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The Banal and the Profane: Kelli Dunham

The Banal and the Profane: Kelli Dunham

Author: Edit Team

June 11, 2013

“[…] it’s a good time to sign a lease, because I’ve got a full-time day job right now, and so my income looks real. Book royalties never look real, even when they are. My goal is to die in this apartment, which I know might sound depressing if you live somewhere else, but in New York this is an expression of hope.”

“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBT writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.

This month’s “Banal and Profane” comes to us from writer and comedienne Kelli Dunham.

Kelli Dunham is an award-winning stand-up comic who has appeared on both Showtime and the Discovery Channel, and tours nationally to colleges, comedy clubs, LGBT pride events and even the occasional livestock auction. Her comedy CDs I am NOT a 12 Year Old Boy, Almost Pretty, and Why Is the Fat One Always Angry are in regular rotation on Sirius/XM radio’s Rawdog Comedy as well as Pandora’s Margaret Cho station. An ex-nun and a current registered nurse, Dunham’s previous titles have included How to Survive and Maybe Even Love Nursing School (FA Davis, 2005) and How to Survive and Maybe Even Love Your Life as a Nurse (FA Davis, 2006).

Her fifth book, a long-awaited collection of essays, stories and performance pieces, called Freak of Nurture was published in May 2013 by the groundbreaking and award-winning Topside Press.

Saturday, May 18

Theoretically, you never have to worry about people coming to your funeral because who cares, right? You’ll be dead. But I woke up Saturday morning worried if people would show up at the Sealy Cuyler Funeral Home, not for my funeral but for my book party for the release of Freak of Nurture.

I suspected that folks would come. It was my first book party in a long time (my last two books were guides to body changes for pre- pubescent kids. It would have been very weird to have a reading) and seriously, I’ve been doing this for a hot minute. And Time Out New York named it an editor’s pick. And I’m always dragging people to horrible dive bars and crowded underground venues. This was my first show in an air-conditioned place with comfortable seating in a really long time.

But I did something I don’t always do. I told the people I love that it was important to me for them to be there. So it felt like higher stakes. Plus, you know, it’s at a funeral home. So I was slightly worried and even slightly neurotic about bringing out a crowd. Whatever. I own that neurosis because the alternative seems to be believing your own hype. And there’s nothing more obnoxious in our Big Fish Small Sea Queer Alt Performing Literary World than someone who has bought their own hype.

Elizabeth Whitney and Lea Robinson perform "A Tragiccomic Odyssey"

Elizabeth Whitney and Lea Robinson perform “A Tragic Comic Odyssey”

As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry about bringing out a crowd. Everyone I know and love showed up, along with a bunch of people I didn’t know. We packed the bright green Sealy Cuyler Funeral Home, lounging on the super comfortable chairs and enjoying the brilliantly clean ambiance. My first girlfriend, who showed up from Philly as a total surprise to me (not to worry, a good surprise) noted, “This place smells so clean it makes you want to lick the walls.”

Not to worry, I’m sure she didn’t lick the walls. Pretty sure anyway.

The reading itself was really fun, and people laughed at the funny parts, which is always nice. We ended with my friends, Lea Robinson and Elizabeth Whitney, acting out the last piece in the book in which a fictional (ahem) comedy fan attempts to engage me in funny small talk while I persist in discussing death, tragedy and the earthquake in Haiti. They were perfect and I got to watch from the outside what it looks like to try and have a light conversation with me. Wow. No wonder people stopped inviting me to dinner parties!

Sunday, May 19

I woke up Sunday morning with no attention hangover, which I am grateful for. I’ve never had a drunk hangover because I’m not really into feeling out of control, but sometimes when I have a night where I’ve been the center of attention I wake up with a headache and a vague feeling of “uh, what happened.” The book party was what I wanted it to be, which is a celebration of our community’s resiliency in addition to being a celebration of the book, and also people laughed really hard, so damn if I don’t feel good!

Kelli Dunham

Kelli Dunham

I’m not a big fan of sleeping in (makes me too crabby, and I love mornings), but that wasn’t an option today because there was apartment business to take care of. In a classic Brooklyn story, my Big Gay Roommate and I are getting kicked out of our apartment because our other roommate wants to start a family. So me and the Big Gay Room-mate and his Big Gay Boyfriend signed a lease on a new apartment in a nearby but slightly less expensive neighborhood. Our rent still went up almost 200 bucks each but we also feel lucky to find a place we can afford at all.

They are renovating the apartment but don’t seem at all concerned with getting it done by the time we move in, so we’ve been doing a lot of back and forth. The real estate dude advertised it with “exposed brick” but when we saw it the first time, they were putting brick over the interior wall. It’s not exposed brick, it’s actually unexposed drywall.

Looking for an apartment with two gay boys is hilarious. All I care about: “is it inside?” and they’re asking things like “excuse me is this the original crown molding?” I’m grateful for them, because otherwise I’d probably be moving into a cave. “Oh I have to live with a bear? Cool, I love bears, we can share flannel shirts. Oh you mean a real bear. Hmmm. Well. Do I get my own room?”

Anyway, it’s a good time to sign a lease, because I’ve got a full-time day job right now, and so my income looks real. Book royalties never look real, even when they are. My goal is to die in this apartment, which I know might sound depressing if you live somewhere else, but in New York this is an expression of hope. I told the Big Gay Apartment Mates, they can adopt whatever they want, but I’m staying. They can adopt a baby saber tooth tiger and we’ll keep it the living room and I’ll call it Petunia.

Me, My Big Gay Husbands, and Petunia the Saber-Toothed Tiger. Sounds a-okay to me.

Monday, May 20

Last night, I had stress dreams all night about telling family “secrets” in Freak of Nurture. But they aren’t really secrets, they’re just obvious facts people have agreed to stop talking about. So bring it on subconscious, bring it on! A good story and good catharsis are totally worth the nightmares.

Day job this morning was a little annoying, because over 50 percent of our funding got pulled and now I have to re-interview for the same job I have, even though the head person at the site where I’ve been placed says losing me would be “devastating” for the folks we serve. So that’s fun. Sometimes writers and performers complain about their day jobs or want one that leaves their brain free, but I love working as a nurse even though of course it sometimes makes me want to stab myself in the eyeball with a nail. I love having a day job that can theoretically make the world a better place. And I like the structure. Oh and the check.

Also, it keeps your head out of your butt. Or my head out of my head, to use an I statement. You can only make yourself so miserable with “oh they didn’t laugh as hard as I wanted last night, everyone hates me” line of thinking when confronted with real people with real problems.

Tuesday, May 21

In order to force myself to write comedy material, I put ten three-by-five cards in my back pocket each morning. My goal is to write ten premises (the basics structure of a bit in stand-up comedy) each day. If I don’t write ten premises, the leftover cards go into the pile for the next day, and then I have to fill them up the next day. If I’m not paying attention (which, by the way, is about 90 percent of humor writing) I can end up with a stack of fifty cards in my back pocket, aggravating my sciatica.

Today, I have 32 cards in my back pocket, and I almost catch up. Almost.

I celebrated my book release tonight with Diana Cage, Max Crandall and Tom Leger and Julie Blair. Everyone at dinner is a writer/creative person (Tom and Julie started Topside Press), and everyone also works very hard at another job as well. Diana and Max are some of my closest friends and they live in an apartment building less than .2 miles away, according to Google Maps.

We live practically in the same building. I know what a luxury this is. Who gets this as an adult?

After dinner and before I go home, Diana packs me a lunch for work the next day. I am going to miss this easy geographical access, although I know we’ll see each other all the time, and I am only moving 1.2 miles away. According to Google Maps.

Wednesday, May 22

It was pouring this morning and I got soaked down to even my underwear. How’s that for the banal report? I have an extra dry shirt at my job, but not extra underwear because I feel weird keeping underwear in my desk. I suppose I could have used an umbrella but don’t own one because as soon as I buy one, I instantly leave it on the subway. At some point, as much as I love my fellow New Yorkers, there’s no reason for me to continue to buy umbrellas for everyone on the Q train.

Sometimes I take the Q train part of the way to work even though taking two buses is actually quicker. I do this so I can achieve maximum neighborhood saturation by transferring through Midwood. This is one of the things I love best about New York: that you can pass through four very different neighborhoods in 30 minutes, or maybe even 3 minutes if you’re in Queens. As New Yorkers, we are always guests in each other’s neighborhoods, and in each other’s personal space. I think this breeds a certain kind of comfort with discomfort that is really important for creative work.

Man, I do go on about how much I love New York, don’t I? New York is my girlfriend, no question about it.

Thursday, May 23

I really need a haircut, which is a bit of a butch accessory, and I noticed that a barber shop not far from my apartment just put up a sign that said “we razor cut all hair textures.” This of course is code for “white genderqueers welcome here.” I deeply appreciate these kind of clarifying statements on hair places; it saves coming around with a clipboard and a survey “excuse me, as a white person, would it be cultural trespassing if I got my haircut here?”

The guy cutting my hair does a great job, it’s like an artisanal haircut, and when I tell him this he says, “I’ve been doing this for a million years.” He then shows me a pair of rusty scissors, his first pair, from when he started cutting hair in 1985.

I then head home for my favorite Thursday night activity:  TV and re-ordering my to-do list. I know smart people are supposed to say they hate teevee and love reading and listening to NPR. I love reading but I hate listening to NPR (change your voice tone and talk about something good for a change, public radioheads) and I love TV. And not just good TV, like documentaries about how 90 percent of the world’s endangered species are in danger of becoming extinct because we use too many plastic bags and eat too much genetically modified kale. No I love bad TV, horrible teevee. I love old sitcoms on TV Land. I love corny victimy Lifetime Movies. And I love Long Island Medium and totally want to gay marry Theresa Caputo and spend another lifetime with her on Long Island, ambushing people with messages from their dead relatives while they are trying to get their teeth cleaned.

While I watched reruns of Long Island Medium, I re-ordered my to-do list for the next week and printed it out. I am obsessed with my to-do list. With creating it, working from it, and of course, the most important part, never getting it done. If I ever got my to do list completely done, I’m afraid I’d be like the Greyhound who catches the electronic rabbit and can never be coaxed to run again.

Friday, May  24

A newly sober friend texts me at 5 am, “are you up?” And then goes on to tell me that his new puppy has a Twitter account. Sometimes newly sober people have a lot of energy, I’ve noticed. I’m leaving for Fire Island on the 7:30 train, so I get up and begin packing for the trip.

Another writer has invited me out for the weekend to Fire Island, and I’m really grateful. For the Fire Island trip to be sure, but also for her friendship. She started as my (now deceased) partner Cheryl’s friend, and when Cheryl died our connection remained. We talk about Cheryl of course, but also about writing, and therapy and relationships and Disney World and how to be a helpypants (which both of us are) without losing your own soul.

It’s freezing cold and raining and so we spend the day inside, drinking many cups of hot tea. I admire the slightly untamed beauty of Fire Island and enjoy the friendliness of Cherry Grove, where my friend has a house for the summer. I think sometimes, what it must have been like in Cherry Grove in 1989 or even 1985, what it must have been like to be in such a beautiful place while our community literally disappeared. I have a guest blog post about some ridiculous TV show that I’ve been asked to write, and thinking about all the (mostly) men missing in action has pulled me away from it, so I’ve decided to go to bed early.

On Thursday, I spilled Diet Mountain Dew in my messenger bag, not a lot but enough to bring up the glitter on the floor of the bag, leftover from what I use in my hair for late night shows. The glitter has adhered itself to Friday’s leftover comedy cards, still blank, and they are a strange combination of ridiculous and beautiful, shimmering in the light that streams from the rental unit’s bathroom night-light. It’s a way too obvious metaphor for something, I thought, and promptly fell asleep.


(Photos by Morgan Goode)

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