Saturday, October 21, 2017

Will & Grace and Aaron & Esther

"Why does she talk so high like that?" 

We were snuggled up on the couch in the den Thursday night. The kids were with me for a very rare three-day weekend because they're on their fall break. I had asked if they'd like to watch "Will & Grace" with me.

"What's that?" Esther had asked. I looked at Aaron. He shrugged his shoulders, which surprised me; they, as typical ninth-graders, both know more about popular culture than I do. But I guess "Will & Grace" is outside their age-related awareness bandwidth.

"It's a show that ran for about eight seasons ten years ago," I had replied, "and has now been revived." I went on to explain that it has two gay characters and two women who are their friends.

"Sure, okay," said Esther cheerily. (Esther is a self-proclaimed snuggle-bunny, but I'm not sure she would want the girls on her soccer team to know that.)

"I guess ... ," offered Aaron, who rarely watches anything with the rest of us when he and his three siblings are at my house every other weekend.

The show started. Esther's question was about Karen's voice. She was intrigued with why and how she could talk like that. Aaron, getting the jokes that - in large part - flew by his sister, laughed more than she did. (He sat through the whole show.)

I myself found this episode funnier that others so far this season. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was because I was happy to share watching it with others - as I had been to watch the season premiere with friends Dan and Russ in their apartment in Berlin several weeks ago and this time with my kids. Perhaps, too, because I was seeing it "live" on TV for the first time this season instead of later on a laptop.

I was happy, as a gay dad, to be sharing this experience with my older teenage kids, particularly since the episode focused on Jack's grandson, Skip, whose parents attempted to put him in a reparative therapy camp because he was evincing too many of the personality traits of his biological grandfather (Jack). I explained to Esther and Aaron what was going on and what the purpose of the camp was.

I suspect this was the first time they had ever heard of such a thing as a reparative therapy camp. The episode handled the issues wonderfully, I thought - seriously yet lightly and oh so funnily. The message of self-acceptance came through loud and clear, and even Jack's son got it.

I wish that I could have more such teaching moments with my kids, but I'm grateful for the ones I do have. And I'm grateful for the opportunity to snuggle on the couch with them, for I know the day is coming when they'll be too "old for that."

I don't do as many activities as I used to do with the four younger kids when they were younger. For one thing, they have grown older and their interests have grown more disparate. For another, I simply enjoy their presence in my home, not feeling like I have to entertain them. It makes the reality of our circumstances, children and divorced parent, seem less artificial, more normal.

I'm grateful for Aaron and Esther, both of whom were adopted from Russia, as well as their little sister, Annie, who was also adopted. (I briefly told the story of their adoptions in 2003 and 2007 in this blog post) It's that season of the year that we celebrate all three of their birthdays: Aaron was born October 19th, Annie October 23rd, and Esther October 31st. They're pretty amazing kids. They've come a long way, as have I.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

"Cabaret" and a Confused Teenage Boy

I was thirteen or fourteen when I saw the movie "Cabaret" for the first time when it arrived at the theater in my little hometown of Carmi in southern Illinois. There were three scenes from the movie that were seared into my memory at that time. One is captured in the above photograph. Another occurred later in the movie during an argument between Brian and Sally, the characters played by Michael York and Liza Minelli. The third depicts a scene shortly after Brian and Sally met.

I thought about those scenes, and about many other things, a few days ago when I watched "Cabaret" for the first time in many, many years* - certainly more than 30 as I'm quite sure I never watched it after I joined the LDS Church and got married. (It would have been considered far too risqué for a good Mormon priesthood holder to watch, and it also would have been considered - by me - far too gay, and thus too dangerous to watch.)

I did see a stage production of the musical in a small town in southeastern Ohio while working for my dad's oilfield equipment business over the summer. I went with my step-mother, Ruth. It must have been the summer of 1976 or perhaps 1977. I don't recall the musical stirring up quite the same feelings and thoughts in me as I had experienced with the movie; I think certain aspects of the movie were downplayed in the stage production.

As an aside, Ruth and I used to do a lot of things together in those years, such as pick out houseplants for their home, Ruth hoping that Dad wouldn't notice the new arrivals. Then there were the Hummels (Dan), then later paintings or things, as Ruth put it, "to set around" (on living room tables, etc.). We'd also go to movies together. Dad traveled on business a lot, but he also wasn't the type that enjoyed going to movies or shows. Later, Ruth and I would visit antique shops and furniture stores together, both while I worked there over the summers and after I graduated from college and worked there full-time. I suppose you could say she was my fag hag during that period of time when I was in college and shortly thereafter, although neither she nor I realized it.

Ruth, my sister and me on a family vacation in the summer of 1977

As I sat watching the movie the other night, one of the thoughts that came to me was, "My God, I wouldn't have let my little kids watch this movie, especially back in 1972." But to me, at the time, it was my normal.

Let me explain.

In the fall of 1971, I was beginning 8th Grade. I was president of our junior high student council and was also editor of the school newspaper. And, by the by, my parents had just separated, thus beginning a very nasty divorce - and I had recently discovered that I was sexually attracted to boys and men, not girls and women - without the faintest idea what to do about it. A lot going on.

It was in my capacity as editor of the school newspaper that I paid a visit to Mrs. Lee, the manager of the one and only theater in our town (unless you counted the drive-in), just a block away from our school. Since a lot of junior high kids went to the "show" every Friday night, I thought I'd run a feature about upcoming films that would be playing. 

The Carmi Theater. It appears that this photo (from somewhere on the Internet) was taken in the 40's or 50's, but the theater looked pretty much the same when I worked there in the early 70's. The Ford dealership was still there, next door. The box office was the same, the marquee the same, and no doubt the coal-fired furnace at the back of the building that I shoveled coal into, the same.

I came away from my interview not only with information about upcoming movies but also a job offer - to work in the concession stand on weekends for $0.75/hour. I went home and asked my parents (my dad used to come over to the house most evenings) if I could take the job. They assented. I don't recall much discussion about it.

What that meant, among other things, is that I, as an eighth-grader, had regular access to all the movies that were playing, including R-rated movies. Within a year, however, I had been promoted to projectionist, which meant that (besides the fact that I was now making $1.50/hour) I was not just seeing scenes in movies as I walked back and forth to the ice machine behind the screen or obtained candy from the storage room; I was watching entire movies from the projection room - as a high school freshman (who was very young in his class). 

One of those movies was "Cabaret."

The first scene that made a lasting impression on me as a teenage boy was the one where Sally "makes a move" on Brian. When he showed no reaction to her kiss, his eyes wide open as she leans into him, she expresses surprise and disappointment and off-handedly says that maybe Brian likes boys. When he fails to respond, she exclaims, "You DO like boys!"

This was, I am sure, the first time I had EVER seen a reference to homosexuality on the screen - whether in a movie or on television. Back in those days, of course, the only access one had to media were the three network channels on television (four if you count PBS) and movies that one went to see in a theater. Needless to say, homosexuality was never mentioned.

Me, summer of 1972, around the time I would have seen "Cabaret"

So, here I was, 13 or 14, having only fairly recently discovered after going through puberty that I was attracted to boys, seeing the incredibly handsome Michael York depict a character who might be like me. That, I suppose, was affirming to me, and this stuck in my memory.

But then came the confusing part: Sally successfully seduces Brian and they thereafter begin an affair which he seems to very much enjoy, sexually. He comments that he had previously had only three unsuccessful attempts to have sex with women and had been turned off. Then Brian and Sally observe together that they must have been the wrong women.

And that's another thing that stuck in my memory: though there were apparently gay men out there, they could apparently happily have sexual relations with a woman IF she was the right woman. As I grew into adulthood, went through college and started my working career, I assumed that I would get married to a woman, someday, once I had "found the right woman"; and my attraction to men would fade away.

The second scene that stuck in my memory was the one where Sally, Brian and Maximilian are dancing cheek to cheek on the ballroom floor at Maximilian's family estate. Naive as I was, I nevertheless knew what I had already experienced in terms of attraction, and I could see the obvious sexual attraction and tension between Brian and Maximilian. Again, I had never seen anything like that depicted on the screen.

The last scene I vividly recalled was one in which Brian and Sally are arguing. Sally admits that she was "screwing Max." Then Brian responds, "Me, too."

Wow! Again, I had never heard anything like that on screen. The whole affair between Brian and Max was left to the imagination, but those two words - "Me, too" - had an electric effect on me.

I don't know how many times I saw "Cabaret" while it was playing at the theatre. But I know I formed a long-lasting crush on Michael York, and the confusion generated in my mind by these scenes - and from many other sources over the course of my young adult years - would come to me many times as I went out on (very few) dates with girls and later as I contemplated my future. Could I marry? Would I marry? Would I ever experience what Brian and Max apparently had?

It was a lot for a 14-year-old. But not nearly as "heavy" (to use lingo of the time) as first discovering that I, in Sally's words, "like boys."


* Postscript:

I was inspired to watch "Cabaret" again by my recent visit to Berlin. My friend, Dan, took me on a quick tour of the neighborhood of the apartment that he and his husband, Russ, had just moved into, only a few blocks from Nollendorfplatz U-Bahn station. A storied area of Berlin, it has long been the city's "Gayborhood." It was here that Christopher Isherwood, upon whose writings "Cabaret" is based, lived for four years from 1929 to 1933. Dan took me to the building where he lived. It was, in a sense, the completion of a journey that had began in 1972 in a small town in southern Illinois.

The plaque on the wall of the building where Isherwood lived. "Here lived from March 1929 to January/February 1933 the English author Christopher Isherwood." His novels "Goodbye Berlin" and "Mister Norris Changes Trains" were based on his life at this address and later formed the basis of the musical, "Cabaret."

Entrance hall in Isherwood's building

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Geography of One's Destiny

“Your soul knows the geography of your destiny.”

I was looking back through the archives of my blog yesterday and came across a post that spoke to me in a powerful way. I find that autumn seems to provoke introspection, particularly inspiring a retrospective of one's life, looking back on previous autumns at different points in life's journey, perhaps seeking touchstones as one continues to explore the bounds and contours of one's future.

I originally wrote the following post in December of 2013 - almost four years ago, three years after having come out, two years after having left the Mormon Church and eight months after learning that Mark had terminal cancer. Though I was at a different point in my journey then than I am now and though I directed my thoughts in the post to my being gay, I found what I wrote speaking to where I am at now. The concepts of the sacredness of one's presence, living within instead of seeking meaning without, having faith in one's course, being gentle with oneself - all of these speak to me now with a richer timbre than four years ago ...

"Spirituality is the art of transfiguration. We should not force ourselves to change by hammering our lives into any predetermined shape. We do not need to operate according to the idea of a predetermined program or plan for our lives. Rather, we need to practice a new art of attention to the inner rhythm of our days and lives. This attention brings a new awareness of our own human and divine presence."
So writes John O'Donohue in his book, Anam Cara. I have written previously about this book. I'm sure I will write much more. Practically every sentence of this book causes me to pause and appreciate the beauty not only of O'Donohue's prose but also the beauty of the concepts he is describing and articulating.

I read a passage the other day that caused me to stop and contemplate, yet once again, the spiritual framework in which I existed for most of my adult life, i.e., Mormonism. My purpose, when I write about Mormonism, is usually not to criticize but to analyze. In particular, I wish to bring the light of consciousness to how I was impacted and how my thoughts may continue to be influenced by the doctrine and practices of the Mormon Church.

With that note of explanation, I was prompted by the following passage to contemplate the concept of "will":
"It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than with the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives by using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their life into proper shape. The intellect identifies the goal of the program and the will accordingly forces the life into that shape."
To me, this passage has macro and micro applications. My first thought when I read this was how Mormonism (and, to be fair, other strains of Christianity) stresses that one must diligently and constantly work to beat our lives into a shape that they are "supposed" to be. Of course, no matter how disguised, this view takes as its premise that human nature is inherently bad, or at the very least predisposed to bad. This premise affects one's entire outlook, not only upon oneself but upon all other humans. This is the macro application.

The micro application, i.e., as applied to my own life - a realization I had only as I sat down to write this post - concerns my sexual orientation (which of course is much more than a "sexual" orientation; being gay is about a whole lot more than whom one falls in love with and has sex with). I used my will as a hammer to beat my life into what was stated (by Mormonism) to be its proper shape: a heterosexual male. But of course, the "proper shape" of my life was homosexuality. That's who I am.

O'Donohue goes on to comment on the results of this "proper shape-beating": "This way of approaching the sacredness of one's own presence is externalist and violent. It brings you falsely outside yourself, and you can spend years lost in the wildernesses of your own mechanical, spiritual programs. You can perish in a famine of your own making." 

I knew exactly whereof O'Donohue wrote, both in a macro and micro sense. On a macro level, it seems to be an implicit (and never-stated) goal of Mormonism (as well as other strains of Christianity) to keep oneself outside oneself, i.e., spirituality comes from without, rather than from within. Truth is "out there"; one's sense of self comes from "out there." 

On a micro level, living in the closet is "externalist and violent" in ways of which most straight people are innocently (or not so innocently) ignorant. Living in the closet brings one "falsely outside" oneself because one cannot validate or accept oneself; one spends "years lost in the wilderness of [one's] own mechanical, spiritual programs," perishing in a famine of self-love and acceptance. I wonder how many heterosexual Mormons and other Christians understand or appreciate this fundamental existential dilemma that gay people face at some point on (or throughout) their journey through life ...

O'Donohue proposes an alternative:
"If you work with a different rhythm, you will come easily and naturally home to yourself. Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey. There are no general principles for this art of being. Yet the signature of this unique journey is inscribed deeply in each soul. If you attend to yourself and seek to come into your presence, you will find exactly the right rhythm for your own life."
The first step: trust one's own soul. Trust that it knows - more than anything or anyone else - the geography of one's destiny. I am working - and have been for three years - on building this trust, of finding this rhythm.