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.

25 days of joy, constraint, & my holiday brain: Day nine.

I got the window seat at the coffee shop on a snowy day…

Bite me, Mrs. Murphy!

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Instead of doing what I “should” be doing, I’m looking at snow.

It’s a wintry vindication.

Being able to stare at snow in lieu of work is one of my most cherished activities. It’s been that way since the first day it snowed outside of Mrs. Murphy’s fifth grade class at Malibu Elementary in Virginia Beach.

That helmet-haired, pinchy-faced woman was probably the most damaging teacher I’ve ever had. Continue reading

25 days of joy, constraint, & my holiday brain: Day seven.

Having the whole hot tub, swimming pool, and/or ocean to myself.

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The pool at the Belvedere.

Kate Winslet was right. At the end of Titanic there clearly wasn’t enough room on that headboard for both her AND Leonardo DiCaprio. Jack had to die so Rose could experience the joy of being in the water alone.

There is nothing better than floating alone. When I’m in the ocean, I like to face away from the beach so I can’t see anyone else. Then I pretend I’m Rose, just floating alone, not a care in the world. And somehow still clutching a big ass diamond.

A couple of Sundays ago I spent an afternoon in Columbus, Indiana to soak up that sweet, sweet modernism. I spent the night at the Hotel Indigo downtown. They had an indoor pool and hot tub. Since this was a Sunday night in December, the hotel was practically empty. 

I had the whole pool area to myself —I was nothing but moist, pruny bliss for around 90 minutes.

I could crank up my music, line dancing to Donnie Iris’ “Ah, Leah!” from the 3’ section to the 4’8” section and back. And forth. Again and again. Above the water and below. I am a graceful nymph when unconstrained by most of the gravity.

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Then I took to the hot tub. It was spiral, a fibonacci of pleasure. The unique layout allowed me to contort myself in front on the jets in manners both therapeutic and profane. No one want’s to see a middle-aged man releasing his psoas muscle with the jets.

Then back to the pool to dance to the sixteen-minute version of Santa Esmeralda’s disco classic “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”

Then back to the hot tub. My coccyx could use some work.

Then pretending to float dead to “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins.

I lifted my head out of the water only to see a mother and a father with their toddler. The parents let out a sigh of relief at not having to explain the dead body to the front desk. The little girl was ready to leap in with her puffy pink winter coat. “Come on in. The water’s fine!” I crooned. The girl accelerated he pace to the edge. 

“We’ll wait until after breakfast tomorrow.” They took their daughter away from the happy man in the pool.

One of the best things about solitary pool bliss is that many times your very alone-ness engenders further bliss…

This past August I took a long weekend on Fire Island. I stayed at The Belvedere: A Guest House for Men. The hotel is gay man’s 1950s fever dream, all decaying Roman statues and oil-paintings of young men doing calisthenics.

As is often the case in places with “…for Men” in their names, the entire hotel was clothing optional. Because I’m just soooo blindingly pretty, I optioned clothes upon my body. Why drive men crazy with something they can’t have?

I’m very claustrophobic; I don’t like people pawing at my body; it makes the walls close in. People think just because you’re staying at the gayest hotel in the second gayest town on Fire Island, you’re a sample cart at Costco. “Please try the Nervous Irish Sausage. It’s only $8.99 on the end cap.”

I actually had to shriek, “This is not a negotiation!” at one gentleman. He assured me that I didn’t understand that entering the hot tub, even when it’s empty, was tantamount to me consenting for an inner thigh massage. “It’ll loosen you up.”

Thank you… happy being tight.

Therefore, I was in heaven the one night I had the whole area to myself from 11pm to 12:30am. It was a salt-water pool. Something about the extra buoyancy gave me the confidence to remove my trunks. Nothing ruins being naked than other people seeing you naked.

The Belvedere had a classic disco Sirius station playing in the pool area. How often in life does one have both room to twirl AND the option to do so naked?

The upside of being the only male in the pool “for Men” is that when someone comes down to the pool, looking for thigh massaging opportunities, they cannot handle your bliss. The see a solitary dumpy —yet blindingly pretty —middle-aged guy frolicking to a 12” of M’s “Pop Muzik,” and they’re kinda weirded out. Most folks do not find the vision of me frolicking sexy, and for that I am glad.

So they leave.

You know you’re properly alone when your solitude makes intruders uncomfortable.

 

A Lamprey with a Gavel

 

I had to turn away from the television during his testimony. I just couldn’t look at his garbage mouth any longer.

I got through hers. I rooted for her because I related to her being terrified, her asking politely for caffeine, and going all nerd under stress. Thank the baby jeebus nothing in her account triggered me too badly. I’ve never encountered physical sexual abuse. I have been “persuaded” into providing unenthusiastic consent on numerous occasions, some much worse than others. Example: here’s a special place in hell for the woman in college who asked “You do like girls, don’t you?” as a negotiating tactic. But nothing physical. I’m lucky. I’m a pretty big guy. As my grandpa would say, “Strong like bull; dumb like ox.” I can look real mean, like I’m about to go berserker, and I have a very low center of gravity.

But the Brett Kavanaughs of my life did physically abuse me. Sometimes it was fists. Once it was milk crate. Or it could be having to run until I felt like my heart would burst. Or it was the constant stress of never knowing where the next attack would come from.

And when the bullies cornered me —and they always eventually did —all I could focus on would be their mouths. I couldn’t look at their eyes because that would only enrage them. I would focus on the mouth because it was always pointed in my direction. And the mouths were always moving. I would fixate on those mouths until my entire field of vision was some twirling psychedelic bully-mouth kaleidoscope. Whatever crap they were spewing pulsated into almost-music. Sometimes it would seem like the bully’s toadies were dancing like go-go toadies to the almost-music of his hate. It’s easier to take the blows if you imagine they’re dancing.

If you turn away from the mouth, you start to react. People don’t like it when you react to bullies. How people react to you reacting is worse than whatever you’re dissociating away from at the present time. So you stare at the mouth.

Sometimes it seems like their teeth have come detached from their jaw and are just swimming around in pink spit.

All bullies have the same mouth. When that much anger, illogic, and saliva get forced thru a small opening, the force of the hate begins to change their faces. The mouths cease being human. They become mere conduits for an ugliness so old, so gross that you’d have to go really far back in time for an analog, to some back channel of the evolutionary tree. Continue reading

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

#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: 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

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

CLEAR YOUR MIND! NOW! DAMMIT! BOWL! SWING HEIGHT! SWING HEIGHT! DON’T THINK ABOUT KITTENS!

gutter-ballThe ball veered left. It went into the gutter. Less than halfway down the lane. The bowler turns around for the sad Charlie Brown shuffle back the little step at the beginning of the approach. Those strips of wood are so narrow; why don’t they use wider strips, or even narrower strips? He makes it all the way to the little fan. Can he pretend to dry his hands long enough for the ball to return without looking up and seeing the disappointed looks on his teammates’ faces?

Every pin fucking matters, and you’ve just fucking missed ten of them you fuck! This is important stuff, this Monday night league of bowling homos. People aren’t giving up their MONDAY nights to watch you throw gutterballs.

He wants to punch his head so bad, but he knows how much that scares people.

But it feels so good. In a hurtful way.

He takes a deep breath, and, in doing so, makes the mistake of looking up. One of his teammates, the one who takes care of the paperwork because no one else understands it, looks right at him. The bowler knows a lesson’s coming. He knows it’s coming from a pure place of respect, concern, and brotherly love, but he dreads it nonetheless.

The team mate, the one who does the paperwork, delivers the lesson. From back at the table he holds the back of his hands to his head and flicks his fingers out in a poof moment. It’s reminiscent of the “you just blew my mind” gesture, but the bowler knows it means “Clear your mind!” Continue reading