but it is possible to find a solution when one of those contingencies arises. Even in a developing country, you’ll find a way to get more cash if you need it, contact home if you can’t use your phone, get more medicine if you run out, learn the score of last night’s hockey game, and even buy new clothes because the government confiscated your Barcelona T-shirts for being in bad taste. Worst case scenario? Contact an embassy or consulate. No matter what has happened to you, they’ve helped hundreds of other Americans with the same predicament — or worse.

Please permit me to double-click on this last point. Britt and I have dealt with plenty of stuff on trips: emergency room visits, lost wallets and credit cards, flight delays, decrepit hotels, near-death experiences on the road (as pedestrians, drivers, and passengers), missing luggage, not finding anyone who speaks English or Spanish, and so much more — and we’ve always made it home. In fact, these curveballs have provided some of our best travel stories. Anyone can tell you what it’s like to visit Westminster Abbey, but only Britt and I can tell you what it’s like to be wooed by prostitutes in Havana or jump out of a taxi in Istanbul.

This Blog Post Is Taking Forever. Are We There Yet?

Let me offer a final thought:

No matter where you’re headed, I hope your next trip is enjoyable, meaningful, and memorable. If you think I can help make that happen, I’d be delighted to provide advice, suggestions, and recommendations. Wanderlust is contagious. Let me be your Patient Zero.

If you think I’m being unhelpful, overbearing, or inconsiderate, just tell me to go to hell. I’ll take it as an invitation for more travel. If I can survive the insufferability of Barcelona and return home safely, going to hell and back will feel like a walk in the park.


The More Things Change, The More I Write The Same

The first person to compliment me on my writing was Ms. Semchuk, my fifth-grade teacher. Since then, I’ve received a lot of praise for my writing style: it’s conversational and natural, engaging, and a bit goofy, with just the right balance of heart and sarcasm.

“You write just how you talk,” my friend Harry said a few weeks ago. “When I read something of yours, there’s no doubt you wrote it.”

I don’t give my writing style much thought, but I now have a better idea of how people experience it. That’s because someone dug up and posted an introduction to a staff directory I had written more than 20 years ago at The Tampa Tribune.1 I have no recollection of writing it, but I instantly knew it was mine.

Here’s the text. The image is below.

Dear colleagues:

I know what you’re thinking. Oh crap, more convergence propaganda. Well, you’re right.

The News Center Beat Guide — the very document you’re holding right now in your eager little hands — comes straight from the Top With A Capital T. Managers concocted the idea. Top editors signed off on it.

So why am I, a member of the rank-and-file, writing this cover letter?

The simple answer: Donna Reed and Forrest Carr told me to, and they sign my paychecks.

The better answer: I think there’s an opportunity here that we, the front-line workers, must not pass up — an opportunity to do better work and make our jobs easier. Yes, easier. Read on.

We are three newsgathering organizations, working side-by-side under a single roof, but not always working together. We overlook daily opportunities to collaborate with fellow journalists who are covering the exact same issues we follow, and in doing so we pass up the chance to improve our coverage of this community.

The News Center Beat Guide explains what each person covers. Look in the guide. Find the names of your counterparts at the Trib, WELA and and introduce yourself. It’s not hard.

If you don’t like doing anything without a TelePrompTer, here’s an easy script: “Hi. My name is (insert your name here. I work for (insert name of media outlet here). I thought I’d introduce myself since we both cover (insert name of beat here). Boy, that Dave Simanoff fellow is certainly handsome, isn’t he?”

The goal here is not to create more work for yourself; it’s to build a relationship with a colleague who covers the same issues and topics as you. So pick up the phone. Let your counterpart know what stories you’re following or what rumors you’re chasing, and ask him or her to do the same. It could mean less work for you and better coverage of our community. Working together is a time-honored tradition between journalists. Where would Woodward be without Bernstein? Barlett without Steele? The Captain without Tenille?

Convergence may have been born in the strata of Media General management, but it will pay the richest dividends to the people who gather, write, photograph, illustrate, edit and report the news. So pick up the phone.

Dave Simanoff

“Never argue with people who buy ink by the gallon.” — Tommy Lasorda2

Introduction to the News Center Beat Guide
The News Center Beat Guide

Rediscovering this introduction felt like stumbling across an old photo and realizing the attractive guy in the middle is actually you — just a few decades younger. We all get older (and, sometimes, wiser), but it’s nice to be reminded that the things that make us different and memorable stay the same.

1 Some context: At the time, The Tampa Tribune, WFLA, and Tampa Bay Online were owned by the same media company and had moved into a shared building. The company began pushing “convergence,” an effort to get all three reporting staffs to work as a single newsroom.3

2 The origins of this quote are unclear, but it’s usually attributed to Mark Twain. I have no idea why I thought it was said by Tommy Lasorda, the former Dodgers manager.

3 I don’t think convergence was a success, but it was good for me — I was tapped to deliver morning business reports and created some packages for teevee.

Travel & Food

Sedona Rocks!

Now that you’ve slogged through the megillah about my energy vortex experience, let’s review the rest of my trip to Sedona. Expect more photos and less logorrhea this time.

Scenic Rim and Schnebly Hill Road

Pioneers T.C. and Sedona Schnebly moved to this area in Arizona in the late 1890s. The area was growing rapidly, so they petitioned the U.S. Postmaster General to open a post office, proposing the names Oak Creek Crossing and Schnebly Station. They were both rejected as being too long — the preference at the time was for one-word names.

Fortunately, they settled on Sedona, not Schnebly, as the name for the post office. As a consolation prize, the road from Sedona to Flagstaff was named Schnebly Hill Road. It’s a bumpy ride — it wasn’t long before I felt nauseated.

I think my photos are of the Mogollon Rim, but don’t quote me on that.

BTW, if you’re headed to Sedona, I highly recommend Pink Adventure Tours.

Merry-Go-Round Rock
Merry-Go-Round Rock as seen from Schnebly Hill Road
Dave at the Outer Rim
The Outer Rim is outta sight!
Outer Rim with moon in the sky
(In Obi-Wan Kenobi voice) That’s no moon. That’s a space station.

Broken Arrow Trail

Broken Arrow Trail is like Schnebly Hill Road: bumpy and beautiful. Our driver navigated the rocky terrain with aplomb, but I still got jostled around plenty.

Dave leaning against a pink Jeep on the Broken Arrow Trail
Come on Barbie, let’s go Jeeping! Don’t let the Peptol Bismol paint job fool you — this vehicle is rough and rugged.
Red rocks looming over the pink Jeep.
The pink Jeep looks like a Matchbox car next to the rock formations.
Dave leaning against a juniper tree.
Rockin’ around the juniper tree.
Broken Arrow Trail panorama
The view from the Broken Arrow Trail.
Dave gives a thumbs-up on the Broken Arrow Trail
(In Fonzie voice) Aaayyyyy!
Broken Arrow Trail
(in Willie Nelson voice)
On the road again
Goin’ places that I’ve never been
Seein’ things that I may never see again
And these Barbie Jeeps make me think of Ken
In Sedona, the off-road trails are as steep as the hotel prices.
Here’s another Jeep descending the same trail.

Sunset at Upper Red Rock Loop Road Overlook

Stunning. I did get a few photos, but most of the time, I set down my phone so I could mute my inner dialogue and be fully present for the experience.

Sunset from Upper Red Rock Loop Road
I’m facing east. As the sun sinks, shadows spread out before me and begin crawling toward the rocks in the distance.
Close-up of a formation seen from the Upper Red Rock Loop Road Overlook.
This rock formation looks like a manmade structure with imposing columns and a great golden dome — like a grand French Baroque palace or a fancy Taco Bell.
Dave at sunset in Sedona
A quick sunset selfie before I dash to the car and crank up the heat because the temperature is now about 35°F and falling.

Sunrise From Somewhere That Is Close to, But Not, the Airport Mesa Overlook

You’d have to be a complete idiot not to find the Airport Mesa Overlook, which is clearly marked and has everything you’d expect to see at a site for tourists: a huge parking lot, paved walkways, outdoor exhibits, coin-operated telescopes, yappy families, and so on.

Fortunately, being a complete idiot sometimes pays off. I parked nowhere near the overlook, lucked upon a rocky trail, followed it for about 25 minutes, and found a secluded spot to watch the sunrise in solitude.

I’m still not sure how I ended up there. Was it the happy accident of a man who got too little sleep, was in a cold, dark, and unfamiliar place, and failed to make sense of the directions on his phone? Or was he drawn in by mysterious vortex energy?

(Of course, it was an accident. However, if I look at the geotags on my photos, it appears that I had stumbled my way into the Airport Mesa Vortex. Cue the Twilight Zone music.)

Sedona sunrise seen from somewhere near the Airport Mesa overlook
As the sun rises, the shadow seems to melt off the tallest peak in the distance. The photos don’t capture how the peak is glowing, as if the reds, golds, and browns are lit from within.

Sunrise in Sonoma
Sunlight continues to trickle down the peak but hasn’t yet hit the town below.
Sunrise in Sonoma, as seen with a wide-angle lens
As the sun continues to rise, the sky becomes bluer and the clouds become whiter.
Dave somewhere in or near the Mesa Airport Vortex
Not a bad way to spend a morning.
A sign that says to close the gate to keep deer off the runway.
One of the many clues that I was, in fact, nowhere near the tourist-friendly official overlook area.

Concerning that last photo, I should point out that my painstaking research (i.e., a cursory scan of Google search results) indicates that deer are quite good at jumping over fences but really bad at reading signs.


What, I’m not allowed a special treat while on vacation?

Donut at coffee at Sedonuts
The place was called Sedonuts. Of course I had to stop in!
Deve eating a donut
This Red Rock Velvet donut didn’t last long. Also highly recommended: the Vortex (a massive cinnamon roll topped with pecans) and the Red Rock Oreo (a red velvet donut topped with crushed Oreos).

Travel & Food

Into the Vortex

My first experience with mystical energy vortices began, as these things sometimes do, under angry gray clouds in the parking lot of the Sedona Public Library.

After parking my rental car (a non-mystical Chevrolet Malibu from non-mystical Alamo in the most decidedly non-mystical Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport), I found my guide Rosane (ten out of ten on the mystical scale) in her white Jeep (mystical level: undetermined).

I clicked with Rosane before I even clicked my seatbelt. She was welcoming, warm, and chatty — just like me — and wasn’t fazed when I told her I was a skeptic. “Don’t worry, I’ve met many skeptics,” she said, with traces of her Brazilian background in her voice. “Maybe you’ll be less of a skeptic when we’re done.”

And Away We Go 

While I wasn’t sure I’d achieve transcendence that afternoon, I was 100% sure I’d experience bad weather. As Rosana drove up the hill to our destination, the sky turned from slate to charcoal. At the security gate — the only way to reach the site was to drive through a gated golf course community (the complete opposite of mysticalness) — we were warned of the possibility of snow.

The precipitation had trailed off when we reached Rachel’s Knoll, the center of a vortex, but the temperature had dropped to about 30°F (-1°C).

One to Beam Up. Energize.

According to Rosane, vortices are places where the earth’s energy converges and swirls — like an eddy in a stream or a tornado in a trailer park. Rachel’s Knoll, like other vortices, functions as both a magnet and a bowl for this energy. Large deposits of quartz and iron attract the energy, and the red rock formations around the site keep the energy in.

So, what does it feel like to be at the center of the vortex, where life, the universe, and all the elements united my body and spirit into a singular being capable of constructing overwrought and pompous sentences such as this one?

Well, it kinda feels like nothing. Not even a tingle of static electricity. The immense power of the universe was swirling around me, yet I couldn’t even charge up my dying phone battery.

And yet … I felt more serene and open than usual. It was like someone turned on the Do Not Disturb mode in my head. The acerbic old man who narrates my inner dialogue decided to step out for a break. I no longer felt fixated by every fleeting thought.

Was there, in fact, some kind of psychic energy coursing through my mind and body? I don’t believe so. But standing there under a heavy gray sky, encircled by rusty red peaks and specks of dark green foliage, and experiencing Mother Nature’s schizophrenia, I knew I was somewhere different and special.

More about the weather later. Let’s first turn to …

My Spiritual Toolbox

Rosane said we’re all born with a spiritual toolbox, but using each tool properly takes knowledge and practice. She led me through a few mental and physical exercises to put the tools to use.

Circle Circle

Rosane traced a circle in the dirt with her shoe. She had me stand in the middle, shout my name into the vortex, and then draw my hands back to my body to welcome any energy coming my way.

Dave in the circle
This is the vortex version of being in the on-deck circle.
Dave shouts into the vortex
Vortex, can you hear me?
Vortex, can you see me?
Vortex, can you find me in the night?
Welcoming the returning energy
Nothing really matters
The vortex is all we need
Everything I give you
All comes back to me

Senses and Sensibility

Rosane challenged me to identify things I could see, hear, feel, smell, and taste at that moment. Sight and sound were easy (mountains and rain). For touch and smell, I crushed some juniper needles in my very cold hands. For taste, Rosane came prepared with a flask of hot tea and some miniature Hershey bars.

Because this exercise is so quick and simple, I find myself using it when I realize I’ve been operating on autopilot.

Walk This Way

Rosane showed me how to connect physical motions to energy flow. First, she had me step backward while pulling my arms into my chest. This helps draw in creative energy and inspiration, she said.

Next, she had me step forward and push outward. This action forces energy back into the world, which leads to confidence and strength.

I’ve started doing some of these movements because they allow me to step away from my desk, move around for a bit, and clear my head. Also, they confuse the dogs, which delights me to no end.

Embiggening My Conciousness

Rosane asked me to focus on where my body ended and the rest of the world began. It seemed like a weird ask, but with a clear mind, it wasn’t hard to feel where my skin met my clothes. Could I push that awareness beyond my body, she asked. With some concentration, I could indeed. Rosane said that I could expand that consciousness even further with some practice. I’m finding this exercise helpful: It’s a mental reset for when I realize I’m acting mindlessly.

Weathering Heights

If a Karen were exploring Rachel’s Knoll with Rosane and me, she’d ask to speak to the manager of weather. (“Do you know who I am?”) The trip started overcast with overcast skies and ended with sunshine, but only after taking a wild detour into a downpour and hail.

The pictures tell the story.

2:22 p.m.

Arriving at Rachel's Knoll
Gray skies and no drizzle as we arrive at Rachel’s Knoll.

3:20 p.m.

Taking refuge under a juniper tree.
Not long after I shouted my name into the vortex (as described above), the vortex responded with drizzle. Before long, it had intensified into a driving rain, forcing Rosane and I to take refuge under a juniper tree — just in time to avoid a short burst of hail. This is where we do our sense-identification exercise and tuck into the chocolate bars and hot tea.
Dave and Rosane enjoy tea and chocolate
Despite the rain, we’re having a great time!

3:35 p.m.

The rain had let up a bit, so we continued exploring Rachel’s Knoll. It it at this point that I realize that it’s not actually a knoll. Knolls don’t have rock ledges and steep cliffs.

About 30 seconds later …

After foolishly posing on wet, slippery rocks for a photo, I turn around and notice a timid ray of light breaking through the clouds. I risk life and limb for another photo, which turned out great.
This is my view.

3:40 p.m.

The sun is out, but there’s a gossamer quality to the light. It is golden yet thin and trepidatious. You will notice in this photo that my pants are soaked. Not pictured: my sopping-wet underpants.

3:47 p.m.

Blue skies at Rachel's Knoll at last
I see skies of blue,
Clouds of white.
This energy vortex
Is quite a sight!
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world
Raindrops on juniper tree needles
Raindrops on juniper tree needles. Hey, not every caption can be witty or insightful (or both). If you don’t like it, start your own blog.

3:54 p.m.

A pretty damn good photo of Dave in Sedona.
Lookin’ good, Dave!

4:02 p.m.

A bridge in the clouds
At first glance, I thought this was a rainbow. It wasn’t. What gave it away was the lack of color. Still, it’s a pretty cool cloud formation. There’s something architectural about that curve.

4:15 p.m.

Rosane gave me her book, “Get Vortexed,” so I could take a little piece of Sedona back home to Florida. I can’t explain why I posed this way. (Other pieces of Sedona I took back to Florida: vortex rocks, a souvenir T-shirt, and about five extra pounds.)

4:19 p.m.

Leaving Rachel's Knoll
One last look before we drive down the hill and leave the vortex behind.

My Vortex Verdict

I came to this vortex a skeptic, and I left a skeptic. But I did experience something close to, but not quite, transcendence atop Rachel’s Knoll. I’d describe it as a combination of awe, stillness, introspection, and openness.

I certainly wasn’t one with the universe. But I was one with myself.

As Douglas Adams once said, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

Take it from a skeptic: A place doesn’t need to be mystical to be magical.

Entertainment LGBTQ

Strike a Prose

A friend of mine and I always joke that if you get more than two gay men of a certain age — over about forty-two, forty-three — in a room, the conversation has turned to Madonna within half an hour, sometimes within ten minutes, every time. What she has meant to us, what she meant to us growing up on a kind of fundamental, primal, existential level, is impossible to exaggerate.

Matt Cain, British writer

I should have known I was gay in 1986. I’d sit in my room for hours, playing Madonna’s “True Blue” album over and over. (This was before CDs and streaming. After the last song on Side A, “Live to Tell,” I’d have to physically remove, flip over, and reinsert the cassette. You kids get off my lawn!)

I knew not to discuss Madonna with friends and family. For reasons I couldn’t articulate at the time, I sensed that admitting my admiration would say something about me that I didn’t want others to know.

I’m thinking back to those days because I’ve just devoured “Madonna: A Rebel Life,” the new biography by Mary Gabriel. It’s hardly Pulitzer material (I’m struggling to come up with a Material Girl pun here), but I found it fascinating because, by exploring the effect Madonna had on culture and society, it helped illuminate the effect Madonna had on me.

I’ll start by sharing my thoughts on the book, then dig deeper into Madonna the Gay Icon.

To get you in the mood for this blog post, here’s a playlist I’ve created with the songs from every Madonna album, the new music from the compilation albums, and the tracks released one-off.

Just Some Tome to Celebrate

As befits a meticulously researched, 800-page book about a cultural icon, “Madonna: A Rebel Life” has garnered a lot of attention from book critics. The best brief description of the book is the subhead of Alexandra Jacobs’ review in The New York Times (paywall): “Mary Gabriel’s biography is as thorough as its subject is disciplined. But in relentlessly defending the superstar, where’s the party?”

In my non-professional opinion, the book’s biggest strength is also its primary weakness: Gabriel sympathizes with her subject. It’s a difficult balancing act: Is she humanizing or idolizing Madonna? Is she Madonna’s advocate or apologist?

Here’s how this plays out:

When Madonna thrives, it’s because of her drive, creativity, and openness to collaboration. She isn’t afraid of risk. She seeks out what’s new instead of repeating what’s been done.

When Madonna fails, it’s because the cards are stacked against her. It’s because of resistance in the music and film industries. It’s because she’s ahead of her time. It’s because of political and social resistance.

This doesn’t make the book any less powerful or insightful. What Gabriel does best is contextualize Madonna’s story. It’s not just about her; it’s also about the culture that created Madonna (and, in return, the culture that Madonna helped shape). Remove Madonna from the book and you end up with a fascinating, well-researched piece about the evolution of music and art in New York in the 1980s, the rise of the Religious Right in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the push for LGBTQ rights, and even the politics of Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump.

“I Am a Gay Man”

Madonna has been a gay icon and advocate for LGBTQ equality since, well, forever. This book, more than anything else I’ve read, explains why and how Madonna the artist can’t be separated from Madonna the ally, or Madonna the activist.

Madonna said her first visit to a gay club was the first time she felt empowered to be authentic:

I felt like such an outsider, a misfit, a weirdo. And suddenly when I went to the gay club, I didn’t feel that way anymore. I just felt at home. I had a whole new sense of myself… Until that point, I kept seeing myself through macho heterosexual eyes… When Christopher introduced me to this life, I suddenly thought, “That’s not the only way that I have to be.”

Madonna, quoted in “Madonna: A Rebel Life” by Mary Gabriel

This meant, I think, that Madonna appreciated and understood LGBTQ people on a personal level. She didn’t wink at them like previous artists did. She spoke to them directly, openly, and inclusively.

When an interviewer asked her, “If you were a gay man, would you be a top or a bottom?” she replied, “I am a gay man.” (Italics mine.)

What makes this even more important and meaningful is that Madonna didn’t shy away from LGBTQ issues when speaking to the general public — especially about the AIDS health crisis. In fact, each copy of “Like a Prayer” included a pamphlet about AIDS and safe sex. Remember, this is a time when people didn’t discuss AIDS, or described it as divine retribution against LGBTQ people. Now, from Manhattan, New York, to Manhattan, Kansas, anyone buying her album would get the facts they need.

I’m Not Your Bitch. Don’t Hang Your Shit on Me.

The most important thing about Madonna to me is that, through her words and actions, she empowered LGBTQ people to be bold and proud when everyone else wanted them to be silent and ashamed. Her attitude: If other people want to shame me for what I say, what I do, or what I represent, fuck ’em!

You’re trying to put me down because of this? I’m not going to let public opinion dictate my own feelings about myself. I’m not going to apologize for anything I’ve done.

Madonna, quoted in “Madonna: A Rebel Life” by Mary Gabriel

Madonna showered us with love and visibility long before anyone in mainstream popular culture did. As far as examples go, “Vogue” is a gimme. So is her inclusion of LGBTQ people in “Truth or Dare” and the “Justify My Love” video in the early ’90s. Knowing Madonna was an unabashed ally gave her other songs deeper meaning and more resonance. “Express Yourself” isn’t just about demanding more from a partner — it’s about self-respect and -love in a society that expects you to put up with less than you deserve.

While “Human Nature” is based on Madonna’s experiences after “Erotica” and the “Sex” book, the lyrics are a rallying cry to everyone who doesn’t fit the tiny box that white, straight, cisgender, Christian men want to force everyone into.1

Wouldn’t let me say the words I longed to say
You didn’t want to see life through my eyes

Express yourself don’t repress yourself

You tried to shove me back inside your narrow room
And silence me with bitterness and lies

Express yourself don’t repress yourself

Did I say something wrong?
Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex
I must’ve been crazy

Did I stay too long?
Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t speak my mind
What was I thinking?

And I’m not sorry
I’m not sorry
It’s human nature

And I’m not sorry
I’m not sorry
I’m not your bitch don’t hang your shit on me

“Human Nature,” Madonna

You’ll See

In 1990, after the success of “Vogue” and “Dick Tracy,” and before the blowback from Sex and “Erotica,” Madonna embarked on her Blond Ambition tour. She captured everything — good and bad, on stage and off — in “Truth or Dare.” Anyone who saw the documentary will remember the tension between Madonna and her boyfriend at the time, Warren Beatty:

Warren Beatty would say that Madonna didn’t want to live off camera. Christopher said he was wrong: Madonna didn’t want to live offstage. She agreed. “I love reaching out to people and I love the expressions in people’s eyes and just the ecstasy and the thrill.”

“Madonna: A Rebel Life” by Mary Gabriel

Why do I bring this up? Because I need a segue to introduce some of the videos I took when the Complimentary Spouse and I saw Madonna in Washington D.C. in 2015!

This is the end of my long post, but I hope we’re nowhere near the end of Madonna’s long career. Britt and I will see her on stage next year. I might be a middle-aged curmudgeon, but when it comes to Madonna, I’ll always let my body groove to the music … let my body go with the flow …

Don’t just stand there.

Let’s get to it.

Strike a pose.

There’s nothing to it.

1 Check out the box imagery in the “Human Nature” video:


DNF (Did Not Finish) and DNF (Did Not Fail)

Not completing the Amsterdam Good Morning City Run — a short guided run the day before the Amsterdam Marathon — was one of the best things I’ve done this year.

I didn’t make it to the end, but it was a victory.

Let me explain: When I realized I would be in Amsterdam the weekend of that city’s marathon, I considered signing up for the shortest option, an 8K. I hadn’t run in a while, so any race would have been ambitious. I knew I’d need to walk most of it.

The 8K was sold out, but the Good Morning Run was available. There were two options: 6.5K and 3.5K. I decided to play it safe and go with the shorter route. I didn’t think it would be a challenge.

I was wrong.

Turning Around

Since it was a guided run, the roads weren’t closed off and we were broken into small groups. One guide led the way, and another brought up the rear. The pace was slow, and I could catch my breath momentarily when we paused to let cars and bicycles pass at pedestrian crossings. Despite this, I fell from the middle of the pack to the back.

Around one kilometer in, I knew I was spent. I told the guide in the back I needed to drop out and walk back. He said he needed to accompany me (which, I assume, is for insurance reasons). He and the other guide arranged to have one of the other runners be the caboose, and then we turned around.

I barely finished a third of the run, but I felt fine about it. In fact, better than fine. And that’s because of something that happened to me here in Tampa a few weeks prior.

The Wisdom of Meb

As I said, I hadn’t run in a while. However, a few weeks before the Amsterdam trip, I started walking on Bayshore in the mornings. One day, I saw Meb Keflezighi1 and waved to him. He seemed to recognize me, slowed down, and asked how I was doing. I said something about trying to get back into running but lacked confidence and was just walking.

He looked at me and said, “You’re here. That’s the hard part.”

Those words meant a lot at the time, but became even more profound in Amsterdam. Being there and running was the hard part, and I had done it.

The starting line was more important than the finish line.

I’ll Take the W

I thanked the guide for walking me back to Museumplein, got a bottle of water, and found a spot in the shade. I felt like a million bucks (about €913,000 at the time) and wanted to hold onto the feeling.

After that, I took a tram to the Olympic Stadium to pick up my preordered T-shirt. Most everyone there were anticipating the marathon, which would be held the next day. I knew I had already won. I rewarded myself by buying an additional T-shirt.

Pointing at my name on the list of Amsterdam race participants.
I found my name on the list of Amsterdam race participants.

The next day, I walked to Vondelpark to cheer on the marathoners. I felt inspired, not intimidated, by them.

Across the road, another spectator was holding up a sign that struck a chord with me:

Man holding "You Are Great" sign along the Amsterdam Marathon route.
A good sign.

It’s not just the message on the sign that resonated with me, but the fact that we were nowhere near the finish line. It was another reminder to celebrate where I am, not where I think I should be. The effort is just as important — perhaps more important — than the achievement.

Knowing this is more valuable than all the medals in the world.

1 I wrote this about Meb on LinkedIn earlier this year:

In the world of running, Meb Keflezighi is a rock star like no other. But what impresses me most is not his record, but the way he treats others.

Meb (so famous he only needs one name) is the only person who has won the New York Marathon, the Boston Marathon, and an Olympic medal. (Actually, he has won two Olympic medals, but who’s keeping count.) He now lives in Tampa, and I’ve run into him a few times. Every interaction has made a mark on me.

🏃‍♂️ When I wave to him on Bayshore (my usual running route), he’ll acknowledge me, smile, and wave back. He has no idea who I am. He’s just friendly that way.

🏃‍♂️ When I met him for the first time and told him a good friend (who lives in Colorado) was a huge fan, he sat down and wrote a short note praising her accomplishments (a marathon on all seven continents) and encouraging her to keep going.

🏃‍♂️ When he hosted his first 5K on Saturday, he thought nothing of taking photos with everyone who asked. He never once looked annoyed or indifferent, even as the line grew.

Even short encounters like these can have a big impact. When we’re surrounded by egos and pretentiousness, someone who is approachable really stands out.

When I tell people I want to follow in Meb’s footsteps, it doesn’t mean I want to win marathons. It means I want to be warm and make others feel special.

Although winning an Olympic medal would be cool. 🏅

Current Events

A Chickenshit Proposal [Update: Not Gonna Happen]

10 p.m. update: People came out in force to decry the proposal. It looks like it’s not going anywhere. I’m delighted that someone discussed the impact shutting down Ybor would have on the LGBTQ community.

Today, the Tampa City Council will discuss a proposal to shut down bars in Ybor City at 1 a.m. There’s another proposal for a youth curfew. Both of these proposals are a response to a mass shooting in Ybor over the weekend in which two people died and at least 16 were injured.

These proposals are bullshit. They’re attempting to fix something that isn’t broken while ignoring the real problem. We shouldn’t stand for it. Think of it this way: If you went to your doctor with a high fever and a sore throat, you’d be shocked if the treatment were to put a cast on a healthy arm.

And let’s not overlook another issue: For some, bars are the only place they feel safe to be themselves. If you want to pass judgment on that, so be it. I’m a cantankerous old man now, but I remember that in my 20s, gay bars were some of the only places where I felt welcome and validated.

Here’s the letter I sent last night to the City Council. I’m not sure if they’ll listen to or care about what I have to say, but I want to go on record.


To steal a phrase from Saeed Jones, the proposal to shut down Ybor City at 1 a.m. is “… a testament perhaps to the unique talent Americans have for talking all the way around exactly what needs to be said.”

Bars being open late isn’t the problem, and everyone knows it. This proposal doesn’t mitigate the risk of another shooting — gun violence doesn’t care what time it is. This proposal would deprive Tampeňos and visitors of a place to gather and celebrate when everywhere else is closed — and hurt a lot of local business owners and employees.

I’m sure plenty of people believe that folks out past 1 a.m. in Ybor are drunken partygoers who should be in bed. And they might be right. But there’s another issue to consider: For some people — especially those in marginalized communities — areas like Ybor are the only places they can be themselves and be accepted for who they are.

I worry the most for my siblings in the LGBTQ community. They are being erased from school curricula and demonized by state leaders. Must the city of Tampa compound the harm being done by kicking them out of some of the only places they feel welcome?

Closing down Ybor at 1 a.m. isn’t the solution to what happened last weekend. It only distracts us from what really needs to be discussed, and deters us from what really needs to be done. The only thing that should be shut down quickly is this proposal.

Travel & Food

When Life Gives You Lemons, Eat Cheesesteaks and Make a Playlist

Getting from Camp David to Amsterdam last month was a comedy of errors, minus the comedy. There were delays, downgrades, rerouting, and some truly horrendous customer service.

But two good things happened.

First, I got to enjoy a cheesesteak at Chickie’s & Pete’s during a much longer-than-expected layover at Philadelphia International Airport.1 I even struck up a pleasant conversation with another traveler who had been delayed, which helped distract me from the raucous Phillies fans watching the playoff game.

My cheesesteak sandwich
Not pictured: The other half of the cheesesteak sandwich. (It was in my stomach.)

Second, since I couldn’t sleep on the plane, I had plenty of time to scroll through my music library and rediscover songs I hadn’t heard in a while.

Here’s the playlist. You can listen to it now — you don’t have to wait until you experience your own travel nightmare.

1 Check out my post about Philly cheesesteaks: A Cheesesteak Is a Hug in Sandwich Form.

Travel & Food

Street Art, Minus the Street

This was my immediate reaction when I discovered there’s an entire museum in Amsterdam dedicated to street art and graffiti:

So, now that I’ve been to STRAAT, what did I think?1 I’m a bit conflicted.

On the plus side, STRAAT is undeniably a well-curated museum of the best work from the best artists on the planet. The collection was immense and incredible, featuring a wide range of styles and themes. The building (a converted shipbuilding facility) was roomy, uncrowded, and quiet, so I had plenty of time and space to reflect on the art.

One thing that stood out to me was the size of the art. Here’s how I measure up to a mural by Ox-Alien:

David with a mural by Ox-Alien
I’m 185 cm. Figure out the feet and inches for yourselves, fellow Americans. The imperial measurement system is ridiculous and I refuse to use it outside the United States.

So, with so much to see and enjoy, why did I feel nonplussed? Ironically, the answer was right there in the STRAAT collection — this mural sums up everything I felt was problematic about the museum:

Artist unknown. Actually, the artist is known, but I can’t remember who they are.

The Real Thing?

STRAAT is a zoo for street art. It’s an artificial, organized, viewer-friendly environment with an admission fee and a gift shop. It can’t replicate the experience of finding street art in the real world.

In the wild, street art isn’t curated — no gatekeepers are deciding who gets to create art, and whether it’s noteworthy. It’s integrated into its surroundings. Artists have to deal with constraints like space, time, and weather. Their work is open to criticism (in the form of spray paint) from other artists.

And you never know what you’ll discover around each corner.

Consider these two murals by Cranio, a Brazilian artist who uses art to criticize how capitalism corrupts native values. The Complimentary Spouse and I saw this near Brick Lane in London in 2016:

Cranio mural near Brick Lane
Cranio mural in London

And here’s the Cranio mural at STRAAT:

Cranio mural at STRAAT
Cranio mural at STRAAT

The mural at STRAAT is larger, more complex, and much easier to stand back and appreciate. But the mural in London is more meaningful and authentic — it’s a public statement in a public place, not a piece of art under glass.

I Have Come to Praise STRAAT, Not to Bury It

I don’t want to sound too dismissive about STRAAT. I enjoyed and appreciated my visit, and we must recognize the value of street art just as we would any other art form.2

STRAAT might be a zoo, but zoos play an important role in education and preservation.3 We need more places like STRAAT to validate, catalog, study, and share street art with the world.

The next time I visit a city with a street art museum, I’ll be first in line. But I’ll also look for street art where it was meant to be seen: the streets.

More STRAAT Photos

Cornbread mural
As the world’s first graffiti artist, Cornbread has earned the right to be boastful.
STRAAT gallery
STRAAT is huge. It’s located in a former shipbuilding facility.
Third-floor view of STRAAT gallery
I told you it was huge!
Stencil art by Hugo Kaagman
This awesome stenciled mural by Hugo Kaagman had the biggest Dutch vibe, IMHO.
Painting over Shepard Fairey mural
You don’t often see someone painting over a Shepard Fairey mural. The worker (not in the photo) said that the Fairey was always meant to be temporary, and this space rotates artists frequently.

1 I visited on October 13 during a business trip, so I got to share the experience with my colleagues (and expense the tickets). I always propose a street art-related outing for company meet-ups, and they are always a hit.

2 STRAAT has shifted my opinion of Wynwood Walls in Miami. Now that I’ve seen STRAAT, it’s easy to recognize that Wynwood Walls is pretty much the same thing without a roof. By elevating and drawing attention to street art, Wynwood Walls has attracted more artists to the area — a win-win for everybody.

3 And STRAAT doesn’t keep living beings in captivity, which is one of the things about zoos that really disturbs me.