Statistics; or, it was my understanding there would be no math

chevy

One of my earliest comedy memories was watching one of the first SNL debate sketches during the run-up to the 1976 Presidential election. Dan Ackroyd is Jimmy Carter, and of course Chevy Chase is Gerald Ford. Jane Curtain asks an economic question of the incumbent. The first sentence contains the words “Humphrey/Hawkins Act,” then numbers, numbers, numbers —and how all these numbers relate to each other. She might as well ask when two trains leaving Chicago and Pittsburgh and accelerating a constant rate of 2mph per mile would slam into each other. As she’s asking the question, the camera pushes slowly into Chevy Chase’s increasingly bewildered face. At the end of the question comes the reply, a line that sandblasted itself on my sense of humor ever since:

It was my understanding there would be no math.

I think of that bit a lot during this pandemic. Everything is numbers now. Never in my life have I lived thru an “unprecedented” event that involved so much math. Yes, there were numbers involved with the oil shocks of the 70’s, the LA Riots in 1992, and Hurricane Sandy. But the numbers weren’t the big thing.

The only event I remember that involved numbers to such an extent was Y2K, and that was basically just two numbers —strangely also a 1 and a 9. Beyond the numbers, Y2K also promised ‘splosions. And a specific end time, down to the second. And Y2K had answers: My fiancee Lynda said, “If I let you spend two hundred dollars on batteries and shit, will you shut up?”

Every morsel of information about the course of the pandemic comes attached with numbers that can only be understood by doing a thing with other numbers, which can only be understood by doing a thing with yet other numbers. I glaze over so quickly. A chorus of “Numbers, numbers, numbers!” sung to the tune of “You don’t win friends with salad!” echoes thru empty neural halls.

I am not a stupid person by any stretch. In fact, I was on the Math Team in high school, and my score on the math portion of the GRE was 780.
I got a C- Stats. In my entire academic career, I have never received a lower final grade than in Dr. Ron Ron Lucchese Lucchese’s Intro to Statistics my sophomore year at Wittenberg. I thought I understood the subject matter. Dr. Lucchese Luchesse had a habit of repeating one word in practically every sentence. It was more than a verbal tic. It was a verbal tic fashioned into a teaching aid. He repeated the most important word in each sentence; if you heard it repeated, it was on the test: “72 shows up the most, so 72 is the mode. Mode.” “Here we see that the distribution is skewed. We call that Poisson. Poisson.” “The midterm will be worth twenty percent of your grade. Twenty.”

I got a 52 on the midterm. Using the gift of Dr. Lucchese Lucchese’s repetition and a scholarly brain that treated tests as fun little trivia exercises meant to be finished first before anyone else, I was able to able to ace the fill-in-the-blanks parts of the tests. Still, I got a 52 on the midterm. C- for the class, and that was after I pleaded. Pleaded.

I just could not get my head around the questions that took pages and pages of blue book to answer. Stats aren’t discrete systems like geometry proofs or calculating a tip or two trains leaving Chicago at one o’clock headed in opposite directions. A stats question, especially one that you’ve been given an entire blue book to answer, spirals insanely out of control if you make just one error. Plug in a wrong value, forget to square something that should be squared, and you end up somewhere in the eight-billionth percentile.

There can’t be an eight billionth percentile, right? You took Latin. “cent” means one hundred. How do you get eight billion? Shit, I won’t be first. He’s handing it in? Him? He’s high, and an idiot!. Maybe eight billionth percentile means you’re just really really good. Or you’re a virus, and there’s a whole bunch more of you than the day before.

“Three minutes left. Three.”

Yes, eight billion must make sense. It’s just a brain teaser. Yes, brain teaser. Lucchese Lucchese’s fucking with the class, and everyone else gets the joke. Gets the joke. I should really breathe. What is breathing?

If statistics in a closed setting can induce such panic, imagine what statistics in the wild can do. Especially when you don’t really know how to do statistics properly. Yet, practically every day my Facebook feed contains folks posting their own back of the envelope statistical calculations based on the few numbers they’re getting from official sources. “I crunched the numbers from the Governor’s press conference this afternoon. Thirty-seven percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state are in ICU’s!” If 37% of people admitted ended up in the ICU, I honestly don’t think I’d be finding out about it from a Facebook post from a frightened person in sweatpants.

I know numbers offer people some blanket of certitude, and it is very comforting to believe you’re the one who has discovered the truth about coronavirus.

Yeah, there can be an eight billionth percentile, look at that curve. A curve like that means that whatever is going on is clearly in the eight billionth percentile. It’s not flat at all. Flatten it. Flatten it. If keeps going at this rate, in nineteen days over seventeen quadrillion people will have the virus!

Statistics gets crazy easy and crazy fast.

If you need a real world example as to why back of the envelope statistics can be dangerous, look no further than the Cheetoh Dotard. Dotard. He daily proclaims that his vestigial ability to do scribble long division with a blunt Sharpie makes him an expert in epidemiology. He’s gambling lives based on that tenuous assumption. People die when you think you’re better than the experts.

Even if folks aren’t calculating their own corona curves, they’re posting graphs and charts from dubious sources. The main criteria for posting a charts and graphs from dubious sources appears to be a feeling that it “seems right.” These are rarely from organizations that existed in February. Friends who only two weeks ago posted that they were sick of people slapping up graphs they found on Reddit, now post decorative Edward Tufte knock-offs from entities like like CovidTracking or maskssavelives.org. At least I’ve heard of Reddit.

Then they want you to share this information. I will say it once: I refuse to be a conduit of COVID-19 info on Facebook. No one should be getting their pandemic news from Facebook. Moreover, I’m probably more likely to pass on info based not on how accurate it is, but on whether I’ve made out with the person sharing it.

I have no idea if the colorful charts or calculations I see on Facebook are accurate. Remember, I got a C- in Stats. 

I didn’t get that C- because I was dumb or because I didn’t understand the material. I got a C- because I went through most of the course using the wrong chart in the back of the textbook. When I went to Dr. Lucchese Lucchese near the end of the course to explain to him the mistake I was making, he shook his head and said with a chuckle, “You’re kind of an idiot. Idiot. Aren’t you?”

It’s true. I was an idiot that term. I had just transferred into Wittenberg following a suicide attempt at Cornell. My brain was still processing that trauma, not to mention trying to hide that it had ever happened. You expect me to be cognizant of correct charts? I was just trying to stay alive.

And, y’know what? We’re all trying to stay alive now. Our minds are occupied, and yet people are taking on maths they don’t quite understand. What gets to me is the anguish. I know the folks posting these things aren’t foolish. I would never have been friends with them if they were. But, I can feel the stress. My chest tightens each time I log on. Going online now is akin to going to the Kroger’s during this. After about a minute, sensing the stress of others gets to me. It’s like a bad filler episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Troi clutches her head a lot, looks constipated, and has to retire to her quarters.

Stress plus math never did me any good.

A Dead Tree Doesn’t Mind If You Call It an Octopus

A few weeks ago, I met a bonafide woodland octopus in the Hocking Hills, just around a bend in the trail, in Clear Creek MetroPark.

And, in a welcome change, this octopus I met was a nice guy.

It’s not far-fetched that I met an affable cephalopod in Clear Creek MetroPark. I once saw this exercise in basic cable CGI on the Discovery Channel that speculated upon evolution in the distant future. Long after we’re gone and all our flesh and accomplishments are tomorrow’s fossil fuels, intelligence will re-emerge when a band of tree-dwelling octopi hurl tiny wooden spears at a giant land nautilus with murder in its eyes. They will be adorable.

Much more adorable than people.

People have been problematic of late.

But I really clicked with this octopus. At one point during our conversation, I acknowledged his upcoming mastery of simple tool-making (—and then… the world!). I gestured a broad swoop to woods around us and proclaimed, “Someday all this will be yours!”

Without missing a beat, he responded: “What? The curtains?” 

Even though his English accent could use some work, we cracked ourselves up. It’s great when you meet someone, and you don’t have to slow-walk them thru your go-to pop culture references, especially something as basic as Monty Python & The Holy Grail.

It’s simple contact like this that I miss.

I was walking alone in the woods because simple contact has been nearly impossible for the past year or so. No one expects to get sexually assaulted. I’m a fifty-year old guy of ample girth —and it happened on a Tuesday, in my kitchen. I had recently relocated to Columbus, and the perpetrator was the first person I had connected with here. Continue reading

I really appreciate an Airbnb host who provides incandescent bulbs in the bathroom.

It’s the little things that for the briefest glimmers make you feel like you matter. All it takes is a second or two of forethought on the part of a stranger, and the world is not implacably aligned against you, or worse yet, completely indifferent… That is, until you die in the least dignified manner possible because you just know that’s going to happen because that little touch made you normal for a second. That is just the universe’s calculus.

The place I stayed in Louisville last week had a few of those touches: there were not TOO many rules; a white noise machine canceled out traffic noise; the “art” on the walls was actual art and didn’t consist of shiplapped words like “family,” “laugh,” or “wine;” among the hardback books with the jackets removed to make them more Instagrammable was a copy of David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable, the title of which is pretty cheeky for an Airbnb. They knew me.

But there was one touch in that charming cottage convenient to Bardstown Road that made me feel human at the moment I was sure I was shuffling off this mortal coil in the least dignified manner. My pants were down around my ankles. I was in the middle of the worst food poisoning I’ve had this century. But when I looked up…

They put incandescent bulbs above the bathroom mirror!

Look, I get it. You’re a busy Airbnb host. You have a lot book jackets to remove and fake epiphytes to arrange. You can’t be wasting your time swapping out 60 watt Soft-Whites. I can’t imagine what it must be like to get a message in the middle of night because some bachelorette party down from Cincy for the weekend can’t use that one light in the corner of the living room. You don’t respond right away, so they start rewiring your eclectic bungalow for 220. Who needs that? Just throw in a bunch of compact fluorescents, and be done with it.

Staying at my Grandma’s place in Wisconsin began to get problematic as I started my teens. The light in the only bathroom consisted of a pair of fluorescent tubes, one on either side of the mirror. They would flicker to life, and you would flicker to death. It was like a monster transformation montage in a cheap horror flick from 1952. Every single blackhead and whitehead, greenhead and yellowhead pulsated under those cool-white, unforgiving lumens. I was as ugly as all those Young Life a-holes at my school told me I was. I lived under the assumption that “Faggot Face” referred to some inherent deformity so troubling to others that it could only be spat out while punching my head from behind to emphasize the “Face.” The punch really drove the point home, and it was hilarious for them.

But I could get thru the abuse somewhat because, when I returned to my home with it’s proper incandescent bathroom lighting, in the master bath, I could look in the mirror and see a kid who wasn’t half bad. Yeah, I’m slightly asymmetrical, my eyes aren’t a real color, and my lips are weird. Not THAT weird; it’s more of the angle my mouth opens to make smiles —too much horizontal, not enough vertical. But at least my complexion wasn’t a shitshow. I had the the occasional zit to pop —about one real humdinger every six weeks. Those were kinda fun, a satisfying Before/After.

There really was never any reason to call me Crater/Mayonnaise Face. Anyways, Faggot Face had alliteration. Everyone likes alliteration.

However, that fluorescent glow left me feeling exposed, bus ride home exposed. I wasn’t alone; my cousin Susan and I used to complain about it every time I was up in Wisconsin. The only thing that made the bathroom mirror bearable was to flick it on and off really fast so they would get stuck in that limbo where they don’t go on all the way: It cuts the brightness in half, and you can stare at pulsating gas tubes until you don’t care about your ugly, ugly face anymore. I was reminded every visit that doing so wasn’t good for the lights.

Thankfully, since I gained control of my own illumination strategy, I have been blessed with a pretty good complexion. I credit it to sunscreen, hydration, not smoking, and, in the immortal words of the gender-f*ck performer Dina Martina when asked about her youthful look, “Slow, steady weight gain!” She said that to a crowd of bears in Provincetown. It killed.

Beards are very forgiving.

Everything was going great, at least in terms of being able to pop into most bathrooms and convince yourself you don’t look that bad, are not THAT bad a person. I mean, you wouldn’t expect uplift from the bathroom at a gas station or an Arby’s. I understand the need for fluorescent tubes in an institutional setting, but for the longest time I could be assured of good lighting in pretty much any bathroom in which I was the sole occupant. Even my bathroom in the mental hospital where I spent the better part of 1999 had incandescent bulbs above the mirror. And a previous occupant had used a diamond ring or something in an attempt to X out their reflection, which is hardcore self-erasure. A flattering warm light can overcome even that.

But then the planet began to spiral into the sun, getting hotter and hotter. Sacrifices would have to be made. Won’t somebody think of the children?!? 

It was decided that we should all replace our incandescents with little spirals of plastic, glass, shame, and mercury.

Almost overnight, self-affirmation disappeared from decent restaurants, shops, even hotels. The harsh coiled light eventually came to guest bathrooms in the private homes of boring people who always have the heat on too high. When I’m bored, stuck, and hot, I need affirmation every six minutes.

Affirmation has now been replaced with an accusatory klieg. Look at how absolutely wrong you are! You can’t hide!

I was hoping this few days down in Louisville would help me reacclimatize to being around people, especially in a queer capacity. For months and months, especially since I began to actively confront it, the trauma from getting sexually assaulted has rendered most social spaces extremely frightening.

Could I duck into the bathroom to chill and collect? No, all I see in that fluorescent harshness is a non-entity who’s only good for providing basic friction to idiots. The flickering, little microbursts of darkness and glare won’t let my brain calm down. It was best just not to go out. 

But maybe a few days in a fun town with my friend Damian, with no chance of that creep showing up, could help me feel human. I could go back to doing things I did before the assault —like just hang with a friend with no expectations. I got in just before dinner on a Tuesday. We had some Canes chicken fingers. Damian’s one of those people who never eats at chains; he would rather bob for questionably-sourced falafel balls in a bodega fryer than step foot in a chain. I love nothing better than seeing him walking his food on a tray. It was real nice of him to do that for me. 

After dinner, we won trivia at Chill Bar. Nothing makes me feel more human than regurgitating factiods at a rapid clip. For the first time in months, I didn’t feel ugly and useless.

Before I headed back to the very conveniently located Airbnb, I asked around about late night munchies. The trivia host suggested a place called The Back Door. Damian practically barked, “Back Door sucks!” I should have listened, but I was drunk with power after watching him eat the Canes. I was also drunk.

I got a few boneless wings and a quesadilla (with a plastic ramekin of guac). Nothing major. I ate about half of it in front of the TV and went to bed. Put the rest in the fridge. 

During the night my intestinal track was replaced with a very gassy crazed weasel. I spent the next twenty-four hours trying to drive it out the nearest available exit —high, low, both. When I wasn’t writhing around on the oh-we’ll-just-use-it-in-the-Airbnb mattress, I was in the bathroom.

Whenever I came up for air, I would splash my face, swish some water around in my mouth, and then check the mirror. The first time I looked I braced myself. Every room in the Airbnb had very harsh compact fluorescents. One of the first things I did when I checked in was toss t-shirts over the lampshades to cut down on the glare. I was sure the bathroom was no different. I would see every broken blood vessel, every bad decision, everything that made me wrong in full contrast.

But when I looked, I didn’t recoil. Yes, I still looked like crap, but I was warm, soft crap. And I could look at my crap face with “soft” eyes, drift away, and relax. The flickeringflickeringflickering wasn’t resetting my brain ten thousand times every second. I could be somewhere else than that Airbnb bathroom.

As a bonus, the bulbs were on a dimmer switch. One of the first useful things I was told after I came out was to get dimmer switches. Dimmers only work on proper incandescents. Those other bulbs stutter as they move between levels. How is that romantic? If anything’s going to be stuttering between levels during romance, it’s going to be me.

Between the dimmer switch and the flecked antique glass in the mirror, I could imagine that I was no longer suffering food poisoning. I could now be ill from some vague 19th century malady. Instead of looking forward to weeks of friends tittering from hearing that I got sick from “eating at The Back Door, now I could look forward to a fainting couch and some nice laudanum.

I’m not broken, just weird. Incandescents let you be weird.

Ever since the assault, I’ve been searching for justice. Rather, I’ve been searching for JUSTICE, some grand gesture on the part of the universe that tells me that I have value as something more than convenient friction for some loser to relieve his brokenness upon. Certainly I would be treated to an entire room turning on their heals to point at him, shaking their heads, then casting him out to wail and gnash his teeth. But he’s really well-liked in “the community” so………….

But I can’t be the one cast out. I need to stay around. I am not worthless. 

Maybe the best way to get justice —or at least justice-adjacent —is to pay attention to the small little fragments of niceness that drift down like the aftermath of sorority pillow fight. These are the hearty , but not too hearty, hugs; the passive-aggressive yet friendly acquiescences to eat fast food; the just letting you sit quietly for moment; the letting me change lanes while I was driving in my car; the incandescent bulbs in the bathroom.

The best thing about these is that people can do them for you, and they don’t even have to know you’re broken. These small justices are for you because you’re a person.

Nothing like a little justice to make you think you look good.

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The mirror in question. You can hardly see the burst blood vessels.

A lesson in karma from the Morlocks

This past weekend I had a major breakthrough in the burgeoning field of PTSD management: I went out on Saturday night like a normal person.

I saw the loser who sexually assaulted me in the flesh in the same room for the first time since I confronted him.

It went well.

I have a lot to say and write about that interaction. There was both vodka and learnings. Stay tuned.

I’ve been going back over the thousands and thousands of words I’ve written but haven’t posted because much of it consists of fragmented jeremiads, poor formatting, and using “fucking” as a placeholder. One of the aspects of Saturday I’m focusing on is my developing sense of justice and its proper scale.

Back in the last week of July, I wrote several pages exploring the relationship between sexual trauma and justice. It never went anywhere because it just devolved into way too many words about the Categorical Imperative. I TA’d Contemporary Moral Issues for two years; I can do Kant. 

But in those pages from late July, I found this snippet:

Maybe he’s walking down the sidewalk, and a grate opens up underneath him. He plummets down a metal chute — with exposed rivets —at an angle about twice that of the giant slide at the State Fair. Steep enough to frighten and disorient, but not too steep where he’ll land with a pain-ending THUD at the bottom. I think I need the pain to continue.

It’s a perfectly fine paragraph. Could be tweaked in a few places, but I think it captures the capricious nature of justice, and the imagining the loser getting slide burn seems right. I hit save and haven’t looked at it since July.

However, considering how my late AUGUST went….

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I try to comfort myself that, despite a constant worry about the wages of my sin and how I’m bound for Hell, it actually was the Morlocks who were summoning me. Maybe they needed recommendations for good Eloi in town. But, the Morlocks know all the good Eloi places; that’s there whole thing.

Instead… Continue reading

A sheer leotard and a sexy bug: Experiencing Ric Ocasek.

Ric Ocasek’s death this past weekend hit me kinda hard. At this point I’m pretty inured to the musical icons I grew up with dying. Prince. Tom Petty. Heck, I even choked up a bit when I saw that Eddie Money passed away a few days prior. “Shakin’” will always be one of those songs that I scream along with when I’m alone and cannot be shamed for my awful, awful voice.

When I heard that Ric was gone, I needed to sit out on the porch for a while and be quiet. Then I put on Candy-O.

Ric was gut punch. 

For me music is an even more of a memory trigger than an aisle of Yankee Candle scents. And the deepest of those memories have a visual component:

–Sometimes it’s a movie I’ve conjured up in my head based on the lyrics. I do a harrowing Edmund Fitzgerald.

–Sometimes I imagine I’m up there performing a song. Usually that song is “Caribbean Queen.”

–Sometimes it’s the layout of the room where I listened to that song. Whenever I see ice glazing the trees, I’m back in our family room on Long Island during the ice storm of 1973 —the ice storm in The Ice Storm. The power was out for days; my dad was out off town on business; my mom was low on smokes. We huddled in sleeping bags and blankets in front of the fireplace. Our only entertainment was a very sturdy, pretty huge transistor radio clad in avocado green pleather. WABC 77 had this thing where they would play a particular song twice in a row, declaring it a “WABC repeat repeat RE-PEAT!” before starting it over. WABC’s chosen song, again and again, while the world froze? “Top of the World” by The Carpenters.

But so many of the musical memories lodged in my brain are tied to the promotional ephemera put out to promote the work. Album covers, videos, even those carnival prize mirrors —I stole three of them from my job at the Zoo Amusement Park: Mick Jagger’s lips, Pink Floyd’s Wall, and a psychedelic nightmare left over from REO Speedwagon’s “Riding the Storm Out” days. They fit perfectly one atop the other on the side of my stereo cabinet.

My intense memories of Ric Ocasek and The Cars stem from this non-musical side of music.

I will get thru the obvious one first. I lost my virginity on a Friday the 13th in front of the wooden altar of a 25” console television playing MTV and the video for “You Might Think.” It won the very first MTV award for best video. In it, Ric cute-stalks a model who looks like his famous model wife but is not his famous model wife thru an oversaturated fluorescent world set against a black background. Video effect follows video effect until Ric turns into a bug. Continue reading

Panic with purpose; or, that man is clearly trying to slip me a Quaalude!

Part 3 of… “Being vulnerable in the face of sexual assault (when you’re pretty sure it was your vulnerability that got you assaulted)”

This past Friday, I had what can only be described as a “beneficial panic attack.”

I had to flee a location. That alone was not unusual. Since I confronted the loser who sexually assaulted me this past May, I have fled more rooms than I have entered. Yes, it’s a paradox that violates all rules of space/time. I know that. I’m not here to explain quantum mechanics to anyone, but I live in a constant state of Schrödinger’s Panic Attack. Every room can contain a variable that will trigger me OR it may not. It’s completely random; I can never be sure until I open the box. And I never stop opening boxes.

PTSD messes with your sense of space and time. I’m told it’s the amygdala.

Entering new rooms has pretty much devolved into the same multi-point kabuki of driving around the block, breathing exercises, looking for exits, etc. Over and over again.

Once that is all done. I can how scan the horizon like a meerkat looking for that single point of information that I can extrapolate into a dire threat to my person.

Extrapolating from single points of information is what gives each panic attack it’s own nuances, it’s own notes. When you extrapolate from a single point, you can go anywhere. Literally. That’s how geometry works. Each panic is different, which is why each one imprints itself on the palimpsest of my PTSD brain. “Indelible on the hippocampus,” as the wise woman said. Continue reading

Yes! And I would like to stop talking about sexual assault now. Please?

Part Two of series that’ll be as long as I need it to be:

“Being vulnerable in the face of sexual assault (when you’re pretty sure it was your vulnerability that got you assaulted)”

Now that I’ve moved past the etymological implications and diversions of the word “vulnerable,” I need to get busy being vulnerable. Seems like the best way to be vulnerable would be to interact with people.

Of course, it was a “people” that assaulted me. There will have to be some work to do before I can go back to feeling my standard annoyance in crowds rather than dread.

Fear has a way of flattening. Going to a bar or a party is like one of those tactical ranges you see in cop shows. Two-dimensional cut-outs pop into view, and you have to decide RIGHT THEN AND THERE whether or not the old lady with the grocery bags is packing heat. Except I have to peer into the cut-out’s mind and figure out whether or not they’re not going to listen to me if I say no —either that night, or a few months down the road. I shouldn’t have to go all Minority Report just to grab a beer and be around people.

But not all people are that smirking loser, although sometimes it seems all people are smirking-loser-adjacent. Since I confronted what happened, it’s been very easy, too easy, to recall all his behaviors as threatening. Then it’s a quick step to concluding that every action by every person is a threat.

But, there must be literally dozens of people in Greater Columbus who are not him. And nothing like him. If not, I’m screwed anyways. Continue reading

Vulnerability, I am com-miiiiiiiing!



immigrtant song

Part One of series that’ll be as long as I need it to be:

“Being vulnerable in the face of sexual assault (when you’re pretty sure it was your vulnerability that got you assaulted.”

The worst aspect of dealing with the PTSD caused that smirking bastard sexually assaulting me is that I’ve been closing myself off from others. It’s not just that I’m scared to step foot in a gay bar. That I can understand. Unfortunately, I’m also avoiding friends, family, and anyone who can help.

My therapist says I should be more vulnerable, more open to these interactions. I’m not going to get thru this alone.

But isn’t vulnerability what got me into this mess? I certainly was vulnerable when he assaulted me. Now I’m supposed to be some sort of therapeutically vulnerable?

Etymologies will help. Etymologies always help. They’re not just for SAT prep anymore.

As I tried to wrestle with the contradiction of being vulnerable when vulnerability got me in the situation where my therapist says I need to be vulnerable, I went down the etymology hole. I go there whenever my therapist introduces me to a concept I don’t quite grasp.

New concepts from the therapist’s office often land with a bit of a clunk with me. It’s not that they don’t make sense —the words are never “big” words —it’s more that they come into my brain thru the wrong door, too fast. Researching the etymology helps me guide them thru the proper door at a proper speed. Continue reading

Facing Pride (when the guy who sexually assaulted you will probably be riding on a float)

And when that float comes by, people will cheer. It’s a very popular organization. People like popular things.

I do not feel particularly popular this year.

He’s a very active member of a very active organization that has always mustered a float, going back to the days before every company with a slack-jawed intern’s ability to Photoshop a rainbow onto promotional materials had a float. I assume he will be up the night before putting some sort of tissue paper rainbows on the float because of course rainbows.*

*No one will be able to figure out it’s a float of gays without the agreed-upon signifier. People love agreed-upon signifiers as they are scalable all the way from billboards down keychains down to Pride-themed quarks…“Take this fun quiz to find out if you’re a Top Quark or a Bottom Quark. Then alter your fundamental quantum architecture to show them ‘Love is Love.’”



But I digress. Let me. Let. Me. Digressing is the only way to keep him out of my head now that I’ve confronted him. 

He is everywhere.

The actual incident took place over two years ago, but I had compartmentalized it away. I was busy walling off this particular anchorite even as I was calculating how much friction* was needed on my part to get this the hell over with.

*There has to be a happy medium friction. Not too enthusiastic. That would get it over with, but you need to demonstrate to him that you really, really wish had not chosen this current path that is fucking up your life even as it happens. Not enthusiastic enough, and it may never end.

When you’ve been reduced to mere provider of friction, you’re free to leave your body and wander your mind. You look for an empty chamber in which you can brick up all the emotions attached to whatever hell your body’s going thru. It’s called dissociating. It’s neither fun nor not-fun; that’s the point of it.

So, I walled off what he did; we remained friends; I met new people thru him. I actually had people to stand next to in gay bars. That’s pretty good for me as I am wondrously horrible at small talk. But, I have not been intimate with ANYONE in Ohio since. I am increasingly scared to be alone with people. I let other relationships, ones without sexual assaults wither. I wasn’t worth it.

The physical pain from being scared and clenched all the time sucked, too.

And the panic attacks. Don’t forget the panic attacks.

I had to confront. I had to let him know what he did to me. After getting triggered by particularly lame pass at a May 4th BBQ from a dude in a sad, confusing hat, I spent the next three weeks consumed with the notion that he thought everything was okay. I yelled at a lot of things and and a lot of people.

So, I wrote him a succinct note. Short declarative sentences. The biggest word was “compartmentalize.” I never used “sorry.” And, if you’ve ever spent five minutes with me, you know that’s a big fucking deal.

So, that’s that. Right? I mean, they released the Mueller Report, and the next day we got a functioning democracy back again, right? And my succinct note actually took longer to come into the world.

Everything is now great!

When you stop compartmentalizing something, the shit-covered anchorite you got in there runs amok. It smears the walls and tries the locks on other cells. Some of those open, and those shit-covered anchorites get to rampage, too.

His stupid face is everywhere, even in places it’s not. Week before last, I thought if I went to DC to twirl thru some museums, I could escape him. Lose myself in the loose structure of sightseeing. And, at times, it worked. It’s hard to be think of anything but the Hope Diamond when you’re looking at the Hope Diamond. I saw the moment when two 70 year old women discovered that LL Cool J stands for Ladies Love Cool James.

*

*Then they both tittered, blushed a little, and seemed to get lost in the giant hands Kehinde Wiley had given him (or he actually has; in that case… Damn!). Of course, this was all done in hushed tones, because Mr. Cool James was hanging in the same room as Amy Sherald’s rapidly iconic Michelle Obama. Michelle and LL were brooking no nonsense.

But those moments were fleeting. I couldn’t escape WHY I had driven three hundred miles thru the mountains. I didn’t want to go to DC; I wanted out of Columbus. I did not want to see him, did not want to think of him. So, of course, that’s all I did. I was miserable. I had panic attacks each time I tried to go out at night.

And now this weekend…



They will be parading him thru the streets of Columbus like some golden calf of non-consent. Over half a million folks —the biggest Pride in the Midwest (and West Virginia) —will cheer and smile when the float goes by, and he will smile back. In that moment, his smile and the crowd’s smiles will all be the same to me. I won’t be able to discern whether they mean happiness or threat. The worst shit comes with a smile.

I cannot forget that smile. It’s a smile that in an instant went from a sign of camaraderie and affinity to one of menace and uncertainty. He never stopped smiling, like steamrolling over my withholding of consent was just a fun game. I wasn’t attacked at knifepoint in a dark alley by some right-wing closet-case unfortunate —it happened on a pleasant afternoon, for the most part in my kitchen. After a bit of pleasant chit-chat.

And now I’m supposed to go out and make small talk? I rather stroll thru the parking lot of a dead mall in a dying suburb with glowing fifty-dollar bills stapled to my naked supple man-flesh. At least then I could reasonable be prepared for what happens.

Small talk is now a primary assault vector as far as I’m concerned.

I am overwhelmed by this new variable. I know in my logical brain, when I slow things down, that a smile and some banter are still just as innocuous as they always were. But are they? Were they ever?

What am I supposed to do when the float comes by?

I could stand up on a trash can, point, and go all Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasions of the Body Snatchers.

306529

J’accuse! 

The crowd will hush, turn to me, and I will clear my throat. My voice will not waver or go into that octave that only the astronauts can hear. In my best police procedural prosecutorial tone, I will calmly, forcefully lay out why they shouldn’t fucking be smiling at him. 

They will stop smiling. Someone will suggest harming the guy, teaching him a lesson. No, I will say, let this be a teaching moment, but for everyone. I will make a sweeping hand gesture. I will urge them to examine their own actions.

How have they contributed to an LGBT community that in many, many ways valorizes toxic power bullshit?*

*For examples of toxic power bullshit, look at the flyers to your next club “night.”

How often have they laughed off assault as just something that happens? Just something you’re asking for by walking into a bar?

Have they ignored someone’s NO, treated it as the starting point of a zero-sum game?

Everyone will be quiet for a moment. A few will weep, but then smiles all around. Folks will hug (only if they want to), happy the air has cleared. The parade will continue, just a little more chill and respectful. They will make me King Gay.

OR… I will fly up like the pissed-off chupacabra I am, and I will rip out his carotid artery with my teeth or beak or whatever chupacabras have. Then I will shake it around like a chew toy, howl, and dive into the Scioto. Everyone will know my righteous anger.

BUT… I will shrink. My anger and shame and confusion and loneliness will register with no one. The “community” that Pride supposedly offers is not for me this year. I cannot compete with tissue paper rainbows and FUN. I will disappear into a Mobius of blaming myself while knowing that I did nothing wrong. And he will be on a float. I can’t square that. I shouldn’t have to.

Wait, you say… You’re always going on about how you hate “corporate Pride.” And you hate crowds. Like you’re going anywhere near 500,000 people all milling about and bumping into each other. So, you’re not even planning on going… What gives? Why are you buying trouble?

Because, I want to be able to avoid the Pride parade on my own terms. I don’t want to have to avoid it because I’m scared to see his stupid, stupid face. Or remember his stupid, stupid bad touch.

I want to avoid it because I don’t like it. Now, if I don’t go, it’s a personal defeat, not me being too cool for school. I don’t have much. So, if you take away my ironic detachment, you’ve really hobbled me as an individual.

I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do this weekend. I know I’m not supposed to hide. He’s certainly not going to. He’s popular; people want to see him. I’ve spent over two years shrinking away out of shame; no one will miss me. Pride is for winners.

Geez, I can’t let that be my new narrative. It can’t be dictated by a guy who thought I was a person until he didn’t want me to be one anymore. 

But what am I supposed to do? Go, mill about, and hope that I “understand” peoples’ smiles?

I’m really stuck.

Your hat’s not cute, and neither is the way you’ve forced yourself on me. Stop it. Now.

Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, thoughts of suicide flashed across my brain. I was doing so good, I swear. Don’t be mad. Please don’t be mad.

The thoughts were so overwhelming, it took me over two hours to put in four bolts to attach the handle to a Fiskars 18” reel mower. The mower was fraught with bad thoughts. Every time I picked up a bolt, I shuddered. I felt broken, not normal, stupid. I didn’t matter, and the mower knew it.

Things started falling apart over the weekend. I had traveled back to Brooklyn to attend a friend’s birthday BBQ. I was so looking forward to this visit because I finally had good news to share with my friends: I have been off my psych meds for long enough that I was seeing concrete results.

(This is not a piece about the specifics of going off the meds.)

People were happy to see me. They complimented me on the weight loss that comes with not being warehoused on drugs that mess with your metabolism. I actually had concrete things to tell them about concrete things I was doing —storytelling, and eventful road trip down south, battling an owl in my living room. Real everyday things that people do.

A few times over the weekend I found myself tearing up as I told folks that, for the first time since maybe they’ve known me, I didn’t anticipate my life ending in suicide. It felt so good to hug people and not feel like I was going through the motions of a hug because that’s what I heard real people with real feelings do. These were no simulacra of hugs; these were actual physical manifestations of joy. I had forgotten what that was like.

So far, so good. Exhausting, but good. I have been dealing with some hip issues for a year now, and standing around chatting amiably, shifting from one foot to the other is just the worst. So I sought a perch.

At large gatherings I like to perch, to position myself somewhere I can observe the action. Watching people move about in a Brownian motion is very calming and centering for me. Along one side of the living room in the party apartment, the host had moved one of the barstools from the kitchen to get it out of the way of the all the people instinctually gravitating towards the kitchen.

I hate barstools. I feel like a bear on a unicycle in a second-rate provincial Russian circus. I imagine folks are staring at me and marveling how such a fat ass could balance on such a tall, tiny thing. Give him a pink tutu and a stupid hat.

Speaking of stupid hats, no sooner had I gotten comfortable, than a guy in a completely ridiculous hat sidled up next to me. I cannot over-emphasize what a stupid hat this was. It seemed like he couldn’t decide whether he was emulating Walter White or Blossom.

“You need to be careful,” he drunk-shouted at me over the music.

“Huh?” I tried to be polite, but I have very little tolerance for obvious drunks anymore. It’s just so… basic. Also, I had no fucking clue who this dude was. Maybe I’d seen him around before, but I couldn’t tell you where. Much less a name. He is not a Facebook friend because, for the most part, I’m only Facebook friends with people I’ve actually spoken with and who didn’t annoy me. Also, the hat, which still was so, so stupid, would be a dealbreaker. God, that hat is seared into my memory.

“The light switch. There’s a light switch.” He physically tugged me off my perch to show me a rocker switch that was in no danger of being activated by me, as I was perching on the front edge of the stool.

“Okay,” I said and tried to get back on the stool, hoping he would leave me to my happy perching.

But he grabbed me —fucking grabbed me —leaned in and slurred, “Now I get to kiss you.” I pulled away, which is a universally understood gesture meaning NO, NOT EVEN IF YOU WEREN’T WEARING SUCH A STUPID HAT.

(Also… “get to” like I’m a maiden in a coastal village he’s just plundered from his longboat. Wearing a stupid hat.)

Then he grabbed me again, chuckling. This asshole in a stupid hat thought he was being cute. He actually thought overriding another human being’s denial of consent was just something people do when they’re being adorable.

I could feel the blood draining, but thankfully I had the wherewithal and self-worth to pull away.

Again… I HAD THE WHEREWITHAL AND SELF-WORTH TO PULL AWAY… This cannot be over-emphasized.

A few years ago, I had moved back to Columbus because I felt my world shrinking so much that I was only months away from offing myself. (That dead body you found in Prospect Park next to a poisoned Smoothie with the note inside a Ziploc bag pinned to his chest? That would’ve been me.) I felt like I had no agency. I didn’t matter.

Against that backdrop, I was sexually assaulted. He, too, thought he was being cute. I can still see his stupid smirk, stupider than any stupid hat, as he pulled me back in. I remember saying “No” quite emphatically, but he said that was “adorable,” and yanked me towards him.

I shut down. Sometimes disassociation is your only defense. Please God, just let him finish so this hell can be over, and I can shove this down into the brain-basement where all the other times guys thought disassociation was cute molder and rot. I remember thinking, “How can somebody be so turned on by what’s got to come across as really, really unenthusiastic consent at best?”

I mattered more as convenient friction to him than as a person.

(UNENTHUSIASTIC CONSENT IS NOT CONSENT; IT IS SELF-PROTECTION.)

I vowed then that I would not be forced into disassociation again. I needed to get back my emotions so I could fight off assholes like that in the future. So, working with my therapist and my medical doctor, I went off the meds.

It’s taken a long time, but I now feel like I have the full range of emotions necessary to protect myself. I see a future. I don’t know what that future is, but I know it’s there.

Still, it’s a fragile future. Just at the beginning of the year, I’ve started replying to people on location-based dating services. I even went to get drinks with one. He ghosted me afterwards, but I still consider it a little victory. I’ve even chosen not to view the fact that I was attacked by an owl in my living room when I returned home from the date as a portend that I should remain alone. It’s just a sign the chimney needs to be fixed. Right?

As I rushed away from the stupid, rapey hat to the sanctuary of the bathroom and my tiny bladder, I bumped into a friend, a good friend, someone to whom I had given a hearty hug full of real emotion just hours earlier. As I brushed past I said, “I gotta go to the bathroom. Some dude just bad-touched me.”

“Who?” the friend asked. I pointed to the stupid hat, which now loomed above the party like a Macy’s Parade balloon of a cartoon character no one’s liked since ribbon candy was a thing. “Oh, him. Heh.”

That was my friend’s reaction. I felt gross. I felt small. I felt like Stupid Hat’s need to be cute overrode my need to be safe at a party full of friends. I had obviously done something wrong. How dare I not find grabbing me fun! People are drunk, go along with it, you pussy!

I spent about five minutes in the bathroom, doing some basic tai chi breathing moves. It helped. I felt I could return to the party. After all, the interaction with my attacker —and he was an attacker —lasted maybe forty-five seconds. “You’re overreacting Chris,” I could hear my mom say. “Just giving them the reaction they want.”

“Oh, him. Heh.”

I tried to enjoy the party, but all I was doing was watching out for the stupid hat. I was scared to remain there. So, I pulled an Irish Farewell and left. Clearly, it was more important for Stupid Hat to have fun than me. I told myself that I had spent enough time. All this bargaining to assure myself I was leaving on my own accord.

But I had been driven away by a hat.

I tried to pat myself on my back for getting away from my attacker. The old me would’ve just let him do whatever he wanted because that’s how you make friends, right? People don’t like you, Chris, because you don’t let them grope you. I stood up for myself, didn’t I?

But then why did my friend chuckle when I told him what happened? Clearly, I reacted incorrectly to being grabbed and groped.

It would be different next time.

Next time came sooner than later this past Tuesday as I left Lowe’s up by the Polaris Mall after purchasing the aforementioned lawnmower. I don’t usually like spending time up by that mall because the people can be kind of a classist, privilege-y bunch. You have to cut through the judgment with a machete.

As I entered the clearly marked (stop signs and hatch-marks) crosswalk in front of the store, one of those tiny, cheap-looking Range Rovers that serve no purpose other than to advertise how little you care about driving flew past me and a handyman loading a truck without stopping or slowing down.

It was the automotive equivalent of the stupid hat.

So, I yelled, “I’m walking here!” (I had just spent a weekend in NYC after all) and offered up the universally agreed upon gesture that says, “Hey, I wish you would follow the rules of the road.”

The Range Rover, nearly a hundred feet away at this point, slammed on its brakes.

“Oh joy!” I thought, but I continued pushing the cart with the mower towards my ancient Volvo station wagon. Just as I opened the lift-gate, the Range Rover screeched to a halt, less than three feet away from me.

A woman in an “I’d like to speak to your manager” fake blond bob stuck her phone at me. “Does it make you feel big to flip me off IN FRONT OF MY CHILD?!?” she yelled. The child looked appropriately horrified.

I felt so trapped. She had hunted me down and was sticking a camera in my face. I couldn’t escape. I could try to de-escalate the situation. But she didn’t deserve de-escalation. She was road raging over me not liking being almost run down by her. What the fuck kind of privilege is that? How dare I, a mere plebeian in her world, question her right to drive here stupid hat car anywhere she wanted.

So I fucking snapped.

“You blew through a crosswalk with stop signs with your child in your car. And now you’re following me. Shut the fuck up you privileged twat!”

I felt like a floating ball of rage. It must’ve been a show because she recoiled and held the phone up like she was warding off a vampire. She sped off, continuing to hold the phone. I assume this was to capture for posterity the moment I turned on my super-human T-1000 speed in pursuit.

Others in the Lowe’s lot averted their eyes from me.

But at least they weren’t laughing?

I could feel shame welling up in my gut. “You’re only giving them the reaction they want.”

You’re overreacting. Therefore, your feelings no longer matter.

I cried the whole way home. I remember nothing of the drive but that. And it was rush hour on one of the busiest stretches of interstate in Columbus.

I cried most of yesterday as I assembled the mower. At one point, a pair of pliers slipped in my hand, pinching my palm. I deserved that pain. At least the pain I felt was real. Not the fake pain of overreaction. I mulled over the ‘along the sidewalk; not across the street’ possibilities of the old carpet knife I used to open the lawnmower box. I cried some more. I went to go work out and use the steam room, but I forgot to put my gym bag in the car. I cried at my inability to do anything right. No wonder I don’t deserve to be touched on my terms.

What are my choices now?

I can’t go back to disassociating anymore. The chemistry won’t allow it, and I won’t allow the psych meds back in me. I like having feelings.

But feelings suck. I’ve been robbed of them for so long, full-time since 1991, that it’s like learning to walk again. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a taped segment from a telethon where they show the plucky kid from St. Jude’s taking tentative steps after getting a cancerous mass removed from the base of their spine. Except when I stumble with my newly regained emotions, I feel like I’m being punished. Like they expect me to run a triathlon and are annoyed when I can’t.

I know this piece has been somewhat scattershot, full of clunky metaphors and poorly edited. But, know what, so is my brain. I need to get this out.

I’M WALKING HERE, PEOPLE!

TO SUM UP…

“No” means NO. It is not the beginning of a negotiation.

“No” means I no longer find amusing whatever it is the hell you’re doing.

If I pull away, let me go. If you pull me back, I will rip your fucking arm off.

Always leave another human being with a clear escape route.

If a friend says they’ve just been accosted, don’t laugh. Don’t try to see it from the point of view of the attacker because you’re uncomfortable or drunk. It’s never fun. It’s never just part of the scene.

I matter. I am not here for friction, cuteness, or a teaching moment for your brat.

Your hat is stupid.