Tag Archives: normality

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.

Lent really snuck up on me this year, the way Christmas never does. Of course there’s no real reason for the culture at large to get all geared up for Lent, since Lent usually means people buying less, not more. I doubt most people notice Lent at all, except for wondering about the black smudges.

Still, that’s not a very good excuse for (1) eating a triple-size meal for Ash Wednesday dinner even if I technically sort of fasted the rest of the day — American Catholics (I mean me) are such wimps, srsly — (2) commemorating the first Friday of the season with significant quantities of beer, and (3) ignoring the blog for a full week. Oops, oops, oops. Feeling like Jill and Eustace in The Silver Chair: it hasn’t been Lent very long, but I already seem to be doing rather badly.

No, I’m not wallowing in the famous Catholic Guilt, but it’s clear that I need some balance, especially socially. My lack of blogging is mainly due to me being very social lately, and that part is good; but my social life tends to be either feast or fast, either spending the whole weekend alone or running myself ragged seeing everybody.

Or maybe that’s normal. If that word means anything. Makes me think of that bit in Punch-Drunk Love: “I don’t know if there is anything wrong, because I don’t know how other people are.”

Father T. had some good words on the subject in our conversation last week, but I’ve got to let them percolate a little more before I start talking about it. I know I’ve got to pray more, or pray better, or pray differently: to stop treating prayer as one more task to check off the to-do list, and start treating it like a conversation.

Anyway. Plenty to think and pray about. How’s your Lent going?

How do you talk to strangers? What are the rules? Nobody knows. I’m usually happy when a stranger speaks to me, and some strangers are happy when I speak to them, but everybody’s worried: will he think I’m weird? When I say Good morning, do I mumble or enunciate? How big is too big to smile at someone you don’t know?

The other day at the gym I kept catching the eye of a fellow swimmer, a man about my age, both in the pool and in the locker room. I didn’t mean to keep looking his way; you want to be careful about making eye contact in a locker room (although eye-to-eye contact can be safer than eye-to-elsewhere). When he was leaving, he caught my eye again, smiled, and waved. Relief: he didn’t think I was weird, just friendly.

Well, we were both dudes, and both swimming, why not? That’s enough common ground for a wave.

I overheard a conversation once between two (presumably straight) guys about gaydar and how it might work. One said to the other: if you catch another guy’s eyes and he looks just a little too long — you can tell. Ridiculous, or true? Maybe a little true. Most men do avoid each others’ eyes. Is that because they don’t want anybody thinking they’re gay, or for some other reason?

I’ve been getting to know the guys who live next door. The first time we spoke was when I was doing some work on my motorcycle. I think I wrote about this: we ended up killing a fifth of Maker’s between the three of us. Since then we chat occasionally, usually in the hall on the way to our respective apartments; last Sunday I stopped by for brunch; this evening I invited them to watch the game at my place on Sunday.

I know this is nonsense, but I sometimes feel like their amiability isn’t genuine — that they’re too normal, not to mention too good-looking, to really want to spend time with me. The feeling says a lot more about me than it does about them. I used to feel that way even about my friends. I remember that When Sal agreed to go on a road trip after my junior year, I wondered (and, poor guy, I even asked) if he was just being kind to the poor nerd. That was easier for me to believe than that he liked road trips and liked me.

We neurotics — or is that everybody? — go around building things up in our minds, constructing whole narratives out of stray glances and tones of voice, never suspecting that everyone else is every bit as simple and crafty and naive and guileful, as we are. Children afraid of our own shadows.

I was having a great night out at the bar — I was with mostly men, a situation that would have once tied my tongue completely, but I was doing great! I left the booth to use the bathroom. I was so pleased with myself for being social, and relaxed, and non-awkward, and normal, that I congratulated myself in the mirror.

Out loud.

For being so normal.

Then I heard the toilet behind me flush. I left the bathroom very quickly.

Conversation is like using a public urinal: the less attention you pay to it, the better it flows.1 I don’t mean Deep, Meaningful Conversations (DMC’s)2, I mean what’s usually called Shooting The Shit (STS). It’s something I’ve always been bad at.

In high school I occasionally got invited to all-male sleepovers, where the conversation followed a predictable pattern: first poop jokes, then talking about girls, then loopy dreamspeak until the last person passed out. I could very rarely get into the rhythm of these things, and would divide my time equally between being terrified that I’d say the wrong thing and terrified that I wouldn’t say anything at all. It was like a first date, all the time.

I was discovering coffee around the same time, and on one occasion I found that being heavily caffeinated lowered my inhibitions a little bit.3 so I would prep for these gatherings by drinking no fewer than three cups of instant Folger’s. Horrible stuff, and it didn’t usually work, though it did help with the paruresis.

Later on I somehow got the idea that conversation wasn’t Really Conversation unless it involved either half-baked metaphysical theorizing or profound self-revelation. The college I attended was a hotbed of seekers, oddballs, and eccentrics — among I tried to cultivate a reputation as King of the Oddballs — so this served me pretty well during those years. It worked less well after graduation, when I was confronted with the vast throng of more-or-less normal people.

And, again, it wasn’t just a problem of of talking to people: it was a problem of talking to other men. I’d freeze up, just go completely dry in my effort to say the right thing. I always wanted to talk theory and generalization, but conversations between men seem to consist in telling each other facts, and I seemed to be ignorant about most of the facts they cared about — and terrified to expose my ignorance, or to say something unmistakeably fruity.

Do most men talk that way because it’s how they’re wired, or is it a smokescreen, a way to avoid the important things? Probably some of both. But, really, it isn’t just men: even back then, I could do it too, when I wasn’t talking to someone I was desperately hoping would like me.

Besides, talking about Important Things all the time isn’t how people work: humankind cannot bear very much reality,4 or anyway not on a typical Thursday afternoon. It’s not how we usually get to know each other, and doing it all the time would be exhausting.

I’m getting better at it, the talking, the relaxing, but I’m still new at being good at it. Any time I get through a few hours of Shooting the Shit with my male friends and realize at the end that I wasn’t thinking about whether I was nervous or tense or awkward or fruity — wasn’t thinking about much, in fact — I feel great, and grateful, like I’ve done something worth celebrating.

It’s the little things. Like not being a tense neurotic nervous oddball maniac.

1 Yes, I am an occasional sufferer of paruresis, commonly known as “stage fright.” Sometimes I find that trying to silently recite Kubla Khan helps me get going, but I usually get stuck after “gardens bright with sinuous rills.” What the hell is a rill? That must have been some good dope STC was smoking.
2 Or DMC’s, as we used to call them in college. The term was coined by my friend M. to describe the kind of conversation that was always going on at 2am after heavy doses of alcohol and heavier doses of Hegel. DMC’s usually ended in tears, mutual professions of deep fondness, the forging of entire new paradigms of thought, or all three. Or sometimes you’d just pass out.
3 I know, alcohol does the trick a lot better, but I didn’t figure that out until college. Just as well.
4 See TSE’s Burnt Norton.

Something terrible’s going to happen. I don’t know what it is. My teeth are going to fall out, or I’ll lose my job, or all of my friends will suddenly decide that I smell bad and they don’t want to be seen with me. I can tell something terrible’s going to happen, because I’ve been feeling so good for so long.

My fellow pessimists-by-temperament will understand what I mean. I love God, really I do, but I haven’t got his sense of humor down just yet. Sometimes He talks the sweetest just when he’s got his giant Holy Mallet hidden behind His back. Wham!

So I just can’t quite shake the sense of impending doom. In, you know, a nice way.

My heritage has something to do with it. I’m 100% Jewish by birth — my parents were raised as cultural-but-not-particularly-observant Jews and eventually found the Church — and if there’s a more melancholy, neurotic people anywhere on earth, I’d like to meet them.1 But maybe not chat for too long.

There’s even a Yiddish word this kind of thing: kineahora,2 which you say to ward off the kind of bad luck that comes from talking about how wonderful everything is: as in, “He hasn’t allowed a single run all game, kineahora,” or “You know, I’ve never been hit by a semi while walking down this street, kineahora.3

And then there is habit. I’m just not used to feeling good. A lot has changed since college, and while I still have my bad days, the old black dog seems to be really dead this time,4 or at least he’s been thoroughly domesticated. So I still wonder in the back of my mind: Is this real, is this here to stay? Is this how normal people feel? Shouldn’t I feel worse?5

On the other hand, it’s good to know that feelings don’t stay. I doubt that I was ever full-on manic-depressive in the clinical sense, but I remember the highs just as vividly as the lows: it was like seeing the world in technicolor, everything just fit to burst, and knowing with complete certainty: This is it, I’ve found the secret, and I will FEEL THIS WAY FOREVER!

Until I didn’t. Ouch, ouch, ouch.

The thing to do, obviously, is just enjoy it while it lasts, and not worry when it’s gone. Hey, that’s William Blake, more or less:

He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.6

Now there’s a guy who knew what was up. Except for, you know, being a raving lunatic.

1 Jews are allowed to talk about Jews this way.
2 Pronounced to rhyme with “Dina-Cora,” Leo Rosten says, although we always said it with a short i.
3 WHAM!!
4 Kineahora.
5 Feeling bad about feeling good: practically the definition of neurosis.
6 From Poems From Blake’s Notebook, or so says wikiquote.

I love being alone, and I hate it. Am I a natural introvert, or a thwarted extrovert?

I spent all Sunday by myself. Some people would envy the pants off me for that — I’m thinking again of my married siblings. I know they love their kids and love spending time with them, but I know from my years as a teacher that being surrounded, all day long, by little people who need things, makes you crazy.

I enjoyed my day. I coded, watched a bit of Netflix, wrote, did laundry, accidentally deleted my blog, resurrected it again, spent some time tweaking it. Is it weird that I enjoyed a day like that? Is it normal? Is there anything called normal? Is it selfish or pathological or just okay?

Sometimes I feel guilty for spending too much time alone, like I’m feeding a tendency in myself that I should be trying to starve. But I played poker on Friday, and went out with friends for drinks and a movie on Sunday, so I rewarded myself with a day of total hermitage.

If I ever spend a whole weekend alone, it’s too much, and I get depressed. But even then, I can’t tell whether I feel crappy because I want people around me, or because I feel like I ought to want them.

I come by it honestly, by the way. My mother’s never been comfortable in social situations, and as for my father, he’s been known to leave by the back window — freaking literally — when company is coming. And I can dig that.

Ever seen Punch Drunk Love? It’s one of my favorite movies. Adam Sandler plays his usual emotionally-stunted, self-absorbed man-child, but with a tragic accent: he’s alone, miserable, has no idea how to act around people but no idea how to be by himself either.

Maybe my favorite line is this: “I don’t know if there’s anything wrong, because I don’t know how other people are.”

Yeah, I dig that too. My older sister once knew a girl with severe Asperger’s, who went around wearing strange, medieval-looking clothes and bringing people cookies in a basket. My sister says: There’s someone who got the chance to build herself from the ground up, without wondering whether her life fit anybody else’s patterns.

Which is a good thing, right? But it’s a fine line. Americans make a mantra out of self-determination; Caring What Other People Think is one of the few universally-recognized sins of the 21st century. But it can go too far, no? If I let my idiosyncracies run wild, I think I’d barely even be human. I’d go live in a cave somewhere.

As long as the cave had wifi and coffee and cigarettes.

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.

“I’m attracted to men too,” said Fr. S. in the confessional when I told him about my problem. He wasn’t fooling me. He’s not the kind of man you would even wonder about. Not that men with SSA are never virile; I’m plenty virile. (And if you disagree I’ll punch you in the head.) But he was clearly making some kind of Point.

“If I see a man who’s confident and strong,” he said, “I want to be around him. I want to be with him and be like him.” Yeah, but you don’t want to jump in bed with him, I wanted to say. But I took the point. It’s easy for a man with SSA to think that he’s completely different from other men, different all the way down to the core. But it’s not true.

Telling Sal about my SSA a few days ago was a strange experience, and I’m still processing it. A small part of me1 was hoping that he’d say, “Me too.” It’s a good thing he didn’t. But the reason I thought he might was because he, clearly, is a lover of men — forms deep bonds with men, like I do, and expresses his love with words and touch.

My suspicions, though, are telling. When I was a teenager and still coming to terms with the whole thing, I remember seeing two of my friends with their arms around each other’s shoulders, and wondering if they might be gay. In my mind, affection between men (especially physical affection) meant there was something sexual.2 I guess I still haven’t shaken the idea.

Knowing that it’s not true in Sal’s case, though, is a help. If he can feel as strongly as he does about me without wanting anything besides friendship, then there’s nothing wrong with the way I feel about him, either, and I don’t have to give it up.

Although, judging by the size of his name in the tag cloud, which isn’t even his real name for Pete’s sake, I might have to post about something else once in a while.

1 No, I’m not planning on making that joke.
2 With exceptions for professional athletes, who are allowed to pat each other on the butt without anybody looking twice.