From the Wayback Machine, Part I
To get myself back in the habit of posting regular content, I’m adding some occasional work that comes from the past. The first of these is a spoken word piece from 2006.
Performed in August, 2006, as a guest artist for “Two Queers and a Chubby,” a spoken word entry in the Minnesota Fringe Festival.
This sounds funny to say out loud, and forgive me if I seem a bit embarrassed to admit it… but I think my “best friend” when I was a child was actually Doctor Who. Do you remember him? The British guy with the curly hair and the scarf! I am starting to think I wasn’t alone in this fascination, that for other young males who were lonely, awkward, and outcast, he was someone we could relate to and embrace. He was enigmatic, clever, outspoken, intelligent, and abhorred violence if he could avoid it. He traveled on his own, outside of society’s structures, a loner even to his own people. The companions who traveled with him were fond of him, but still even to them he was a bit of a mystery.
That was how childhood felt to me—the boy who was singled out for “using big words,” the smart fat kid whose most athletic extra-curricular activity was marching band. I was a child with many, many emotions, and few role models for how to really—authentically—express them. Did you see BrokeBack Mountain? Those men were about the age of my father, and they exemplified his generation of men—especially rural white men—to near perfection. So how, when you’re an imaginative, over-sensitive kid with a big vocabulary and few friends, do you learn to be who you really are, when all the men and boys around look at you like you’re speaking a different language completely from the English you think is pouring out of your throat?
Looking back now, I see that that Doctor Who was the male archetype who made the biggest impression on me. He was the man I wanted to become—not necessarily a time-traveling alien with thirteen lives (although that would be sweet as hell!), but someone who stands out fully as an individual, who doesn’t quite “fit” with what we assume men should be, and whose actions and behaviors, whose speech and logic, make sense in a way intrinsically different from how other men think and speak and act. Not only that, but I wanted the respect he earned from those around him, the affirmation that yes, my cleverness and ingenuity bring value to my community. People my own age didn’t seem to get it, and small-town social circles being what they are, I was too self-conscious to seek and hang out with the other “weird kids,” because it was better to pretend to fit in than have my outcast status confirmed by association.
Of course, it’s not fair to say that Doctor Who was my only older male influence. In fact, I seem to collect “dads.” I keep older men in my life and count them as some of my most cherished friends. Our conversations are lively, warm, and personal. I don’t often solicit advice, but when I do, it’s because no one else seems to know what I am asking. Each of my adopted dads, in one way or another, has been an outsider to his family or community. Each has gotten his heart broken and somehow survived. And each seems to need me, too, as a friend, protégé, and sometimes I suspect for affirmation, too.
One of my dads, Tony, got me my first paid job in HIV prevention. He taught me how to be a “professional queer,” to make the most of being a sexually active gay man in a profession that often is still uncomfortable with the deeper, fleshier reality of our personal lives. He showed me that it’s one thing to be a composed, polite professional taking someone’s sexual history and offering counseling and referrals. It’s something else to know the perils of hooking up and taking risks, in a way that is more real for us because we are the community we serve.
There were times when I was so jealous of him, too! When I was in grad school, that hairy old tomcat had a different trick every night, while all I had was a mountain of textbooks and caffeine by the truckload! Our “supervision” during outreach always included time for him to lavish me, the diligent and therefore deprived student, with stories of the newest conquests, reminding me each time that, “Darlin’, in order to meet a prince you gotta kiss a lot of frogs!” Tony kissed enough frogs to make Miss Piggy turn, well, green with envy. I learned more from his stories of managing his personal and professional lives and surviving than I ever would have learned in a clinical textbook.
Another dad, Arthur, was my English professor in college. Arthur was aggravating, because he always probed and asked for more, demanded that I question my beliefs and refine my writing until it was ground down to its most authentic form. He was also lonely and wanted companionship, men his own age who understood what it was like to be older and gay, a witness to the transformation, growth, and grief of the past half-century. He was exceptional in his intellect, keen and determined and focused on his love of teaching drama and literature.
His underlying emotions were so strong, so pulsing with a desire for deeper contact, that it scared and angered people, especially students who didn’t come to college to have their boundaries and lifelong assumptions pushed, probed, and then handed back to them covered in blue ink. He wanted visceral reaction from us, affirmation that in our guts we were awake to the horror and heartbreak and joy of human existence. He was famous for standing on a chair in the middle of our classroom and reading dramatically from Equus: the scene where Alan Strang, under hypnosis, recalls riding a horse naked in the dead of night, culminating in an orgasmic shriek so intense that the class—every single one of us—needed a smoke break afterward.
Because Arthur was the toughest English professor I ever had, I asked him to advise my senior thesis—which I used to write my first and so far only novel. For once, and to my great surprise, he put the blue pen away, read my chapters enthusiastically, asked questions, and listened. Throughout that semester, all he told me was, “Carry on. Enjoy what you write.” When he died last year, I heard from several mutual friends, all telling me, “He spoke of you often, and he really wanted you ‘to get off your horse and get the damn book published.’ He thought you were a great writer.”
When I was young, quite a bit younger, life as an outsider scared and saddened me, because I knew I just didn’t fit in with the multitude of my peers who seemed to always know that they were all right, that they resided inside the gates of what was considered normal. I dreaded the likelihood that my adult years would prove no different, and I would be as lonely as a grownup as I’d been as a child. I hold onto these dads of mine with love and gratitude, because they have shown me that life as an outsider is more than just bearable—for me, it’s better than the alternative of squeezing my big, unorthodox identity into a poorly-made box.
There are many more than just the two I shared with you—the minister and shaman who taught me welding as therapy for grief and loss, an old gay couple who have lived together nearly forty years, a closeted, married, cranky bookseller who became my close friend and drinking buddy the summer I studied in New York… each man a mixture of love and kindness and sadness and shame, guilt, heartbreak, joy, and anger. All of them are outsiders in some way, men that I have looked at to learn how to do this “survival thing” as a man more comfortable on the fringe than in the thick of mainstream American masculinity.