In his youth, Mark Okun's tall, blond, blue-eyed good looks opened the door for acceptance into the world of hard partying, rock 'n' roll, drugs and gay sex.
His wild life in New York City, Fire Island and Miami in the '70s and '80s is the basis of A Short Jew in the Body of a Tall W.A.S.P. Yet, at his core, the upbringing his adoptive Jewish parents gave him pulled him through to sobriety and a fulfilling life. The memoir is a breezy read that provides pause to reflect on how our roots help shape our livesparticularly when, as in Okun's case, we eventually meet up with the non-Jewish family that is our biological heritage on a nationally televised talk show.
Okun is a practicing hairdresser with clientele in Miami; Palm Beach, Calif.; and Memphis, Tenn. His home base is New York City at Salon 02. He lives in Jersey City with his partner of 17 years, John Wendell. Okun is HIV-positive and healthy.
Windy City Times: Raised in one ethic/religious tradition, with your looks and some character traits from your birth family, you have a unique perspective on the question of nature vs. nurture. Which is more important to you?
Mark Okun: Nurture. Most of my values come from the way I was raised. I do little facial expressions like my birth family. I'm a little wild like my birth mother. I don't have any brothers and sisters, but I have two [Jewish] cousins that I'm kind of close to. And I relate to them more than I do to anybody in my birth family.
WCT: If Abe and Sylvia, the parents who raised you, had met Alice, your birth mother, what do you think they'd have to say to each other?
Mark Okun: Sylvia probably would have been threatened a little bit by the fact of her [Alice's] existence. Aside from that, they would have liked Alice well enough. They didn't have anything in common though. … my father and mother that raised me were much more educated and kind of worldly. I noticed in my birth family none of them ever succeed past a certain point. I was raised in a family where I had lots of cousins that achieved all kinds of different levels of success, and so I had a belief system that anything's possible.
WCT: Is there a down side to having two family heritages?
Mark Okun: Not for me. It's a great perspective. It makes me appreciate things more.
WCT: You intimate in the Epilogue to the book that embracing the challenges you've had in life allows you to ascend to a "higher level of existence." What do you mean by that phrase and how have you managed to do that?
Mark Okun: Being HIV-positive and having been sober for 27 years and having lived through my friends' deaths and my mother's death, and having worked through all that sober, I went through all the feelings and the reality of it … and came out the other side. I ended up surviving. I thought I was going to die. Twenty-five years ago, I thought I had two years to live. But I've never really been sick with anything in my life.
WCT: How's your health today?
Mark Okun: It's great. I'm undetectable, I have real high T-cells and I've never had any opportunistic infections. I've changed the way I live my life because I thought I might die. But, on the other hand, I thought just maybe I'll live. I thought I really should enjoy my life because I didn't know how much [time] I had. I've made the most out of my life.
WCT: How does realizing you only have todayyou mentioned that in the bookaffect your waking thoughts and intentions?
Mark Okun: Of course, you only have today because tomorrow you don't know about and yesterday's gone already. The only thing you're sure of is right now. You really have to live in the moment.
WCT: Taking from a passage in the book, as you think ahead to being an old man, what might you say to a hot young man you meet, possibly on the beach at Pines Harbor, where you spent so many summers?
Mark Okun: I think about it all the time because I'm getting older and I was a hot man and now I don't get the looks the way I used to. A part of me doesn't care, and the other part of me can't stand it. You have to have an emotionally fulfilling life on a lot of levels and enjoy people because they're interesting and not choose friends because they're cool and good-looking. I see so many guys like that and they only care about people's looks and they're very superficial. That's a terrible way to end up when you're old.
WCT: The title of the book: What does "a short Jew" in the title signify for you? I know your father was short.
Mark Okun: It signifies that I'm psychologically like my parents who raised me, but I'm stuck in this body.
WCT: What would you like to say to a young adopted person who looks nothing like his or her adopted parents?
Mark Okun: In my case, it worked out very well. … I talked to some people who wanted to find their birth family. Mainly, they were driven by it because they didn't like the parents they were raised with. So they thought if they found their birth family, that would solve all their problems. But it doesn't really change anything. You're still going to be the same person. You're still going to have the same problems.
A Short Jew in the Body of a Tall W.A.S.P., by Mark Okun and Hillary Brower, retails for $14.12.