Tag Archives: Caleb

I: ENOUGH PEANUTS

[Nota bene: This story is in four parts, and parts I-III are pretty grim, but there’s a happy ending. Also, there is a lot of smoking and no small amount of tears.]

I’m making Friday night plans with my brother Caleb. He’s saying we could stay in and watch a movie, or go out and get some drinks. “Or,” he says, “if you want to — and if you don’t want to, that’s fine — some of the guys are getting together to play basketball. We could do that.”

Do I like basketball? I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell whether you like something when the thought of it makes your stomach twist into knots. Some people would say that makes it easy to tell, right? But I make things complicated. Maybe, I think, it’s like someone who is allergic to peanuts, but actually loves peanuts, only he doesn’t realize it because every time he eats them, they make him wish he was dead. Maybe if I just eat enough peanuts, I’ll teach myself not to be allergic to them.

But maybe tonight, dealing with panic is a little bit much, so I say, Let’s stay in. I hang up; but I start to think about it, and think about it, and think and think andthinkandthink until I call Caleb back on my way home from work.

“Hey, so, um. I’m thinking, yeah, let’s go ahead and play basketball instead.” I’m trying not to hyperventilate.

“…Really?”

“Yeah, I want to,” I lie.

“Because, you know, I really don’t care. I really don’t.” He doesn’t.

“No,” I say, taking a deep breath. “I mean, I should. I’m a little terrified. But I want to because I’m a little terrified.”

Caleb pauses, triangulating my neuroses. “You know,” he says, “you’re going to have plenty of chances in life to be terrified. You don’t really have to look for them.”

“Hm,” I say.

“So, Let’s stay in.”

“Um,” I say. “Okay.”

“You can eat here. We’re having enchiladas. Unless,” he says, “you’re terrified of enchiladas.”

II: BETTER THAN BASKETBALL

I know I’ve told that story about Caleb before, but it’s been on my mind because of something my friend L. said last weekend, when I visited DC for a mutual friend’s wedding. I was hoping the trip would be a way to get away, to give me some breathing room from my Terrible Situation.

Oh, the Terrible Situation, I can tell you about that now. It goes like this: after a year of living alone, I moved into a house with two other guys last February. Things started out beautifully. Somebody to come home to! Someone to eat with! Someone to chat with at odd moments! Someone who’ll bring their friends around — more people to meet, more people to know!

All this was true, and all this was good. I became surprisingly fond of both of them in a very short time, S. in particular. Then fondness turned to admiration. For me, it’s a short step from admiration to envy, and from envy to neediness, and jealousy, and all the rest of it. There’s a certain kind of admiration that makes me reassess myself, and the everything I used to consider good about myself, to frame my entire life in what-if terms: would I be more like him if I hadn’t been so scared, or so wounded, or so lame…Those of you who have been there can connect the dots; the mind has mountains.

And then when their college friends visited, which they seemed to do in a steady stream — seeing them interact with each other, watching their comfort and hilarity, would drive the knife home. This is what you want, says the old ἐχθρός, and this is what you will never have. Manifestly untrue, as Sal gently pointed out to me later in an email, but somehow I couldn’t call the right memories to mind, couldn’t think of a time when I had ever been at ease with anyone.

I set myself the impossible task of being as comfortable with them as they were with each other — I’d will myself into it — despite the fact that they’d spent every day together for four years, and when I failed I blamed myself, called myself socially inept, a hopeless loner. I knew it was crazy, and I couldn’t stop. Before I knew it I was in the deepest funk I had seen in a decade.

I didn’t think this was going to happen. I didn’t want this to happen. So I did all the right things. I talked to Father T., opened up to friends, wept and prayed and wept some more, read and meditated about the peace that comes from absolute trust in God. My friends couldn’t see why, if I was so miserable, I didn’t just leave.

But they didn’t understand! This was my way out from loneliness, and more than that, a way to get good at what I had always wanted to be good at: being comfortable in the company of other men. It was a second chance at I’d missed, or thought I’d missed, over and over again, all through homeschool and high school and college.

This was better than basketball.

It would get better, I kept saying. And it did. But every time it did, something would happen: some party where I felt left out, some imagined slight in conversation that snowballed into a full-blown self-pity session, some night when I would be bone-tired but couldn’t fall asleep because I envied the sounds of cheerful conversation downstairs — and I’d be right back where I started. But I couldn’t leave! That would be admitting defeat, that would be throwing away this beautiful opportunity that had dropped into my lap. I should be able to deal with this.

Give me more time, and I will get it right.

[ Cliffhanger!!! Continued tomorrow. ]

One of the dangers of a life like mine — being single, living alone, working a job that mainly involves staring at glowing rectangles all day — is that your faults tend to get hidden from you.

When I was a teacher, It was impossible to avoid my faults: how little it takes to make me lose patience, how I have it in me to be casually cruel even to a sixth-grader if I’m short on sleep, how prone I am to sulking when my free time gets hijacked.

Living with the community in Peru, even for just a few months, was the same. I remember doing chores with Brother Pedro one day, sweeping the floors but avoiding his eyes because just looking at him made me furious; muttering Hail Marys under my breath like they were curses, because it was either pray for his wretched, pedantic soul or beat him to death with the broom. All this because — I honestly can’t remember; probably something about the tone of voice he kept using, or this way he had of sniffing and lifting an eyebrow.1

It’s lucky I come from a big family, and that nearly everyone in my family has a big family. I’m surrounded by role models.

Caleb works overtime every week, sometimes six or seven days in a row, just to make ends meet, and all he wants to do with his time off is give that time away to his family. Caleb comes particularly to mind because I’m housesitting for him this weekend, and noticing how all I can think of is how far of a drive it is from my place to his, and how his stupid dog won’t quit licking me.

But it’s not just Caleb. I could say the same about my other married brothers and sisters. Sacrifice isn’t just something they do from time to time, when they quit watching TV and get around to it. It’s how they live.

People keep telling me how wonderful I am for, well, just not having sex with anybody. And believe me, I snap up those compliments like my brother’s stupid dog snaps up doggie treats.2 And frankly, yes, it’s hard work remaining chaste and celibate.3 It’s difficult, and it causes me pain.

But I have less and less patience with this question: “How can the Church require homosexuals to be celibate? How can she impose such a heavy cross?”

Why do people think that living a good life is supposed to be easy? Readers, whoever you are — gay, straight, married, single, relatively healthy or inflicted with any one of a billion possible debilitating pathologies — you will be asked to carry a cross. It’s going to be hard, and it’s not going to be fair.

This is a world where evil is real, and where the only real antidote is love — not medicine, not political change, not advanced anti-suffering technology, but love. And love always costs.

Suffering and self-denial aren’t extraordinary; they’re par for the course. What did you expect?

1 Yep, I was an expert on the shades of emotional inflection in a language I could barely even speak and a culture I knew nothing about.
2 And rawhide strips, and shoes, and newspapers, and toys, and the cat’s food (but not her own), and bugs, and cigarette butts…I think I’ve lost sight of my original simile.
3 Not a redundancy. Celibacy means refraining from sexual activity. Chastity means integrating your sexuality with the rest of your personality, in a way that’s appropriate to your station in life. The former is required of some people; the latter is required of everybody.

Caleb and I both have terrible senses of direction. We were driving together once, trying to find our friend J’s house. I knew where it was, or thought I knew, but we ended up on the opposite side of town, a good twenty minutes from where we were supposed to be. The worst part was that we had just left a house where J’s brother was working, which I knew, but I hadn’t asked directions, because — well, because I already knew!

When Caleb realized where we were, he exploded: “This is just like you!

That may have hurt a little bit, but more than that, it surprised me. It’s hard to think of yourself as being just like anything, because we see ourselves from the inside, and from the inside I don’t look like a coherent whole at all.1 I see the decisions I make from day to day, but seeing patterns is harder, or maybe impossible.

Walker Percy2 gets it:

One of the peculiar ironies of being a human self in the Cosmos: A stranger approaching you in the street will in a second’s glance see you whole, size you up, place you in a way in which you cannot and never will, even though you have spent a lifetime with yourself, live in the Century of the Self, and therefore ought to know yourself best of all.3

Well, this is one thing that friends are for. Friends see into the heart of you, see what you are, in a way that you never can. They know you; they name you.4

But there’s all the difference in the world between a name and a label. A name is the secret of who you are, the one thing that sums you up: it is your Word, the way the Son is the Word of the Father. A name is rich and full. A label flattens, simplifies, steamrolls.

Elsewhere, Percy says of a certain woman — I don’t have my copy of The Thanatos Syndrome handy, so I’m paraphrasing — “She had given up on the mystery of herself, she had taken another woman’s advice: be bold, be assertive.”

Although this probably applies to everybody, I think it especially applies to men with SSA. Growing up with SSA means, for many people, never knowing exactly what you are. Not fitting in — not only in the sense of being bullied or rejected, but not being able to identify with any group, not feeling at home anywhere. Feeling yourself to be not a man, maybe, but certainly not a woman, and androgynous least of all.

I wonder — I am about to speak out of ignorance but also sincerity, and I ask your forgiveness in advance if I offend — I wonder if this is what makes some men with SSA take on a gay identity, and take it on so deeply that they are swallowed whole, so that their own old friends stop recognizing them.

Taking on a pre-defined identity — something already warm, already ready to slip into — would be a relief for anybody. No longer having to work out, in fear and trembling, what I am, but having it all pre-fabricated, complete with taste and style and a welcoming community.

But it doesn’t solve the question of Selfhood. It only postpones.

This is one reason that, despite my sensitivity and musicality and slightness of build and tenderness of heart,5 I don’t know if I could ever be comfortable describing myself as gay. It’s not a bad word, but it is a label, not a name.

Oh, but as usual, George MacDonald says the whole thing better than I ever could.

1 Makes me think of a horoscope from The Onion: “Don’t worry: You’re more than just a collection of annoying, loosely bundled neuroses. There are some tightly wound and dangerous psychoses in there, too.”
2 I love Walker Percy, I lurve him. I would marry Walker Percy. If he weren’t married, male, old, and dead.
3 From the introduction to Lost in the Cosmos.
4 I am thinking of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, where “naming” someone is the opposite of “X-ing” them. To name someone is to fill the vacuum of their selfhood with love and intimate knowledge.To X is the opposite of that.
5 Although please bear in mind that I am also extremely badass.

It’s almost embarrassing to say it, because I had forgotten that I used to feel this way, but: I used to blame myself for having SSA. I thought, if only I’d hung out more with other guys and learned to be like them; if only I hadn’t quit the street hockey team, and soccer, and little league; if only I hadn’t faked sick on field day. If only I hadn’t been so scared all the time.

My main sports memories from when I was young are memories of complete and total confusion. What position am I? Who’s on my team again, which color are we? Are we offense or defense? WHAT IS A RIGHT WING? Do I have to step on the base before after I catch the ball (if I catch the ball), and what the hell do I do after that? HOW IS IT STILL ONLY THE SECOND INNING?

Go a little bit older and the confusion turns to shame. When I was ten, nobody knew the rules. When I was fifteen, everybody knew them, except me, and not only the rules but the terminology, and the stats of players I had never heard of, and breathtakingly convoluted plays that I had I pretend to understand, except why did I bother because they’d figure it out when I suddenly started running in the wrong direction?

The worst, though, was in high school, on field day. The thought of spending THREE HOURS in a state of constant terror, shame, and confusion, was too much for me, so I spent it in the sick room instead, up on the second floor, watching everyone having a good time and wondering what was wrong with me. What made it worse was that, to get out of it, I had had to tell Mr. Staedtler I was “sick” — Mr. Staedtler, who all the girls wanted to marry and all the boys wanted to be — and he knew.

I’m surprised, remembering it, how little shame I feel about it anymore. Not because it was shameful — rational or not, the things I felt at the thought of going out there would have felled a small horse — but because of how it used to make me wince, for years afterwards.

At the time I blamed myself for feeling that way, because I knew a real man wouldn’t have been scared. And at the same time I knew I was a coward, because the others hadn’t let their fear stop them. I never noticed that the two accusations contradicted each other. I envied them for not being scared, but at the same time I envied them for overcoming their fear.

Well, lies usually do contradict each other. I think I believed the lies until years later, the night I told my older brother Caleb about my SSA. I told him how I had envied him, growing up, watching him on the basketball court down the street and thinking how brave he must be to play with people he didn’t even know, how I could never feel comfortable enough around other guys to do that.

He surprised me by saying: The basketball court is the only place I do feel comfortable around other guys.

That was a new thought. That for some people sports weren’t terrifying, but just natural, the way music and coding are for me. That I wasn’t weaker or more cowardly than my brother, but just constructed differently. That “normal” guys had all the insecurities I had, but showed them in ways that I misunderstood. And that none of the above was my fault; more than that, that none of it was anything wrong.

As much time as I’ve spent working to get into the boys’ club, every once in a while I realize: I’m already there, and everyone inside is just like me. Only different.