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A Night of Crowns and Wigs

The thing about “showing up for other people,” or, if you want to take it a step further into Northern California speak, remaining open to the beauty of your fellow human beings, is that the smallest thing can derail your noble intentions, and lightning-quick you revert to moody adolescence.

Obviously few if any of you ever revert to moody adolescence. But I do, every other day. I’m a grown man who morphs into a sullen, recalcitrant, bitter baby if he doesn’t eat. Maybe you’ve had the misfortune of dating someone like me, someone who must be handled with increasing degrees of diplomacy and delicacy while his blood sugar level plunges.

Last week the Manly Fireplug and I were invited to a friend’s birthday party at Buca. On a Saturday night. At eight p.m. Utter mayhem spilled out from the lobby onto the sidewalk ­‑ parties of four and seven and thirteen jostling for tables, presided over by a harried hostess totally regretting her job that night. Our table had not yet been cleared, and everywhere I chose to stand I ended up in someone’s way.

Knowing of Buca’s carb-laden family-style platters, I’d earlier made the unfortunate decision to show up hungry. But thirty seconds in that lobby turned me into a muttering Grinch, and I fled our party to push my way back out on the sidewalk for some “fresh air.” The Fireplug, who’d smartly had a snack, offered to run interference, letting me know when our table was ready.

Maybe you’ve been to Buca, maybe you’ve sat in the Papal Room, which features, at the center of a large round table, the Pope’s head sitting on a lazy susan, the surrounding walls covered in framed photos and paintings of the long line of popes. Maybe the campiness amuses you, but that night I was not amused. As our friends passed around party favors I grumbled about the Vatican’s response to homosexuals, and its indifference to the pedophilia scandal. Everyone around me pulled kitschy plastic crowns over their heads. The Fireplug put on a plastic crown. It will not surprise you to hear that I did not put on a plastic crown.

Thirty agonizing minutes later, when our party had chosen its family platters from the menu, and the waiter finally appeared, notepad in hand, it will also not surprise you that when he said, “And what can I get you?” and when one of our party said, “Guess!” I took matters into my own hands. “We are not making him GUESS!” I hissed. “We are telling him we want two orders of garlic cheese bread, the calamari appetizer, a large Caesar salad, and a large chopped antipasto salad. And since he’s here we’re also going to tell him that we want an order of the baked ravioli, a spicy chicken rigatoni, the chianti braised short ribs, and the chicken marsala.” The acquaintance across the table who’d told the waiter to “guess” shot me a wounded look, but too bad for him.

I resisted the overwhelming urge, the need, to inhale the entire fried calamari platter on my own, and sent it around the lazy susan, watching with barely-veiled dismay as the others had the nerve to take their fair share.

About an hour later, having gorged myself into a stupor, I reached a state of serenity and could finally act my age. Or nearly my age. I still refused the plastic crown.

“Feel better?” said the Fireplug.

I garumphed, but ultimately gave him a wry grin, one that both admitted my earlier immaturity and thanked him – barely – for his patience.

My one piece of rather obvious advice here, dear reader, is that if you want to show up for your fellow man, think about eating first.

Later, having hugged our friends good-night, the Fireplug and I drifted down Howard Street, making our way back to the car, when we passed a storefront so dazzling with color that I could not resist pulling out my cell phone to take some rudimentary shots.

So many wigs of so many colors lined the shop’s walls, and in the back, working absurdly late, a stylist combing her client’s hair, the two women laughing together at some joke we couldn’t hear, and I was struck by this shop I’d never before seen, and this glimpse at what it contained and implied: a whole set of lives unknown to me, each wig, each color, a person or a party or a trick or a night. And an old odd desire seized me, one I’d had my whole life, riding in the car through tiny towns on road trips, glimpsing ramshackle cabins, farmhouses leaning back from the wind, pools of light on wooden porches, and cramped rooms over noisy bars. I wanted to walk like a ghost through each of those rooms. I wanted to try on, for a few seconds, every single life the passing world contained.

Dogpoet on the Rumpus

Very happy to be included in this collection– some holiday-themed, some general…trying to sum up my family story in 400 words proved, well, challenging for this blowhard:
“In 1981, when I was ten, my parents sat me down in the living room and told me the real reason they’d separated six months ago: they were both gay.
I could hardly grasp what that word had to do with my parents, nor did I understand the slick warmth that rushed through me when I paged through my father’s copy of International Male: a glossy catalogue featuring mesh tank tops, a bewildering array of athletic supporters, and casual wear suitable for places like Puerto Vallarta …”

God is a Verb

I believed in God as a kid, a little boy damned early to hell, way back when in the series of Midwestern suburbs my family called home. I came to this belief more or less on my own. Dad was raised a Methodist, Mom a Catholic. She’d long chafed against the confines of the Church, where the boys always came before the girls, even when entering the sanctuary for First Communion.

After I was born, over our long northward migration, from Oklahoma to Minnesota, we drifted from one church to another. I remember none of them. Dad tells me we just went to wherever he and Mom felt most comfortable, regardless of denomination, though to appease Mom’s parents we’d hit the local Catholic church during their visits, and pretend to be loyal members. My brother and I were both baptized twice, once at a Methodist church, once at a Catholic, for each set of visiting grandparents. Fortunately they never visited at the same time. After Mom died, when I was 30 years old, I tried to dig into her past a bit, and for a long time I thought the Church had held a serious grip on her. But when I learned that, according to Catholic doctrine, she had damned us to hell by having us baptized twice, I decided she probably didn’t take it all that seriously.

When I was ten years old Mom and Dad separated, and within a few months they both came out of the closet. In the ensuing upheaval, as we tried to adjust to a complicated joint custody arrangement, and to the series of men and women that soon entered our lives, men and women referred to these days as “same-sex” lovers, my brother and I often fell through the cracks. Our parents had a lot to figure out, about themselves, and what they wanted now from life. They were both younger than I am now.

With their new boyfriends and girlfriends, my parents continued to drift, separately now, from one church to the next, their two sons sometimes in tow. I remember two or three Sundays at a Lutheran church, a month or two at a Presbyterian. I still couldn’t tell you the differences between the Protestant religions, and the only thing I remember was the utter boredom I felt in those hard wooden pews.

Still, I remember believing. Maybe it was just optimism on my part. In the years after my parents’ divorce I began to harbor doubts about Mom and Dad’s enthusiasm for parenting, and I suppose it felt better to believe that something up there, or out there, watched over me.

My conception of God had little to do with the churches we’d attended. This God was benevolent but distant, hard to fathom, and neither male nor female. My belief stuck with me, even as a teenager, even as an adult, when Mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness. I didn’t believe God could intervene in human affairs, and a seething anger at that impotence filled me, as I watched what the disease did to her. Still, I kept believing.

At the age of 29, to save myself from the utter misery closing in around me, I got sober through a recovery program for drunks, one that suggested I cultivate a belief in a higher power of my own understanding. The “of my own understanding” made it easier, and though the understanding of drunks at meetings in the Bible Belt may skew heavily towards that dude in the Old Testament, I got sober in San Francisco, where you could believe in pretty much anything. I heard people talk about trees, or Buddha, or the Group Of Drunks. I heard the stories of atheists and agnostics and the utterly confused, all of whom managed to stay sober. I heard plenty of people say “…my higher power whom I choose to call God.” I heard lapsed Catholics and exiled Mormons and ex-fundamentalists struggle with reconciling their new God with the one they’d always known.

Nobody told me that I had to believe in anything, though my first sponsor said that there would be days when absolutely every single person in my life would fail me, including him, and that on those days in particular a little belief could go a long ways.

This past October marked ten years clean for me, and what I find most liberating about life these days is that I can keep changing. I can start a new job or join a softball team or rethink old beliefs. Sometime in the past couple of years the God of my understanding began to feel…off, somehow. I began to distrust this God, this external power, hovering up there or out there.

And maybe it was fear of the black void I’d find in God’s place, should I give this God up, that made me look around for something else. Something that, based on my own lived experience, felt more true.

I tried to pay attention to those moments when I felt most alive, when I felt plugged into the beauty of the world, when I felt free of the cramped cage of my own self-pity. And without exception those moments happened in the company of other people.

This is still a hard pill to swallow. I crave solitude more often than not, solitude that fills the rechargeable battery on which I run. I’ve made a lot of noise on this blog about my introversion, and at times I’ve flirted with its extremes, grumpily muttering about rabid extroverts, dipping my big toe in the cold pool of misanthropy.

But I can’t argue with my lived experience, with the fact that, as I hugged a friend after an hour over coffee, or watched a friend sing a song on a tiny stage in a Mission bar, or helped Mom’s partner clean their house after Mom’s death ­- when I put aside my own misery for the five seconds it took to help someone out with their own problems, five seconds after which I turned back and could no longer find my own misery…after all that I began to believe in a new kind of God.

This God had something to do with other people, with the energy that flickered to life when people were good to each other. I am still a Midwestern boy at heart, and I cannot say the word “energy” with a straight face. If I could call it something else I would.

But this God is not some external force outside of myself. This God is not a noun. This God is a verb. This God comes to life only in those moments when people do something good for other people.

This can be a much harder God to believe in. For it shifts the responsibility away from that external figure, away from that Graybeard in Heaven, and puts it squarely on me. On us. If I want this God to come to life I need to pull myself from the bitter swamp of my own morass long enough to help someone else. And just for the record let me say that none of this counts as original; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard over the years that the quickest way to happiness, or contentment, or maybe just a slighter more diluted crankiness, is by showing up for other people. It just took me a while to believe it.

I won’t lie. I find this exceedingly hard to do. Most days I am not capable of it. Most days, as I come to the end of another nine-hour shift at my new job, and I step out on Post Street downtown where it is already dark, and I push my way through the after-work crowds to Montgomery Station, to find that the M train is stuck somewhere under Market Street again and people are standing six deep on the platform and everyone is bent over their phones playing Angry Birds, and my feet hurt and my back hurts and I’m hungry and I know I need to hit the gym and walk the dog and find something to eat for dinner with the Manly Fireplug, the very last thing I feel like doing is keeping a part of myself open to the dead-eyed strangers around me, especially when the track frees up and we squeeze onto a train and some fuckhead with an outdoor voice and a backpack keeps knocking into me.

I still stubbornly protect my right to stay mired in misery. Most days I find it hard to show up for other people, and most days I fail other people, several times over. And if you are a real life friend reading this I have no doubt failed you more than once and I am running the risk of sounding like a major league self-righteous blowhard, and maybe I’m just trying to head you off at the pass here.

And believing in this kind of God is hard because every single one of us is fallible, and every single one of us has failed other people, and every single one of us has sometimes taken more than we’ve given.

And I don’t know if this kind of God, the God as verb, is the real one. Or if there even is a real one. Or if a verb can even count as a God. Maybe I just don’t want to face the black void in the absence of belief. But something about it feels right to me; it’s the highest kind of power I can imagine these days, and so that’s what I’m going to try out, for now.

Neon in the Rain

So I had one of those dark-night-of-the-soul moments last week. Like a lot of my fellow countrymen, I’d recently found myself unemployed, flat-broke, and scrambling to pay rent. I had a Master’s degree from an Ivy League school that qualified me for no particular job, a not-yet-finished book that I’d been working on for six years, and a promising freelance gig that seemed to be dissolving before my very eyes. I’d just interviewed for a three-month entry-level job at a downtown law firm, where three separate interviewers asked me why a guy with my “credentials” would, in essence, bow so low.

I am now writing to you from their cubicle, a hired gun sneaking in a few sentences on my lunch break, a large turkey chili from the SF Soup Company rapidly cooling on my desk. I’ve just spent four straight hours folding the company holiday cards, which, in keeping with the pro-labor stance of the firm, are multicultural, printed on recycled paper from “well-managed” forests.

Given these rather prosaic surroundings, it seems like a million years since last week, when I found myself stuck on a thought that had regularly occurred to me over the course of my adulthood; after 39 years I had yet to figure out my niche in the marketplace. On the heels of this woe-is-me sentiment came another: what’s the fucking point?

This was not a casual what’s-the-fucking-point. This was the kind of what’s-the-fucking-point that morose adolescent girls who’ve read all of Sylvia Plath entertain. I then found  myself wondering what it would be like to check into a psych ward for just, you know, self-protection.

I’m not sure how long I entertained these thoughts – a few minutes, an hour or two. Long enough to remember that self-pity only feels good for a very short time. Long enough to realize how stupid it would be to throw in the towel just because the world hadn’t given me what I thought I needed to be happy. Long enough to know that I didn’t want to end up like David Foster Wallace.

DFW, the genius writer, was a hero of mine. He’s still a hero, but a dead one, since he hanged himself two years ago. I don’t know the reason or the reasons he hanged himself, but he’d long suffered from depression, and the one drug that had made his life bearable had stopped working.

He’s my hero not just because he was a genius writer, but because by all accounts he was a pretty amazing human being. I’ve read a few dozen interviews with him by now, and that quality is hard to miss. Normally I’d steer you towards a few of those interviews so you could see for yourself, but I’ve been folding holiday cards for four hours and I have exactly 27 minutes left on my lunch break. So you can just check out this memorial site instead.

“Good writing,” DFW once said, “Makes the reader feel a little less lonely inside.” Before reading that, my reasons for writing had all been intuitive, amorphous, and unspoken. But with those words DFW articulated my internal mission statement, or at least what I secretly hoped to do with my writing. Like most good writers DFW could put things into words you’d long felt but had never expressed.

Turning to the writing of a suicidal man when you yourself have been teetering on the edge is a questionable decision. But though DFW may have died of an incurable loneliness (and what is depression, really, but acute, soul-killing isolation?), he had accomplished his goal in making at least this one reader feel a little less lonely inside.

I turned to an essay (in this book) he’d written about attending the Illinois State Fair, many, many years after his childhood there. He wrote hilariously about dessert competitions, steer judging, and the dangers of observing teams of pre-teen girls whirling batons, many with more enthusiasm than skill, in an enclosed space.

Then, strolling through the midway, he turns a bit more somber: “It strikes me hardest here that I am not spiritually Midwestern anymore, and no longer young ­­– I do not like crowds, screams, loud noise, or heat. I’ll endure these things if I have to, but they’re no longer my idea of a Special Treat or sacred Community-interval. The crowds in the midway – mostly high school couples, local toughs, and kids in single-sex packs, as the demographics of the Fair shift to prime time – seem radically gratified, vivid, actuated, sponges for sensuous data, feeding on it all somehow. It’s the first time I’ve felt truly lonely at the Fair.”

Later in the essay he looks down at the fairway from a distance, in the middle of a storm, describing it as, “A whole lot of neon in the rain.”

That sentence stuck with me. With a handful of simple words he turns something garish and cynical and seedy into something almost beautiful. With those words he let me step into his head for a bit.

It didn’t take me long to get a little angry with myself. How stupid it would be to give up on everything just because you couldn’t find your way into the right job. And a couple weeks of work, even folding holiday cards, put some money in my pocket and filled a bit of my soul with some sense of purpose and satisfaction.

I’ve been thinking about changing the course of Dogpoet a bit. Not so much the format of stories and anecdotes and random snapshots of scruffy terriers. More like a change of focus. On the things that do and don’t make me, and maybe you, feel a little less lonely inside. I am going to risk looking way too earnest and defenseless and uncool in an effort to look at the things in life that do us some good. Which is not to say that I won’t also poke fun at the things that DO make us feel empty and sad and disconnected. Cause those can be instructive too. My little “Neon in the Rain” project.