Tag Archives: sal

Dear folks,

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program of posting to bring you this special announcement.

You know my best friend Sal, the dude who shows up with such regularity on my blog that he has his own tag? He wrote a book, which is available on Kindle. It’s the kind of thing only he could have written, which is to say that reading it is a lot like spending time with him. I guess I’ll have to out him, now, too, as J. B. Toner, or just Jamey to me.

J. B. TonerPackaging not typical. Contents under pressure. Some settling may occur during shipping.
Accessories not included. Accoutrements may vary from those shown. Not actual size.

The ideas and images in the book springs are pretty much what you’d get if you cracked open Jamey’s skull on any given Thursday afternoon, which is to say that it’s full of poetry, martial arts, angels, demons, and a liberal helping of qi. Like imagine if G. K. Chesteron and Gerard Manley Hopkins had a baby together and that baby was raised on Dragon Ball Z. That baby would be this book. Actually, that baby would probably be Jamey, but that baby could also write this book.

Okay, a couple of excerpts. Here’s from the bit where one of the characters is starting to awaken to his true nature:

Plato said life was like being chained up in a cave and only ever seeing shadows on the walls from the firelight. But once in a while, someone got loose and made it outside, and then they had to try and figure out what the daylight was and where it came from and what it meant. Maybe that’s what was happening to me, I thought — maybe one of my chains was coming loose.

Then there’s this:

Her face was grave, and unafraid. “If you mean the Devil, then yes. I have seen his face, behind the eyes of men with guns. Most were as you say, only bad men — but some of them were things, evil things, that had taken men’s bodies and their hearts…”

Yipes. And some of this:

At high speeds on narrow streets, nothing’s in the distance; everything explodes in your face, a wailing plummeting kaeidoscope of streaking headlights and swerving grilles, Dopplering horns, shrieking brakes, and the earth-shattering roar of your engine.

Okay, you should probably just buy it. It’s available as a Kindle ebook only, at least for the moment, but if you don’t have a Kindle you can still read it on your PC or your Apple device or your Android.

It’s the start of a series, too, called The Shoreless Sea. The book is called The Nephilim Effect, and here is the link.

the-nephilim-effect

Love and barley,
Joey

It’s 2003, and I am afloat emotionally and spiritually and socially and nearly every other way a 20-year-old can be afloat. The administration keeps talking about community, like it has for the last three years: building it, taking part in it, respecting it, supporting it; but I don’t know what community is, don’t even know that I don’t know what it is. I feel like I’m alone on a sinking ship.

I think some kind of class spirit is supposed to have gelled by now, but it hasn’t. A couple of people have noticed the way I glom onto the new freshman class every year. I hear, secondhand, that they think I’m purposely aloof from my own class. Really I’m just looking for a second chance.

This year one of the incoming freshmen is Sal. He hasn’t been there long before he has pulled together a small cadre of freshman guys, through sheer force of levity. I don’t know how he does it or how he got what he has or why I get to be on the inside, but I do, because Sal is my friend. I am the stray electron to his free radical.

We are drinking cheap wine in somebody’s dorm room. Privately, I am elated and terrified: elated because here we are, a bunch of young guys, drinking and making dirty jokes, just like you are supposed to do; terrified because at any second I may be found out. What, exactly, will be found out? I don’t yet know how to ask myself this question.

I laugh a laugh that is not quite mine and wait for just the right moment to pronounce the casual-sounding sentence that I have spent the last five minutes constructing, hoping desperately that nobody knows me well enough to hear all the false notes. And wishing desperately that somebody did.

While everyone else is blowing off steam, I’m building it up, because this kind of performance is hard to sustain. Finally everyone is gone but me and Sal. I burst into tears and explain incoherently that it’s all fake, that I just wanted to be normal, that I don’t know how to do any of this, that none of it comes naturally. Above all I accuse myself of what I consider the worst of sins: being a fraud.

Sorry, Sal, I don’t remember what you said to comfort me, because I couldn’t hear anything except what was in my own head. Anyway it’s not always important what friends say with words. I remember that we were sitting on the floor and you touched my ankle kindly, which meant a lot, and that when I stumbled out of the room, trailing a good six inches of snot from my nose, the look on your face didn’t show anything but warm concern. That meant a lot, too.

It’s a decade later. I have been learning how not to take seriously the kind of nonsensical, spontaneous self-accusations that my mind still throws at me from time to time. When they pop up like moles I whack ‘em down again, with my well-practiced hammer, or just watch them sail by.1 As a result, they have been popping up less and less, and making less noise when they do.

I am learning that the thing I called conscience was mainly neurotic guilt, and that my actual conscience is a lot quieter and more easily ignored; that neither the best things about me nor the worst things are what I would have expected.

I am better at friendship now, good at it in fact, if friendship is something you can be good at. A lot changes in ten years. I know that being inauthentic isn’t the worst sin, and that being completely authentic all the time is something only gods and beasts can do.

My therapist puts the cap on all this for me when she gives me a safeguard against that tension and guilt, a way to acquit myself of the constant suspicion of falseness. “You can’t be false,” she said, “if you are taking delight in the person you’re with.”

That cuts right through the Gordian knot of self-absorption. I don’t have to monitor myself, to “watch over my own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute”.2 I just have to focus on the people I’m with, and be glad to be with them. Less of me, more of them.

That’s not so hard.

1 Sail by, like moles. This metaphor may have gotten away from me.
2 What were you thinking, Dostoevsky? The quote’s from Fr. Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov, and it’s just terrible advice, at least for anybody who’s already prone to living in their own head. The Russians, you can’t trust ‘em.

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. ]

1: Black Dog

I know y’all have been praying for me. I know some of you pray for me all the time. I’m so grateful, and I do my best to return the favor. I’ve had a hard month or so, and I hate having hard months, because I’m not supposed to have those, and haven’t had one for years; kinda thought they were done with. So I’ve been moping around like the emoest of emo kids, spilling out over the side to anyone who will listen.1 Not ready to write about it just yet, but things are looking up; and a hearty thanks to everyone whose ear I’ve been bending lately.

2: Dying Animal

There’s a rich irony, I guess, in the fact that it’s only in the last four years or so that I’ve discovered how it actually, Surprise!, makes you feel good to get exercise; and it’s also in the last four years that my spine has decided to get all bulgy & subluxated & whatnot, so that I can’t be nearly as active as I want. It’s not that it’s so bad, I just hate having to be so careful. Like my sister says: how come you have to get good sleep, and exercise, and eat carefully, and go to therapy, and ALL THIS STUFF just so you can feel normal? I like my body, but I can’t wait for the resurrected version.

3: Good Stuff

Hey, check out this terrifying and enlightening and funny article by Dan Lord, whom I’ve somehow just gotten around to reading. While you’re at it, check out Letters to Christopher, a series of letters between a (fictional) uncle and his nephew on the subject of same-sex attraction. I’ve only read a couple, but I’ve found them bracingly honest. I also recommend a piece by Kevin Aimes called Sexuality and Astraphobia. Dude writes with verve — but be warned, there is at least one naked male butt on this website, albeit a very, you know, artistic one.

4: Bad Ass

After years of talking about it, Sal and I have set a date — okay, a year — for running with the bulls in Pamplona. It’s just far enough in the future to be deal-with-able, but just close enough to place it in the realm of actuality. There, Sal, I’ve gone and put it on the internet, so if 2015 rolls around and we haven’t yet come at least mildly close to being gored, please let me know exactly what a pusillanimous bundle of mediocrity I will have become, and I will do the same for you. Sal has also suggested we visit the famed HOLY CRAP IT’S A NEVERENDING LIGHTNING STORM of the Catatumbo River in Venezuela, and it’s not precisely on the way, but seriously: Wow.

5: Pure Gold

Oh my goodness, you should really read The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. It was an impulse buy, on the recommendation of Kate Beaton (who I only wish I actually knew), but I haven’t devoured a book so fast since I stumbled across Wonder Boys. Think Flannery O’Connor meets William Faulkner as directed by the Coen Brothers.

6: Roaring Lion

I read 1 Peter 5:8 at least once a week, ‘cuz it’s in Compline, but somehow I wasn’t aware of the full context until Wednesday, when it was the reading at Mass and was exactly what I needed.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time, casting all your cares on him, because he cares for you. Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil prowls around looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren who are in the world. But after you have suffered a while, may the God of all grace, who hath called us into His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, make you perfect, establish, strengthen, settle you.

7: Moonrise Kingdom

Other things I’m looking forward to: (1) Getting my poor ailing motorcycle fixed so I can (2) drive it to DC and visit old friends; (3) the new Whit Stillman; (4) The new Wes Anderson; (5) The new P. T. Anderson! I will be sorely disappointed if any of these movies stink. With Wes Anderson, at least, I’m used to being disappointed — but I mean, he couldn’t possible get more smarmy, right?, so the next one is bound to be good.

1 Ten points if you can identify this phrase!

…that I am back. This isn’t a real post or anything, just sort of a hello. Here are some things I did on my sabbatical.

  • Drove all over creation spending money like a drunken sailor
  • Had Christmas at my parents’ house, fought with my mother (in a productive way), and made my father cry (in a nice way), which is the opposite of how things sometimes go
  • Shot pool with an old friend who is still dear to me despite his latest idiotic attempts at self-destruction
  • Saw the Tintin movie, which was awesome
  • Discovered that Tony Jaa is basically a human panther and could kill you with his elbows
  • Visited Sal, ate too much pizza, drank too much beer, learned a very small amount of very painful jiu jitsu, and managed to say goodbye without crying, much
  • Played “Kill, Screw, Marry”, which is not a nice game but there was champagne
  • Took my little brother to experience his first Kung Fu class and got to be vicariously adrenaline-drenched all over again

In short, I messed up my schedule, lost my emotional equilibrium, regained it again, and threw out my back, all in about a week! Whew! I’m so glad it’s time to go back to work.

Yeah, I could do that. If I wanted to.

I caught a cold, or a flu, or THE BLACK DEATH or something last Friday. I noticed it at about 2PM, which meant by the time I got home I was ready for bed. I hate, hate, hate being sick, and I was determined to kick it by Monday, so bed is pretty much where I stayed all weekend.

When I used to work in a Catholic bookstore, there was a book I always saw (but never picked up) called Why Squander Illness? The idea, I assume, is that sickness is an opportunity for prayer, reflection, that passive purification stuff I talked about last Friday, and a little bit of redemptive suffering. An invitation to draw closer to God.

So obviously, I hunkered down in front of my laptop, finished the last few episodes of Angel, and proceeded to watch an entire freaking season of Breaking Bad.1

The problem is that being sick makes it very hard to pray. Praying comes naturally when you’re feeling great, or when some mountain vista or life-changing conversation fills you with awe and gratitude. Not so much when you’re lying in your own sweat, choking on mucus, and wishing your throat hurt less so you could toss more pills down it.

I fully admit to my wimpiness where sickness is concerned. Forget offering it up, I usually can’t even quit groaning for long enough to mutter a Hail Mary or two. I wrote a bitchy email to Sal about all this, and he responded with a story from a priest he knows:

Fr. [x] told us once that he visited a friend in the hospital and his friend said something to the effect that he felt guilty that he had all this time in bed with which he could be praying but instead he just kept lying there feeling horrible, and Father just said, “You ARE praying. Even if you don’t remember to offer up the suffering, that’s still who you are.” So. For whatever it’s worth.

Thanks, Sal, it was worth a lot.2 It reminds me of that bit in Richard Wilbur’s The Mind Reader:

Is there some huge attention, do you think,
Which suffers us and is inviolate,
To which all hearts are open, which remarks
The sparrow’s weighty fall, and overhears
In the worst rancor a deflected sweetness?
I should be glad to know it.

God might be our harshest judge; he’s got the material, or the evidence, since he knows the malice in our actions even when we hide it from ourselves. But the implication in the passage above is that he is also our most merciful judge, because he knows the sweetness in us. We hide that from ourselves, too.

Pride acts on the heart in equal and opposite ways. It makes us interpret our actions in the best possible light, because it convinces us that we can’t possible be that bad. But it can also make us interpret our sins in the worst possible light, because it convinces us that if we’re sinners, we must be AMAZINGLY AWFUL sinners.

No such luck. My vices are as puny as my virtues. I’m like a child, and it never shows up more than when I’ve got a nasty cold.

Good thing God likes children.

1 Which is a REALLY GOOD SHOW. At least in the sense of being morally serious, narratively cohesive, tightly (nay, Sophoclesianically!) plotted, beautifully shot, and masterfully acted. It also includes fairly explicit sex scenes, a lot of graphic gore, and some shocking brutality. So. Not for you if you don’t like that kind of thing. Maybe not for anybody. I’m still working that one out.
2 Dear Sal, I hope you don’t mind that I cannibalized your email, just a little bit, do you? I hope not. I’ll try to ask next time.

A couple of years ago I went to confession to Fr. B, an older priest with a slight New York accent, a pronounced shuffle, and a curmudgeonly demeanor. I explained — I hate the sins that take explaining — that I had put myself in a not-very-good situation. I was at the apartment of a friend, a man my age who also has SSA and who also has no intention of living as a gay man, though he’s not Christian. We were watching some stupid movie, I think it was Shoot ‘Em Up,1 and pretty soon, somehow, I was lying in his arms.

Oops. That was as far as it went, thank God, but this is what is definitely called an Occasion of Sin and Putting Yourself In It. I explained2 that we weren’t doing anything sexual, but were just helping each other to meet each other’s (legitimate!) needs for healthy physical contact.

Fr. B says: “Hm. Legitimate needs. Healthy physical contact. Maybe next time you want to try a firm handshake.”

I got the point, and in one sense he was dead on, but in another he was completely off the mark. Everyone — I don’t just mean men with SSA — needs physical contact, and sometimes a handshake doesn’t cut it. This is something it took me a long time to learn. When I was first working out what it meant to live with SSA, I used to take a completely hands-off approach: don’t look at other guys, don’t think about them, and above all don’t touch them.

But I was starving. It wasn’t until years later that I understood that my desire to touch, and be touched by, other men, wasn’t actually wrong. It was disordered insofar as it was sexual, but swearing off all physical contact is a quick route to a breakdown. A few more years of that mindset and I would’ve ended up at some truck stop off I-89 every other weekend.

Once I stopped thinking about physical contact as inherently sexual, and started understanding what a universal human need it is — does anybody think a five-year-old is creepy for hanging onto his dad? — a lot of the charge went out, in a good way. I started getting more comfortable with hugs, grips to the shoulder, casual and friendly touch. With my closer friends, I can go further: Sal is even more comfortable with this stuff than I am, and doesn’t think anything is strange about a thirty-second hug, especially if we haven’t seen each other for a long time.

Like everything else, it takes time to learn. There’s always the danger of making too much of a big deal about it, and of course the danger of fooling yourself, of not knowing where to draw the line. But we all need to be touched, no matter how old we are. To paraphrase Mark Twain: I could live for two months on a good hug.

Hey, I just remembered, even though a particular brother-in-law of mine might make endless fun of me for mentioning it: Art of Manliness has a great post about male friendship.

1 This in no way constitutes a recommendation of said film.
2 Pronounced “rationalized.”

“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.

I just dropped Sal off at the bus station. He’s moving on up north, to see his cousin and maybe get his old job back. My heart aches to see him go, and I know the apartment will be lonelier for a while, but it was time, and it was one heck of a visit.

We didn’t do much while he was here. Watched a bunch of movies, drank a bunch of beer. Went to adoration, went to Mass, hung out with mutual friends. Talked a lot, occasionally about things that mattered, but mostly not. Talked about writing and hacking, theology and martial arts, traded lines from Star Wars and Kung Pow.

A couple of Saturdays ago, we were sitting in the car after going to Confession. In a moment of courage born of prayer, I let him know about my SSA. His response was to put his head on my shoulder for a second, and then say regretfully that he wished he could reciprocate by telling me some dreadful secret of his own, but he didn’t have any that I didn’t already know.

And that was pretty much it. We talked about it a little more, then moved on. It seemed to make so little difference to him that I almost wondered if he had heard me right. But he did.

That is how Sal is. I talk and think a lot about how having SSA doesn’t put you in a separate category from other men, doesn’t make any difference to who you are. For me, though, sometimes it’s just talk, and sometimes I’m talking to convince myself.

Sal, for the hundredth time, showed me what these things really look like — to love unconditionally, to love without reservation. I could never deserve a friend like that.

But God doesn’t always give us what we deserve. Maybe never.

Sal

flameSal and I see each other every year or two. He’s the last of the three men in college that I tried to attach myself to, but unlike with the other two, once the infatuation faded, I still wanted to be his friend.

Sal is an extraordinary person — affectionate, compassionate, and profoundly unconventional. He led a life that, at the time, I considered extremely romantic: never staying in one place for too long, picking up a job here or there, going homeless for long stretches of time. He’s also the only straight guy I know who likes hugs more than I do, and he doesn’t seem to wonder whether people think he’s odd for it.

By the time I became friends with him, I had learned what could happen when I didn’t guard my heart, and how easily affection could turn into obsession and dependency. We were roommates my senior year, which was the only year he spent there before moving on to something else.

He was hard to guard against, though. Once, before spring break, he gave me a poem he had written for me. Nothing sappy, nothing particularly about me, but it was for me, written with me in mind. I remember standing on the porch at home, reading the thing and feeling the warmth spread. Feeling pleased and worried at the same time, because I knew where that warmth could lead. It had happened twice before and I was terrified that it would happen again.

The first few years of our friendship were a battle for me. I was learning how to be close to another man without being too close; to admire but not to worship, to let down my walls without erasing my boundaries. Our occasional visits were intense and poignant: standing next to all that warmth, I wanted to throw myself into the fire.

A lot has happened since those years. I’ve learned a lot about standing on my own, not depending on others too much for my sense of self, being my own man. But I was still knocked for a little bit of a loop when Sal showed up at my door a few weeks ago, at the end of a spell of vagrancy, wondering if I was looking for a roommate.

He’s been sleeping on the couch since then. He’s got a job at the gas station down the road, working the graveyard shift. I don’t exactly know what to do with him. We’re as close as we’ve ever been, but the old charge is all but gone, thank God. I’ve prayed about it, I’ve sought the advice of Father T, and in both cases the answer has been the same: Do what you want to do, and what you think is best.

Just got to figure out what that is.