Tag Archives: Abba

It didn’t seem weird to me as a kid1 that one of the things I loved to watch was Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, the version my dad, the most accomplished music appreciator I have ever known, taped from PBS.

The scene that stands out in my mind is the one between Alberich and the Rhinemaidens, recounted below — I looked up the names so I don’t sound too dumb, but the rest of the scene is straight from the memory of a grade-school me.

So Alberich the dwarf is crouching and grumbling and shuffling around, just being generally gross and ugly. Meanwhile the sexy, sexy Rhinemaidens (I knew sexiness when I saw it: I’d seen Bugs Bunny seduce Elmer Fudd) are guarding the magical gold and talking amongst themselves — well, they’re pretending to talk amongst themselves, but they’re talking kind of loud so Alberich can overhear them. Because the Rhinemaidens are jerks.

bugs-bunny-brunhilde

They are saying, “Oh, isn’t this gold beautiful and powerful, and I bet that ugly dwarf wishes he could have it! But ha ha, joke’s on him! Because the gold is magical and the only way to get it is if you renounce love forever. And NOBODY would do that, so Alberich is never ever going to get the gold.”

And then Alberich says, “Ha HA, joke’s on YOU, stupid sexy ladies,” and leaps forward, all ugly and wrapped in rags, making the Rhinemaidens shriek — “I hereby renounce love…Forever!!” Surprise! And he wraps his arms around the big hunk of gold like he’s hugging it, and the Rhinemaidens scatter while the orchestra gets even more dark and dramatic, which is hard to do, since it’s already Wagner.

Dreadful things probably happen then — maybe Alberich becomes a fearsome lord of powerful dark magic and lays waste to the land, or something? I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure things don’t end up well for him.

Reconstructing, I theorize that I remember that scene so vividly because of what came not long after. At fourteen, when I realized that gay was exactly the word for what I was and am, I saw myself as a kind of Alberich: twisted, all-wrong, and stranded forever without any possibility of achieving the one thing that no sane person would ever choose to live without, the one thing without which any kind of happiness you might achieve would always be provisional and second-best: romantic love.

Having grown up in the United States in the late twentieth century, by the time I was fourteen, I had a well-developed theory of happiness. I didn’t make it up, I never vocalised it, and I can’t nail down exactly where I got it from. It was just there.

It went like this: the way to be happy is to be a basically normal human being (like most people are) who is basically good (like most people are). Then you marry the person you love (like most people do), who is also basically normal and basically good. Then you stay in love with them till you die (like most people do). And you are happy.2

Who belongs in the “normal” category? Easier to say who doesn’t. Subtract people with severe disabilities, especially if those disabilities make them physically repulsive. Subtract people with mental illnesses, especially if those illnesses make them hard to get along with. Subtract people who are cripplingly shy.

Only normal people get to be in the category of those destined for happiness. The others have to get by however they can.

Who belongs in the “good” category? Easier to say who doesn’t. Subtract addicts — if you are one, you should just stop it; if you married one, you should have looked closer. Subtract religious people, because they’re all bigots. Subtract people who are scared of the opposite sex, or never move out of their parents’ basements, because they’re cowards and weaklings. Subtract the people who never make it out of poverty, and whose poverty turns to mutual bitterness. They weren’t trying hard enough.

Only good people get to be in the category of those destined for happiness. The others have to get by however they can.

How do you stay in love with your spouse until you die? I’m not going to touch that one, but Cosmo has some ideas, and you can tell that magazine is written by happy, happy people. Oh, also, Cialis.

In software engineering, there’s a concept called “edge cases”. If your software works under normal conditions, where the user is computer literate and his computer doesn’t malfunction and he never clicks anywhere he shouldn’t, then you’ve got a program that works for maybe 0.01% of users.

A good program, on the other hand, is bulletproof because you’ve already taken the edge cases into account — you’ve expected the unexpected. So it works even if the user is a colorblind orangutan with acute carpal tunnel syndrome. Who’s running IE6. Under Vista.3

If your philosophy of happiness doesn’t account for the edge cases, it’s not a very good philosophy. And the further you get from being fourteen years old, the more you realize we are all edge cases; that nobody you meet is particularly normal, or particularly good;4 and that you yourself are certainly neither of those things.

You, of all people, should know that you are neither normal nor good. After all, you’re privy to the kind of things that go on in your head, where nobody’s listening.

The universal plan of happiness — that one I breathed in from ages 0-14 — is a good philosophy, if you’re sane, rich, straight, white, healthy, American, and a saint, and so is your spouse.5 For everyone else, it stinks.

What does that mean? It means that fourteen-year-old Joey was oppressed, lied to, and bound with intolerable burdens. And, bucko, it wasn’t by the Catholic Church.

1 And it wasn’t.
2 Also you both have pretty good teeth.
3 If you get this joke, you may be a web developer!
4 cf. Luke 18:9.
5 Also you both have pretty good teeth.

One year, almost. On August 9, 2013, my WORLD CHANGED FOREVER when I invoked the patronage of Daffy Duck and Edith Stein, in that order, and wrote a post telling the whole world that I [mostly] fancy men, and am therefore, arguably, myself a Fancy Man, which why isn’t that a euphemism yet?

(“Did you ever wonder if Joe was a little…you know, Fancy?” “What, you mean like ketchup?”)

fabulous-llama

Anyway, it turned out that my world didn’t change forever, or didn’t change all that much. My one big fear was that everyone would start now all of a sudden seeing me as a new kind of person, but it turns out that most of the people I know don’t think that way.

Still, I wouldn’t ever want to go back to how it was. It wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t as good as this. Here, by way of celebration, are four miniature pieces for you.

1: QUEER/QUESTIONING

At a rest stop in Maryland, I bounce out of the van, swiveling my hips and joggling my head, and gush to my friend E. about how much better the road trip started getting as soon as I turned on my super-danceable mix CD.

“Y’know, Joe, I have to admit that sometimes I question your gayness” — he grins, being himself a My-Little-Pony-loving straight man — “and then you do something like this.”

I grin back. Pre-coming-out, I worked a bit harder to suppress my bubbly side; now, not so much. When I started grooving to, yes, Dancing Queen, I wasn’t thinking about whether it’d make me look effeminate or whether I could pass it off as ironically butch or whatever. I was just dancin’ ‘cuz I was happy.

2: AN IMAGE FOR MY OUTAGE

Having nobody know that you’re gay is terrible. It’s so terrible I don’t know how anybody stands it without dying of asphyxiation.

Having a couple people know you’re gay is really great. It’s like opening up a window in that stifling midsummer room, sticking your head out, and gulping the cool breeze.

Having everyone know you’re gay is like being in that same summertime room, but with the window open all day long. You don’t go running over to the window every second to stick your head out of it, but you can, whenever you want to. And honestly, who has time to be hanging their head out a window all day? You have other stuff to do, and it’s actually nice in here now, because the breeze is moving through the whole room.

3: PUSSYFOOTING

I’m chatting with Jack Pigford about how awesome Frozen was and how it was a throwback to the Great Disney Days of the ’90s and how it was so emotionally resonant and how it didn’t shy away from some really dark stuff and…I might be gushing a little bit. Jack thinks it was just sort of okay, and wonders what the big deal was.

I opine that maybe for it to be really emotionally resonant, like if you want to really understand where Let It Go comes from, you have to know what it’s like growing up with a reallly big secret, like maybe something that you’ve had to keep inside for a long time, like —

“You mean you have to be gay?”

Oh. Not exactly, I mean not just that. But also yes. Yeah, that.

Sometimes I forget that I don’t have to speak in vaguenesses anymore when describing the things that touch or move or wound or elate me. That’s rad.

4: VARIOUS REACTIONS

JP: I’m gay.
M: Oh, are you?


JP: I’m gay.
P: …
JP: …
P: …So, do you mean you’re gay, or do you mean you “struggle with same-sex attraction”?


JP: I’m gay.
T: You ARE? Oh my GOD, I LOOOVE gay people!


JP: I’m gay.
B: That’s what I thought you were going to say.


C: I didn’t know you were one of those!
JP: What, a Catholic?


I: So. I hear you’re into dudes.

“Oh, stop crying already.” It’s twenty years ago, but I remember the exact tone of my father’s voice, equal parts impatience and disgust. To me, crying is something that happens, not something I can decide to do or not do, so his command makes me burn with all the anger of which a nine-year-old is capable, which is a frightening amount. But there’s nobody I can tell about any of this.

It’s eighteen years ago. I am auditioning for a play that our church group is putting on. The woman in charge has me read a line or two in front of everyone. I’m profoundly self-conscious, but I do it anyway. She takes me aside later and asks if I’m okay. Even though she’s someone I know and like and trust, I can’t say something as simple as That was really hard for me, because as soon as I open my mouth, I feel the danger of tears — not just a trickle but an explosion. So I say, Yeah, it’s nothing.

When she goes away, I wonder for the first time: why is it that whenever I try to tell someone what’s wrong, the tears dam up in my head until it’s a choice between silence and total breakdown — even when it’s something small? What’s wrong with me?

It’s thirteen years ago, my first year of college. I’m standing alone in my dorm room and facing for the hundredth time the feeling of separateness: I don’t fit in here, don’t fit in anywhere, and it’s somehow all my fault. By now I should have learned the rules, but it’s too late to start.

I start to cry, and then, disgusted and impatient, I yell at myself: Stop it. Stop crying. I slap myself in the face two or three times, because sometimes that helps me stop. Soon I stop.

It’s nine years ago, my last year of college. I’m in Sal’s room, confessing to him how alone I am, how separate, what a fake and a poser and a general failure at being anything that anyone would recognize as a human being.

I hate the way my voice is starting to shake, I hate that the tears are coming. I must sound so pathetic. I can’t stand for him to watch me anymore, so I get up and run out. I catch a glimpse of his face, but I can’t look for too long. Nobody should see this.

It’s five years ago. I’ve gotten together the necessary money and resolve, and I find myself at a campground in rural Virginia, participating in the 27th Journey Into Manhood weekend — still in disbelief that I’ve subjected myself to such manifest kookery, still wildly expectant, still wondering how I’m going to explain this one to my friends.

I watch other men scream and howl, weep and claw at the ground, come face to face with the things they never let themselves feel before. When it’s my turn, I do it too.

The weekend is over, and I feel as empty and fresh as a new wineskin. For the next few weeks I keep bursting into tears at unpredictable moments. I don’t mind. It feels good to cry; it feels clean.

It’s nine months ago. I am on the porch, spilling my guts to my roommate S.: how living here with him and C. was supposed to was supposed to be my chance to finally be normal, and how it all went wrong instead. How I’ve got to move out because I can’t control my fears, my feelings of exclusion, my jealousy. I apologize for my tears, which are flowing freely now.

He looks at me and says, Hey, come on. It’s me.

So I blow my nose and we keep talking. Soon I’m feeling at peace, like the reservoir is drained, no more pressure left behind the dam. He gives me a hug and, because by this time it’s past two, I let the poor bastard get some sleep.

It’s three days ago. I am sitting around the kitchen table with two good friends. We’re drinking cheap beer and leftover wine. We all have to get up in the morning, but nobody feels like leaving.

It’s hard to believe how easy it is to talk with them, how much we have in common, even if the specifics differ. I tell them how it used to be for me; how it still is for so many men I know; how I would have once given anything for a night like this; how grateful I still am that such nights are not only possible now, but practically commonplace.

At one point I notice that I’m crying, but that’s okay — that is what people do when they are very happy or very sad.

Next moment we are all laughing again.

My friend B. is a body psychotherapist. She’s explained what this means more than once, but I never quite get a handle on it.1 I gather that, where traditional psychotherapy is focused on talking, body psychotherapy treats us as the soul-body composite we are.

One of the tenets of the discipline is that past trauma can manifest itself, not only in our thought patterns, but in our patterns of movement. So the therapist is trained to tune in on the body language of the client, to sense when his movements reveal something his conscious mind would rather avoid, or when his body is somehow trapped in a pattern it learned from some disaster.

As with most things B. has introduced me to — stevia, glossolalia, aikido — it sounded kooky at first. Due in part to my my father’s inveterate intolerance for any and all forms of bullsh★t, I’ve spent most of my life with my kook-o-meter turned up to eleven. It’s been a tricky business, learning to turn the thing down notch by notch: learning to keep an open mind, as the saying goes, but not so open that my brains falls out.

I owe so much of my kookiness to you, B., and I’m forever grateful.

Like traditional psychotherapy, it seems to me that body psychotherapy is something that anybody could do, but that some people have a natural gift for; a gift which can of course be sharpened by training. We’ve all had (or been) the friend who is always on the receiving end of intense personal revelations, from friends and coworkers and even from strangers on airplanes. That friend is a kind of therapist, or maybe every therapist is a particular kind of friend.

B. is gifted. Her native sensitivity makes it impossible for her to ignore the energy, good and bad, that radiates from people. If I’m in a horrible mood and my roommate C. walks into the room, he’ll be completely oblivious (God bless him). But for B., walking in the door will be like stepping off a lead-lined Chernobyl tour bus. Her Geiger counter is finely tuned, and the gain is all the way up.

I was explaining all this to my dad once (sorry, Abba,2 it may have been a sort of passive-aggressive act of rebellion; I’ve noticed that I seem to enjoy doing things in front of you that I imagine flout the Gershom code) and concluded by saying something like “It seems like a good idea to me. I bet it helps people.” He replied: “Yeah; I think pretty much anything does.”

My father is always lamenting his inability to hand out fatherly words of wisdom. It’s true that when he tries to come up with sage advice, it usually amounts to the Gershom family motto: It could always be worse. But he doesn’t realize how often, when he isn’t trying at all, a phrase of his will stick in my mind, slowly dissolving over the next five or ten years.

It’s fun to talk about our chronic problems as if they were monsters, or maybe dragons: it lends an air of heroism to things that, for anybody on the outside, would seem achingly mundane. It’s also comforting, because a dragon might be big and scary, but one well-placed sword-thrust and the thing is conquered for good.

Solving real problems, or anyway the big ones, is rarely like that. It’s less like killing a dragon and more like kneading3 a huge, heavy lump of dough. You can stop and ask yourself whether you should be using a rolling pin4 or just your hands, or whether you should be wearing gloves, or whether it’s got enough flour, or whether maybe you should buy a special as-seen-on-TV kneading implement. Those are okay questions, but kneading is by its nature a slow process: there’s no such thing as flash-kneading. And the lump is huge, huge.

The best thing is to try one approach until it stops working, and then try another. One approach might work better than another, but nearly anything helps. And nearly everything teaches you something worth knowing.

That pretty much sums up how I feel about reparative therapy, and why I don’t put too much stock in it, at least no more stock than I put in any single solution to any complex problem. I’ll probably always be attracted to men, but — O listen well, 18-year-old self — I’m no longer frantic, no longer miserable, no longer desperate.

When people ask me how I got from there to here, I want to tell them: Everything. Family, friends, meds, therapy; praying to God, cursing Him, threatening Him and making up with Him and just sitting still; writing, reading, laughing, crying, living. It all helps. Life helps, reality helps.

The one sure way to stay miserable is to do nothing at all.

1 Won’t stop me from talking about it, though. Heck no! So please take all this with a grain of salt.
2 Gershoms are Jewish by descent, if not by creed. We say grace in Hebrew, celbrate Passover and Chanukah, and call my parents Ima and Abba. It’s always made certain Scripture passages particularly poignant for me. I sort of enjoy the band, too, but it’s not pronounced the same way.
3 Or, come to think of it, leavening.
4 Do people even use rolling pins for kneading or is that for something else? I don’t know anything about body psychotherapy OR baking.