Category Archives: Memoir

Telling a story about telling a story…

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Look Comrade! I’m speaking! I’m speaking!

Last month I finally got up the nerve to get up in front of actual, non-cat, people and tell a story. I went down to a function called Speak Easy, got up on stage, and told a story about a closet case me stumbling into a donkey show at a cinder-block brothel a few miles outside of Ciudad Acuña, MX in 1991. People seemed to find listening to my Psychosexual Corn Maze™ somewhat amusing. And, really, what more can you ask for?

A day later I was on the phone with my ex-fiancée and part-time muse Lynda. After the requisite convo about politics and cats and the politics of cats, I told her about my experience.

“I like it. It’s an other-directed activity, but it’s still all about me.”

“I don’t think you understand what is meant by ‘other-directed,” said Lynda.

Normally, I concede all matters of semantics to Lynda because she is so much brain-having. However, I think I’m right. Storytelling is too other-directed. For five minutes or so last Thursday I took a break from skating on the Möbius Strip that passes for my psyche and interacted with people in a manner that didn’t involve me standing off to the side with my arms akimbo at them.

[Actually, my arms moved way too much; I need to work on that.]

For the first time since I moved to Columbus, I actually felt like I was doing “something.” I was putting something out into the world instead of reacting to things. I did something concrete, and people did something concrete in return.

Whenever I’m feeling all cranky and Gen-X, I imagine snarky listicles in my head on the subject of why popular music sucks now. (And how Millennials are ruining it, natch.) Number one reason is always the fact that pop music now seems to consist of notes that never existed out in the wild, in the actual air, as vibrations. It goes from machine to machine. It never breathes.

It’s been the same with my writing ever since I moved to Columbus. When I was in Brooklyn, it was easy to find writing workshops full of like-minded women interested in Creative Non-Fiction. (More often than not, I would be the sole male. I hope I represented properly. So many stories about doulas!) I would work on a story up until the time I would have to print out copies. It’s that finalizing of output that was so satisfying. It’s done. Do what you will with it, world. But lately, my wordsmithing has only existed in some Tron-ish (yet sadly Jeff Bridges-free) hellscape. It is never more than ones and zeros battling against all the other ones and zeros. My printer broke over a year ago. I haven’t needed it. There’s been no opportunity to print something out and feel that sense of pride that comes with using a stapler for a concrete purpose. I am stapling things for other peoples’ convenience. I am part of a society! All my output recently has gone up on the blog to wait and wait and wait for little red notification numbers to appear. Or I enroll in online workshops, and all that changes is that the little numbers sometimes are blue or green.

It took me a long while to get up the nerve to try the storytelling thing. It’s not stage-fright. I actually have no problem with getting up in front of people and opening my mouth. I’ve acted before, done improv, even some stand-up. I’ve taught college students. There’s been retail. Nothing like a nice fourth wall. Put me in a structured setting where the roles are defined and I’ll sing. (I won’t actually sing. I suuuuuck at singing. It’s important to know one’s limits.) Teacher/student. Dillard’s associate/creepy guy who needs his inseam measured to get jeans. Storyteller/audience. I’m good, thank you.

However, I’ve never had a comfy time with free-range conversation. I am certain that the only reason people engage me in small talk is to humiliate me:

What do you do?

I have become very isolated in Columbus because I fold under the withering onslaught of “What do you do?” I have no good answer to this. Thanks to the “interesting” way my brain likes to interpret most human interaction as an existential threat, I’ve never really cottoned to a recognizable career path.

What do you do?

I disappoint. Professionally.

Self-deprecating snark is not an effective socialization skill. But sometimes it’s all you have. I would say it beats shame, but that’s like saying a pugilist’s right cross is more effective than a boxer’s uppercut. Either way, you’re getting punched in the face.

So you close down. It’s gets exhausting dealing with the linear trajectory of most small talk when your brain is decidedly non-linear.

[Earlier this year, at a homosexual dancing event, a young man with facial hair AND nerd glasses shimmied up to me. He was wearing a hooded vest made of some sort of white mesh. The hood was up. Smile. Respond to smile with mouth. Eye contact. Look at nose because it’s close enough to the eyes that people tend not to notice. “So, daddy, what do you do?” “You look like a futuristic bee-keeper.” And he shimmied away.]

My therapist likes to tell me I’m under-stimulated. Under-stimulation is the devil’s DMV. I need to seek out the non-linear. Instead of “What do you do?” I need “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra much?” [It’s a cromulent Star Trek reference. Deal.]

Stimulation means actually doing something. So, after a year of excuses, I rushed out to Speak Easy.

At the Speak Easy, before I even told my story, I was waiting in line for the restroom. On the wall near the queue was a black velvet painting of a wonderfully plush woman in a loving post-coital cuddle with a swan. And to my delight, I got into spontaneous banter with the woman in line behind me about the finer points of the myth of the Leda and the Swan and whether Leda would cuddle the swan. I said it might be a different swan,a nd that’s how Zeus knew Leda had a thing for waterfowl. Greek myth riffs are way better than “What do you do?”

[What do you do? Oh, thanks for asking. I’m trying to disrupt the whole transforming into a rapey swan UX.]

This interaction put me in the right headspace to tell my story. I knew the audience would understand me, could follow my shaky relationship to the conventions of linear storytelling. [Don’t worry… there was a beginning, middle, and an end. There was a hero’s journey.]

When I was finished, I didn’t have to wait for little red push notifications. There was immediate applause and laughter, not to mention the occasional AWWWW.

I drove somewhere, did something, and people did something back to me. And I did things in response to the things they did. I am stapling things for peoples’ convenience. I am part of a society!

Then last week, I returned to Speak Easy. The subject was Roommates. I’ve lived with people. A long time ago. I could handle this. I made non-linear small talk. I told another story from the Psychosexual Corn Maze™ I managed to squeeze four roommates into the telling. I need to edit. There were positive responses which I believe were free from ulterior motives.

I will be back again.

What do you do?

I’ve been trying my hand at storytelling. It’s something that I’m actually doing.

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I’m moving my hand so much, it’s a blur. Work on this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s like Shark Week, but with despair instead of ocean.

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This is what you get when you Google “melancholy shark.”

CUE VOICE (FROM BEHIND ME AND TO THE RIGHT):

Remember how the Sugar Free Dr. Pepper fizzed in your mouth and all over your face? Remember how a little fountain of Sugar Free Dr. Pepper shot out of the gap between your front teeth? Remember how one of the Xanaxes got loose and, through a forced perspective, seemed to hover in front of the faces of your dorm-mates. And, drama queen, they’re there because you summoned everyone to their windows for the fountain spectacular. Now we’re just going to freeze it here and zoom in on your roommate, Larry, standing naked in one of full-length stairwell windows. And let’s put one of those shadow circles around Larry’s ridiculous penis. Wow, if everything had gone according to your impulsive non-plan, one of last things on your retinas would’ve been an image of quite possibly the largest member you’ve ever side-eyed.

Y’know how during August, when it’s Shark Week, how you have Shark Week proper on The Discovery Channel, but there’s also Shark everywhere else? All the little ancillary remora channels of the Discovery Network are shark-flogging. Then Colbert does a bit about how the Mueller probe is like Shark Week. Then one of those weird retro channels that have decimal points in their ID programs a block of sitcom episodes where the shark is jumped. Yes, the Fonz is there. Then your Facebook feed fills with sad pictures of sharks with their dorsal fins hacked off because shark fin soup is cruel, and sharks are not the mindless killing machines that Discovery portrays! Didn’t you know that?!? Why do you hate Mother Ocean? You suck at being woke. Then, in response, Discovery has a night where they assure everyone that sharks are perfectly reasonable denizens of Mother Ocean. Sharks gotta shark. Then they will show slow-motion video of hacked-off dorsal fin set to whatever Sarah MacClachlan-ish collection of chords they own the rights to. Then there will be a BP commercial.

You cannot escape Shark Week. That is the whole point of Shark Week. It is a merciless engine.

Well, it’s June, and this June it isn’t Shark Week. It’s Suicide Week. Continue reading It’s like Shark Week, but with despair instead of ocean.

Behold My Big Hairy Internalized Homophobia!

dragqueenheelsThe words stung even though they weren’t directed at me. They stung even though they were only in a Facebook post about someone I did not know, existing only in ones and zeros. They stung even though the person who typed those ones and zeros has never been anything but really nice to me, and again, they were not directed at me.

But, you know what? Everything’s about me. The words stung.

The post’s author noted that he got blocked on Facebook a lot by “old white men suffering from much internalized homophobia.”

And then someone replied, “So no real loss.”

Ouch. Those couple of phrases divorced themselves from the larger context of the thread, which, again, had nothing to do with me. The second those words hit my optic nerve, my brain separated them out and transmogrified them into a Broadway marquee dripping with flashing, chasing incandescent bulbs. How could I not? I may not be sure of a lot of things about myself, but one thing I do know is that I AM AN OLD WHITE GUY SUFFERING FROM MUCH INTERNALIZED HOMOPHOBIA.

At first, I tried to slough it off. It’s just ones and zeros. That didn’t work; still lodged in my brain. Then I tried to laugh along with it. I typed back something to the effect of “I’m a quivering, sentient mass of internalized homophobia, and I still like ya.” Ha ha… way to internalize a comment about internalization, Chris!

Nope, still stings. Then I decided to really use my words and write about it. After all, I’ve been blocked lately and was looking for something to cattle prod the muse. I thought about latching on to the word “old,” focusing on the all-too-typical and typically boring ageism rampant among the homosexual element. Everyone two or more years older than you is “old,” and everyone two or more years younger than you is “a baby.” I could go full Gen-X Cranky on it with something along the lines of a listicle titled “Eight Ways Millennials are Ruining Internalized Homophobia.”

That still didn’t scratch that itch because the ageism really didn’t trigger me. One gets inured to it. Turn, turn, turn. Sands through the hourglass. Blah blah blah. No, it was the phrase “internalized homophobia” and the way it was just tossed off like a random salad. Continue reading Behold My Big Hairy Internalized Homophobia!

For art, go stand by an eagle.

It was the first day of kindergarten, and free time had begun. Importantly, I had done everything Miss Petersen had said to do –to the letter. In fact, I was pretty impressed with myself for having identified and found an eagle in the visual cacophony of the kindergarten classroom at Manasquan elementary. There I was standing underneath the flag to which we had earlier learned to pledge our undying allegiance to the great man who made America possible, Richard Stanz, and yet I still had no painting supplies in my hand.

I had art to create. I felt I had done some amazing work with finger paints in pre-school, and I was looking forward to seeing what I could do with an actual brush.

“Everyone who wants to paint, go stand by an eagle.” Those were her words. Eagle. I know –it made no sense. Some kids went into an alcove and stood by big, propped-up boards. I didn’t know what you called those big, propped-up boards in the alcove, but they certainly weren’t eagles. I looked around the room. You could say I had an eagle eye. (Sorry. Not sorry) We had a bird book at home, and eagles looked exactly like what was at the tip of the flagpole at the end of the blackboard by the classroom door. So I stood there. Certainly she would get around to me sooner or later and lead me to that arting heaven I was promised in church. But she never did. Why did Miss Petersen hate me? I had half a mind to tell on her to Richard Stanz if I ever met him. Continue reading For art, go stand by an eagle.

Russell Drive, the end

[Because I’ve been quite blocked lately, I’ve been doing Writing Prompts. Here’s one… What is your earliest memory?]

Looking back, I’m surprised I wasn’t killed.

We moved out of the house on Russell Drive a few days after my third birthday, so consequently I have very few memories of my time there. All my recollections of what it looked like –white with reddish-brown trim and shutters –come from driving by on visits back to the Milwaukee area in subsequent years.

My only memory of the interior is looking up at my mother while she stood in front of the kitchen window while yellow lightning bolts hung in the sky behind her. And that’s not really a memory of the interior when you come to think about it. I have never seen lightning that exact color and duration again. One’s first memory of a thing always comes with a quality that makes it seem not real. You can spend your whole life chasing that first memory. Continue reading Russell Drive, the end

Aqua-Possum

Right now, here in Ohio, it’s about 92 and humid today. This got me thinking about pools. That in turn got me thinking about the first important lesson I ever got in a swim class…

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Youth swimming was a big deal at the Strathmore subdivision’s pool. Whether you were a pollywog or a tadpole or a minnow determined whether you could use the intermediate pool or were relegated to the kiddie pool. The big, big pool was beyond all our dreams and was only for those who graduated into levels with exotic names like “beginner” and “advanced beginner.”

I was five and just trying to get myself from tadpole to minnow so I could flop around unhindered in the intermediate pool. No one ever pooped (hardly) in the intermediate pool. Once you’re past pooping indiscriminately, the thrill of swimming with poop kinda diminishes. To get away from the poop, one had to learn such difficult moves as holding onto the side of the pool and kicking and pushing off from the side of the pool –all real minnow material.

But standing between my minnow badge and me was the instructor, Scott. He was a high school guy with hair that looked the same dry as wet, and, in place of regulation swim trunks, he wore too brief cutoff denim shorts with extra fringe. All in all, he gave the impression more of someone who herded children into a windowless van than into the shallow end of the intermediate pool. Continue reading Aqua-Possum

#MyFirstGayBar Part II… I discover gay bars don’t necessarily have to suck at The Phoenix, NYC

I felt that yesterday’s post about my first time in a gay bar was a bit of a downer, so here’s some words about finally finding a gay bar where I felt accepted.

I didn’t come out until 2000 when I was a whopping 33 years old. This isn’t going to be a tale about me tiptoeing into my first bar (for proper reasons; see above). I had sold pants at Dillards in Austin for a few years during grad school, so I was constantly being dragged to places like Oil Can Harry’s in the name of workplace colleague bonding.

No, this is about finally finding a place I liked. When I came out in Austin, I tried going out to the bars there. My entire circle of gay peers consisted of the sad sacks in my coming out support group, and they hated me because I admitted that drag queens kind of frightened me. I needed friends, and I figured I could meet maybe one or two at any one of Austin’s several gay establishments.

It didn’t work out that way. I hardly talked to anyone basically because I felt so uncomfortable in the Austin bars. They were not for me. My only pleasant memory of Oil Can Harry’s was that night I closed the place and found a nice GAP shirt on the empty dance floor in my size. The Chain Drive, the leather/bear bar in town, had fluorescent lighting.

Fluorescent lighting.

phoenixOne winter break, early 2002, I decided to spend a week in NYC. I found a cheap guesthouse on Second Avenue and 13th Street in the East Village and set out, armed with my Damron guide. I didn’t have to go far –The Phoenix was only two long blocks away. First thing I noticed was the music. I had no idea that gay folk who listened to the same type of music as me existed. To this day, I think The Phoenix had the best-curated jukebox I’ve ever encountered. Continue reading #MyFirstGayBar Part II… I discover gay bars don’t necessarily have to suck at The Phoenix, NYC

#MyFirstGayBar: I’m a jerk at the Gold 9, Studio City, CA

My first visit to a gay bar was to the now-defunct Gold 9 in Studio City, CA, and it was as awash in closeted homophobia as you can get. You see, this took place a full ten years before I came out. To this day, I worry I was a jerk.

Several of us from my film program at the University of Michigan had moved out to LA late in 1990 to pursue our dreams. We all settled within a few miles of each other in the Valley or in Hollywood proper. To make LA seem a little more like home, one Saturday afternoon we set out to “interview” bars, to see which ones offered the proper mix of drink prices and amenities like pool and darts.

It was going along all very heteronormatively as the six of us walked into Gold 9 on that slow Saturday afternoon. It seemed like a nice dive, nothing out of the ordinary. Two gentlemen were shooting pool so my friend Mark wrote his name on the chalkboard. Beers were obtained. We chatted among ourselves, completely unaware of our surrounding; it wasn’t as though the Gold 9 was awash in rainbow splendor. Continue reading #MyFirstGayBar: I’m a jerk at the Gold 9, Studio City, CA

Don’t touch the Bear there

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The belly in question.

This morning I’m filling out my registration for this year’s Bear Pride, which is to be held over Memorial Day in Chicago. For the uninitiated, the term “Bear” refers to larger gay men who usually choose to sport facial hair. They proclaim that they prefer to gather in groups with other “Bears” to get a little something-something and to fight the stigma of body shaming.

There is a lot of body shaming.

I know I don’t wear flannel shirts and a beard because they look particularly fetching on me. I wear flannel shirts and a beard because flannel shirts are easy to find in XXL, and a beard is really only the socially acceptable way to cover a triple chin, extra jowly.

So I will travel to Chicago for Bear Pride to NOT be nervous about my body and instead judge people on normal things like the wittiness of their quips, or the irony of their t-shirts, or inanity of their WOOF tattoos. [FYI to the uninitiated: Some Bears like to say “Woof.” Avoid these Bears. They are stupid, and this one word will be the extent of their conversation.] Continue reading Don’t touch the Bear there

A review of the Wendy’s at Exit 262 of I-80 in Hazleton, PA…

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Mile marker 262 of any stretch of highway is as good a place stop as any other.

On the eastbound trip along I-80 into NYC, one knows there’s only fifty more miles of Pennsylvania. Better start prepping your mind and your bladder for the descent into the City.

On the westbound journey, one pulls over to steel themselves in the face of the 262 miles of Pennsylvania that lies ahead.

“It’s sooooo long,” people you talk to always seem to know the exact mileage, “311 miles!” And it not just any 311 miles of Pennsylvania, it’s 311 miles of Pennsylvania laid out as to avoid major population centers. You’ll pass by such landmarks as State Game Lands Number 331 and State Game Lands Number 54. The cruel joke here is the original name of the highway was the Keystone Shortway. “You want the shortest way through Pennsylvania? Well, it’s 311 miles. Fuck you. Call it the Shortway, you rest stop fouling bitch!”

“Shortway…” you grovel.

“Good. That’s how Pennsylvania likes its motorists.” Continue reading A review of the Wendy’s at Exit 262 of I-80 in Hazleton, PA…