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‘Call Me By Your Name’ author Andre Aciman talks shop

Straight novelist says most of his friends, interests in life have been gay

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André Aciman, gay news, Washington Blade

André Aciman (Photo by Sigrid Estrada)

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation presents:

 

‘Call Me By Your Name: an Evening with Andre Aciman’

 

Friday, April 20

 

GW Lisner Auditorium

 

730 21st St., N.W.

 

7 p.m.

 

general admission: $20

 

admission, book & signing: $35

 

gwutickets.com

Luca Guadagnino (left) and André Aciman at a screening of ‘Call Me By Your Name’ at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival. Aciman made a cameo in the film as one of Elio’s parents’ gay friends. (Photo by Franz Richter via Wikimeda)

Not only are actors Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet — leads in the seminal gay coming-of-age movie “Call Me By Your Name,” — straight, Andre Aciman, author of the 2007 novel upon which its based, is straight as well.

He’ll be in Washington on Friday, April 20 for a moderated discussion at the Lisner Auditorium hosted by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, which the Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber will moderate. He spoke to the Blade this week by phone from his New York home base where he writes and teaches comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His comments have been slightly edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Are you tired of talking about “Call Me By Your Name?”

ANDRE ACIMAN: It’s been part of my life for the past 10 years and any opportunity I have to talk, I seize it because I love it. It hasn’t become either habitual or tedious yet and I don’t see it happening. It’s been fantastic for the past year since the movie came out but also for the past 10 years when the book was initially released to quite a bit of acclaim although it was never a bestseller.

BLADE: Did gays embrace it right away or later with the movie tie-in?

ACIMAN: It was immediately read. I’m actually writing a piece on that. Initially I received a lot of mail from people into their 80s who were extremely moved by the story and at the bottom of their e-mail there was always something like I wish my father had been there to give me that kind of a talk. So yes, what they were all lamenting was the fact that the coming-out ritual, which is now so palpable everywhere, it didn’t really exist in those years so they couldn’t even really come out. There was nothing to come out with as it were so you had to keep it under wraps.

BLADE: I know a lot of people found the father’s speech very moving but I felt it worked better in the book. The movie felt so minimalist and languid then the speech to me felt suddenly quite literal and even a bit patronizing. Like suddenly it turned into an after-school special. I’m guessing you would disagree with that but it was the one moment in the movie that felt a bit false to me. I didn’t feel that in the book.

ACIMAN: Well I don’t know if it’s a fair criticism but I know when people read that speech they cry to begin with and when they hear it said in the movie they cry again. In other words, the crying begins with the father’s speech and not necessarily with the separation of the two guys. It was quite easy to write and it basically came out rather spontaneously. The way it was, I caught myself writing a sentence like “to feel nothing in order to feel nothing.” Where do you get double negatives like that in a write who sort of watches his language, but I left it that way because I figured this captured what I was trying to say. The difficult part was not that, but writing the scene where Elio sort of blubbers or sort of without thinking ends up telling Oliver what he feels. That was very difficult to write because I didn’t want him to come out and say it. I wanted it to be as ambiguous as possible so he’d have some chance of retraction if it was going to be embarrassing.

BLADE: You’ve said in other interviews you’re perplexed when people tell you they cry at the book or the movie. Are you being self-effacing perhaps? It’s a poignant story. That it would induce tears does not seem surprising to me.

ACIMAN: I was perplexed by it. Yes, everything about me is modesty so I have to assume, without knowing of course, I have to even assume some of it will be affected. I’m willing to grant that much. On the other hand, the one moment that was moving to me — not to tears, but it was just, I could feel a sort of shudder running through me when I decided to write the scene — was the moment when Elio says toward the end of the book that whenever he passes by that wall where they kissed rather passionately, he still feels the presence of that kiss. For me that was very moving and very true but I doubt anybody cried in that moment because it wasn’t anything that sort of brings tears to your eyes. … Also when Oliver tells him, “I remember everything,” I could see where that could be moving, but it’s not a sad crying. That’s what perplexes me. People tell me they cried for days. I always ask them to tell me why and nobody can explain it.

BLADE: Don’t you think it’s as simple as them being startled that you captured feelings so well they’d previously felt themselves?

ACIMAN: Well maybe that’s the part I don’t understand totally. I do understand it partly. … What I don’t understand is you haven’t read this all over the place? Am I the only one who does this and many people say yes. I can’t believe this because, well, among other things there’s Marcel Proust, the great Michelangelo of the psychological book. (Editor’s note: Aciman is editor of “The Proust Project.”)

BLADE: Oliver and Elio are both intellectuals or at least budding intellectuals perhaps for Elio. Would the story have worked if they’d had average IQs or were more blue collar?

ACIMAN: If they had lower IQs or were less educated, I would not have been interested in them at all. The fact that Elio is already precocious is part of what I was at his age. I had read everything almost by the time I was 17. I knew classical music, I loved the high arts and yes, I was a bit elitist and still am. In many respects if they were the working class sort or if it had been some kind of gas station love affair where they did it in the bathroom or whatever, I have no interest in that and it doesn’t even eroticize me. … I’m not interested in class differentiation, the sort of pedestrian lifestyle or what you’d call the average man. I’ve never been interested in average people.

BLADE: Could it have worked if they’d been a straight couple?

ACIMAN: I think it would have worked the same exact way. The fact that Oliver tells him this is all wrong, that’s exactly what an older tutor type would say if the guy had a crush on his tutor, she would say, “No, this is wrong, I’m your dad’s employee, I don’t want to do this.” The other aspect is that it starts with a very physical and brutal infatuation. It could be a girl and a girl as far as I’m concerned. The fact that Elio is so embarrassed is not because it’s a gay love. It’s because he’s so attracted to him. Attraction is not something, of course it’s very natural physically speaking, but in society, it’s not exactly the kind of thing one wants to let on that one feels … but not because it’s gay.

BLADE: Was it a hard sell?

ACIMAN: Oh, you mean you don’t know? I was writing another novel and I had stopped writing it because it was giving me such a hard time. And then I just wrote “Call Me By Your Name” in three-and-a-half months. So I went to my agent’s office and I said I had finished a novel and she said, “Oh, you finally finished it,” it was going on three years. I said, “No, I wrote a new novel.” … She wrote to me early the next morning saying she had read it overnight and she loved it and wanted to sell it and it was sold within 24 hours. Jonathan Galassi (president of publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux) read it very, very quickly and he knew, I think, that he felt it was the right thing for them and he bought it right away. (Note: the other book he was working on was eventually published — “Eight White Nights” in 2010.)

BLADE: You held firm to your ending although you were very open to other editing. Did you have final cut in your contract and if so, how common or uncommon is that in the publishing world?

ACIMAN: It’s more of a courtesy relationship. They make recommendations. If you absolutely refuse, they’ll go along with it. Jonathan Galassi is known to say to people, “It’s your book.” In other words, you can do what you want. But he did make suggestions and I did cut some things. The chapter in Rome was originally about twice its size. It was very long because I was enjoying myself at that point. They had had sex, everything was on the table so I could just go with this honeymoon trip to Rome and have a great deal of fun with it. I wanted them to go to the cemetery where John Keats is buried but I figured we’ll cut this and it was fine. It made perfect sense to cut except when I feel, maybe five-10 percent of the time what I had in place was correct.

BLADE: Tell us about the PEN/Faulkner event. Will you be interviewed?

ACIMAN: Yes but that’s all I know. I don’t know what the questions are and I always want to be surprised and think on my feet. But it’s flattering that they invited me and I’m very pleased.

BLADE: When the movie came out, did you attend many of the film festivals and press junkets?

ACIMAN: No. I just went to the one in Berlin and the New York one. When you’re a writer, you’re an extra in the mix. People want to see the movie stars. They’re sexy figures at this point and that’s what people want to see. They don’t need the intellectual to sort of narrate his own work. It’s not that interesting.

BLADE: Was there any talk of possibly you adapting the screenplay before James Ivory got involved?

ACIMAN: I don’t think there was. I’m not really trained in that although I could do it. I didn’t want to put my energies into something like that while I was writing another book. I think James Ivory did a fantastic job altogether and (director) Luca (Guadagnino) also because when you’re filming something there are changes you make to the script all the time.

BLADE: Did you know Luca’s work before this got optioned?

ACIMAN: Yes and I was extremely happy because I had seen a few years earlier the film “I Am Love,” which I particularly liked.

BLADE: Have you known many gay people throughout your life?

ACIMAN: Oh god yes, many. In fact I would say most of my friends, my best friends are gay. Not all, but most. I tend not to write alpha male types. They’re not something I can speak with about the life of the mind, the life of the soul. Gay people tend to be much more open to those sorts of touchy subjects and I found myself more interested in discussing those things.

BLADE: Did you listen to Armie Hammer’s audiobook of “Call Me”?

ACIMAN: Yes, of course and I loved it. It took me a bit to get used to the fact that Oliver is actually reading Elio’s story. It was off putting for the first few minutes but then you get used to it and it’s fine.

BLADE: Luca has been talking about a sequel. How involved are you in that and what is your general feeling? Outside of “The Godfather,” sequels usually end up being mistakes.

ACIMAN: Well you said something very true. It could easily become like “Rocky 5, 6, 7, 8,” which are terrible movies, although I do love “Rocky IV” I have to admit, I don’t know why. But anyway no, we have had conversations about the sequel but I think we’re still a few years away from it because the actors would have to be a bit older so we can see how time might affect them. The story is going to have to take a new spin and adapt some of the stuff at the end of the book which was left off in the film but it’s up in the air. It’s a nice idea but we have no idea where we’re going with it yet.

BLADE: So it’s very preliminary?

ACIMAN: Totally.

BLADE: Did this idea come up during production or after the movie was a hit?

ACIMAN: No, during production. When I met Luca in Italy, he was already talking about a sequel.

BLADE: Do you think that influenced his decision on how to end the movie?

ACIMAN: I don’t know. It’s not the cliffhanger you have at the end of a season on television for example. It’s more a quiet closure that could easily be reopened again if we decide to.

BLADE: Where did you watch the Oscars and how did you feel when James Ivory won?

ACIMAN: I was there, seated a bit back. They didn’t say “Call Me By Your Name” when he won so for a split second I was thinking, “Oh, we lost,” and I turned to my wife and she said, “We won, you idiot.” I was very happy and particularly touched by the graciousness that he gave me a call out. … It made me feel that I too, got an Oscar through him.

BLADE: Ivory said he would have liked more nudity in the film. It did feel a bit incongruous to me that here we have this gay love story but there was more straight sex and nudity in it than gay. Not that you go for the sex but as a point of reference.

ACIMAN: I didn’t agree with him because he had male nudity, I think, in “A Room With a View” where you had three men running around the pond totally naked. When you see a woman nude, you see breasts and there’s nothing else really to see. You don’t see an open vulva to be sort of vulgar for a second. You don’t see that, genital nudity but you do with a man. … Frankly I don’t think it was necessary and I didn’t want to see them actually fucking. That would have been in bad interest to begin with. I don’t like to see the sexual act, gay or hetero, on screen. It really bores me. I no longer enjoy watching it. I mean if I want to see porn, I’ll go to a site and look at porn.

BLADE: Do you feel the film got shortchanged at the Oscars?

ACIMAN: I was frustrated. I thought to be honest, I haven’t seen the Churchill film (“Darkest Hour”) but I’ve seen cuts of it. I think there’s a bit of hysterical acting in it and I was very disappointed Timmy didn’t get it because I think he should have, age nonetheless. And I really felt the film itself should have gotten it because it’s a terrific film. Everybody is talking about it. … Even just two days ago, it was referenced in relation to the opera “Tristan and Isolde.” I thought it was a bad decision but one should never question the decision of judges, you know. So I left it at that but I was frustrated, of course I was.

Armie Hammer (left) as Oliver and Timothee Chalamet as Elio in ‘Call Me By Your Name.’ (Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

BLADE: Do you remember writing the scene where the title notion comes from and how that came to you?

ACIMAN: Yes. First of all, it was not the original title of the book. We went through a whole list of titles and at the very end I said, “What about ‘Call Me By Your Name?’” Now people ask me to sign the book to them using my name and they tell me they do that when they’re having sex. It becomes something very intimate when you give them your name. They become you whether it becomes for one second and then you forget about it and you’re embarrassed or you do it repeatedly. In the film, it was a gesture where you absolutely want to be one with someone and you basically no longer know where their body starts and yours is. That confusion is one of the most beautiful things in life I think.

BLADE: I took it as sort of a gay reclaiming of the biblical notion of “the two shall become one.”

ACIMAN: Could be.

BLADE: In the book, they kiss after Elio vomits. They look in the toilet after each other. Were you saying that attraction sometimes is so intense it can transcend bodily functions we ordinarily would be repulsed by?

ACIMAN: Yeah, because I wanted basically aside from the fact that I wanted every orifice to be part of the game here, but it’s more than that. I think that body functions — many people, even married people will shut the door when they go to the bathroom. They don’t want the other person to see. Why? Because it’s disgusting? Or because it’s private? And the whole notion of the book is that there is no private. … If you ejaculate in a peach, I will eat the peach with your cum in it and I want to see you going to the bathroom. I want to know everything about you. … It’s an idyll to love so it has to include everything, even vomit.

BLADE: Some of the #MeToo stuff was same-sex like with James Levine and Kevin Spacey. I know that’s a whole other thing but the fact that that was playing out when the movie was so popular, did any of that land on your shores?

ACIMAN: No, not at all really. A, because I’m not really interested in it but what did land on my shore is the fact that Elio is 17 and Oliver is a grown up. … Many things happened to me at that age and I was just lucky to have found nicer people. … But I wanted Elio to be 17. … If he’d been 18, that would have seemed, to me at least, that I was trying to get the OK from the thought police.

BLADE: What are you writing now?

ACIMAN: I have a collection of essays tentatively called “Homo Irrealis,” that’s finished and I’m working on another book, sort of a bilateral novel about three lives … that explores how people have attractions to people of the opposite sex and the same sex.

BLADE: When did you discover Proust?

ACIMAN: When I was 14 the first time, then I stopped reading him because it was just too close. It was very, very close but I felt I wanted to be influenced by this guy but I still needed to read Dostoevsky so I put him off. But my father was a big Proustian lover and he had read Proust twice in his life. I discovered him again in my late teens and it changed my life, it changed me as a writer. It told me ironically that everything I had thought was OK and every way I wanted to write was OK since he was doing it.

BLADE: How much gets lost in translation with Proust?

ACIMAN: Well some of it is definitely lost but if you’re dealing with a very good translator, the loss is not severe.

BLADE: When you’re writing, do your productive daydreams very often seep over into procrastination?

ACIMAN: Are you kidding, I’m the most undisciplined writer in the world. I re-write many, many, many times so that’s why I don’t produce a giant blockbuster every two years as many writers do.

BLADE: Was the three-and-a-half months for “Call Me” revisions and everything?

ACIMAN: Yes. I began it in April and handed in the manuscript on Labor Day in 2005.

BLADE: Do you enjoy teaching or just do it to pay the bills?

ACIMAN: No, I need teaching because it turns out, I’ll say this quite openly, I think I’m a very good teacher because I take people to places that they ordinarily would never have thought existed. And I like to hear people think and hear them draw on their feelings to what they’re thinking about as opposed to just giving me the gibberish jargon they think they need to. … If I just did it to pay the bills, I would have stopped.

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Melissa Etheridge shares Q&A in advance of April 26 Tysons tour stop

Rock pioneer finds inspiration in the past — from revisiting old demos to reconnecting with celeb pals like Ellen

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Melissa Etheridge brings her ‘One Way Out Tour’ to the D.C. region next week with a show at the new Capital One Hall in Tysons. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

Melissa Etheridge
‘One Way Out Tour’
Tuesday, April 26
Capital One Hall
7750 Capital One Tower Rd.
Tysons, VA
7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $55
ticketmaster.com
capitalonehall.com
melissaetheridge.com

We caught up with rock legend Melissa Etheridge on April 8 by phone from Snoqualmie, Wash. — it’s about 26 miles east of Seattle —where she was playing the Snoqualmie Casino on her “One Way Out Tour,” which plays our region on Tuesday, April 26. 

It’s named after her latest album, released last fall, which found Etheridge, who’s been out since ’93, revisiting demos from early in her career.

Her comments have been slightly edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: “One Way Out” sounds like such a cool project. Was it all re-recorded stuff of old songs or were some of those vintage takes on the record as well?

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: The last two songs, the live songs, were from where? From 2002? OK, but the other songs were newly recorded. 

BLADE: And how many of them did you remember?

ETHERIDGE: You know, when I found them again, they all came back very clearly. And I was like, “Oh, this is — why did I throw that away? That’s weird.” And I really enjoyed, you know, hearing them, they were just old demos. I’d never done full-blown recordings. So I thought, “This is great, I want to do these songs.”

BLADE: We have a relatively new venue you’re going to be playing, Capital One Hall. I’ve only been there once. You excited?

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it’s always fun. I love the D.C.-area crowd. It’s just really, really nice.

BLADE: And how do you decide where you’ll be? Or do you have any say in it? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, it’s not necessarily me. I do have a say in it, in what I want the whole tour to look like. But it is really up to William Morris, my agent, to find the right venue that understands what we need and the kind of atmosphere we’re looking for that and the amount of people and, you know, that sort of thing.

BLADE: Tell me about Etheridge TV. I just wonder, when we were in that acute phase of the pandemic, wasn’t it even remotely tempting to you to just take a break?

ETHERIDGE: No, because since I was 12 years old, I sang all the time for people, like five days a week and it’s just been what I do. And so when it was like, I was looking at a massive, cavernous amount of time that I was going to be home, I still needed a way to pay the bills, so we put our heads together — I’ve got one of the greatest television minds with me, you know, my wife (TV producer Linda Wallem), so I had the space and I had the equipment, and I was like, “Let’s do it.” And it was really fun to learn new things. It was fun to learn about computers and sound and streaming and lights and cameras and all these things that I didn’t know. … I feel a little smarter.

BLADE: When did you start back on the road?

ETHERIDGE: We went out last fall. We went out September, October, right around there. And you know, it was a little different, Now things are things are loosening up … but some places still require masks. But people are starting to get back out and it feels good. It’s not the overwhelming thing that it was a few months ago.

BLADE: And what was it like being on ‘Ellen’ again for her final season?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, I love her. She’s such an old friend. You know, I say that about myself, too. (chuckles) But, you know, she’s just a relationship in my life that I have treasured. We’ve watched each other grow and the changes we’ve made and the successes and what we’ve gone through and I love that she had me on and just it was just a really — she’s a dear friend. And she showed an old photo there, and we both said, “Oh, that was before we were so busy.”

BLADE: Do you talk to her often?

ETHERIDGE: I would say we see each other socially once or twice a year. It just seemed like once we started having children, all my friends from my 20s and 30s when we were not as busy — it just gets harder to stay in touch and life got crazy. 

BLADE: So when you were hanging out back in the day with Ellen and Rosie and everybody, how was it that Brad Pitt was in that group too? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, my girlfriend (Julie Cypher) had been married to Lou Diamond Phillips and we were all very good friends with Dermot Mulroney and Catherine Keener and Catherine Keener did a movie with Brad, like a movie nobody saw, like Johnny Dangerously or something (1991’s “Johnny Suede”), some really weird movie. So I met Brad before he was terribly famous. He was a part of that group. There was a whole group of all of us that just hung out, and we were all totally different. We were just like young, hungry Hollywood and we’d talk about, “Oh, I had this audition,” or “I went and did this,” and we were just all trying to make it in that town. So we’d get together and have fun. 

BLADE: I was so terribly sorry to hear about Beckett (Etheridge’s son, who died in 2020 at age 21 after struggling with opioid addiction). How are you and the rest of the family, especially (Beckett’s twin) Bailey, dealing with it now?

ETHERIDGE: There are many, many families like us that deal with a loss like that. It just blows a family sideways. But we have a deep love and connection, all of us. We all knew he had a problem and it’s a problem that starts way before he actually passes, so it was not a surprise. So now we’re just living with the missing aspect. You try not to think about what could have been and you try to think about him in a happier place and that he’s out of pain, so that helps us.

BLADE: Had he and Bailey been as close in recent years?

ETHERIDGE: They were very close, but in the last couple of years as he made worse and worse choices, we couldn’t support that, so they were less close, but of course in her heart, it was her brother, he was very dear to her. 

BLADE: Did you watch the Grammys?  Was there anybody you were particularly rooting for?

ETHERIDGE: I watched bits and pieces of it. I had a show that night, so I didn’t get to see the main thing, but I have seen pieces and I just love the crazy diversity and you know, the TikTok people winning stuff, it’s like, “Wow, this is so not the Grammys I remember from the ’80s,” but that was what, 30 years ago? So it’s all good.

BLADE: You were such a perennial favorite back in the day in the best rock female category. Were you pissed when they eliminated it? 

ETHERIDGE: It’s sad because I felt like the criteria they were using to judge what is female rock, they just really dropped the ball. I still think there are some amazing musicians that could be considered, you know, rock, but it feels like we’re having a hard time even defining what rock and roll is now anyway. There’s a whole bunch of strong women out there playing, rocking, you know, playing guitar, being excellent musicians and songwriters. If you can’t call it best rock female, OK, call it something else. 

BLADE: I remember so vividly when you were on the Grammys in 2005, in the midst of chemo, when you sang “Piece of My Heart.” I remember you saying you were wondering how people would react to seeing you bald. Having been through that, any thoughts on the Will/Jada Oscars situation since her baldness, too, was due to a medical condition? 

ETHERIDGE: You know, it’s funny, I did feel a little remembrance of (thinking), “I just hope people don’t make fun of me.” That was kind of the first thing because to go out there bald, that was so different for me as an artist whose hair had kind of defined her. I was thinking, “How am I gonna rock without my hair?” I thought people might make fun of me, but I got over that. I just thought, “Well, if somebody makes fun of me, that just makes them look bad.” So I just walked through it. And you know, it’s hard to draw the line between what’s funny and what’s painful and how to look at something. I feel for all parties involved. 

BLADE: When you go on these cruises, do fans give you some space or do they swarm around the minute you walk out? Is it even enjoyable for you? 

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it is. You know, we did our last one, now we’re doing Etheridge Island, we now have a destination in Mexico, outside of Cancun, it’s just this island that we’re going to that is really fantastic. But I do I make myself available, I don’t run away. When I have to be somewhere, I have a great company we work with called Sixthman that knows how to get me from point A to point B without being bogged down. But I do my make myself available. Everyone gets a picture with me. It’s my work, but I love it. I try to make myself available but also have some time just for myself too.

Melissa Etheridge says slowing down wasn’t an option for her when the pandemic hit. She’s glad to be back on the road now, she says. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

BLADE: You Tweeted a few nights ago about having a tight curfew of just 90 minutes at a casino but then it worked out and you got to do a full set. Why are the curfews so tight at casinos?  

ETHERIDGE: Why do you think? They want people at the tables. Like for tonight, we we settled on 100 minutes. They’re giving me 10 extra minutes. I don’t like it, but in some areas, the only really good venue is a casino, so if you want to reach your folks there, you kind of have to meet them half way. 

BLADE: Yeah, but it seems like in concert halls, the curfews can sometimes be really tight too. Even Madonna got her lights shut off a couple years ago. Of course, she’s notoriously late, but why are they so strict with these things nowadays? 

ETHERIDGE: There are all different situations — concert halls often have union crews that will absolutely shut you down if you go one second over. There are also sound curfews, noise curfews, mostly with outdoor venues, but sometimes indoor as well. They have an agreement with the neighborhood. So you have people in the neighborhood standing by with their phones ready to pounce the minute it goes over one minute, they’re gonna call the police. As a performer, you just realize, “OK, it’s not just about me.” When I don’t have a curfew, I usually land at about two hours and some change. That seems comfortable to everyone. Any longer and I think I’m wearing my audience out. When I’m at a place with a shorter show, I just do my best. 

BLADE: I know you’re a big Chiefs fan. Did you watch that game back in January all the way to the end? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, at the end of it, I was on the floor. My wife was like, “Honey, honey, there’s still 13 seconds,” and I was moaning and sort of getting my feet on the floor and, you know, laying down and throwing a fit. And she’s like, “No, there’s still 13 seconds.” I dragged myself back to the television. And I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Wait a minute. Did we just win?” You know, just really crazy, really crazy stuff. … When you’re a fan like that, it’s a ride you can’t fully explain.

BLADE: Are you in a cordial or good place with your exes? Does it get easier when the kids are starting to grow up?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And you realize that it’s best for the kids if you can really get along and that any sort of conflict that can’t get resolved, that gets emotional, does no good for anyone. And absolutely, I have, I’ve gotten better at that as the years have gone by.

BLADE: Do you have the slightest inkling yet what the next studio album might be like?

ETHERIDGE: Well, I’ve got some interesting projects that I’m not ready to talk about just yet. But they have to do with my life story. There’s a lot of digging up of my past and really telling the story. So I imagine the next series of music you’ll get from me is going to be very focused on my journey. 

Melissa Etheridge, gay news, Washington Blade
Melissa Etheridge (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)
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New Cranes sommelier brings spirit to wine and sake program

Stewart-Woodruff curates eclectic list for Michelin-starred restaurant

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‘I bring my whole self to work,’ says Eric Stewart-Woodruff. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

Outfitted in a blue damask dinner jacket with satin lapels and an energetic smile, Eric Stewart-Woodruff carves an impressive figure when chatting about his favorite vintages. Stewart-Woodruff, who’s gay, is the new sommelier at Michelin-starred Cranes in Penn Quarter.

Stewart-Woodruff curates an eclectic wine – and sake – program focusing on pairings with celebrated Chef Pepe Moncayo’s innovative, global flavors. Cranes, which explores intersections of Spanish and Japanese cuisine, opened just before the pandemic, and received a coveted Michelin star in 2021.

Stewart-Woodruff did not start off in the wine industry. In fact, he does not have any formal training in wine. Instead, after a career as a professional photographer, he pivoted to the restaurant industry, where he developed his love of wine. While working for a distributor, he connected with D.C.’s own District Winery. This opportunity allowed him to express his truest self, as a lead tour guide, wine ambassador and sommelier. He credits his identity and personality as his reason for thriving.

“I bring my whole self to work,” he says, “offering a level of humanity and approachability.” 

After the pandemic temporarily shuttered District Winery, Stewart-Woodruff found himself interviewing at Cranes, enamored with Moncayo’s “creative vision,” he says – and was sold. He began in late summer of 2021.

Through his work in hospitality, Stewart-Woodruff notes that the industry can be hetero-male dominated. He has been able to break through by not holding back on his identity.

“I tend to play with expectations of what a sommelier may look or act like,” he says. “I move away from what one may stereotypically look like, but still present like one.”

For him, that means talking about wine and wine education “as if it were gossip,” he says. “I like to view wine like we are at brunch. Wine has personality, it’s performative, and it has stereotypes.” He is seeking to break molds of specific likes and dislikes, exploring the depth that wine has to offer, in the context of the Spanish-Japanese Cranes menu. In fact, he says, Moncayo is supportive of his innovative, certification-less angle. “I become more relatable,” he says.

He also presents original events. He paired with local guest sommelier Andrew Stover (also a gay man) on Tuesday, March 29 for a springtime showcase of specialty rosé wines paired with Moncayo’s dishes. The duo poured tastes of specialty, small-batch wines from Brazil, Italy, Spain, Uruguay, and Maryland.

Leaning into the innovative spirit, the wine-by-glass list is not split by color. Instead, it is divided into evocative categories. For example, both a chardonnay and a pinot noir fall into the “Elegant, round, and mellow” category.

As a Spanish-Japanese restaurant, Cranes not only possesses an extensive wine cellar, but has consistently expanded its sake program. Sakes by the glass are split into the same exact categories. The very same “Elegant, round, and mellow” list includes Ginjo Nama Genshu and junmai daiginjo.

Stewart-Woodruff explains that wine and sake should be attended to similarly. “Sake is something you can think about like a beer in terms of production but treat like a wine,” he says. Sake is a fermented polished-rice beverage, dating back more than two millennia in Japan.

“Sake has aromatics, texture, body, and finish.” He takes pride in discussing customers’ palate preferences, and turning them onto a specific sake, for their qualities of earthiness, acidity, or others.

“Many people don’t experience sake outside of college or bars. Now, I can be a sommelier for sake, and for the marriage of Eastern and Western cuisine and beverage.” He expresses excitement at being innovative in his sake beverage pairings, occupying a niche space. When discussing both wine and sake, he aims to bring an artistic flair and tour-guide enthusiasm to the table.

Woodruff credits his identity and background for his success. He aims to bring a level of humanity and approachability to what has been a formal, stuffy area. He has high ambitions to portray sake as sophisticated as wine in the customer’s mind, “but it pairs well with Moncayo’s conceptually ambitious menu,” he says.

“Wine and sake are as eclectic as humanity. I want people to accept experiencing wine like the world has accepted me.”

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Legalization trend continues as Nat’l Cannabis Festival kicks off

D.C.’s 420 Week runs April 16-24

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National Cannabis Festival (Photo by Doug Van Sant; courtesy NCF)

The sixth annual National Cannabis Festival kicks off in D.C. on April 16 as the nation continues to see advances in legalizing cannabis, particularly for medical uses. 

Just this week, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed HB 933 and SB 671, to provide numerous operational improvements to the state’s medical cannabis program, including eliminating the requirement that patients register with the Board of Pharmacy after receiving their written certification from a registered practitioner. 

“These legislative improvements will bring great relief to the thousands of Virginians waiting to access the medical cannabis program,” said JM Pedini, NORML’s Development Director and the Executive Director of Virginia NORML. “We hear from dozens of Virginians each week who are struggling with the registration process and frustrated by the 60-day wait to receive their approval from the Board of Pharmacy,” Pedini added.

There are more than 47,000 program registrants, with an estimated 8,000 applicants still awaiting approval. 

The new laws will take effect July 1. Until that time, patients will still be required to register with the Board of Pharmacy in order to shop at one of the state’s ten operational dispensaries. After July 1, patients who would like to receive a physical card will still have the option to request one by registering with the Board of Pharmacy.

The changes in Virginia law reflect growing support nationwide for reforming marijuana laws. Most Americans favor the enactment of a broad array of legal reforms specific to marijuana policy, according to new nationwide polling data provided by YouGov.com.

Specifically, six-in-10 Americans say that “marijuana should be made legal in the United States.” Majorities of Democrats (72 percent) and independents (60 percent) back legalization, while most Republicans (46 percent) do not.

Last week, members of the United States House of Representatives voted 220 to 204 in favor of The MORE Act, which removes marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act thereby allowing states to legalize cannabis markets free from federal interference. Most Democrats (217) voted for the bill while all but three Republicans voted against it.

A majority of Americans also support amending federal law so that banks and other financial institutions can explicitly partner with state-licensed marijuana businesses. Support for the policy change is strongest among Democrats (66 percent) and weakest among Republicans (38 percent).

Under existing federal law, financial institutions are discouraged from partnering with state-licensed cannabis businesses. According to the most recent financial information provided by the US Treasury Department, only about ten percent of all banks and only about four percent of all credit unions provide services to licensed cannabis-related businesses.

House members have voted on six separate occasions to pass federal legislation (The SAFE Banking Act) to reform this policy, but Senators have never taken any action to advance it in the Upper Chamber. Most recently, House members voted in February to include SAFE Banking provisions in HR 4521: the America COMPETES Act. Senators failed to include similar language in their version of the bill. (Courtesy NORML)

420 Week arrives in D.C.

D.C. is gearing up for a blazing 420 Week, featuring several days of exciting panels, art and community-building events and parties culminating in the National Cannabis Festival on April 23, featuring Wiz Khalifa, Lettuce, Ghostface Killah, Backyard Band, DuPont Brass, Shamans of Sound, Cramer, and more. 

This year, the sixth annual National Cannabis Festival, which celebrates progress on cannabis legalization, is expanding to a full weekend of epic cannabis-related events, including the National Cannabis Policy Summit April 22 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center and the National Cannabis Championship, presented by Gentleman Toker and slated for April 24 at Echostage with Slick Rick. The weekend is the capstone of 420 Week, hosted by the National Cannabis Festival organizers in partnership with the Eaton Hotel and DC Brau. The week kicks off on Saturday, April 16, with movie screenings, evening parties, a beer launch and more. Read on for the week’s highlights, courtesy of Festival organizers:
 

420 Week

Saturday, April 16 – Sunday, April 24 

Eaton Hotel + DC Brau

From the Hemp and Hops Panel and launch of NCF Legalize It! Lager at DC Brau (3178-B Bladensburg Rd. NE) on April 16 to the 4/20 Kickback Party featuring Khalifa Kush and panel with artists discussing cannabis’s role in their practice at the Eaton Hotel (1201 K St, NW), 420 Week promises something for everyone with an interest in cannabis culture. Take a tour with Luckie Chucky tours, participate in a “Plantwave Soundbath” and more. Nearly all events are free; RSVP required. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com for details. 
 

National Cannabis Policy Summit

Friday, April 22, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center

1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Join a who’s who of activists, industry pioneers, government leaders, journalists and more for an electric and illuminating day looking at the era’s most pressing cannabis policy challenges and opportunities. U.S. Senate candidate and Civil Rights activist Gary Chambers; Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform; Portland Cannabis Program Manager Dasheeda Dawson; Aamra Ahmad, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and many others will be on hand to discuss environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation, banking legislation, decriminalization and more. Afterward, stay for a reception sponsored by Weedmaps. All events are free; registration is strongly recommended. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com/ncf-policy-summit for details. 
      

National Cannabis Festival

Saturday, April 23, 12 p.m. 

RFK Festival Grounds

2400 East Capitol St., NE, Lot 8

 The highlight of 420 Week events is the East Coast’s largest ticketed cannabis gathering, which returns to Washington’s RFK Campus with performances from Wiz Khalifa Lettuce, Ghostface Killah and many others. Also on tap: a wide range of exhibitors, five pavilions on topics from wellness to agriculture to education, and a brand-new culinary pavilion featuring top chefs from Maydan, Maketto, Moon Rabbit, as well as the Munchies Zone, with 75 of the region’s most popular food trucks including Peruvian Brothers, Jerk at Nite, Reba’s Funnel Cakes and more. (Note: No THC infused foods are permitted to be sold or sampled at NCF; festival-goers must be 21 and up.) Tickets range from $75-$375 for one or two-day admission to the festival and National Cannabis Championship. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com/tickets
 

National Cannabis Championship Presented by Gentleman Toker

Sunday, April 24, 12 p.m.

2135 Queens Chapel Rd., NE

Slick Rick and DJ Footwerk are giving festival-goers a sendoff to remember on the final day of 420 Week and the festival weekend, at the National Cannabis Championship at Echostage, new this year. Presented by Gentleman Toker, this awards show and bash celebrates the incredible cannabis cultivation taking place in the Washington area and across the Mid-Atlantic. Expect exhibitors, comedy, munchies, drinks and a chance to chill with some of the biggest names and brands in cannabis cultivation. Tickets are $55. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com/tickets.

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