Saturday, December 5, 2009

OK, so I guess this would be "The Abyss".

My five-year-old nephew was sitting on my knee as I prepared the pizza. My three-year-old niece was sitting across the table from me, and my sister was standing at the stove over near the kitchen wall. I thought it was as good a time as any to bond with my sister a bit. Plus, I felt like I had it coming. She'd bent my ear plenty over the last year with all her woes, so I figured that telling her about an emotional experience I had would not only be a nice bonding experience, but also a way to show her that I had... stuff... too.

So I started telling her about my reaction to "Brokeback Mountain". I started to say something like...
I've cried at three movies in my life: "Star Trek II", when Spock died; "The English Patient", which doesn't even really count as crying because my eyes got wet but never welled over with tears; and "Schindler's List". If you put the three of them together, they still wouldn't equal a third of how much "Brokeback Mountain" made me cry.

The thing is, it was a sucker punch. If you'd stopped the movie three seconds before I started crying, I would have told you that I'd make it through the whole thing dry-eyed. But it turned out not to be about these two guys and their gay relationship. It was about one man's relationship with his daughter. It was about how we are incapable of articulating our inner landscapes, and how much that messes us up. Ennis had all these things happening inside him that he couldn't even begin to understand, and even if he had been able to understand them he wouldn't have been able to express them. So he did what people do when your feelings are incomprehensible and dangerous: he did what everyone expected him to do. And that not only messed him up, it hurt all the people around him.

When Ennis said to his daughter "This Kurt fella... does he love you?" there was so much channeled through Ledger's whole performance that came out in those words. He wanted what any father wants: for his daughter to have it better than he had it. He wanted her to have the thing that he was unable to have, or didn't allow himself to have. It was probably the only time he'd ever said the word "love" in his life. And this simple question was the closest he'd ever come to expressing all his pain and regret and enfeeblement and longing and love. I put my head on Grace's shoulder and just lost it. I was a wreck for the rest of the night.
But I didn't say all that. I never got past the words "gay relationship".

My sister immediately shushed me, pointing to my nephew on my lap. I gaped in incredulity as she said in a loud whisper "Don't say that in front of him." I came over to where she was preparing the pizza toppings and sputtered a bit, and she whispered "We don't tell them about that stuff!" I gaped some more and she said "Are you surprised?" and I said quite honestly "I'm shocked."

And I sat back down. And the gears turned in my head.

I thought back to the conversation I'd had with her in July. And I realized something: I'm a fucking chump.

Right around the beginning of that conversation my sister said something like "I don't think you're right [for doing the blog] because they may not want your help." My response was "Yes, that's a valid concern. As a matter of fact, it was my first serious concern with the whole idea, before I even started it. And it still is." And I proceeded to tell her all the ways in which I've thought about, read about, and talked to people about that concern. I gave her a laundry list of ways in which I had already addressed that concern.

And it didn't matter. She just kept saying "Well I don't agree with you."

Well, now I know why.

I am a fucking dumbass. I was arguing from a place of clear surety - both that I was honestly addressing her concern, and that her concern honestly represented what was on her mind. I should have known better. Because my family never says what is on our minds. If we did that, we would run the risk of having a productive conversation. And we cannot have that. We cannot let go of our anger. So we bitch at person B about how much person C pissed us off, and the next day cry to person C about how person B hurt us. And if we ever bitch at person B about something that actually has anything to do with person B, you'd better believe that the thing we're bitching about has little if anything to do with what we really feel. That would be sane. That would be productive. And we cannot abide that.

She said that she believed that I was wrong to help gay people because gay people may not want my help. If that had been what she truly felt, then the news that I had already spent a great deal of time, thought and effort in addressing that concern in several different ways would have had some influence on her assertion. But it didn't.

I think that the truth is that she doesn't like gay people, and she doesn't want me helping them.

So, as I baked and served the pizza, my skull went from simmer to a rolling boil to one of those old boilers that's starting to creak and emit gouts of steam around the rivets because the janitor has fallen asleep in the rocking chair in the corner with the ol' bottle of hooch lolling on his breastbone.

And I made another pizza, and I went to hang out with my friend Dennis and his son. Dennis lives about a mile and a half down the road from the house where I grew up. I've been hanging out there since way back around '97 when I was going on walks by the house and Dennis would say "Hi" and we'd strike up a conversation. Over the years I got close to him, his three sons and his daughter. I've been a part of the family for some time. When my father was dying, and my family was tearing itself apart from the strain, his place was my cave. Being able to escape there meant the world to me.

But it seems like this year has been different. Our arguing - about politics, about anything and everything - has developed more and more of an edge. Lately it seems more and more like we're fighting. Well, that night something really changed.

I needed to blow off some steam about the conversation with my sister, and what it implied about what was really going on during that conversation in July. Hell, I sure had it coming to me. I'd listened with a sympathetic ear to him enough times as he'd come back enraged after a particularly upsetting conversation with his own control-freak sister. Unfortunately it turned out that he wasn't so much prepared to listen as to slap me down.

I'd barely begun telling the story before he interrupted, saying "Well, I can see her point." He proceeded to say that, right or wrong, she gets to say what people say around her kid. Then he dropped the bomb that I had been saying controversial things around his own kids, by way of illustrating how he agreed with her. He pointed out that I had told Nathan, his sixteen-year-old son, about this blog before I'd told him. Which was true. I had.

I avoided telling Dennis about this blog because Dennis... Dennis is a nut, at least from my left-of-center viewpoint. Dennis voted for Bush because Bush was a Christian, while I think that calling Bush a Christian is like calling shit caviar. We have our differences. Another one is that Dennis loves to argue, because it gives him a chance to "win". It gives him a chance to puff himself up and be right. So I knew that if I told him about this blog he would just leap at the chance to deride me for it and start an argument that he could then "win". He doesn't understand that I'm not looking to argue. I'm looking for dialogue and dialectic. Those are very different things. So I skipped over him and told his son about it before I told him. Maybe I was wrong to do that. But if that was bugging him, he should have damned well said something at the time. You don't wait until your friend is hurting and, in the middle of them confiding in you, say "not only do I agree with the person who's hurting you, but let me give you an example of how you pissed me off." You listen. That's what I did for him.

So we got into a loud argument - one of those arguments that's funny and zany but, oh yeah, it's actually not. Like so many of the arguments that we've had this year. But this time, after I walked away, I realized we'd gone too far. He'd gone too far, I'd gone too far, I'd allowed him to go too far, whatever. I had to change something. I was hurting because of my relationship with my sister, and now I was hurting because of my relationship with him. It took me a few days, but I worked up the nerve to talk to him about it. I figured that I couldn't talk to my sister because it's just not what we do in our family, but I can talk to him. Really talk to him. So I should. Right?

Well, apparently not so much. Because when I called him, it didn't work out so well.

I started talking about my sister again, trying to lead in to talking about me and him. Of course this backfired, because again he interrupted with "explaining" to me how parents need to be able to control their kids' environment, right or wrong. I finally broke in and said "I didn't want to talk about this." And I told him how I was angry at him because I had been in pain and, instead of listening to me, he had chosen that time to attack me. He kept cutting in with "Well, no, I wasn't doing that, I was just pointing out that..." and I kept going back to other times when he'd failed to listen, or to be supportive. I pointed out some of the times dating back to January that he'd cut me off and looked for ways to tell me what to do or win an argument rather than just listening to me. I told him that when I'm upset I don't want anyone to tell me what to do - I just want them to listen.

He kept denying, and I kept getting more frustrated. At some point, as he was circling back to the politics that were not the point of the conversation, he said "Well, I have my own opinions on the matter. If you want to make a website to help gay people, that's fine. I think that there are better uses for your time, because those people have a choice. I think you'd be better off helping people who really need it..."

Now here's where I need to stop and tell you a little about Dennis. He's a Viet Nam vet who's been on disability for many years. I don't know how many because I never asked. All I know is that he has panic attacks which prevent him from having a job, and he's lived off a small monthly government check for a long time. He gets all his knowledge and all his politics from the television. For months now he's never missed a chance to talk about how angry he is at the new per-cigar tax in New York State, how it unfairly taxes poor people, and... how this has something to do with George Washington for some reason. Dennis loves to be right. About everything. The man doesn't eat a green vegetable. Ever. But he'll tell you how you're eating wrong and exercising wrong and how you are wrong about pretty much everything, and incidentally if you just do what he tells you everything will be perfect.

So at some point during our conversation I said that he thinks he knows more about any subject than anyone else - more medicine than a doctor, more science than a scientist... and then he dropped the big one. He said "You know that a lot of people think you're a know-it-all?"

Anyone who knows me - anyone who loves me - would have known how much that would hurt me. Throughout the conversation I had refrained from saying anything about what anyone else had said. I was just trying to tell him how I felt - how I was angry and hurt because of how he had acted toward me. He apparently disliked what I was saying enough to want to deflect it at all costs. Well, he succeeded. He succeeded beyond his wildest imaginings.

Because now I've had it. The spell is broken. For a long time I've treated Dennis with kid gloves because of his situation. When I quit drinking in January, I made a special exception for him because I knew how much he likes to have someone to drink with. So I've been drinking wine with him. I've been violating my own promise to myself. And this is just one of the things I've done for the sake of his feelings and his... specialness. Well, no more. Because now I don't think he's special. My image of him is blown. Now I want to go over there and tell him "You know what, Dennis? You're right. Gay people do have a choice. It's ridiculous for me to waste time helping them. (beat) By the way, when are you going to get a fucking job, you lazy bastard? You have a choice. If you wanted to, you could just suck it up and get over your stupid panic attacks. So why don't you do it?"

He expects everyone to have compassion for him in his situation. He has to pay a tax on his cigars and it's an insult to George Fucking Washington. But when it comes to gay people having the same rights as everyone else, well, that's different. I see now that he can't give the same compassion to others that he wants for himself. And that means he's not much of a Christian.

So you can see why I need to stay away from Dennis for a while. I love him. He's my friend. But the scales have fallen from my eyes. I see him differently.

I've been lucky and cautious enough never to have broken a bone. I haven't dropped a kidney stone. The most serious injury I've ever had was a gouge in my arm that required seven stitches. So it may be hyperbole for me to say that I would rather stick knives into my flesh than to continue feeling this emotional pain, but that's honestly how I feel. If you told me that the blades would make it all go away, I'd hold them over the burner for a minute to sterilize them, plunge them in, pull them out, and walk happily to the hospital.

My relationship with my sister has changed. My relationship with my friend has changed. I didn't mean for them to change. It doesn't feel accurate to say that the changes resulted from me becoming an advocate for gay rights, because there's lots of other stuff mixed in there. But my newfound advocacy runs through the whole thing like a persimmon thread in an otherwise earth-tone scarf.

What the fuck did I expect? Did I think I was a hero a la Joseph Campbell? No. I'll give myself that much credit. I'm no hero. I didn't think I was going to change them. When I think back to what I expected, I draw a blank, so I guess I never really thought about what I expected. I suppose that if you'd asked me to articulate it, I would have said that I expected them to at least... see me true. I expected them to see what I'd brought back. I expected them to recognize that this thing that I was passionate about was a real thing - a thing worth being passionate about. I expected them to respect me and respect this new thing that I'd seen.

I looked up Campbell's Hero Journey and saw an accurate if whimsical chart of the prototypical journey. At the bottom, in the middle of the journey, I saw "The Abyss". A wry smile crossed my brain. The Abyss is the point of the journey where the hero experiences some sort of death and rebirth. In Campbell's words, it's the belly of the whale. Either one sounds about right. I feel like I'm losing my goddamn family. If that's not an abyss, I don't know what is.

I swear to god, I never used to be this much of a fucking drama queen.


  1. You are *so* not a drama queen. You're trying to be honest about things that are vital to you. Anyone who is not stuck in a total rut grows and changes throughout their life, and sadly, sometimes that means that other people in your life can't deal with your changes. And that's their loss.

  2. Well, you are losing your perception of how your family is, which is almost as wrenching. By the way, as a parent, I can only control so much of what is said in front of my kid. I realized this when my daughter was a month old, and we were near the "special" person on the bus. Learned some new words. Being a parent is not a get out of jail free card. Being a good person, and a caring person, and a listening person, that's more important. We love you, Hugh, just as you are. Plus, well, PIE.