Culture Diary: Mara Keisling On Her Love for Andrew Sullivan, a Friend’s New Memoir, and the Best Vegan Restaurant in America

Every Monday, progressive leaders from all parts of the movement, from the blogosphere to the Hill, take a break out of their schedules to tell us what they’re watching, reading, and listening to. Suggestions or requests? Email AlyssaObserves (at) gmail (dot) com.

This week, Mara Keisling, the founding Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, chronicled her pop culture consumption as she hopped across the country. In between stops at the Philly Transgender Health Conference and meetings about how to make sure Transgender people are counted appropriately in population studies, Mara explains why she loves Andrew Sullivan’s blog, reads her friends’ memoirs, remembers Freddy Mercury, and hits up the best vegan restaurant in the country.

Monday, May 30

I read my friend Sacha Scoblic’s new book, Unwasted. I am occasionally asked to read or review new and usually unpublished books. I never ask for the honor and I almost always decline even when I am asked by actual acquaintances. I just don’t want to hurt people’s feelings with anemic or impossible praise and I don’t want my name on a lie. But I really wanted to read Sacha’s book. Even though she hadn’t asked me, I wanted to read it, not because she uses the middle initial Z, which is of course cool, but because I had enjoyed her contributions to the New York Times‘ Proof column a year or so ago. Also, my dog Puffington and her dog SciFi (AKA Barky Boy) are either lovers or best friends; it’s hard to tell. I negotiated a proof copy from Sacha.

Unwasted was a one-sitting read, the best kind of memoir, fast-paced, funny and so honest and revealing, it blew right past self-conscious all the way to secret-baring in just a few pages. I really really loved it. I had much laughing and even crying. It is about her rise from addiction, and with alcoholism in my family, that is interesting to me. I think though it is a great story for anyone who needs to change or get control of their life.

Reading Unwasted also made me feel uneasy about my own book, which I’ve been layering with more and more pages for a couple of years now—layering not in the rich texture sense, but in the landfill sense, I’m afraid. That’s how it feels today. I worked more on that.

New favorite singer: Abigail Stauffer. Saw her in Ann Arbor in February. Loved her strong voice and great lyrics. Just found her song “College Love and Cheesecake” on iTunes.

I’ll just say it: I love Andrew Sullivan’s blog. . In my circles, some folks love Andrew but most are cranky about him. The cranky is mostly but not all about his politics, which are conservative but not Republican. Even while our politics don’t mesh, I actually like that he is at least intentional and smart about it. He is a real conservative in a way I can appreciate and willingly debate, if not agree with. And his blog, the Daily Dish, is a cultural wonderland. He is among the best curators of the Internet I’ve found and almost everyday I go looking for whatever cool thing he has found and posted – political or social commentary, short films, neat songs, photographs.

I am led from and by Andrew to Flowing Data. According to the website, it “explores how designers, statisticians and computer scientists are using data to understand ourselves better—mainly through data visualization.” This is cool to me—amazing and interesting stuff. Nathan Yau, the economics PhD candidate who runs the site must be very cool. Of course, I mean cool here in the completely uncool, nerdy sense of cool. I’m going to visit his website often and refer to my friend Justin who often has helped me think through data visualization.

I went to sleep listening or not to some piano sonata or other on my Pandora Franz Liszt station, which I definitely did not create just to seem cultured here.

Tuesday, May 31

This morning, “The Breakup Song” by Greg Kihn came to my mind or, more accurately, came up from mind after settling there quietly since about 1983. I looked for a video on YouTube, found it, watched it and created what I hoped would be an upbeat and nostalgic new radio station on Pandora. This played while I prepared for work. it got me thinking about my twenties in the eighties and how important music was to me then—even more than now. I went to iTunes and bought “I Got You” by Split Enz. I played it twice.

Listened to the Kojo Nnamdi on WAMU. He talked about the recent hacking of some PBS news site into which was inserted a fake story of Tupac Shakur living secretly in New Zealand in retaliation for unfavorable NPR coverage of Wikileaks. Apparently that sort of shenanigans is now called, not hacking, but hacktivism.

Tonight I get to spend a few hours watching a one month old baby named Theo, as well as America’s Got Talent . Mostly I watched Theo, talking to him and his dog constantly. Both were well behaved. I have only seen AGT once before. Good and fabulously bad. I think about a TV show idea my friend Dave and I talked about days before—Chipotle’s Got Talent, wherein we would travel to a different Chipotle restaurant each week and see who there had talent. Not my best or worst idea this week.

Wednesday, June 1

All day meeting today about research methodology for inclusion of Transgender questions in large population-based studies. I can’t believe it either. No culture of any kind today apparently. On the way home after the meeting and a quick stop at the office, I listen on my iPod (is it called that if it’s in my iPhone?) to Jennifer Leitham‘s album Left Coast Story. Leitham is a jazz upright bass player. She’s had a few solo albums (are they still called that?) since her previous career playing with folks like Mel Torme and Doc Severinsen. Apparently, a particularly interesting thing about her is that she is a rare left-handed bass player.

Everywhere in my world, I’m reading that it’s the 30th anniversary of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I think about all the people and art we’ve lost. I dwell on Freddie Mercury. I google lists of people who have died of HIV/AIDS. I wander and wonder through the list.

Thursday, June 2

Another new favorite singer: At Union Station on the way to the Philly Transgender Health Conference, I hear a song I like in a shop. Shazam! That is, I use the Shazam app on my iPhone and learn that the song is “Red Cape” by Priscilla Ahn. The opening is a little bit Natalie Merchant and it has a nice hook.

At 30th Street Station, I see three soldiers in camouflage fatigues. I decide to open my presentation later that day at the health conference. I’ll use that as my opening: “I just figured out today that I have a superpower. I am impervious to camouflage. I could see them.”

Later: Camouflage gag well received.

Dinner at Horizons—among the best vegan restaurants in the country. I’m roughly a 16-year vegan and this is the first or second best ever. Excellent vegan creme brûlée. Is that even possible? Coconut milk.

Friday June 3, 2011

I’m flying PHL to ORD for the Be-All Transgender conference. I’m a lunch speaker…first a tribute to a departed friend, Julie Johnson, and then an update on federal policy. I use the camouflage thing again. It’s a keeper. When you speak a lot, you need a repertoire so keepers are good. I’ll use this twenty times this year.

I’m reading Chaz Bono’s new book Transition because I’m interested, he’s a friend and I’m facilitating an onstage conversation with him tomorrow. Great guy. Great book. The book feels very real.

At dinner banquet, a hypnotist performs. I’ve never seen such before. I leave early to sleep, presumably under my own will.

I’ll fall asleep to Pandora Sade station. For me Pandora is for sometimes 1) finding new music or 2) atmospheric tone with particular songs incidental. Tonight = tone.

Saturday June 4, 2011

I wake up in my hotel room in Chicago. I’m singing “All Cried Out” by Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam. iTunes. Downloaded. I tell someone about it once I get to the lobby. They don’t know the song so I sing it again.

At lunch, Chaz Bono and I are on the stage. We talk about his new book, which I haven’t quite finished, and his very solid new documentary, Becoming Chaz, which I saw a few weeks ago on Oprah’s new network OWN.

On my way to the airport and then at the airport, I listen to a shuffle of songs downloaded during past three months: “Hurt” by Johnny Cash, “Stan” by Eminem, “Before it Breaks” by Brandi Carlile, and “New Way” by Ana Diaz.