Wednesday, March 26, 2014

ramble on

The first sip of beer doesn't count, the one that happened at the dinner table when I was seven. That wasn't me drinking; that was my dad amusing himself, and I gagged on cue. No, the real one came right after I turned 13, in the summer of 1982*.

*1982 again. I don't know what to tell you. I guess it was a hot one.

I'm up on Orcas Island with my family, staying as we always do at Camp Indralaya, which is a Theosophical camp my grandparents founded with some other folks back in the '20s. This isn't a kid's camp. This is a grown-up camp...oh, hell, here's the link. This is Indralaya. And it's ours, it's in our blood. We've gone every summer, have since birth, just like my dad did, since his birth.

I really want to jump to that first beer. There's a magnetic pull. I don't feel like saying who I was with or how I got there yet. I want to skip the set-up and go straight to the can of beer, to the opening in the can of beer, that little rounded black hole after I'd popped it open with that exciting thock. I looked at that opening for a long while before I took a drink. Or maybe I didn't, maybe I didn't hesitate, maybe I threw it back. Maybe I'm just slowing down the clock now to see what was happening. I'm going to come back to the opening in the can a little later. It's important. It's a portal: a tiny, black, Alice-in-Wonderland swimming hole that led somewhere I couldn't really return from, and didn't really want to.

But let me pan out first. We're up on Buck Mountain on a semi-clear night, away from Indralaya. A group of more advanced teenagers and I have snuck off from camp in the back of a pickup truck, and we're parked off a little dirt road. We've climbed out of the truck and we're sitting in ones and twos and threes on various rocks on the mountain slope, our view unobstructed: lots of stars, some clouds, the dark outlines of trees, the vague, murky shapes of other islands. We've got a flat of warm Rainier beer, and no plans but to sit here and drink it. I'm on a rock by myself, Jamie McGrath has just handed me a can of beer, and I've taken it from him, all casual, like I've sat on the sides of so many mountains with so many teenagers and so many cans of beer that I've lost count.

And there it is in my hand, the can, warm and sleek and shiny. My own to do with as I please. This is momentous, more momentous than pure transgression. I have a choice in front of me. I mean, I've already made it, but this can of beer is going to cement it.

I have to give you background, but I keep rebelling. I have to tell you more about Indralaya and more about my family to get you where we're going, but I don't want to. It's not easy for me to talk about Indralaya. I loved it so much in my childhood, but something started to curdle for me there.  

Here's what you need to know for now, bare bones:

1. You need to know about these two. 

Those are my grandparents, Fritz and Dora. I didn't plan to write about them tonight—I really just wanted to write about beer—but they've inserted themselves into the narrative. What you need to know is what huge figures they were, not just in my family but in our family's larger social world. Granny was a famous clairvoyant and healer and all-around terrifying figure, for me at least, and Papa was a massive intellect and ultra-idealist (who died when I was two, and so disappeared into a cloud of legend), and both were major figures in the Theosophical Society. Niche stuff, doesn't mean anything to most people, but Fritz and Dora may as well have been planet-sized in our little domain. At Indralaya, they were pretty much gods. 

2. You need to know that at Indralaya, and in my immediate family, the overall atmosphere was serious. Theosophists were serious-minded, spiritual, refined. I'm conflating the two—Theosophists in general and my family in particular—to give you a quick flavor. Vegetarian food, PBS, classical music, dusty talk of classical Buddhist/Eastern/esoteric texts. Nothing slowed-down or simplified for kids. You get on the ship at the speed it's sailing or you don't get on at all. My older brother, David, was a genius and dialed in to everything they were talking about, so he could ride with the adults at the dinner table. I was not a) a genius or b) interested, and so I could not and did not ride. 

3. When we were kids, Granny thought David was the caterpillar's kimono, and that I was...who was I again? Two grandchildren, you say? She didn't attempt to hide her adoration of my brother and her distaste for/lack of interest in me. That's a drag with any grandparent, but with a clairvoyant one, you can develop a complex.

4. Last thing. And then back to my beer! To be a non-genius, unserious kid at Indralaya is fine, no big problem. If you're me, and your grandparents are Fritz and Dora, you eventually become conscious of a little extra eye on you to see if you're going to develop into something noteworthy/worthwhile, but until that kicks in, you're free to race around those eighty acres without a care. But the clock is ticking. Once I hit a certain age, there's going to need to be a reason for me to be there, a reason of my own.

Okay. I think that's enough to get you through. 

So we're at Indralaya now, and it's the day leading up to the night at Buck Mountain. I'm in the meadow talking to a guy named Jonathan, who's 19 and foxy, with a burnished tan and curly dark hair of insubordinate length. He lopes around camp in a baggy t-shirt, cutoffs and flip-flops, and talks in the slow drawl of the perpetually stoned. 

He says to me, there on the grass in the sunshine, "I like you. You're not like the rest of your family. You're cool."

The glow that spreads through me is unsayable. I've suspected/feared/hoped I'm not like the rest of my family, but nobody's ever presented that to me as a good thing. David and I are the heir and the spare, respectively. But now I'm hearing that I have some currency of my own! I want what he's saying to be true, in every way. I want to be cool. I don't need to be like my family. There's a glass ceiling for me in my family anyway that I'm never going to crack. I can feel it. I don't have the talent for it. This news is astonishing. I feel like a birthday candle that just got lit. The sun is setting, too, and everything's gone gold. I have something now. 

And hurray, finally, we're back on Buck Mountain. My beer! My first can of beer, and its little opening. 

Let me first say that it feels fucking fine on this mountain, away from Indralaya, under the stars. There's so much space around us. Space in both senses: what the night sky reveals, and room to breathe. Nobody is watching me. That's different from nobody seeing me/seeing too much of me, and it's good. 

And now, my beer. If I do this, if I dive into that dark little swimming hole, with its sour, wheaty smell, that's it. I know that I'm saying hello to all kinds of things, trouble among them, scariness, but freedom. And I'm saying goodbye to something even more fundamental. I'm shifting my allegiance. I'm cutting a cord. I'm turning in my card. I'm leaving. 

There's a little fear, and a little sadness. That was my family. Those were my people. But space, stars, distance. This feels better than anything. This is how to do it. 

And so I do it. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


That's a paper towel tube with electrical tape wrapped around it, to answer your first question. Back in college, my friend Jessica would make drawings of funny little objects, labeled at the top with whatever they were—a tipped over carton of milk, a hairbrush filled with hair—and captioned underneath with, "Yes, but why?" So, a paper towel tube with electrical tape wrapped around it: Yes, but why? 

That's not just a paper towel tube, is why. That's my spine, or a model of my spine. Okay, but why? This is an exercise a teacher gave me. He asked me to get something to represent my spine, and then to get some tape, and wrap tape around the parts where I felt like I had some energetic or emotional blockages. And so I did and then we talked and I told him what I guessed each block of tape was doing there, how it might have gotten there. (This is a great exercise, by the way. You can borrow it.)

The tape in the middle, that third stripe of black, that's where the story I'm about to tell you comes from. They're all about fear, all the stripes, but I think I figured out that the one in the middle is the fear of ostracism. It's the fear of asserting myself in a way that could invite ostracism, more specifically. It's got a couple of other fears packed in there, too, but that's the relevant one. That's the ringer.  

We're going back to 1982 now. Pour yourself a Tab or a Pepsi Light or whatever and get comfortable.

Eight p.m. on a Friday night—after our softball victory, after our victory pizza—we're cruising around in Coach Karen's black Corvette. Karen is 19 and beautiful and shares an apartment with her boyfriend, Jim. We're doing a sleepover at Karen's tonight, and she and Jim have crammed our entire team into their two cars and are taking us out for the centerpiece of the evening's activities, which is just this, driving up and down Lake City Way. When we first moved here in 1978, cruising was the centerpiece of all teenage weekends, as far as I could gather. Lake City Way popped and revved all night, even though there was nowhere to be outside of a car. Now, in 1982, cruising's waning, but everything hangs on a little longer in our scruffy neighborhood, and we're just barely teenagers, so we're amped to be out on the road en masse. I get to be in Karen's car, and I feel lucky in my backseat spot. I feel lucky to be here at all. I don't quite know how I got here, on this team, in this group. For the first time, I'm popular. It never stops amazing me. Everything is shining these days. 

Our softball team, The Preps, is undefeated. Karen's dad is a bigwig at Domino's pizza, so not only do our jerseys have the Domino's logo on them (along with some cartoonish, non-Izod alligators we've sewn onto the chests) but we get free pizza after every win. We just stop at the closest Domino's to whatever field we're playing on that day, Karen goes in and says a few words, we loll on the sidewalk waiting, and soon a stack of pizzas is brought out to us. We're 6-0, despite the fact that we play in stiff, dark Levi's and Top-Siders instead of shorts and sneakers. I'm the catcher, and nearly worthless at it, but everybody else on the team is so good that we never lose. The post-game pizza has become our divine right. We're not even that excited about it any more. We're just bored and smug. I haven't contributed to our wins in any particular way—I never make any runs or get any outs—so mine is a contact smugness. 

The music in Karen's car is cranking. Asia's on the radio right now, with "Heat of the Moment". It's tough to describe one stretch of Lake City Way as more drab than another, as the whole thing is just a series of car dealerships, strip clubs, gun shops and fast food restaurants, but we're coming up on a stretch that's emptier and more dimly lit than the rest, past the Italian Spaghetti House, where nothing really is. A figure is walking by the side of the road, and in a minute he becomes recognizable. It's Charles McGovern.

I have to jump in and explain something. In the language we're using these days to describe outcasts, there's a hierarchy. The softest insult on the spectrum is dork. You can be called a dork yourself and it's not even a flesh wound. Everyone is a dork now and then, even the coolest people. Even Linnae Dengah is a dork, though probably not very often. You don't want to live at dork level, of course, but there's the sense that you could survive if it came to that. Nobody has vitriol for something as harmless and unassuming as a dork. They can be entertaining, and some dorks have gently jocular relationships with extremely popular people. There's good-natured teasing, and dorks tend to take it well, no harm done. 

A spaz is just a louder, more intense, more inveterate dork, but the spaz often has a kind of joie-de-vivre that saves him (and it's always a him). Spazzes get in trouble with their teachers, too, which creates a distant, accidental camaraderie with the toughest popular kids, and so the spaz stumbles on mostly unmolested.

The nerd does not have it so easy. A nerd is a magnitude or two more difficult a thing to be than a dork or a spaz. Nerds are overt, willing brains, quiet and serious, far less fun than dorks, no fun at all. Nerds are unpleasing to the severely popular. What gives them the nerve to be so smart? Teachers adore nerds, never hassle them. Something is unfair. The popular person feels edgy, bothered by the presence of the nerd. But if a nerd plays his or her cards right, stays quiet enough, he or she can pass mostly undetected and avoid the worst. At least that's the hope. Write small, talk small, dress small, no untoward broadcasting of your smarts, and try to smile a little. Nerds are grim, and that grimness is a rebuke to the aggressively laid-back popular person trying to have a good time. Dangerous.

Then there's the geek, who occupies the bottommost rung of the social ladder (though there's another category of being so low as to be off the ladder altogether). The geek is the offspring of the nerd and the spaz, inheriting neither of their saving graces. The geek lacks the academic gifts of the nerd, so teachers are no solace, but the geek also has none of the spaz's blitheness, which at least offers a kind of foggy protection among his peers. This is dire. It's social doom. There's no way out. A geek has no moves, and barring a miracle, it's akin to a life sentence. If you spend enough time as a geek, a kind of loneliness and despair will settle around you and sink into your pores, and then your bones, and you will transform into the worst thing you can possibly be: a freak. 

There are two ways to be a freak. Only one way is good—and one is good, even if nobody high on the social ladder recognizes this. The good way is to not give a fuck, to flamboyantly not give a fuck. Successful freaks wear whatever they like, hang out with whomever they choose, and they're not afraid of a fight. That's the key. Have a go at this kind of freak and they'll have a go back at you harder; they might even call on some mysterious freak army from another part of the city, who knows? This seems possible. The keyword for this freak is liberation. You may not like them—they're galling—but you grudgingly respect them. They've freed themselves from all of this bullshit. 

(And it is bullshit, of course, worse than bullshit, more poisonous; who doesn't know that now? But I knew it then, too, as much as I wanted to pretend I didn't. I was scared, so I pushed the knowledge down. But I knew it, I did, and I went along anyway.)

The other kind of freak, the worst freak, has already given up and died inside. An essential weakness has metastasized. It's no longer about geeks and dorks and nerds and what you do and don't do. The lowliest freak is a walking wound, sorrow incarnate, a reminder of what could happen to anybody if you get on a long enough losing streak. 

Charles McGovern is a freak, the second kind. There he is right now, walking down the worst part of this sad street, wearing his perpetual blue sweater with the black Charlie Brown zigzag across the chest, his army green jacket, his thick black glasses stark against his white face. He's as pale as can be—a ghost, translucent—with dark circles under his eyes. His hair is deep, bright, almost Ronald McDonald red. He's unbearable to look at. He's the most vulnerable being I've ever seen; he terrifies me, as though he's carrying a disease I could catch. The cloud of sadness he walks in is as visible as Pigpen's dust. He agitates me! Why is he so sad? Why is he so thin? Why is he so tired? Why does he only wear that one sweater every day? Doesn't he know he can get crucified for that, just for that alone? He's infuriating, he's upsetting. He won't save himself! What is his home like? Where are his parents? Why won't they make him change his sweater? Why is he walking alone at night on this horrible stretch of Lake City Way? 

"Oh my god, it's Charles McGovern!" somebody screams. Everyone exclaims and gasps, turning to look. Tanya Carson* turns, Sonia Kim* turns, Cheryl Leed* turns, Paige Anderson* turns. The front passenger window is rolled down, and a girl—one of us, I don't remember which, and anyway we were practically one organism—sticks her head out of the window and yells, "Freak! Go home! Go take a shower!"

*names changed to protect the...well, anyway. Names changed.

He sees us. He hears us. He barely turns his head to look, but he does, and he just keeps walking. It's as though there's no more damage we can do, like he's a person in a movie who's been shot ten times, and we're delivering the pointless eleventh bullet. 

The car erupts in hot exhilaration. Something has happened! Friday night has delivered! There's excited chatting and laughter and more gasping, as though we, this carful of girls, have somehow come close to being harmed in that transaction. I make all the right laughing noises, and sounds of assent. 

Blackout. Return to 2014. 

So I have this paper towel tube. This model of my energetic spine. I feel nervous saying "energetic spine" to you, but what the fuck was the moral of this story if I don't say what I mean? I'm not talking about my bones. I'm talking about some bright channel of life running up the center of my body, and everything hidden in there that got stuck one way or another. Stories, lies, patterns. And this paper towel tube, this class-project-looking thing I made, it feels alive when I hold it in my hand, like something real transferred in there, something useful. 

This is the part where I don't know what to say. Charles McGovern probably doesn't read this blog. If you do, Charles, I don't know what to say that would be good enough. The obvious word is too small, so I don't even want to say it. 

The goal over time is to somehow get all the tape off. Slow and steady. That's the plan, since I don't have a time machine. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

el bachelor

Look, fine, okay, fine, look. I watch The Bachelor. I have always watched The Bachelor*. What's more, I don't just watch The Bachelor sometimes, or a lot. What I'm saying is that I never don't watch The Bachelor.

*and, naturally, The Bachelorette

Even when I was sick in the hospital last year—too sick to watch the Oscars!—I was like Bachelor and I did, forcing my eyes up to the screen in between bouts of throwing up, which was a triumph of the spirit of fun, I think.

I read books, okay? I read big ones. I just started rereading War and Peace, which I almost finished twenty years ago, and I have every reason to believe that I can almost finish it again. I also listen to classical music on purpose, and I've seen a dance performance this very year! And it was a dance about Socrates! So when you judge me, fold that in.

What can I say? Watching ladies and gentlemen fight each other to bag a hottie relaxes and invigorates me. I'm married—I've been with Dave for ten years and some change—and so I'm out of the game. Watching The Bachelor gives me the chance to armchair quarterback a little. Also, there's a strong rubbernecking component because HOLY JESUS, who would put herself through something like this? I met Dave on a yoga retreat in Hawaii that I went on with my best friend and some other excellent folks, and I remember weeping tiny tears leaning against a van window on a trip home from the beach because my friend had fallen asleep on Dave's shoulder in the back seat. Her head was touching him! All was lost. Our love would never be. If we multiplied that by 25 but with women who were actually trying to wrestle him out of my grip, I'd have gone bald from the stress. It's awful/wonderful to witness, like watching a typhoon from inside a warm, well-stocked, indestructible house. 

My mom also watches The Bachelor, and this has brought us closer together. Every week she says, "It's a horrible show. It makes me sick. I don't think I'll watch it again," and then she watches it anyway and calls me during a commercial, all, "What do you think of the preschool teacher? I think she's nice." We've watched it together a few times, but this gets dicey as a season wears on and the making out gets more intense. She'll say things like "Do you think they're going to suck face again?" which is a troubling and totally unauthorized use of slang. A of all, nobody says that anymore—if they ever did—and b of all, she particularly times a billion does not say that. My mom saying suck face is about as credible as me attempting to work a stripper pole. I promise you that that analogy is proportional. 

The latest season just ended on Monday night, and it featured the most wack Bachelor ever, a narcissistic former professional soccer player from Venezuela named Juan Pablo whose air supply was apparently going to run out if he didn't have his hands on a woman's face at all times. Truly, he was the most face-fingering man alive, constantly stroking temples and chins and foreheads and noses, whispering "It's okay," and "Stop crying." 

The final two contestants were a pediatric nurse named Nikki from Kansas City and a hairstylist named Clare from Sacramento. Clare's speech pattern made me want to kick my television. 

Everything? She said? Was so?

*pause forever*


But poor, starry-eyed Clare got slut-shamed and then rejected something fierce by Juan Pablo, so she had my sympathy. What was truly wonderful, however, was when the final two women met his family. They know better than anybody what a dick Juan Pablo is, and they did their best to convey this to the women without outright crucifying him on camera. Examples, only the slightest bit paraphrased from memory:

Juan Pablo's mother, Nelly: What do you like about him?
Clare: He's honest!
Nelly: He's rude. You know, he's made me cry many times.

Juan Pablo's cousin, Rodolfo: So how much fighting are you prepared for?
Nikki: Well, I think a certain amount of fighting is healthy.
Cousin Rodolfo: So if things get difficult, and he walks away—which he will—how much are you willing to sacrifice to make it work?

Juan Pablo's father, Saul: Juan Pablo is a difficult man. He's not easy. And he's always right. 
Nikki: That's great. He's honest. So...that's good. 

Nelly: What do you imagine your weekends will be like?
Nikki: We'll probably go to the beach with his daughter during the day, maybe the lake, and then we'll come home and do family things, play games maybe in the evening.
Nelly: What will happen is that you'll make him breakfast and then he'll watch TV all day. Juan Pablo is a simple man. Are you sure you want a simple man like Juan Pablo?
Nikki: .....yes. 

Nelly: Do you love him?
Clare: I do.
Nelly:  Are you sure?

It was one of the most pleasing segments I've ever seen. They didn't throw him under the bus, exactly. They just gently made sure that when the bus took off, he was under it. I was hoping for more and more obscure relatives to pop out of the woodwork and give him delicately negative Yelp reviews. 

Great-Uncle Felipe: How do you feel about always being the person to take out the garbage? Juan Pablo doesn't like to do that. 

Ancestor Dora: He's never been all that kind to animals. Do you care for animals much?

Cousin Virgilio: On a scale of one to ten, how important is fidelity to you? Is it over, say, a three? I am simply curious. 

In the end, Nikki "won", if winning is having a handsome douchebag announce to you that he has a ring in his pocket but he's not going to propose, then grab your face and whisper "Don't be cranky" to it over and over while the credits roll. Which—no lie—is how the show ended, and which is exactly why I watch it in the first place.