Tag Archives: verbotenheit

“I remember,” I told my little brother on my last visit home, “when I realized that dressing fashionably wasn’t a betrayal of Gershom principles.”

I don’t mean my mother dressed me in flour sacks, growing up, or that there was ever a firm, spoken injunction against trying to look like we fit in anywhere. But aren’t unspoken rules the strongest kind?

When I was about 13, I was driving somewhere with my dad and we passed a Public School Kid,1 shuffling along with a t-shirt too big for him but not big enough to cover the boxers that showed above his sagging pants. He had two or three piercings. To my eyes, this was a scary, badass dude.

My dad let out his standard grunt/sigh of weary disapproval — this kid was everything that was wrong with the world! — and said, “Steve. Thanks for not being like that.”

He had no idea that what I heard was: “Thanks for not fitting in anywhere.”

Not Being Like That was one of the unspoken-but-firmly-established principles of Gershomhood, which included a whole list of things — some (as I now consider them) good, some bad, mostly neutral, but all verboten, under pain of disenfranchisement or at least mockery:

  • Eating conspicuously healthy food
  • Buying brand-name clothing
  • Being too intellectual
  • Being too lowbrow (with exceptions for The Three Stooges and Leslie Nielsen)
  • Hugging
  • Holding hands during the Our Father

Etc., etc. I don’t know whether this list seems consistent to the untrained eye, but to me the indefinable quality of Gershomhood runs through all of it, as unmistakable as a pungent odor, immediately identifiable to anybody with the right habit of mind.

It all had a weird power over me, due to my intense desire to belong. My fear at being caught listening to Celine Dion2 probably approached, in intensity, my fear of being discovered to be gay.

I’m not trying to tell you that my parents ruined my life by not encouraging me to use hair gel.

Yeah, it took me a while to understand — for example — that owning new furniture wasn’t a sin, and that going to therapy wasn’t a sign of weakness. But there’s nothing unusual in a kid unreflectively absorbing his parents’ preferences and turning them into prejudices. Some of it I probably made up myself and later attributed it to them; I wonder what my siblings’ list would include? (Feel free to chime in here, guys.)

After I had been at college for a little bit and had begun seriously to experience Other People, I think I went through a period of being sort of self-righteously un-Gershomly in front of my parents — I bet it really showed ’em when I pierced my eyebrow3 — but eventually I settled down and just tried to do my own thing, whatever it was; even if it sometimes happened to coincide with the sort of thing my father would approve of.

To this day, though, I get a kind of transgressive thrill when I eat at a vegan restaurant, shake hands during the sign of peace, put on cologne in the morning, or call somebody “dude”.

What about you? What were your family’s unspoken rules? Do you still follow them, or have you forsworn them completely, or have you just plain stopped thinking about them?

1 The Public School Kid was a firmly-established archetype in my childhood. They swore, listened to Metallica, and wore their caps backwards, even when the brim would’ve been useful for keeping the sun out of their eyes. STOOPID.
2 I don’t really listen to Celine Dion. Or maybe I do. Do I even like her? I’m not sure. I’m just worried I don’t hate her as much as I’m supposed to.
3 I bet most passive-aggressive people would be surprised and chagrined at how often their vengeful strategems go — not ignored, not resisted — but completely unnoticed.

I tried for over an hour to write this post about what happened today at the gym. It was about how, even though I found out my gym buddy Eddy is gay, and found this out by him hitting on me, and had to tell him that yes, I’m (1) gay, but also (2) Catholic and therefore (3) celibate, I feel nothing but good and satisfied and proud of myself.

Well, I do feel good and satisfied and proud of myself. I don’t feel regret. Starting something with him isn’t something I could have done. Eddy’s got a gentle smile and is built like a tank besides, and did I mention I have sort of a thing for Latinos? But in the end there’s only one man worth starting over for, worth turning your life completely upside down, and that man’s a Jew, not a Puerto Rican.

All the good ones are gay. Ladies? Amirite?1

I actually didn’t notice, until I emailed my friend D. about it, that I was kind of upset. I noticed that I was using more exclamation points than usual, and asking more questions, in rapid-fire: what do I do now? Do I start steering clear of the steam room? Change my gym schedule so we don’t run into each other? Can we still be friends? Should I have been more clear?

But I was clear. I told him I’m celibate; that I knew I couldn’t be both gay and Catholic; that I chose the one that I knew was more important. He apologized, said he felt like he was being a mala influencia, and I told him No te preocupes, I understand, I would’ve done the same thing.

It’s not that I’ve ever thought about him, much, outside of when we happen to cross paths. It’s not that we’re a match in any way, if being a “match” romantically with another man were even possible. It’s — heck, it’s not even that I’ve never been hit on by a man before. Just not by anybody I actually knew or liked.

Just as well I couldn’t patch together a glib post about how it’s all fine. Sometimes it ain’t fine. It’s not terrible, either, just not fine. Así es.

Just as well, too, that I’ve got Adoration tomorrow morning. It’s not like Jesus isn’t used to me complaining.

1 I have never actually typed this word before. Looks a bit like one of those Old Testament peoples: And the Israelites cut down the Amirites by the edge of the sword. And also their King, Og, who smelled of spoiled meat.

It’s not pretty, folks, but you knew it was going to show up here sooner or later, right? I’m talking about — I really don’t like the word — the big M, solitary vice, M-A-S-T-U-R-B-A-T-I-O-N.

Whew, that wasn’t so hard! Back when I was a wee lad, I glommed onto the fact that you didn’t have to say the word itself in confession. You just say “an impure act” and he says “with someone else or by yourself?” and you say “by myself” and you take your Hail Marys and you go and you swear never ever to do it again, not even if you really want to.

Lather, rinse, and repeat.

I don’t even remember where I got the phrase “an impure act,” but he knew what I meant. A friend in seminary tells me they specifically train you in common Confessional Euphemisms, as in: “Bless me father for I have sinned, I gave my boyfriend a birthday present.” (“But that’s not a sin! You’re a very thoughtful young woman.”)

Sort of strange that it should be so embarrassing to say, because I doubt I know a man who hasn’t done it. It might be because sexual matters lie very close to our hearts. Or maybe because it’s such an obvious failure: for Christians, a failure of chastity; for secularists, a failure of getting an actual woman (or man) to do the job.

I notice that lately, the Powers That Be are trying to deweirdify the phenomenon. Not an entirely wrongheaded goal, though their reasons for it certainly are. The idea abroad, just watch any sitcom, is that masturbation is healthy, masturbation is fine, nice people masturbate all the time. Here’s Planned Parenthood on the topic:

There are a lot of myths out there that masturbation is dirty, dangerous, or something to be embarrassed about doing. But the truth is, masturbation is a safe and healthy way to have sex, and it’s here to stay.1

Pardon me while I guffaw. Someone is very confused about what “having sex” means. They’d like to call everything “having sex.” I’d reverse it — what they call having sex, viz. wrapping yourself up in plastic to keep from making actual contact with your beloved, I call masturbation.

Tom Wolfe, reporting from the inside the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is a college frat house, relates2 this scene, in a similar vein, in I Am Charlotte Simmons:

Ivy Peters…appeared in the doorway and said, ‘Anybody got porn?’…This was not an unusual request. Many boys spoke openly about how they masturbated at least once every day, as if this were some sort of prudent maintenance of the psychosexual system.

The idea, I know, is that now that we’re all finally free of the rigid, puritanical, body-hating3 Catholic Church, we can do what we like and not make a big deal about it.

Now, there is actually something to this idea — at least the “not making a big deal about it” part. I remember reading in Healing the Unaffirmed4 about a man who was only able to stop his compulsive masturbation after being told by his therapist that it wasn’t that bad. And a friend has told me that, in order to deal with his problem with masturbation, he had to recognize that his usual cycle of (1) jerk off (2) descend into emotional self-flagellation (3) go to confession, was a kind of addiction in itself, sort of a binge-and-purge. The cycle can be broken by not giving in to temptation, but it can also be broken by not giving into self-hatred.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a big deal, because all sin is a big deal; because our sexuality isn’t to be treated lightly; and because, even if you can’t get your head around it, you have to at least admit that the Catechism very clearly calls it “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.”

Be mindful that the enemy always tempts us twice: first to sin, and afterwards to despair. If we could see clearly, we’d know how shameful every sin is, not just the obviously icky ones. But if we could see that clearly, we’d also know how much God loves us, and how ready He is to leave our sins, big and small, behind in the confessional, 100% forgotten.

1 For more Planned Parenthood goodies in their own words, see here.
2 A work of fiction, yes, but the scene has a ring of truth. I can’t recommend the book, by the way: I love Tom Wolfe, but I found this one unconvincing, pornographic, and depressing.
3 Pardon me while I guffaw again. If Catholics hated sex, we’d treat it like the secularists do: as a commodity, or just another need: like eating, scratching yourself, or farting.
4 I don’t remember much else about this book, so possibly it wasn’t that great. It’s a case study of various people with what the authors refer to as Emotional Deprivation Disorder.

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 like arguing. The more I’m surrounded by liberals, the more conservative I start talking. The converse is also true. I don’t, for example, have any great love for the Novus Ordo Mass in particular, but surround me with traddies and you’d think I came straight from Steubenville.1

This isn’t a great character trait. I’d like to think it’s because I’m perfectly balanced on every issue, but it’s probably just because I want to look brave and outspoken. Or something. There is something about parties in particular that makes me want to say exactly the wrong thing, just because everyone is trying so hard to do the opposite.

This is especially true at liberal parties, where so many points of view are verboten. I remember a party last Hallowe’en where I met an Oberlin alumna dressed as Dorothy. The only thing I knew about Oberlin was something about rainbow couches and gender studies, so I proffered the diplomatic remark (I had had a few beers, certainly) that Oberlin was destroying western civilization.

For some reason this struck her as offensive, but she also took it in the spirit in which it was offered — namely, a kind of beery sparring. So we sparred, beerily, for a while. Eventually, ineluctably, we came to the twin topics of abortion and homosexuality.2 Turned out she was bisexual, so my views there didn’t give me any points in her book either. I actually think I kept my cool pretty well all through being called a closed-minded, sheeplike bigot.

At some point in the discussion I thought it would be a good idea to play my trump card: as in, You think I oppose gay marriage because I’m insensitive to gay people, Well, what would you say if I WAS ONE?

Well, it wasn’t a great idea. It did defuse the situation a bit. She seemed to stop regarding me as some kind of evil authoritarian swine and and start pitying me for a medievalist self-flagellator. Sigh. We got friendlier after that, but I wasn’t able to make her understand that my life is not one of constant, tortured internal conflict. Some people imagine that, if you’re not having sex at LEAST once a week, you must be in TERRIBLE pain (whether spiritual or just pelvic), and must have to supplement yourself with various, hm, practices.3

Anyway. We parted amicably enough, and saw each other once or twice more. I stopped hanging out with her when, after inviting me and her gay friend C. out to a movie, she admitted that she had been trying to play matchmaker. To rescue me from the prison of my celibacy. This, after hearing that I would regard a homosexual relationship as a betrayal of the things I believed in most deeply.

Sheesh. Thanks, Dorothy. Dude wasn’t my type anyway.4

I’d draw a point from all this, but I have to go get ready for Mass.

1 If this sentence made any sense to you at all, then we probably know each other. Or at least we are guaranteed to know some of the same people. We may even be related.
2 Why “twin”? To start with, because if someone dissents from the Church about one, chances are they will dissent about the other, too — but this is enough fodder for at least a whole nother post.
3 Heh — actually, “supplement” is exactly right: some people regard porn & masturbation the way a nutritionist regards vitamin pills.
4 But then, what is my type? Tall, dark, and chaste?