Wednesday, December 21, 2011

THE RE-INCARNATION OF BOY

Back to the Fall of 1998, I had had come out and was at peace with it. At the time though I never even thought about what being gay actually meant, practically speaking that is. I mean it had taken twenty-three years just to admit it, dating was the furthest thing from my mind. What I needed was something to throw myself into entirely the way I had with The Really Big Church. I found that when I went back to school. I’d like to say it was the world of academia that consumed me, but no, it was that haven for us freaks of the world, the college theatre department. Having spent the majority of my time since high school in front of a microphone I knew that when I started college at twenty three I was going to miss it. Essentially I had been performing for a living for the last five years and I was worried about what I was going to do now that I no longer had that outlet. However it didn’t take long before I had a new one. After I saw Angels in America I wanted to audition for a play as soon as possible so I scurried on over to the theatre department to see what was coming up. Not that I cared much, I just really wanted to be in a play. The next audition coming up was for The Seagull by Anton Chekov. What the hell was that? Oh well, who cared, I signed up anyway.

  I was bitten by the bug very young. Every year in grade school a traveling theatre troupe would come and set up a stage in the cafeteria and perform, usually some version of a fairy tale with an extra punch on the moral of the story. I lived for these days, I remember waking up with excitement on the mornings I knew they were coming and pushing and clawing my way to the front cafeteria so I could sit up close. I was mesmerized by the actors. I would just sit there Indian style on the cafeteria floor with my mouth agape. I wanted to do what they were doing. Since I was already on my way to being a famous singer thanks to my living room concerts, I figured it would be an easy transition to acting. Even at six was comparing myself to Cher. When I was in the first grade I was picked to play a mouse in the school Christmas play. Ok, actually every first grader was picked to play a mouse but for some reason I chose to block that fact out. Screw those losers; I was going to be the best mouse ever! Needless to say I was a shameless ham. Grown-ups were always telling me how cute my dimples were, so I smiled so hard my face was sore the next day. I really discovered how much special attention you could get by being in a play when I was in the fifth grade. I was chosen out of all the boys in the school to be one of the main characters in that year’s Christmas play; there weren’t even tryouts, they just handed it to me; last time that ever happened. Well I thought I was hot shit, I even got to get out of class early to go rehearse, I thought it was the biggest deal. I remember the night of play right before Christmas 1985 as one of the most magical of my life. I did not know it at the time, but the teachers had got together and decided to give me the part because they could see that I was drifting away from the other boys. They could see that I had no outlet because everything available for a ten year old boy at that school revolved around sports. That Christmas play was my last real happy memory of my Catholic grade school, I think that is why I cherish that memory the way I do.

 Every year from the ages twelve to fifteen I would make my mother take me downtown so I could audition for my town's annual productions of A Christmas Carol and for The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Year after year I was turned down but kept coming back for more. Finally when I was fifteen I was cast in the latter and received my very first paycheck for it. After high school my theatre ambitions were sort of waylaid by Jesus Rocks so I was very nervous auditioning for the first time in college. I often wonder where I would be right now if I hadn’t been cast because that moment definitely set the course for the next decade of my life. However, I was cast; I had approximately six lines in a roughly seventeen hour production of Chekov’s The Seagull. I declared my major that week.

Anyone who’s ever spent anytime near a University’s Theatre department knows how seriously those involved take it; you’d have thought we were on freaking Broadway. My sister Pam had dabbled in theatre when she was in college and she warned me that although I might think everyone is a blast to hang out with, you really couldn’t depend on theatre people, screw her, she was wrong; these were my people. I knew immediately I was home. Yes of course theatre does seem to draw more than its fair share of crazies, but really who else would chose to do that with their life? My fear that I was going to be much older than everyone else quickly dissipated, there were many people my age or older including grad students, and since the department was so small we were all merged together. The next four years were all about theatre, just as the previous had been all about singing and The Really Big Church. I decided since the divorce debacle had left my parents unable to help me pay for school that I would borrow the maximum allowed through student loans so I’d only have to work part time. I know what you’re thinking, very smart right? I don’t regret it; I had an absolute blast in college and I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had.

Following my stellar turn as Yaakov, the scenery moving manservant in The Seagull I auditioned for the BFA program and was accepted. I was even enjoying the school part of school, and not just the theatre classes either. Due to my lackluster performance in high school, not to mention that it had been five years since I’d taken a test, I had to go all the way back to the drawing board in terms of math. Math had always been my nemesis, going back to the fourth grade when I had the flu and missed a week of school. That was the week we started long division and long story short, I just never caught up. The first two math classes I took in college didn’t even count towards anything, but I tested so low that I had to take them before I could even take the university’s basic mathematics requirements. Literally it was like going back and re-learning the fundamentals, not quite two plus two equals four, but pretty close. I am so glad I did this because I ended up getting all A’s in math in college and if you had ever told me that was possible I would have said you were bat shit crazy. One semester I even made the Dean’s list and for someone who always thought of himself as B group that was a huge deal. Mainly though, college was all about the theatre. I should take a moment to say that I never fully intended to pursue theatre as a career. A professor I had, a great man named David Palmer told me one day that your undergraduate degree really wasn’t all that important in the long run, as long as you had one. I took the same stance myself, just as I knew, no matter how many people doubted it that I would eventually go to college; I knew that when I did I was going to concentrate on something that made me happy, no matter how impractical it seemed.

One thing I was kind of excited about once I started to really immerse myself in the Theatre department was the possibility that I might meet someone, more specifically a boy. This was the first time I’d ever been introduced to a whole new group of people since I’d come out, I wasn’t sure exactly how to handle that. Once, when I was still fairly new a guy I was in the show with and I were talking and he asked me with mild curiosity “are you gay?” I totally froze, I had been ready to say yes damnit and now for the first time I was asked directly and I panicked, I literally said “umm, well, uh… no.” Fuck, I chickened out, I felt sick at heart. I couldn’t believe that I said no. I ran after the guy and when I caught up with him I said “actually yes, yes I am.” I remember he looked at me for a second and said “dude, there’s nothing wrong with it” whew, I was relived. Still I said to him “it’s still really new for me so if you know, you could just sort of keep it to yourself for now, I mean don’t lie or anything if anyone asks or anything, umm…” derr, I sounded like an idiot. This poor guy asked what he thought would be a yes or no question and ended up listening to me babble for ten minutes. I decided right then to get it out in the open and out of the way, soon I was inserting “by the way I’m gay” into conversations whether it fit or not. “Can anyone tell me the definition of neo-classicism?” “Well I’m gay so I can.” “Are there any questions about the assignment?” “Yes, I’m gay what pages were we to read again?” “Are you going to audition for that show?” “I’m gay,” “Do you want fries with that?” “Gay!” I figure a lot of people fall into this pattern after they first come out; after all there is no instruction book. Luckily I realized rather quickly how ridiculous I sounded. In a way I was hoping someone’s response was going to be “oh, you are? Well allow me to introduce you to my gorgeous male model friend.” Yeah, that didn’t happen. As a matter of fact leave it to me to find myself to the straightest university theatre department on the planet. There weren’t really a lot of options, but I really didn’t care at that point, like I said I was all about theatre; plus I don’t think I was quite ready yet.

I was very fortunate that first year of college. My second year was equally successful, I was cast in three more main stage shows and started to get very active in student life, at least within the Theatre Arts department. I had my first taste of disappointment at the end of my second year when I did not get cast in the title role of Pippin. Musicals were a rarity in my department and after two rounds of auditions everyone thought I was a shoe in. When the cast list was posted I was listed as ensemble and the title role was left blank. I was furious, and of course we created so much drama amongst our selves that it only fed the flames. I don’t know where I got the balls but I actually confronted the director and asked her why I didn’t get the part. I told you I was getting a bit full of myself. She turned to me and said “well, to be frank it was a hard choice but ultimately, it is a very sexual role and I just wouldn’t buy you as wanting to make love to this girl.” For a split second my righteous indignation flared up then was quickly snuffed out. She was exactly right and I knew it, “thank you” I said and I meant it, “I appreciate your candor. That is something I want to work on.” She told me “I’ve been working with actors all of my life, and this is a very fixable problem, in fact just being aware of it is half the battle.” It was the best bit of advice I ever got, and I was grateful despite the fact that the ringer they eventually brought in to play the role of Pippin had all of the machismo of Little Richard. Interesting side not, as a result of this conversation, or just as a result of finally being comfortable with who I was some of my more flamboyantly feminine mannerisms died off. I’ll never understand it but for some reason coming out made more masculine, go figure.

The summer before my junior year of college I was cast in a professional production of Annie at a summer stock theatre. Granted my childhood imaginings of me in Annie involved me in a curly red wig, sitting on a bunk singing “Hard Knocked Life” with my fellow orphans, but hey, I’ll settle for the role of man number three, after all I was getting a paycheck to be in a show. This was a great experience for me, I got to see how theatre worked outside of a University setting and it definitely broadened the scope for me in terms of opportunities Once I got really involved with my major I started thinking that maybe I would get a Masters Degree and end up teaching theatre. I knew that an actor’s life was not for me. I couldn’t see myself in New York, waiting tables, auditioning and getting rejection after rejection. Not to say I didn’t face some of that where I was. My third year of school was kind of a bitch slap comparatively speaking, at least within the department. I just couldn’t seem to get cast at school. I had started doing shows at theatres off campus, with companies around town; again making a bevy of new friends, but within the Theatre Department I wasn’t as lucky as I had been previously.

By the time I was wrapped up my college career and I been built up a full resume of school shows, off campus shows and summer stock. My last two years I even had an assistantship in the costume shop. I was pretty much regulated to sewing on buttons since I had the tendency to break every sewing machine I touched but it was worth it, it paid half my tuition and allowed me to concentrate on school rather than try to jungle a full time job into the fold. I am very proud of the fact that I am a college graduate, neither of my parents are so I knew how important it was; but for me personally I just feel proud that I bucked the odds. I did not go to college right after high school but I went, just like I knew I would and I did well and managed to graduate in four years. It is something that no one can ever take away. As graduation approached I was pretty sure I would go on to graduate school and become a teacher, life however had other plans for me.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

AS GAY AS A PICNIC BASKET

I was going to call this chapter The Awakening or something dramatic like that. Then I realized that was so pretentious I made my own self sick a little. I wish I could say that my life changed the moment I walked out the doors of The Really Big Church. I wish I could say that rainbow flags shot out of my tailpipe as I peeled out of the parking lot while It’s Raining Men was blaring from my stereo. It was not like that. In fact I was quite somber. After all I was never so frightened in my life. I had decided to come to terms with what I was, that was as far as I got. I hadn’t a clue as to how to do that. Just because I admitted it to me did not mean I had any idea how to tell anyone else the truth.

Truth! What a powerful word. I knew that all my life I’d been something of a liar. As I kid I would run the gamut from spinning little white lies to telling huge whoppers. Most of the time I lied to cover up for something I either didn’t do and was supposed to or did but wasn’t supposed to do, like pretty much every child ever, most of the time I lied because I wanted to paint a picture of how I wanted people to see me. I never wanted to appear weak or vulnerable in any way. It probably stems from my childhood, and my reluctance to make waves. I lied to make it seem like I was always ok when I was not. Mostly I lied out of fear of being caught, because being caught might mean being exposed. How and when did I become such a liar? And why had I? I know now it was because I had no concept of truth whatsoever. I was never true to myself so it was impossible for me to be truthful with others. So I accepted the truth, the truth that despite all the years of lying and denying and fighting it, I was in fact as gay a picnic basket.

When I didn’t go to college immediately after high school I could sense that everyone was disappointed. My brother in-law Jay told me that it was a proven statistic that people who didn’t go to college right away rarely ever went at all. He told me this repeatedly in fact. But I knew in my heart that one day I would go to college. I began taking summer courses the summer I left The Really Big Church and enrolled full time for the upcoming fall semester. I was going to be a 23 year old freshman, how hilarious that I thought I was old at the time. I had a plan, but I was still lost. It was a difficult transition. I didn’t fly out of my former life with the wings of a fairy. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even have a job. I moved into my mom and step-dad's basement for the summer. I had not lived at home for a couple of years so the adjustment was hard, especially living with Alli again. I knew it was only temporary until I stared school in the fall and got a student loan check. The problem was I could not see the Fall; I could barely get through the day in front of me. For the next few weeks I would wake up go to class then return to the basement. I cried all the time. I was obsessed with my childhood, I would watch and re-watch all the movies that were my favorites growing up and I would just sob. I realize that The Goonies, and Grease 2 weren’t exactly Oscar winners but I don’t think they were supposed to make you weep like a baby. I felt as if I was mourning something, mourning my innocence, I felt like once I said what I was going to say the little boy I was would be dead. That summer I looked through all of my mother’s photo albums and studied pictures of me growing up. I looked really hard at my own face in these pictures to see if I could connect with that boy again, to see if there was anything in that boy’s eyes that would shed some light on how I ended up the way I was. I fell rapidly into a deep dark depression because I did not know how to verbalize to my family no matter how many times they asked me what was wrong, what it was I was going through. Then right before the Fall semester started after weeks of secluding myself in that basement my mother came down the basement stairs, took my hand and said, “Boy if there is some that you think you can’t tell me, there isn’t.” I looked at her “is there something?” I couldn’t even say yes, I just kind of said “um-hmm,” and started crying. “Do you know there is nothing in the world you could say to me that would ever make me love you any less?” she said. “umm-hmm,” more tears. “Jake, there is nothing you can tell me that I am not ready for, you are my son. You are the best son anyone could ask for. You are my son, I’m ready, I hate it that your life has to be this hard, but I’m ready, are you afraid of telling that you think your gay?” sobbing now I took a very long pause trying to compose myself. Finally I looked into her eyes and said “yes.”

That moment in the basement with my mother felt like someone loosened a vise that had been tightening around my heart, squeezing the breath out of me. In fact after I said “yes” I could actually feel my lungs fill with air. I cried, I cried a lot. My mother did not, she was perfectly composed, perfectly calm, “you know it doesn’t matter one bit to your family” she said stroking my head “I just don’t want your life to be hard.” We really didn’t talk much I just laid there with my head in her lap while she assured me that everything was alright. The she asked me if I’d like to talk to a therapist we knew named Becky. My head shot up out of her lap and I immediately said “yes” “ok,” she said “I’ll go call her.”

I am not sure exactly what my mother told Becky but I had an appointment the next day. I wouldn’t say what I felt was nervous; it was something different than that, it felt like something closer to anticipation. She greeted me with a warm friendly hug and said “well sweetie, long time no see. What’s up?” “I think I’m gay,” I blurted right out. “Well” she said “first of all, have a seat.” I was still standing the doorway. I sat down and she said “you think you’re gay?” I said “yeah” she just smiled at me and repeated herself “you think you’re gay.” It felt like my skin was alive; it was as if I could literally feel stuff peeling off of it. I said again puzzled “umm yes.” She just kept looking at me and smiling, it seemed like forever when it dawned on me to say “I’m gay” no “I think” about it. She just smiled some more and said “Sweetie, that’s wonderful.” Now I was pretty sure Becky was about as liberal and open minded as you can get so I wasn’t expecting her to yell “Queer, get the hell out of here!” but the word wonderful threw me. “Is it?” I asked. “Yes sweetheart it is. You can live your life now.” At once every fear I had, every ounce of anger and resentment I’d been storing up over being gay evaporated. You know the old cliché about feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders? Well that’s a cliché for reason people because in an instant that weight was gone. There are no words that could adequately do justice to the way I felt. Elation, exhilaration, hope yes, I felt these things but oh so much more. It is hard to describe feeling that kind of complete and total release. I think very few people will ever experience it, I know I never will again in this lifetime. In that moment I felt absolutely no shame, I was truly and utterly free. Aside from the very moment we are born few of us ever get a completely blank slate to start again with, but that’s what I felt I’d been given. I am fairly sure my feet didn’t touch the ground when I left her office, stepping outside was like I’d spent my entire life wearing dark sunglasses and they were suddenly ripped off. Every pore on my skin seemed to be taking in oxygen and just like that it was done, I had come out, I know it sounds so cheesy to say I was reborn but I’m telling you, that’s how I felt. Of course this feeling didn’t last forever, there was no way it could, but from that day forward I was unafraid. I got home and told my mother, she said “Well when you find the right man I want you to have a ceremony because I really want to wear pink and I didn’t get to at the girls’ weddings.” It’s funny that I’d spent that summer trying to re-connect with the little boy I used to be because really, that’s who I was. I was that little boy who used to play with the utensils. I was a confused little child. When I left Becky’s office that warm, sunny afternoon that boy was finally becoming a man.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Boy in the Bubble!

BOY IN THE BUBBLE


 All I ever wanted to be was a singer. My sister Pam is a singer as is my Aunt Chrissy and of course my Grandmother the lounge lizard. I had been preparing to be a singer all my life. The elaborate concerts and production numbers I used to put on in our family room, and sometimes back yard when my booming voice was banished from the house had prepared me well. At the time I fancied myself a pro. After all I had sung many solos at school and at church over the years. Singing was my thing. It was the one thing I was totally confident in and knew I did well. I had a lot to learn but more on that later. It was only natural to start a band with some guys I knew from the youth group at church. We had chemistry, we just worked really well together. I had never in my life thought about song writing, but it just seemed like the most natural thing in the world. We were pretty good if I don’t say so myself. We would get together three or four times a week and rehearse. The Really Big Church gave us the space. Right from the beginning it was clear that we all took it seriously, all four of us decided to postpone college, our band was going to become successful in the world of Christian music which at the time was booming, when you are eighteen you are allowed that sort of unbridled confidence. We were going to make it. Also, I just wasn’t interested in going to school at that point.
After much debate we decided to call ourselves “Sole Matter” a little play on the words sole and soul. I know, not so clever. We were building up quite a catalog of songs, and began playing around town. We even played in Tennessee, mostly at colleges or at coffee shops. I ended up writing most of the lyrics. Not all of my songs were religious; in fact most of them were not, they were spiritual or just love songs with the words God or Lord in place of a gender specific pronoun. To this day I feel like I still believe every word I wrote, in this regard I don’t feel in the least bit hypocritical. We produced an independent album that ultimately got us a little bit of attention locally. I threw my whole self into the band, things were beganning to fall apart at home, I wasn’t going to school and there was a monkey on my back so I really needed to feel security coming from someplace. After playing together for a year we seemed poised for something to happen. Then things changed in surprising ways.

One of the guys had fallen in love and decided to follow her to college two hours away. That was a blow to the band but we could work around it and did. Then I got a phone call that set the course for the next few years of my life. As a band we always had tremendous support from the youth department of The Really Big Church. They thought of us as a pet project, they gave us opportunities to play, use of equipment, and rehearsal space. So I stayed in touch with the youth ministry staff at The Really Big Church. I would like to try and establish what The Really Big Church really is in the contemporary Christian world. I don’t want to call it a corporation because that would be unfair. I would call it a Superpower in the Christian Church world. Production values were like anything you’d see at a stadium concert or Broadway show. The Youth Department had their on building, programs, staff, everything. When I was nineteen, a year out of high school I got a call from a woman named Paula who worked in the Youth Department and had always taken a shine to me asking me if I would like to be the new male singer for the Vision band. I would like to try and express to you the magnitude of this, to me Vision was this famous thing that hundreds and hundreds of kids went every week. This was an amazing opportunity that I jumped on. The High School Youth Minister at The Really Big Church was someone I idolized.. He was young, gorgeous, whip-smart and funny and he seemed to take a special interest in me. In my sense of humor which was just a tad off color and in my voice He along with Paula were the ones who turned me into a real singer, they were the ones who gave me all of the opportunities on those choir tours. They are the ones who taught me how to harmonize. Paula’s official title was Youth Worship and Programming Director It didn’t dawn on me at the time that all the men were Ministers and the women were Directors. All I knew is that I was invited into the inner circle. I didn’t yet know how immersed I would become in that circle at the time.

Right away I had a lot to learn. For the next two years I was learning four to five songs a week. Some Christian songs but a whole lot of Top 40, secular pop and rock as well since the purpose of Vision was outreach. Vision was a program consisting of music, skits, videos, and a talk geared toward non-churchgoers. None of it was religion shoved down your throat. It was a fun, inviting atmosphere. I learned all about chord charts and how to sing in two-part, three-part, and sometimes four-part harmony. It didn’t take long for me to become a youth sponsor, one of those fun adult types who were always at the events and going on the trips with us. Keep in mind that barely out of high school myself. Eventually my entire social life revolved around The Really Big Church. I completely fell out of contact with most of my friends from high school.

Some people in my family did not understand my involvement at The Really Big Church. In particular my sister Pam, who is a loud and proud liberal, had issues with it. Once she picked me up at the church after I had been away on a trip and she said, “You’re lucky I’m here picking you up instead of strapping my two babies to my back and carrying a picket sign.” She then went on to say something about gay rights, which I quickly absorbed, and the put away, way up high on my “things to deal with later” shelf. I did not want to hear about any of that stuff I just wanted to stay where I was, safe in my little bubble, where every thing was black and white, where all sex before marriage was taboo, so I did not have to worry about it.

After singing with the Vision Band for almost two years a new opportunity arose. I was offered a full time position at The Really Big Church as the Youth Worship and Programming Intern. I had just moved into my first apartment with some buddies. Slowly Sole Matter fell by the wayside. We still played every now and then but it was never the same. I became fully immersed in The Really Big Church, it became my whole life. I had just turned twenty-one and I had a very important, exciting job at this mega-church. Also my family was falling apart at the seams for the second time and I needed stability. They welcomed me with open arms (or so it seemed) and what they offered me was safety and I lunged at it, because in the back of my mind, I knew the wolves were circling. I became quite good at what I was doing. In addition to helping plan all of the programming and events I continued to front the band, and lead worship, and go on exciting trips. I got to sing in some great places. I got to travel and sing all over the country. However, I was a fraud, I just didn;t know it!

So how does I flamboyant sissy, with tourette's who was raised a liberal catholic fit in with the right wing? Surprisingly well it turns out. I was so young I had no idea of my own political ideals let alone anyone else’s and I had that uncanny ability to take what I like and leave what I didn’t. Yes sometimes something would be said about Homosexuals that would cause me to flinch, then immediately block it out. Yes it’s true that I never fully bought into the theology of the Christian Church. Yes, it’s true I believe the bible is not to be taken literally 99% of the time. I didn’t witness to people. I didn’t talk to my family or few remaining outside friend about the Lord or the church. So how did I justify what I was doing? Easy, I was a liar. I lied to myself every moment of every day. Deep down part of me knew I was living a lie but frankly I thought I could beat it. I was getting very caught up in the status I was attaining too. I got recognized sometimes, mostly by teenagers, but hey I was only twenty-one myself. I was safe there; safe from that horrible thing about myself I did not want to know. I was happy and living a very exciting life. At least I made myself believe I was happy, the fact that I treated myself to six or seven giant meals a day and getting bigger and bigger should have been a tipoff that I was repressing something.
The fact that I had become overweight didn’t seem to bother me as much as the fact that I had no girlfriend. Not that I wanted one mind you, but by the time I was twenty-two my friends were starting to pair up. I had no girlfriend, and everyone else did. I knew very well that I was sexually attracted to men and hot guys surrounded me. This may be a gross generalization but for some reason Christian guys are hot. It’s like reading the bible has some sort of impact on your deltoids or something. However I believed at the time these feelings were just a minor flaw in my character, one that I could conquer. Of course I never told anyone this, even when directly asked by my sister “Do you think you might be gay?” I would always say “no,” then add just for authenticity “If I were gay, I’d be gay” and I almost believed it. I needed a girlfriend, because that was what was supposed to happen next, also, because it would keep people from talking. Naturally I turned to Abby whose friendship I began to value more and more. I knew she had feelings for me, and I knew how much I loved her so naturally in my mind that meant that she must be the one for me. How can I put this? It was like dating my sister. In the end I just told her that I only thought of her as a friend, and after a brief awkward phase of her being heartbroken our friendship returned stronger than ever. Thank God because through it all she has been my very best friend and I cannot imagine my life with out her. She is the Grace to my Will.
The more comfortable I got at The Really Big Church and in my position there the more my true self started to emerge. I was more comfortable am the more my inhibitions lowered, it's totally sub-concious. That’s when I heard of some whisperings amongst some of the kids referring to me as “the gay guy” but by this point in my life I felt as if I knew how to handle that. After Abby I would try to make myself become interested in other girls, always friends of mine but it never worked, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep dodging the issue. However for a while I was so busy that thoughts of a romantic life were always on the back burner anyway. I was still safe in the bubble.

THE BUBBLE BURSTS, BUT IT’S A SLOW LEAK

For four years after high school I lived happily oblivious in the bubble I had created for myself at The Really Big Church. Although at times it felt more like a fish tank than a bubble. For example once I was called into a meeting with one of the big wigs because I was seen coming out of a movie that I should not have been seeing. Let me correct that, I was seen coming out of a movie I should not have been seen having seen. It was Striptease starring Demi Moore. Now, to this day I’ve never seen Striptease starring Demi Moore and I’ve seen everything, clearly someone made a mistake, but one thing I learned working at The Really Big Church was that the appearance of impropriety was just as bad as the deed itself. I’m glad they never found out that I took a personal day the day Madonna’s Ray of Light came out. I learned some scandalous information about people that I knew. I also found out a couple of the dirty little secrets of some of the people who worked there as well and once you learn certain things about someone you cannot unlearn them. My eyes started to open a little bit to the hypocrisy that would be so obvious to me now. Sure these were just human foibles but the way they were swept under the rug bothered me, also they did not fit in with I wanted The Really Big Church to be. I needed it be the place that would keep me safe from sins of the flesh and when I heard these things I would realize that there was no such place. Most of the time I was untouched by that stuff, I just did my job and had a ball. In truth, I hardly ever went to actual church, at least the main service in the huge multi-million dollar complex even though I was supposed to. I mostly stayed at the youth building. I figured I was at church all week long and that was enough. But to be honest it was because I knew I was going to be hearing something I did not agree with.

Internships at The Really Big Church were highly sought after in the contemporary Christian world and were only supposed to last a year. All of the other interns came from colleges all over the country, most of them religious schools. I hadn’t even gone to college. However I was family, I had spent my part of my adolescence with this people and I think they felt that made an investment in me. I was asked to stay on staff for a second year. Two major turning points happened for me during my second year as an intern. The first being when in December of 1997 two boys in the youth group, both seniors in high school who I knew well were killed in a car accident. It was my first encounter with a tragedy of this magnitude. The youth department really rallied around the kids left behind. We tried to provide comfort and answers for them but I was rocked to my core. I was twenty two-years old, practically a child myself, and here I was trying to help teen-agers make sense of such a senseless tragedy. I felt totally out of my depths. I had no words of comfort that I could give, nothing that I could say that I believed with any certainty. I was looking for that myself in life. For the first time I felt like a fraud, and realize how dangerous that could be. What if I said the wrong thing? I remember thinking “I am no great man of faith. I am a little boy hiding here in this church from the things that scare me.” Something inside me turned and I began to think about mortality for the first time, how it could all be over in the blink of an eye and I realized how precious life is and that I will only get one shot at it. What was it that I wanted my life to be? It was an open-ended question, I didn’t come to an answer but the seed was defiantly planted in my mind.

During my time on staff I was put in charge of the High School Drama team, the same one I had been on in high school. This is where I first encountered a boy who popped my eyes wide open. No, I did not find myself attracted to him, I found myself in him. It was like he was holding up a mirror and I saw myself at sixteen; funny, well liked, but confused and desperate to be accepted. This young man was clearly gay. Once we were talking about are favorite music and he told me his favorite singer was Linda Eder, Linda Eder for crying out loud! Linda Eder is a Broadway star. I of course knew who she was, big shocker. He was just like me and he was looking for answers. The youth group at The Really Big Church was huge at this time so all of the core kids were broken up into small groups who met once a week after the Sunday night worship session. I led a group of about seven guys. I was twenty-two they were all sixteen or seventeen. There is a big difference between these ages in some ways but in some other aspects there is not. It was really the blind leading the blind. They shared personal things with me and I shared personal things with them. The problem was, I did not know what I was doing and these boys wanted guidance. They wanted to know how to spread their wings and fly and I was supposed to tell them how. If I knew how to do that I doubt I would have been there in the first place. I began to really take a cold hard look at myself. The young man I mentioned before was in my group and he was going through so many of the same things I had. We talked openly about how everyone thought that we were gay, and how hard that was to fight. I fed him the same old song and dance I gave everyone, including myself, that I wasn’t gay, just effeminate. But something was changing in me. I knew this boy was gay, and he was looking to me to help him. That was when I knew in my heart, in my gut it was time for me to take down that thing I had put on my “to deal with later shelf” and finally look at it. The consequences of this set me free.

Every person’s life is made up of choices. We all come to forks in the road when we are faced with decisions that seem impossible to make. Two months before my twenty-third birthday I knew I was at a crossroads. I began slowly admitting to myself that I was in fact gay. It happened in stages. At first I would admit to myself that I was gay but I chose to fight it. I just decided that even though I was gay it would not be the life I was choosing. I was still pig-headed enough to believe there was a choice involved in the fundamental nature of homosexuality. I began having nightmares. In these dreams I was at my own wedding. The bride was always faceless but every night it was the same. I was walking down the aisle and the feeling that my life was over began to overtake me and I was suffocating. I woke up in cold sweats. I never talked about this with anyone because to even open the lid of the jar slightly would cause the contents to spill all over the place. But I knew the truth. I just needed to own it. I knew that nothing anyone could say or do would change the fact that I was gay. I started saying it out loud to myself in my apartment or in my car. Just saying it out loud to myself was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever gone through. “I’m gay” I made myself say it but I was far from happy about it, it fact I was quite angry. My friends were starting to get married and starting their futures. Everything looked secure for them. Why was I different? Why has everything in my life been a struggle? Why was I cursed with this? Why did the simple things in life always seem to be denied to me? I mentioned forks in the road and when I was faced with this one I made the decision which path I would take.

The second year of my internship was drawing to a close and I knew that if I wanted to I could write my own ticket in the realm of the Christian church world. Two years on staff at The Really Big Church made me a kind of a commodity for other churches. I was offered jobs at a couple of up and coming churches as youth worship and programming director, I could have taken any one of these jobs. But I knew what I had to do. I knew when I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize the person I saw. Where was that happy boy? Who was this fat liar looking back at me? I didn’t feel safe anymore, I didn’t feel secure; the two things that caused me to seek refuge in the church in the first place. I felt trapped and I was drowning. Was I going to live a life that seemed easy, a life that looked like everyone else’s around me and no one could call an abomination? Could I do that even if I knew it meant living a lie? Or was I finally for the first time in my life, going to except the truth? Funny thing about that, when did except the truth, my life became easy for the first time.

I’ve seen the bumper sticker “Lord protect me from your followers” and I’m always a little tempted to get one. Today Christianity in America is almost impossible to separate from the gun toting, Wal-mart shopping conservative right wing. And I don’t believe that is a fair stereotype although for a while after leaving The Really Big Church I was guilty of promoting it. But I saw up close how misleading it can be. I know all too well how easy it is to have an epiphany or a truly spiritual moment when the lights are perfect and the background music is just right, and the speaker has all the right inflections and tones, it’s produced. I know this because I helped produce it! Look I was burned by organized religion, it considers me an abomination. It’s nothing new of course; from what goes on today in the Middle East and going back in history to rigid lives of the Puritans to the Holy Roman Empire and the Inquisition you’ll see that all your major league atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. So what was I doing there? Was I faking it? The answer is no, not entirely. There is beauty in Christianity as there is in all religions, I learned a great many things about grace and mercy and forgiveness that I learned how to apply to my own life. It really helped me get through a turbulent time in my life. In my little nook of the church we had open hearts and open arms, however not always open minds. Homosexuality was a sin. It said so in the Bible didn’t it? For some reason I refused to open a Bible and look for where that was written. I’m not sure if I was more afraid that if I read it I would find out that it was true or that it wasn’t. I didn’t look at Leviticus 18:22 until years later, “Thou shall not lay with mankind, as with womankind, it is an abomination.” Biblical scholars have been debating over this verse for centuries. Somehow today it has been translated to “homosexuality is the worst sin of all.” How they got from one to the other is beyond me. And why the fixation on that one verse? After all this is the same book that says a man can sell his daughters into slavery. That a person can be put to death for planting certain crops side by side, or for wearing clothing made from two different threads. If homosexuality is an abomination why aren’t those things? Well they are not, at least not to me. I hate when people use the bible as their argument anyway, because it make the assumption that everyone believes how they believe. I look at the Bible as a book that has some truths in it and some great stories about history and some good advice on how to live your life. But do I believe that it was the law, the literal word of God? No, did I ever? No I didn’t. So I ask again. What was I doing there? Simple, I was beginning my journey.

In July 1998, right after my twenty-third birthday I left The Really Big Church. The reason I gave at the time was that I wanted to go back to school. The plan was that I would stay involved and still sing with the band. The people who had become so very important in my life gave me hugs and said they'd be talking to me in a few weeks when all the programs started up again for the Fall. But I knew when I walked out those doors that day and they closed behind me that I was done. I knew that things would never be the same again, and in that moment the bubble burst and I took my first step into the world outside. Being gay is not a choice, but coming to terms with it is. I chose to be who I was. And I have never looked back.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hell is for Children (unedited)

this is a re-post of an earlier blog. However in the wake of the recent string of child suicides I've decided to include a lot of the stuff I cut. Originally I wanted to keep the tone of this blog light so I omitted some of the more serious parts of my book, but these issues couldn't be more timley and it's a reminder that not all bullies are other children, sometimes they are adults. .

PAT BENATAR WAS RIGHT, HELL IS FOR CHILDREN


I was a bad student. That’s the long and short of it. I have the attention span of a gnat. It was that way from the beginning, in fact I distinctly remember my first grade teacher Mrs. Earie who had an enormous head, was so proud of me for finishing my seat work early one day that she paraded me over the other first grade classroom so I could show it to the other teacher. Jesus, I was in the first grade; how established could my bad habits have been? I do know that I never did homework, never. Seriously until I went to college I fought it tooth and nail. Classic ADD along with my unparalleled ability to withdraw into my day dreams proved to be the downfall of my scholastic career. I used to imagine my pencil was a figure skater and the surface of my desk the rink. That occupied my mind for a surprising amount of time, or I would ask myself questions like “what would happen is this entire classroom was filled with Coke?” I would also scan around the room and give all the girls mental makeovers. Actually I still do this sometimes, it passes the time. I was not a bad kid, I never had behavior problems, and in fact I was quite the goody two - shoes. The only time I can remember being in trouble for anything other than not doing my homework was in Kindergarten when a substitute teacher put me in the time out chair for saying the Our Father to loud. That bitch!

I had gone to the same catholic school since Kindergarten, as my sisters Renee, Pam, and even briefly Alli had before me. Most of the children in my grade had gone there just as long, we all considered ourselves friends in that way you do when you become accustomed to seeing the same kids day after day, year after year. You would think that a boy as flamboyant as I was, a boy with the mannerisms rivaling those of Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show would have been a target for bullies. I wasn’t, at least not in the early grades. Not that it was smooth sailing, it is a fact of life that kids are nasty to each other and every class that one person who ruled over the rest of us in a reign of terror. Ours was a quintessential mean girl whose name I dare not mention for the shivers the mere memory of her still sends down my spine. Let’s just call her The Gorgon. On the very first day of first grade I had the misfortune of sitting right next to The Gorgon, who was covered head to two with freckles and stood at least six feet tall even then! We were each given a piece of paper with a circle on it, the assignment was simple, in the circle draw the face the person sitting next to you. I made the fatal error of getting out my brown crayon and drawing every one of The Gorgon’s freckles. She looked at it, looked at me, drew back and punched me so hard in the arm that my entire desk toppled over, with me in it. From that day on The Gorgon was my nemesis, Lucy to my Charlie Brown, only without the heartwarming summations. Still I never got any serious bullying, other than being called “a girl” every now and then. I think I was very good at identifying my comfort zones even at a young age. I didn’t try to hang out with the “A group”. Oh yes, the “A group” and I am not talking about a social cliques here, I am referring to the fact that the geniuses running the school thought it was wise and emotionally healthy for children to split every class into two groups “A and B” with the “A group” working at a faster pace. Clearly to all of us kids, the “A group” were the smart kids and us “B groupers” were the dumbasses. Talk about setting the tone for our future academic achievements. The idea of doing that in schools now is laughable. Seriously, the things I might have accomplished if it hadn’t been instilled in me so young that I was not one of the smart kids. I should sue!

I first noticed the shift in the fifth grade. For this is the age when kids start forming alliances, gravitating towards those they have the most in common with. Being different in any way was the worst thing imaginable. I knew what happened to those kids. Hell, I even taunted some of them myself. Every school has that one kid who smells like poop, or eats crayons, or falls out of their desk for no apparent reason. I did not; repeat did not want to end up as one of those poor tortured souls. I’d seen what happened to my sister at the hands of her peers and I would do whatever it took to avoid it happening to me. I think I was spared a lot because these kids were used to me and I was funny. If they are laughing with you, they ain’t laughing at you. So when the kids at school started to change, I was in trouble. I started to become more keenly aware that there was something different about me. It did not help my cause that the short bus pulled up to my house every morning. Naturally it was there to take Alli to school, and I know it sounds incredibly childish, but I was a child and no ten-year-old wants other kids to see the short bus in their driveway. I had to walk down the street to the corner to catch my own bus. I should mention that I lived three blocks from my school so why I had to ride the bus in the first place remains a mystery. I don’t know what sort of short term memory loss problem Alli’s bus driver had, but every morning without fail she would drive the short bus slowly behind me as I walked down the street. The short bus was stalking me, like Jaws stalking a swimmer with cramps. Then, also without fail, just as my own bus was pulling up and I could see my classmate’s faces through the windows, Alli’s bus driver would open the short bus door and say, “Are you one of mine?” I would turn beat red and hear Alli say, “That’s my brother.” I knew every kid on my bus was watching. This was not a problem I could share with anyone. In my house it was not ok to be embarrassed by the short bus or its passengers, but I was just a kid. I have long outgrown any embarrassment I have ever felt about my sister, but growing up it was a constant internal struggle.

Fifth grade was also the years that boys and girls stopped playing together. This also put me on the horns of a dilemma, because I hated boys. Yes it’s shocking that I ever hated boys but I did. Especially the ones in my class, all they ever did was make fart noises and they only ever wanted to play was football or soccer at recess. I was forced by circumstance to participate; the girls had frozen me out, The Gorgon saw too it that no boy entered her domain. I was forced to play soccer; you cannot understand the magnitude of this, suddenly recess, the one oasis in the dessert of my endless toil became something I dreaded worse than math. “I’m gonna be like Pele and play professionally” said a fat little boy with a permanent pizza sauce stain on his uniform shirt who shall remain nameless. “What’s a Pele” was my adorable, natural response “oh Cooper you’re such a pussy”. I should say that this was the year that all the boys in my class discovered the word pussy. They used it constantly, and most of the time incorrectly, saying things like “that homework was pussy”, or “where’s my pussy transformers backpack”. I guess I really was a pussy. I was not interested in any of the “boy things” whatsoever. We did not even have toys in common anymore because they had all traded in He-Man for football. I was feeling more and more isolated everyday. My cousin Sean was in the same grade but they never put us in the same class. I guess they thought we would team up and overtake the school or something. Other than my cousins, and a few kids in the neighborhood who were younger than me, therefore more likely to do what I told them, I never had many friends. Even the boys in my class that I would have called friends, including my sister’s best friends little brother, who used to play with Star Wars figures with me in his basement, stopped having much to say to me. I got my first taste of real loneliness at the tender age of ten.

After the great pussy epidemic a new word took its place. A word often directed at me, faggot. According to family legend when I was but two years old my sister Pam who was around nine or so had a little friend over. They were on the rainbow colored swing set in our back yard when I toddled out in my belly exposing white T-shirt and diaper. “Oh look at you baby brother” said Pam’s little girlfriend “he is so cute”. In response I looked up, pointed my chubby little finger at her and said, “Faggot”. Apparently that night there was a grand inquiry in our house to find out how a precious innocent little baby like yours truly could have learned such a nasty word. Pam broke down and confessed that all the kids were saying it. Isn’t it funny that almost ten years later a new group of kids was doing the same thing? Apparently I’d known that word since I was two but now I knew what the word meant, but at the age of ten or eleven I never dreamed it might actually apply to me. Every time I was called fag, I let my subconscious absorb most of the blow. I knew I was being called a nasty word, but I ignored the implications of what that particular word meant.

As soon as the sixth grade started I knew I was in real trouble. I had been in trouble in the past for not doing my homework, lying about it and not applying myself. I recall a few instances of teachers getting very stern with me about it. Still, I always had the sense I was well liked by teachers, I was not a problem student. That changed when for some reason other than my academic laziness and easy distractibility my sixth grade teacher, we’ll call her Mrs. Giant Nostrils did not like me. I realize that every kid has a teacher that they think does not like them. This was more than that. I am certain of it. I used to catch her glaring at me from her desk, flaring her giant nostrils; she never made eye contact with me, and on more than one occasion she told me maliciously in front of everyone to stop talking like a girl. Once when I went to her desk to ask a question my gaze must have shifted because she grabbed my face, hard, and jerked it towards hers. I see now as an adult that it is possible this woman recognized me for what I was, and she did not care for it. She didn’t see a sweet eleven year-old boy whose family problems we’re common knowledge among the small school’s staff, no; she saw a little faggot! I don’t mean to imply that she was a homophobic hag who abused her power and bullied a defenseless kid, no; I mean to say it outright! That’s what I think she did! Only in recent years has the likelihood of this dawned on me. I think now that the same might have been true of the mother of some kids who lived across the street from us. Like I mentioned there was a group of neighborhood kids whom I played with, all girls of course, and there was one mother who was always very cold to me. I picked up on it even at a young age because she was not like that with the other kids. She would deliberately exclude me from things. For example she would take the three Schumann kids who lived next door to a movie but not invite me even though we were all playing together in the yard five minutes before. All of the sudden they would be pulling out of the driveway in a mini-van and I’d be standing on the sidewalk. I’d like to give these women the benefit of the doubt. I’d like to think they would never make such assumptions about a little boy and treat him in such a manner. I’d like to, but experience has told me, I am probably right, anyway back to what happened in the sixth grade.

The combination of Mrs. Giant Nostrils and the mounting teasing I was beginning to receive at the hands of children I’d known most of my life began to affect me. I started to notice that other than my cousin Sean, I had no friends. In my desperation not to be different I even joined the soccer team with disastrous results. Once in the fourth grade after being forcefully coerced to play football at recess, I mistakenly scored a touchdown for the wrong team. Let me tell you something people, little boys don’t let you live that down. The same boys, who acted as if I’d broken into their homes and gunned down their entire family that day, did not want Cooper the Pooper Scooper on their soccer team. They froze me out. I was totally invisible, except to the coach who point blank asked me “why are you even here?” “Good question coach! You think I want to be here? Well think again, tubby! I’d much rather be at home giving Barbie a sweeping up-do, but no, we don’t live in that kind of world do we coach? Way, to nurture children there A-hole” was how I wish I could have answered him. The breaking point came for me when I realized I had been sitting day after day on the bus with a girl who put scratch ‘n sniff stickers in her hair and ate her scabs. The breaking point for my mother came when the parish priest came to visit my class and that she-beast Mrs. Giant Nostrils announced to him in front of my whole class that I never did my homework and had failed a recent math test. I felt absolutely defeated. It was the first time I can remember looking around a room and feeling one hundred percent alone. No one was going to defend me. I felt as if I had done something or was something that suddenly made me unacceptable in the only place I’d ever known. I tried everything to fight the tears but there was no way they were going to hold off. Normally to get out of class I would fake a stomach ach. I did not need to fake this time; my insides told me that vomit was imminent. The entire class seeing me cry was bad enough, there was no way I was going to ralph in front of them too. Not I only would I be blamed when the janitor came in with that vile pink sawdust that actually smelled worse than vomit, but kids just don’t rebound from blowing junks at school. Everyone remembers and the story gets told year after year. Even The Gorgon could not escape from the stigma from the time she raised her hand to answer a question and instead spewed all over her religion text book. I asked Mrs. Giant Nostrils if I could go to the sick room, she looked at me for a long time; it was the first and only time she ever made eye contact with me and as the tears were rolling down my cheeks she simply said “sure.” I went to the sick room and called my mother and told her what had happened. In hindsight, knowing that I was eleven I am sure that I painted a picture of personal prosecution to rival the Salem Witch Trials. I have to admit now that had I not neglected my homework on such a regular basis, and constantly lied about it the whole scene might have been avoided, however it was really just the last in a serious of blows that broke the dam, and the flood had come indeed, I remember lying on the sick room cot, and just sobbing. Evidently I must have been so upset there was concern enough to send my cousin Sean into check on me. He was in the other sixth grade homeroom so he missed the whole thing, basically he just seemed confused. Finally I heard the sound of my mother’s high heels on the linoleum and the low rumble of her voice. Whatever she was saying was getting a great deal of protest which she would abruptly cut off. There was fire in her green eyes that day and I had the distinct feeling that there was a fight going on that was bigger than I’d been aware of. She was like a lioness protecting her young. I felt utterly sad and confused but seeing her face was an instant comfort. Nobody messes with her baby, her boy, and clearly she thought I’d been messed with. “We’ll find you a new school, one that’s perfect for sensitive, artistic kid, you don’t ever have to come back here” she said as she led me to the exit. I saw out of the corner of my eye the principle, who was new that year standing with Mrs. Giant Nostrils and the priest whose mouth was agape. My mother had just blown them out of the water. My mother, champion of the underdogs, slayer of dragons led me out the door of the only world I knew and into the unknown. It still amazes me how fast this all went down. I was never unbearably miserable at school until that year; I have many happy childhood memories of that place. But over the next few hours I realized that I was not the only person involved. Divorce and re-marriage had sent my mother into her own private war with the Catholic faith that she’d been devoted to her entire life. Also, she’d fought a similar battle there before, ten years earlier when Alli was six and vehemently chastised for not being able to button her blouse correctly. I think if those two factor’s had not been in play, I would have been calmed down and more than likely would have gone to school the next day and stuck out the remaining two and a half years there. However, it’s easy to jump ship when you have full parental support. Also, it bears mentioning that I was not the lone longtime student to depart my class that year. For years we had been told we were the worse behaved class in the whole school, which always bothered me because I always took great strides to be good and never rock the boat. In fact at one point we were the only class in the history of the school to be temporarily banned from the cafeteria. There is something to be said about the Ritalin generation. Two and a half years after I left, when my former classmates graduated from the eighth grade the once full two classes and been combined to one, and The Gorgon and her minions had successfully whittled the female population to just five girls. That many of us had jumped ship. Clearly something was amiss there.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Jesus & Boy

JESUS AND BOY


Let me start by saying this, I’ve never been super religious although there was a time in my life when you might not have believed that. I have already said that I was born and bred Catholic, Mass every Sunday and once a week at school. I had years of religion class and took all your basic blessed sacraments. I was one of those kids who had Christianity fed to them since birth; however I was not one of those kids who never questioned it. Even when I was very young there were times when I wanted to shout “yeah, right” in the middle of church. One thing I never thought about was what separates Catholics from other Christians. And then I got a sampling of it. When my mother married  my stepdad Jim she started to become disillusioned with the Catholic Church to which she’d been faithful to all her life. Well around the time I was eleven years old mama decided she was on spiritual quest, and she brought me, Alli and Jim along for the ride. I think Jim would have been fine at any church as long as they didn’t frown on golf, but my mother was harder to please. At first she tried Bible studies, and I would be dragged to some stranger’s house where I was corralled into some rec room with kids I didn’t know who always thought I was weird and forced to mingle while the adults did whatever they were doing in another part of the house. Then we actually started to attend a new church. All I was told was that it was a non-denominational Christian Church, whatever that meant. In Sunday school I was told that Smurfs were demonic and that everything I watched, listened to or was remotely interested in was going to send me straight to hell. Um, I was eleven! Then we went to the service where I bore witness to people raising their hands and speaking in tongues and shouting to the Lord. I’m Catholic, the only time Catholics shout to the Lord is when there’s beer. Oh beer that’ll send you to straight to Hell for sure. I was amazed, and if my eyes hadn’t been open so wide in shock I would have rolled them sarcastically. This was the church that I went to the accursed camp with and the legendary pee pillow incident occurred, so I really shouldn’t have been all that surprised. Needless to say we didn’t not stay involved long, well except Alli that is. She was sucked in for a few years. They made her feel somewhat welcome. I think they thought of her as some sort Church mascot. Not to mentioned the fact that she developed a strange obsession with the pastor’s wife, a woman named Debbie, whom she even went dressed as one Halloween. I’m not sure what Debbie would have thought of that seeing as that Halloween was a celebration of Satan. I shouldn’t sound so cynical, there were many people there who I am sure were filled with good intentions and were very kind to my special sister. It used to drive me nuts when she’d go on one of her Holy Roller kicks which were always strangely well informed, but hey if it gave her a few years happiness I shouldn’t have teased her about it. For me, mom and Jim though, no way Jose!

The next church we tried was one not that far from our house. In the mid to late eighties this was a church on the move, growing rapidly. We’ll call it The Really Big Church. The Really Big Church began in someone’s basement and now has approximately 17 million members and is roughly the size of the Death Star! when we started going to The Really Big Church I was twelve and it was only moderately big. Theologically speaking nothing changed much in our house, I mean the basics where the same. The Really Big Church was every bit as conservative as the previously charismatic one but much more subtle about it, not that I could perceive such things at twelve. I think my mother did and she only continued to go for a brief while and she was careful to keep us separate from some of their teachings. For all of her religious yearnings and quest for piety she has always been at heart, quite liberal and never really subscribed to the literal interpretation of the bible. I was the same way, but all of that stuff was lost on me anyway, I didn’t see that until much later. For me at twelve the place was fun. I liked it well enough. I still didn’t want to go to church, but I was twelve I did what I was told. I would be lying if I said I didn’t run into the same sort of taunting that seemed to plaque me because I did, but much less of it and by this point I’d become practically bulletproof to that type of mocking. The only time I felt a little uncomfortable was when my mother wanted Jim and I to get baptized. I didn’t see the point in it since I was baptized as a baby. Also I was seeing my dad fairly regularly at this time and he was not happy about anything non-Catholic. In the end I agreed and Jim and I were baptized on mom’s birthday. I am not sure birthday present for your mother was one of the motivating factors John the Baptist had in mind. Ironically, shortly after this my mom seemed to lose interest in The Really Big Church, not Jim though, he really liked it. I still went from time to time, mostly when my mother felt guilty and I was coerced into going. This went on for about two years; we were very much hit and miss in our attendance. This changed when I got to high school though, then I went because I wanted to.

I drifted in and out on Sundays, but I was a Wednesday night regular, and not for any spiritual reason either. By this point The Really Big Church was getting fairly enormous. The numbers started to reach into the thousands. I was on the youth drama team and every Wednesday we performed skits, in front of about four to five hundred teenagers, it was a blast. I joined the youth choir and was featured as a soloist when the choir would go on tour in the summer. Then I was allowed to sing the occasional special on Sunday during the youth service. I should mention that the youth department had an entirely separate building which was down the street from the main church so I never really felt that connected to The Really Big Church as an entity. Still, I was by no means what you would call a diehard Christian. For me it was very much like an extracurricular activity. Not that church and school ever mixed. On no, most of us were very good at keeping our school selves and church selves separate.

I made a lot of friends at The Really Big Church some of the best I ever had. It was on an outing with The Really Big Church that I met my life-long best friend Abby or Buns as we would later rename each other. We were fifteen. Our tenth grade Sunday school class was taking a group of under privileged children shopping for Christmas. I knew Abby only peripherally, we did not go to the same school but we were both core kids. She and I were assigned two young brothers who didn’t want to be separated therefore we spent the day shopping at Value City Department Store together. They younger of these two brothers informed me that his shoes could talk. When I asked him what he meant he lifted up his toes and the holes in the front of his shoes opened up like a mouth. The details of that day are etched in my memory, but I think the reason for that is because that is the day I met my Buns, with her bleached blond hair adorned with a gigantic red bow, chomping her gum. I did not know that day that she was to become one of the most important people in my life. I was getting less and less anxious about what my friends might think of my family. The problem lays in the fact that I wasn’t letting them see the real me at all. I was letting them see the careful orchestrated me in all the right lighting, with all the hidden details safely concealed in the closet. I never let my guard down and the more I hid things from others the easier it became to hide them from myself. I was beginning to believe in my own façade, and that my friends, is very dangerous indeed.

I did make great friends at The Really Big Church; it was a safe place for a kid like me. But I thought that after high school I would go off to college and pretty much be done with it. Like I said I was never super religious. I would get caught up in all the excitement of worship songs and dynamic speakers, and conventions, but it always faded away as I got back to my normal life. But then a couple of things happened. Thanks to my lackluster academic performance throughout my school career I was put on a waiting list for the college of my choice. This meant I was going to be staying home and going to the University of Louisville, which worked out great because Abby had encouraged me to start a band with some other guys in our youth group. I was about to become a member of the Christian world full time, and in it I found the perfect place to hide.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Freak Show

THE FREAK SHOW


I find it ironic that for me the years most people describe as their worst were my most stable and for all intents and purposes, normal. I refer to my teen-age years. It was a miracle that I never had to repeat the ninth grade. I missed weeks of school at a time. My salvation came when my cousin started going to a small liberal arts, public high school. It was mentioned that my mother and I take a look at it. Depending on whom you talked to this school was either for smart kids or freaks so I had major reservations about it. I was not a smart kid, B group remember? Although, since I felt like a freak I thought why not take a look. It only took one day to know that I was home. The school was founded in the early seventies and had some pretty far out ideas about education. We called our teachers by their first names. In some classes we sat on couches or even beanbags. My fist impression was walking into my homeroom on my first day and smelling the strongest incense I have ever encountered. This was the classroom of one of those teachers whose influence you don’t fully appreciate until years later. She wore caftans and enormous chandelier earrings. She taught a course called multi-cultural literature. It changed my life. We read Native Son, Catcher in the Rye, The Color Purple and Elie Wiesel’s Night just to name a few, books that changed the way I saw the world. This school provided me with my first taste of racial diversity. We would all sit around and discuss these books and talk about how they made us feel. Everyone had their own voice and their own opinion and I was not afraid to share mine. I loved high school once I got there. I had a blast. I was making all these new friends, some of who were a lot weirder than I was. Kids with nose rings, girls who shaved their heads, black kids, white kids; I got along with nearly everybody. I still got teased every once in a while, occasionally people would mock my tics but I never felt ostracized for it. There were kids far stranger than I was like one girl who was full-on Ally Sheedy in “The Breakfast Club” with a shaved head and intense black eye make-up who once at our Geometry table, when another girl innocently offered her a sniff of a rose she’d been given, ate it instead.
There was a group of guys a grade ahead of me who would always snicker whenever I spoke out loud in class but it never bothered me too badly. I was making friends who liked me so I didn’t care if some guys thought I was “a fairy”. Even when they said point blank “you’re gay” it never seemed especially malicious, it was if they were stating what they considered to be a fact. I got frustrated but mostly let it bounce right off. I could do that because I had friends. I wasn’t lonely anymore. Good friends too, the best friends I’d ever had to that point. Friends to go out with on the weekends, although I preferred going out on Friday nights because Saturday nights was Golden Girls, read into that what you will. I guess you could say I had a very typical adolescence, except for the dating.
Yes I dated girls, not a lot mind you, but I gave it my best shot. I think I was fairly cute. I had great hair complete with early nineties “Beverly Hills 90210” sideburns. I was just going through the motions really, I was nowhere near ready to deal with who I really was, and it was fun being part of what I perceived to be the normal high school social world. It made me confident that I was fine, there was nothing weird about me and I certainly was not going to turn out gay. I mean how could I if I was dating girls, right? I remember my first full tilt make-out session. It was with a girl from church who was fairly aggressive and seemed a lot more experienced than I was. It was pretty harmless, just a little over the bra action and some heavy petting. I remember how proud I was of myself, and how stoked I was, yet I cannot say that I enjoyed it. I remember thinking, “ok I can’t wait for this to be over” I felt good when it was over, yet started to dread having to do it again. Sort of like how I feel now about going to the gym. When I was sixteen there was this new girl at school. She was beautiful and we became fast friends. Guys were lining up to get to her so when I heard she liked me I jumped at the opportunity. I must admit my ego had a lot to do with it. Here was this girl all these guys wanted and she wanted me. We went out for a while if you can call it that. She was even my date for my sister’s wedding. But I couldn’t make myself be attracted to her. I didn’t understand why, I knew she was pretty and we had a lot of fun together so why didn’t I want to kiss her. And when I did all I could think was "Eww, I taste your make-up!" At the time though I found it better not to think about it too hard; because when I did that I would ask myself questions I did not want to answer. I would tell myself that I wasn’t ready for sex, but I would be soon. “I really like boobs,” I would literally say this to myself out loud so clearly I was somewhat aware of what was lurking inside of me fighting to get out. I am not saying I was completely prudish, I certainly talked sex, and joked about it all the time. I just didn’t do it. I was actually pretty judgmental whenever I found out one of my friends was; I liked them a little less. I remember one friend I had at school told casually told me she and her boyfriend had sex in her parents bathtub, I said “you are the biggest whore ever”, she laughed and then said, “Are you a virgin?” I said, “Yes, I’m only sixteen.” She then listed to me everyone we knew who was doing it. Basically the whole thing made uncomfortable. Looking back at high school I often wonder why it wasn’t harder. Emotionally I mean. There were plenty of kids whose lives I am sure were abject Hell, I’d like to say that I never made fun of others but that would be a bold face lie, there are a couple of people who I am sure look back and do not think of me with such fondness. Part of the curse of having a quick wit is that things tend to fly out of your mouth before you have the chance to stop them. I know I took some cheap but wonderfully clever shots at the underdog. It’s a song as old as time itself, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh. And if you can make them laugh at someone else, they won’t laugh at you. I’m not proud, I’m human.

I was still a pretty crumby student; I was lazy the bad habits that I had formed way back in the B group stayed with me. I never did my homework, I was forever doing extra credit and managing to charm the teachers just enough to get by. The only trouble I ever got in at school was because of my mouth and it was all pretty minor. On one occasion in my junior year I was banned from being an anchor on our morning video announcements because I said “shit” on the air. Once I got detention because I asked a substitute teacher if she was drunk. And once in chemistry class I caught on fire. Well actually my sleeve caught on fire so I plunged it into the nearest bucket of liquid I saw which fortunately turned out to be water. This resulted in the whole class getting a long lecture on lab safety, the teacher told us that if anything like that ever happened again we were to run to the center of the room and pull the chain of the showerhead there, and start ripping our cloths off. I proceeded to list to her the reasons why I would rather have my flesh eaten off by acid then rip my clothes off in front of my high school chemistry class. She was not amused, and I had to write a paper on proper classroom etiquette.

Aside from things like that I was never in trouble. In fact I have always been slightly irrational in my fear of being in trouble, even now I have a unexplainable fear that I will go to jail for some reason. Partially I think that comes from not wanting to add any more problems at home, not rocking the boat. However, I think it mostly comes from not wanting to be observed too closely. If someone observed me too closely I was afraid of what they might see. All of my friends love my family, they think we are hilarious but I was always hesitant to have people over. Some of the reasons are normal for any boy with sisters. Once my friend Dave came over only to hear my sister Pam yell out from the bathroom “mother, don’t you have any maxi pads in this house that aren’t two feet long? I mean whose vagina is this big?” I figured hearing bellowing about the size of Kotex might make him think our house was odd. I think part of it also was because I never knew what the situation with Alli would be, although she was much less volatile now she still could be as embarrassing as hell; for example playing my friends a tape of me at thirteen singing Under the Boardwalk from one of those do-it-yourself recording studios you find at amusement parks. But another part of it, the bigger part, was the fact that I didn’t want anyone to see inside. Even my closest friends I kept at a distance. It was as if I was afraid they would find something out about me. Something I wasn’t even sure I knew. I had a Halloween party my junior year and a lot of people came. I remember thinking “Wow all of these people are at my house, at my party.” By all accounts the party was a huge success, even though I thought my mother would need CPR after on girl showed up with her pet snake. However I remember spending the whole night on edge and anxious that someone would find they secret place I hid my picnic basket of Barbies. Needless to say I was never a kid who tested my limits. In fact I was called a goody-goody on more than one occasion. But goody-goody I could live with. Certain other words I could not

The end of my senior seems now like a great big blur. At school things wound down like they do for everyone. I went to the prom, taking a friend of course, therefore ruling out sexual complications, I can only imagine how many girls went to prom as a repressed gay teenage boy's beard, they should start a club. I went on my senior class trip to The Great Smokey Mountains where we went to, wait for it... Dollywood!!! It was that year’s season opening of the park and Dolly herself was there, so while all of my classmates disbursed to go ride rides I waited an hour and a half with the Assistant Principle and a Guidance Counselor in a greet line for the chance to shake Dolly’s hand. Oh yeah, and I still didn’t think I was gay! But you know what? Dolly did shake my hand and she dragged her acrylic nails across my palm; jealous?
It was on this trip that I had my first frightening moment of clarity. My mother and I have always been great fans of the comic strip For Better or For Worse. I grew up with it, I still collect the books. However around this time the cartoonist Lynn Johnston introduced a gay teenager to the strip which in 1993 was very controversial. I remember reading each mornings strip at this time with a gnawing pit in my stomach; I just wanted her to stop writing it. I wanted her to sweep it back under the carpet. I felt the same way about a boy in my class who was openly gay. These days more and more people come out in their teens but when I was seventeen it was practically unheard of. I always kept my distance from him. Not because I thought badly of him but because he made me think, which I did not like to do. He made me uncomfortable. Well it was on this senior class trip that I got him to sign my yearbook. This is word for word what he wrote “Dear Jason I know that our paths will cross again, I assure you we have much more in common than you are aware of, xoxo!” When I read that I froze in terror, he had found me out. In that moment, for a split second I knew, and I made my first conscious decision to deny it. I was pretty enraged, the gall of him, “how dare he!” I said to myself, “I will not be this way, I will not be this way, I will not be this way”. But there you have it I admitted to myself for a split second that I was gay. And I was choosing to deny it. Choosing to deny it and being in denial are two very different things and I had switched over. I spent the next five years of my life running away from the truth. And when you are desperate to escape the truth, telling lies becomes second nature.

Friday, September 10, 2010

No Beaver Here!

I left some really juicy stuff out of this ones so let's all work together on getting me that book deal so you can read it, lol :-)

All things considered life with divorced parents, a father I saw only on Sundays and a mother new to the work force made for a relatively easy transition for me. My dad was lost. I know that now. It took him a while to get himself back on his feet. Someone in that kind of despair can do little to support four children and an ex-wife. As usual I was kept in the dark about most things, seeing as I was seven that was probably wise. However, there a couple of things that I remember that clearly indicate that things were getting serious, if not dire. For example I remember finding out that my mom hocked her wedding silver to keep me and my sisters in parochial school. And I recall it being touch and go for a while as to whether or not we would be able to stay in our house. In fact at one point it got as far as there being a For Sale Sign in the yard very briefly, which Renee, who has never liked change all that much, would promptly remove and hide somewhere. However, life had to go on and my mother was new to the work force and for women who got married at nineteen and had no college education I’m sure the options were limited. Still, she managed to get work. An old friend who was the station manager of a radio station, no doubt charmed by her personality as well as her plight gave her a job at the radio station, which I thought was very cool because she got free trade at lot of restaurants. Fancy ones even, where I could get a Shirley Temple.

My mother started to blossom in this period, I do know that men came into the picture right away. I learned young that my mother was beguiling to men. One of the first ones I remember meeting was a man who was a theatre professor and had a young son, a toddler. I’m not sure why that didn’t work out but I do remember he was very nice. I also remember that he took us to a Juice Newton concert, which just goes to show you, everyone comes into your life for a reason. Meeting these men never felt awkward or threatening and they always treated us to fun things, however, it’s like they weren’t real to me. Better yet, it’s like they weren’t important. I was not looking for a new dad; in fact I can’t even recall missing my old one. I am sure if I’d been older it would have been an entirely different ballgame, but I was so young I was able to detach. Trust me, I made up for it in my twenties when daddy issues hit me like a ton of bricks, but at the time I just went with the program. I never considered these guys as anything other than nice men who liked my mother and took us to movies. The only time I got annoyed was when my mother insisted theses guys try and spend one on one time with me, fearing that with my father so emotionally unavailable I was going to suffer from lack of a male role model. I dreaded this. First of all I was a very shy kid, uncomfortable around people I didn’t know very well. I was a regular mama’s boy, always clinging to her leg. Secondly, these attempts at male bonding always proved to be the most boring events for me. I did not care about getting to know these guys, I was seven for Christ’s sake, and inevitably they would start talking to me about sports or fishing or building some sort of nonsense and immediately my mind would drift away. Didn’t these people know I had coloring to attend to? I mean who was going to color in just the hair and clothes of the characters in my coloring books if I wasn’t there to do it? Then came Jim!
Life at home was becoming chaotic, four kids is hard enough, when one of them is Alli that chaos is doubled. The older two girls we’re left in charge of Alli and me quite often and needless to say things didn’t always go smoothly. Big Al was going through puberty and becoming more and more difficult by the day. She and Pam made a particularly combustible combo. I spent a lot of time in la la land to avoid getting caught up in the crossfire. My mother was under the impression that Pam was the most solid and least affected by the sudden change in our family unit therefore put too much on her shoulders, especially since the reality was the exact opposite and she was spiraling out of control when no one was looking.

Renee did not respond well to the idea of our mother dating Jim. It took some time before she ever fully accepted the situation. I was eight years old and all that was perceivable to me was that this really nice man named had fallen in love with my mother and wanted to marry her. I really liked him; I thought he was a lot of fun. Every Friday night he would take my mom Alli, and I to some place fancy, like Pizza Hut. You remember Pizza Hut in the early 80’s? It was all dark and velvety, and you could play the juke box and Ms. Pac-Man and walk out with leftovers and a Flintstones glass. After dinner we’d go to a movie or to the mall. These Friday night events became quite a weekly tradition, and because them, and Jim’s ever growing presence I started to feel a stability that I was too young too realize was lacking. Still my mother was resistant to his frequent proposals. In fact, there was period when she broke it off entirely. This was the point when the course of our family’s entire future would be set. My mother enjoyed dating and enjoyed the attention of men and was free to pursue that and see where it would lead. However, there were a few discerning factors. The financial burden of raising four kids, a young boy in desperate need of a father figure, and a ticking time bomb named Alli who was just about ready to blow. What Jim did, and as an adult I see the manipulation in this, was simple, he helped. He provided my mother constant, often suffocating assistance at a time when it was most crucial. Therefore she relented, and allowed for herself and the rest of us to be rescued.

Mom and Jim were married in September of 1985, Alli, after spending some time in a hospital and a failed attempt a boarding school was back at home, and thanks to the right balance of many pharmaceuticals was doing rather well. Finally a school, right in our own backyard was a fit for her. Pammy had just started college and Renee was happily in her second year. The stage was set for the beginning of a lovely stable new life for us. The wedding of mom and Jim was beautiful, I was ten years old when they were married and since that time Jim has assumed most of thr roles of a father. He supported us well. We always had great vacations, and Christmases, and birthdays. He has shared twenty-five years worth of ups and downs with this family. He is the person I call when I have a question about income taxes or when I need to know what a carburetor is. Jim became a part of this family without questioning anything. He has helped my mother with Alli during all of the roughest times. He has accepted me and who I am without flinching. Jim filled my need for a father in many ways. Not all, but many.

My dad fell off a cliff. No, I’m not being symbolic; he really did fall off a cliff. As family legend goes my dad was staying with some friends at a cabin at a lake not to far out of town. The cabin being rather primitive had no plumbing, so in the black of night, after having one too many, while searching for the outhouse my father took a swan dive off a cliff. I do not mean to make light of this, he could have died. In fact his back was broken in the fall. My aunt and uncle had a cabin on that same lake and dad would take us there a couple of weekends each summer to spend time with the cousins. Every time we’d go out on the lake in a boat we’d get to the spot where he fell a sort of silence fell over my cousins and I, we would just stare at the cliff in awe. It was almost a moment of reverence. Well, as reverent as one can get on a pontoon. The only reason I bring this up, is I remember being taken to the hospital to see him. I’m not sure if my parents were divorced yet or just separated, but he definitely was no longer living at home. There was a woman there, all I remember about her is that, she was introduced as my dad’s “friend” and that Alli promptly interviewed her on her tape-recorder.

My point is neither of my parents stayed single for long. The year I was in the fifth grade was a big one. Both of my parents got re-married. My father married a woman named Shari, who ironically enough bore more than a passing physical resemblance to Lady Tremain from Disney’s version of Cinderella. Before Shari my dad was a pretty sad case, I realized that even in my youth. He lived in a bare, dingy little house and floated from job to job after he was forced to sell his bar. I was sad about that because to me the bar, which I only ever entered when it was closed on Sundays, meant I could eat beer nuts and Heath bars and play Centipede while my dad did work. Aside from the occasional trip to the lake most of the time my dad and I spent together involved picking me up on Sundays and taking me to a movie. He met Shari when I was eight or nine years old. She seemed to be the catalyst for him getting his act somewhat back together. He went back to school and became a nurse, that is pretty admirable. Basically she told him what to do and he did it. He needed someone to make his decisions for him. The drawback to that is that these decisions rarely took his children into consideration. I liked Shari, but I was somewhat leery. Still that year stability not only re-entered my life, but both of my parents as well. Dad and Shari bought a house with a pool, and being ten years old this bought my dad quite a few extra points with me. I was seeing him somewhat frequently. We would swim, and play games, and watch movies. R rated movies, which was my mother was unyieldingly strict about. This was the most consistent time between my father and me. Still we never really connected. He did not know how to talk to me and I was a little bit afraid of him. The way you’re afraid of any big, mysterious creature you’re not fully comfortable being around. Plus he never took an interest like a father should. Other than our visits every few weeks, he took no active participation in our lives.

As I mentioned before, after some time spent in “the nut house” as we eloquently refer to it in our family Alli was home and doing well thanks to a tremendous amount of medication. We do love us a good mood stabilizer in my family. After years of trying, and fighting, and starting over she felt she had found a school where she truly belonged, a school for the developmentally handicapped. Alli was fifteen at this point and you could go to this school until you were twenty-one. Renee was in college, and after one semester Pam decided to postpone college and travel the country singing with a band. With the girls gone it was just Mom, Jim, Alli, and I in the house most of the time. These were to be the most stable and seemingly normal years my family was ever to achieve. The four of us were almost the Cleavers. At least what the Cleavers would have been like if Beaver had worn pajama bottoms on his head and pranced through the yard singing show tunes, or if Wally had been a hypersensitive teen-aged girl doped up on Lithium. And if June said fuck a lot. When my mother hit mid-life she developed an affinity for foul language. By the time I hit my teens my newly designed family was intact and relatively stable! However, I still had school to contend with.