RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Friends

(Year-Late) Dispatches From The Rose City

(Year-Late) Dispatches From The Rose City

Where I took my first breath of the pacific northwest’s crisp air is more a point of contention than one would realize. It has a lot to do with the idea of just where the Rocky Mountains end and the pacific northwest begins. Is it the divide between Idaho and Montana, which would place the popular university city of Boise in Cascadia? Or is it the cultural divide at the Cascade Mountains that splits the western hipsterville from ‘Murica 30 miles out? Some people would say that my first exposure to the elements in the great northwest came in a tired daze, when I awoke in the early AM hours in Spokane and stumbled off my train to stretch while it was making a water stop and splitting in half to take travelers to respective destinations in Oregon and Washington. Or perhaps it was a stop in Pasco, Washington, as the Amtrak crept along the bottom of the Columbia Gorge when I stepped off into the thickest mist and most humid air I’ve ever felt, which soaked my skin and clothes in a pleasant layer of dew. The one part of my journey that comes without argument is that it ended on an early Monday morning in Portland, where I left the Amtrak and took my greeting steps into a part of the country which, until that moment, had never existed as anything but a rumor.

My final stop before my excursion into Oregon was, of course, Chicago. My home for five years of my life was also the only real home I had ever come to know; during my years there, I finally learned to stop hiding. Buffalo was merely a city I lived in for a long time. Although my nativity there gave me access that tourists and n00bs wouldn’t find without an effort, my radical ways of thinking forced Buffalo into defensive mode. As a result, the city was never able to get its arms around me, so my relationship with The Nickel City – always strained a little bit – got outright rocky after the welcome my community in Chicago gave me. Chicago was my shining beacon on a hill. It was there that my true potential started to surface. Chicago became the bar by which I judged every place I’ve been since, and nowhere compared. So it was on this journey that I promised to stop making comparisons of any other city to it.

That being said, Portland made it a hell of a contest. My placements of Portland and Chicago on my list of favorite cities are first and second, and which goes where depends on my mood. I only developed two problems with Portland: One was that crossing the Willamette River was a pain in the ass. The other was the lack of PTA programs where I could finish the line of education I’m pursuing. The first one I was willing to put up with. The second one was more of an issue, which disappointed me because had there been the educational opportunity I needed, I would have cast my anchor right there.

The train station in Portland was set close to the cute, quaint little village part that every city on the west coast seems to have. The first thing I did was hop into a cab and have it take me to my hostel on Hawthorne. Giving the driver my money after the ride, I was delighted to be handed a rare two-dollar bill as part of my change. I was so sure it was a joke that I went to two different stores afterward to ask if it was real, and was assured everywhere that yes, it was legit currency.

Portland was a city of many surprises. It was proof that somewhere, a city planner cracked my skull open and pulled out the “ideal city” folder, then got to work. My hostel was run on rainwater, there were two iconic donut shops and one very large used bookstore, I didn’t pay any sales taxes, there were locally-owned businesses everywhere, there were microbreweries everywhere, cyclists glided fearlessly in small mobs, the street layout made perfect sense, the transit system worked, and it was easy to find good coffee cafes where I could sit down and watch the world go by. In the last couple of years, I’ve fallen in love with the TV show Portlandia. I was aware of Portland’s reputation as an outpost for the quirky and weird. I knew the cliches: Keep Portland weird. Portland, where young people go to retire. Portland, where the dream of the 90’s is alive. But that was TV, so I tried to keep my expectations reigned in. When I got to Portland, though, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein were making less of an affectionate parody and more of a travel documentary. Anyone who’s been to Portland can’t look at me and tell me they would be surprised if a 3D printer just popped up along the Willamette River. And that there wouldn’t be people in Portland trying to build their houses one plastic brick at a time using it!

The freaks and vagrants are magnetized to Portland, and it was easy to see why. As long as you were a decent person, anything you believed or did would be met with a quick shrug and a “that’s cool, man.” I can’t help but believe Portland exists in its own bubble, but I despise that description because it implies the dominance of a narrow set of beliefs that never got penetrated by the larger world. (And we all know what city I have in mind when I say that.) Portland wants the riffraff and will reject any corporation that tries to drop in with the sales pitch of making the city more “normal” or “family-oriented.” They’ll ignore Walmart, but they’ll be happy to accept Wall Marte as long as the profits all circulated in their own city. They hate Domino’s, but if someone thought to set up a Donny Moe’s, that’s okay as long as the pizza is edible. Even my hostel bunkmates were on the far side, even by the standards of hostel people. Politicking punks were typical hosteler fare there. One night, a very friendly surfer-like kid asked me if I wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle. I took him up on the offer, of course. Turns out that riding a unicycle isn’t quite as hard as it looks once you get a sense of balance for it. And it’s not as dangerous, either; if you fall over, your feet will almost automatically be the first parts of your body to hit the ground, and from there it’s easy to right yourself. The kid who was giving me my lesson said there was nothing to worry about. He had taught many people to ride unicycles, and only one of them had gotten hurt. The one who got hurt also happened to be drunk off his ass.

I spent my time in Portland trying to hit up good coffee and microbrew places suggested by a friend who lived in the area, but I also discovered a few spots of my own. I liked Blue Star Donuts, which makes French-style brioche donuts. They took 18 hours to make and were done every day by hand, and turned into unique flavors like Blueberry Bourbon Basil. I also came to understand the fierce rivalry between Blue Star Donuts and the more established and prevalent Voodoo Donuts. As I read and drank my way through the city, I kept getting thrown off by the lack of a sales tax. Oregon is one of five states that doesn’t have a sales tax, and it’s probably the best-known one. Like every other American, I learned early on to hate the sales tax with a passion because it’s a hidden cost. It’s being intentionally dishonest about the price a place will have on a product in order to try to squeeze out a little extra money. It was tempting to end all my monetary transactions with the question, “Are you SURE?!” and that did slip out of my mouth a few times.

I don’t go out of my way to visit kitschy attractions when I travel. I travel to see what’s interesting and unique about places and interact with the people who live there. But Portland had Mill Ends Park, a public park space consisting of a single evergreen tree and 452 square inches of space. No, “inches” is not a typo. The park is a single circle, two feet in diameter, sitting on SW Naito Parkway. It’s the smallest public park in the world, and a part of the best park system in America. But that was the only must-see thing on my Portland List. Everything else, I just went out and happened to stumble into. The Library, the Courthouse, Portland State University, Providence Park, and everywhere I found beer and coffee was a place I happened to walk into. Not that I’m complaining, because the lack of corporatization made every corner in the city look unique. Between that and the easy layout of the city, Portland is a place where it’s difficult to get lost. On the off chance you do manage to get lost, the people there are the types who are friendly enough to give you directions.

It was halfway through the week when I got the chance to see a friend I hadn’t seen in years. I let her know where my dates for being in Portland were set in stone, and she took pains to throw a wedge into an obviously busy schedule in order to see me and catch up. She was also a big help in letting me know what was worth trying, coming through a series of Facebook messages she sent me while I was on my way into the city. Apparently, Portland had stayed fluid even during the years since she moved there. We went to one of the local breweries, and even in there changes were always happening. She explained that the last time she went to that particular brewery, they didn’t serve food, and the place had been smaller at the time.

In Portland, I found something I didn’t think existed: A city that was tailor-made to my own specific tastes. Unfortunately, a possible move there may still be a few years off. I have a specific educational goal to finish pursuing which Portland didn’t offer. Maybe one day, though… In the meantime, I think I’ve found my new favorite vacation spot. You can keep your corporatized McDisney family tourist shit. I’ll go to Portland.

Sebastopol

Sebastopol

My little sister got hitched and I took on an insane onslaught of new experiences in a year which was already full of them.

My sister’s engagement went for awhile, so I had known there was going to be a wedding somewhere down the pipeline. But the where and when didn’t pop up until earlier this year. Now, between my schedule and current location, I never let myself fall into the mindset that getting to my sister and brother-in-law would be easy. But when my sister revealed the location during one of our online conversations, my heart dropped a little bit. It was going to be in Sebastopol, a little resort village in California. Wanting to be the well-prepared traveler, I immediately started looking up any information I could find on Sebastopol. A few pieces of key information popped up: Two hotels, both too expensive for me to stay in. And Sebastopol was some 50 miles out from San Francisco and Oakland, ruling out my usual travel routine of a nice hostel and the learn-as-you-go method of navigating the public transit. Santa Rosa was a more reasonable ten miles down the road, but there were no major travel hubs there, and the lodgings weren’t going to be any better.

At some point, I wondered what kept the two of them from having their wedding in a more convenient location, like Antarctica. Was McMurdo Station all booked up for the summer?

The problem of where I was going to stay wasn’t even the first obstacle in front of my face. The first was reserving the necessary time off from my brutal work schedule, which turned out to be much easier than expected after I told them what I was missing Prime Week for. The main problem was that I didn’t want to be returning home only to have to force myself through one of my 15-hour nighttime workdays right after my arrival. I got around that by placing the entire working week on hold, but that presented yet another problem: Doing that left very little wiggle room for me to, you know, arrive there, because it meant I would still have to work for the whole week leading up to the wedding. My options for outbound travel were left between the frying pan and the fire: Either finish up my final shift of the week and make a bum rush from work to the local terminal, or wait for the next day to arrive in the nick of time, save the day, and be the big damn hero. Given the travel times, it looked like I was going to have to drag my luggage to work. Then a chat with my brother-in-law finally spelled out the truth: My preferred method of travel was always the train, and that was too slow and unreliable in the time crunch I was facing. There was only one way to get me into Sonoma County in time for the festivities, and it entailed leaving the ground.

I’m a seasoned traveler. I’ve seen a pretty wide area of the country, and I have somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 travel miles under my belt. Not a single one of them was by air, because the prospect of air travel was pretty scary to me. You get pressure-locked inside of a giant sardine can flowing with one of the most flammable liquids ever created and suspended 30,000 feet in the sky. If evolution had the sense to create birds the size of tractor trailers, it might make a bit more sense to domesticate them, but it didn’t. One of my goals for the near future is international travel, so I always knew I would have to face my fear of flight, but that didn’t mean I would be Spartan about it. Brother-in-law said this would be just about perfect for my first real experience with air travel.

“It’s just a two-hour nonstop flight from where you are,” he said.

I finally had to concede. “I’ll have to get over it some time, so I guess now is as good a time as any. Besides, I’ve already been doing a lot of things for the first time this year,” I said.

“That’s the spirit!” said my sister.

Also, I would have to rent a car or rely on a three-hour bus route – best case scenario – and several busses being on time in order to get there. That presented yet another obstacle: Either hope I get on all the right busses and that everything arrives on time or face the California freeways without a navigator.

My first step was to secure a place to stay. I wasn’t keen on throwing a ton of money at a hotel, but my sister found some airbnb links to spots to stay right in Sebastopol. I liked what I saw, opened an account with airbnb, filled out my information… And learned that my computer and the airbnb website just don’t care for each other very much. I never got to the reservation confirmation screen, or received a confirmation email, and when I brought the issue to the attention to airbnb customer service, they said I didn’t have an itinerary to speak of. So I couldn’t make the booking on my computer, and I’m obviously not going to fill out the information they needed in the middle of the public library. Fortunately, my sister found links to a similar site called VRBO, and once again, I found a place I liked. And it was booked solid. So once again, I found another place on VRBO that I liked, and lucked out when I saw that it was not only available, but a double booking had given me a cheaper price when the people running it said they had to put me in their camping trailer rather than their cottage. They didn’t accept credit cards for the site, either, so I would have to send them a check, which they would return when I got there with the proper cash. Booking took days because I had to use snail mail, but it went smoothly. Unfortunately, I waited until the booking was confirmed before making my flight and car reservations, which left me with higher prices to pay. The flight and rental car websites both took my information without any weirdness, although I was on the phone with my sister the whole time because I didn’t want to get slapped with a charge for something I didn’t actually buy.

My sister gave me a rundown of what to expect when you’re new to flying, which was helpful when the big day arrived. I arrived at the airport about two hours in advance, and learned pretty quickly that my sister had made everything sound more complicated than it actually was. The process of getting to my plane was easy:
1 – Print ticket.
2 – Hand baggage over to baggage people.
3 – Go through security.
4 – Find gate.
5 – Find food and coffee, sit down, and relax while waiting for boarding to begin.
I called my sister, per her request, once I was on the plane. Things were smooth right up until the plane reached the beginning of the runway. That was where the engine started revving up for the flight, which in turn caused my heart to rev up like Pepe Le Pew’s whenever he spies his weekly l’amour. As the plane then sped down the runway, I was glued in place by some combination of g-forces and fingernails digging into the armrest. And… The plane left the ground. THE. PLANE. LEFT. THE. GROUND. I couldn’t seem to distract myself from that, so during the flight, I kept myself occupied with my iPod and a Neil Gaiman comic book my sister and brother-in-law gave me. I also made a habit of glancing at the flight attendants; not because of the typical reasons, but because they made their careers on airplanes and likely had experienced everything a typical flight could put them through. It stood to logic that if they weren’t panicking, there was nothing to panic over.

Everyone has heard a million times that flying is safer than driving. Whoever said that had to be from California. Of course, anything would have to be safer than driving in California. Trying to stick to a set of directions I had hand-written from Google Maps, I began my drive to Sebastopol by getting on the I-880 in the wrong direction, zipping past two or three exits, and getting off to ask directions at the closest gas station. Returning to the I-880, I had a brief flashback to my first visit to St. Louis, when my friend Kevin handed me his Dad’s car keys with the instructions to take the car several miles down the road – at night, in a place I had never seen before and had been in for less than a day – to grab a handful of stage props he left in his wife’s car. I performed flawlessly, but that was a straight shot down the road for five miles. This was 50 miles of twisting and turning through express traffic and semi-rural scenery. After getting lost five times and stuck in traffic three times, I finally arrived in Sebastopol.

By the time I got to my VRBO location, the rehearsal dinner had been going for two hours at someplace called the Hopmonk Tavern, so now I had to get back in the car after a drive that already ran nearly six hours and push for another half hour, the last ten minutes of which was spent trying to find a parking spot. I think I was the last one to show up. After missing a phone call from my concerned mother just as I got there and greeting her and my sister, I put together a plate of food and dug in with gusto, as my food intake for that day so far had consisted of a breakfast bagel with coffee before my flight and a small bag of mini-pretzels courtesy of Alaska Airlines. The rest of the night was a rousing round of who-are-you. My sister had friends coming in from quite a few different places, many of whom had met me before in pasts both distant and not-so-distant. I’m horrid with names, and sometimes I can be pretty bad with faces, but I did remember everyone who said they already met me before. They had all heard right: Why yes, today WAS my first-ever airplane flight!

Wedding day started with a nice walk through downtown Sebastopol, where I looked for a nice joint to eat a decent breakfast. After finding Hole in the Wall, I took a walk for a few blocks of Main Street before returning to my VRBO place to rest up for the wedding. My hosts were excellent with giving out directions, but their sense of time seemed to be a little off. The wedding was going to be in Armstrong Woods, a state-sanctioned redwood forest just outside of a nearby little town called Guerneville. Between the way my sister talked about it and the way my hosts told me how far away it was, I figured that “nearby” was the Buffalo definition of the word: Hamburg being two towns south. I didn’t count on Guerneville being nearly an hour down the CA-116. After failed phone calls to my parents, I headed out at nearly 2 PM and arrived at Armstrong Woods just on time, but faced a three-quarter mile hike to the wedding spot. Fortunately, my new in-laws spotted me and gave me a ride into the meadow where the wedding was taking place.

My sister and I aren’t big on tradition. And weddings, well, the whole idea of a church wedding in front of a community is a relic of the ancient past, and not a good one; to me, the whole idea comes off like something a community would believe is done for it. Weddings, to me, have always been personal expressions of the couple getting married, and that’s what my sister and brother-in-law went for. Both of them love being outdoors, so being in a meadow, among the trees and animals they both love, seemed appropriate. The ceremony was simple – the Minister of the ceremony made a funny and touching speech about why the two of them are perfect for each other, they exchanged rings, said their I Do’s, and just like that, I had new family members. There was no communion, no bridesmaids, no best man, none of that silliness of someone being given away, and I think I spent more time admiring the redwoods than watching the ceremony. Even the flower girl forgot to throw the flowers.

There wasn’t any more tradition at the reception than there was at the wedding. The bride and groom didn’t give their own table any prominence above the others. They stood up and greeted the audience, but that was it. Again, there was nothing there to make the party any more complicated than it had to be: Garter removal, first dance, first pieces of cake – hell, cake itself – honorary toast, and bouquet toss – there was no bouquet either – were axed, and everyone let their hair down, socialized, and enjoyed themselves. I ended up hitting it off pretty well with my new in-laws, especially the husband of one of the sisters, because he was an avid soccer fan. A lot of us took turns swinging on a large rope suspended in a tree for no particular reason. When the party was over, it still didn’t seem late enough, so the group of us that was left walked back to the Hopmonk Tavern for drink, music, and more general merriment. There was a reggae/ska band called Pacific Soundrise playing, and it was here that I discovered that having a sister who was the bride could mean all access. No one paid anything to get into the show, and several of us stood up, listened to the music, and kept on dancing the night away. A few people noticed my outfit and wondered why I looked like such a professional.

The next day brought the final event of the wedding weekend: Brunch! Taking place at a park, it was another stripped-down event. I talked to more people and walked around. A few of us went on a short walk on one of the paths. I was invited to see a couple of other places, but I got lost pretty early on and my phone is crap for reading directions by text message. So I spent the day with my parents in downtown Sebastopol again, looking at musical instruments – including a $10,000 custom guitar whose maker let me play it briefly and an enormous bongo drum that stood up to my chest – and books. Afterward, we met my sister and brother-in-law for dinner before visiting the house where my new in-laws were staying, watching the scenery, watching baseball, and playing endless games of corn hole – you know, getting to know each other better.

That was it for the weekend. I raced back to Oakland the next day to get my rental car in and ended up catching my flight just in time, while my parents headed back to Buffalo and my sister and brother-in-law went to Hawaii. It had been one hell of a weekend.

Welcome to the family, everyone.

Letter to 12-Year-Old Me

Letter to 12-Year-Old Me

I’m sure a lot of us, when we were kids, had to do those cutesy little school assignments where we wrote letters to our future selves. After reading reading the popular blog Hyperbole and a Half, I decided to take a page from writer Allie Brosh’s book and offer a response to my young self who wrote a letter to my older self. However, I can never remember exactly when I wrote those letters and at what age, so I’m going to simplify this whole thing by writing a single response to myself at one of the most defining – and worst – ages of my life. My 12-year-old self is probably where I started to fall into a rocky road mentally because it was where the mental obstacles I faced probably hit their apex and where I could have used some real advice and guidance by someone who understood what was happening, and the fact that I was extremely impressionable and clueless.

Dear 12-year-old me,

You need to quit worrying about how to suddenly make yourself cool to your classmates. They’re assholes. Every last one. And at least half of your teachers aren’t any better. Hell, last year the teachers at Follow Through let one of your classmates get away with blatant physical assault. I know that part is finally over, but let’s look at the roster of people you are forced to interact with every day in school: There was the one kid, Tim, who was actually one of your good friends until sixth grade, when he decided he enjoyed making fun of you with a group he fell into and left you out of. There are those two who you think were decent friends once upon a time, but they sort of led you down the path. It’s not good-natured ribbing when they make fun of you – it’s them trying to make you jump through hoops for their own amusement.

Your best bet is to transfer to a different school. I know that’s a scary prospect, but you’re going to be doing that in a couple of years no matter what happens anyway, so why not? I know you’re worried about your social life, but that’s not exactly storming the beaches these days. So get the hell out. Make a fresh start. Considering what you’re going through, the evil you don’t know is a far better option than the evil you know. The deck is stacked against you there, and like I said, even the teachers don’t give a shit.

Speaking of terrible teachers, I can’t stress this enough: Quit listening to Pastor B in confirmation class. Nice man, well enough; but all he’s doing is selling you a bevy of half-truths and outright lies in an effort to scare you and warp you into his own way of thinking. Don’t worry about the prospect of more parent/minister chats. Fuck how much they annoy your parents. You don’t owe either of them jack shit for making you go through this. If anything, you should be doing MORE to piss off Pastor B and force more private conferences. The man is a walking boob who is selling snake oil, and what’s more, Mom and Dad both KNOW he’s a walking boob who’s selling snake oil. To this day I still haven’t the slightest idea of why they believed shoving me through confirmation class was so important. It was a waste of their time, an inexcusable waste of my time, and you ended up coming out all the worse because of it. In fact, a better thing to do is just refuse to keep going to confirmation class until they give you a satisfactory answer to the question of why you are being forced through it. “It’s traditional,” “It’s what young men do,” and “because I said so” don’t fucking count. Your parents were great, but sending me to confirmation class was a stupid thing to do back then, and considering what you’ve gone through since, in hindsight it’s a galactic fuckup. And they both know it.

Confirmation class will only have bad effects that will hurt your social development. It’s going to fill you with a sense of guilt and self-unworthiness which you’re STILL trying to get over; it’s going to make you feel a sense of shame whenever you realize you have romantic and sexual feelings toward a woman, which will take you years to expunge; it’s going to turn you into a homophobe, which will also take years to get over. It will act as a suppressor to your inquisitive personality and you’ll start trying to swallow your questions and ideas. You’re going to notice the rift between religion and basic science and let it tear you apart. You WILL eventually meet a new minister who is going to act as your guide through the tricky aspects of religion and take your questions seriously without offering the usual platitudes about reading more Bible or Just Believing, but that won’t be for another 12 years. Right now, you can spare yourself a lot of self-resentment by embracing your doubts and questions. Challenge Pastor B, stand up and demand answers to his propaganda statements, and don’t be afraid to walk out of class when the situation calls for it. Again, your parents royally fucked up by sending you there, and it’s vitally important that you drive that point home right now rather than in another 20 years.

Now let’s concentrate on something your folks did get right: Man, you need to find something to do besides school and confirmation class that gets you out the door. Yes, I know video games and books are your escapes right now, but you need human contact. You also need something challenging to try so you’ll be more willing to develop the talents you have. You recently taught yourself to play the piano. By everyone’s accounts, you weren’t too bad at it, either. Maybe you could keep going along that route and become the master of an instrument it’s widely believed to take ten fingers to master. Django Reinhardt messed his fret hand up in an accident and still became arguably the greatest guitarist who ever lived. Rick Allen played drums after his goddamned ARM was ripped off in a car accident!

No, your hand is not an excuse. There are several things which may cause you trouble, but you won’t know what you can and can’t do until you actually try them. You’re creative, so act like it. If something requires fingers that you don’t have, find a way to improvise.

Lastly, don’t let yourself fall into a self-destructive mental state. I’ve been there; it’s not fun. You’re awesome. You aren’t some freak show – you deserve dignity, respect, and the right to a life. You deserve to be around people who like you for who you are and don’t care about some arbitrary birth defect which you can’t change. You’re going to realize all this someday; but that someday can come a lot sooner and make your life a bit easier if you start taking the advice I just gave you above.

Sincerely,
Yours Truly at 34

Recharged

This blog is only a small amount of what I choose to write about my personal thoughts and ideas. The real fireworks occur in the more traditional longhand medium, which is a habit I had dabbled with in the past but only really picked up last year after a particularly egregious oversight by people I know. It proved to be a wonderful release until… Well, the reservoir wasn’t even close to dry, but it was starting to crumble under the dead weight of everything: My rapidly fading emotions, my draining will to keep writing, my general loneliness, boredom, and frustrations, and my suicidal contemplation being stronger than ever before. I randomly quit journaling, and when I finally decided to take it up again, it was more with the forced willingness of a blocked creator on a deadline than through any wont on my part. It reflected in my suddenly bare writing style.

It would take a hell of a spark to get me going again. I felt parts of it begin to light up as I visited Friendship Presbyterian Church to see… Well, friends in Chicago during my layover, and that night while watching the entire lunar eclipse from parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. And I felt it as my bus glided through the vast expanse of the Nashville city limits and along the front of the skyline in the early hours of the morning.

Then came my first night in Nashville, with Christi meeting me on the West End after I had spent a fairly invigorating day wandering around the city.

“Did you get to the waterfront?” she asked.

“No, I didn’t make it down that far,” I said.

And so with that, Christi decided she had to show off the waterfront, 10 PM time and the fact that I was still fatigued from three or four different Greyhound rides be damned. Christi told me about the pedestrian walkway that crossed the Cumberland River, but confessed that she didn’t know where it began. We ended up parked a brisk ten-minute walk from it, with Christi saying we would simplify our activities because it was so late: Walk to the bridge, see if we could find the entrance, and return to the car. But it had been a good long time since the last time we had seen each other, and so at the start of our walk, everything that happened over the past years tumbled out. Christi is a spectacular ranter, and before the car was parked, her mouth was flying at such a high level that it was discovered and renamed by the Chinese space program. That got me going, and as we shared our dark thoughts on taboo subjects with each other, our quick 20-minute walk to find the trail to the pedestrian bridge morphed into a 120-minute walk across the bridge and a lap around the football stadium. My feet were throbbing by the time we got back to the car, but that didn’t matter to me.

Something about that moment had lit me right back up. One of the many reasons that Christi and I are friends is because Christi is about the most unshockable person I’ve ever known. She’s willing to take interest in and run with ideas that even the most open-minded people won’t let themselves so much as even think, and that frees me up to speak and act without the burdens of any of those ridiculous masks we force ourselves into when we need to function around even small crowds. The very idea of normality is something which drives us both into convulsions, especially if we’ve had to go past our limits pretending to be that way.

That was just the beginning. One of odd aspects of this mental recharge was that a lot of it also happened while I did the typical Western New York NHL playoffs routine: Outside on the front porch, screen door shut, drinking all the beer within reach while prattling on about the hockey playoff game blaring audibly in the background. Except, this being Tennessee and no one watches hockey in Tennessee, we replaced the hockey game with whatever random offering of music happened to be laying around in the CD case. We picked the music pretty much in round robin fashion, and I didn’t pass up a chance to listen to August and Everything After for the first time since, well, possibly ever.

After a couple of days, I finally felt that familiar urge to write again. When I did, my journal entries looked like they had the creativity and congealed energy and focus of my original journal entries. Words started coming easier, and instead of writing down handfuls of near-non-sentences about the daily sequence, I started writing down the same thoughts and feelings that I believed needed to be dug up by the local archeologist 500 years after I’ve been dead. I’m starting to wonder if I should take the time and effort to try to trick the archeologist who digs me up at that point into thinking I was some sort of cloned dinosaur, or maybe one of the world’s great superdictators.

Of course, the practical downside of everything is that I haven’t been able to just sit down and machine-gun blog entries the way I want to. That’s just the sort of shit that can happen when your computer craps out on you. (And let there be no mistake about it – it’s goddamn junk these days. It’s an iMac, but it’s an iMac from 2008, and an Apple from 2008 is practically ash by this point.) Hell, I wasn’t able to blog at all in Nashville. So now I have to sort through all of my newly-collected memories and decide how to consolidate them, or decide which ones I think are odd enough to jump from my journal page to whatever computer screen I happen to be staring at. No matter what happens, though, one thing about my writing will always be the same: I’m still at my very best whenever I take the Hemingway approach to my work.

Friends vs. How I Met Your Mother: The Ultimate Battle!

Friends vs. How I Met Your Mother: The Ultimate Battle!

It just had to be that this year’s finale of How I Met Your Mother was going to share space with the 20th anniversary of the debut of Friends, didn’t it? It seems pretty appropriate; the two sitcoms have been favorably compared to each other through most of their runs. Hell, its even been argued that the two of them might as well be the same show. They both star characters who live in a parallel universe’s version of New York City where there is no diversity and rent control is a thing. Both of them feature years-long story arcs about the romance between two particular characters; both are brought up in efforts to define their generations through pop culture. At first glance, there is some definite evidence that How I Met Your Mother was taking its cues from Friends. When you try to really compare the two of them side by side, though, the real differences start blaring at you, and you’re then forced into one of those corners where you have to take a Beatles/Elvis stance: You only get one pick and you have to hate the other one.

Fine. That’s not something I have too big a problem with. My problem begins with the fact that so many writers seem so eager to automatically throw the statue at Friends, mostly because they grew up watching it. It’s an interesting phenomenon; it’s one thing to believe everything was better back in your day, but it’s another thing completely to refuse to acknowledge if something may or may not be better based strictly on nostalgia for childhood heroes. So now, it’s time to look at both of these shows as empirically as possible. To prepare, I’m binge-watching DVDs and online streams of as many episodes of both shows as I can. I doubt I’ll get to them all, but I can get to an enormous chunk of both. So let’s do this! Friends vs. How I Met Your Mother. One day, I’ll learn.

Characters
Friends gave us Rachel Green, Monica and Ross Geller, Phoebe Buffay, Joey Tribbiani, and Chandler Bing. HIMYM introduced Ted Mosby, Lily Aldrin, Marshall Erikson, Robin Scherbatsky, Barney Stinson, and Tracy McConnell (she was one of the main cast characters during her brief stint on the show, so much so that her actress’s name was in the opening credits, so yes, she counts). Some of these characters share remarkable similarities to each other, at least in a few ways: Barney shares the fact that no one knows what he does with Chandler and his tendencies with women with Joey; Lily and Monica share some apparent neuroticism and spontaneity; Ross and Ted both have penchants for romanticism. Characters in both shows reach ridiculous low points – in Friends, Phoebe tried to keep one of the triplets, while Ted made Robin get rid of her dogs in HIMYM. Yet, for all the similarities, the characters all took different paths in their development. The characters on Friends developed and matured in a more subtle manner while the HIMYM gang was more up front about their changes of character. On the other hand, the differences between all the characters in the show were a lot more obvious on HIMYM. HIMYM also stereotyped less; Friends had its ditz, its romantic, its career person, and its man’s man. HIMYM frequently crossed these traits over from character to character; career woman Robin was also the show’s man’s man, for example – she loved guns, hockey, scotch, and cigars. Lily, Marshall, and Barney all shared the role of the ditz.
Winner
I prefer HIMYM. Issue one: Phoebe. I love her, and she’s one thing that could be counted on to rescue Friends when it was having trouble, but she’s a waste of space and seemed to be shoehorned in. HIMYM never felt like it was having any trouble trying to fit any characters in, even during the last season, when Tracy was added to the main cast outright. Issue two: The development arcs of Barney and Tracy showed what HIMYM was capable of at its best. Usually when a TV show runs long, all the characters start out as fully realized humans and, as the writers start to feel stretched for creativity, they start to fall back on some of the more unique quirks of the characters, flanderizing them until they’re nothing but quirks. Barney went the opposite route; he was a fully realized caricature through the first few seasons with a few glimmers of humanity; as he developed, he matured, and his better side came out as he decided to settle and form a relationship with his estranged father. (This is why I’m always amazed when critics bitch about HIMYM’s later seasons; did they really miss the old, borderline rapist Barney that much? His development made the whole series very satisfying.) And while we only had Tracy around in one season which didn’t span every episode, her development was so strong that the audience felt totally gypped by the finale. Issue three: The cast of Friends sometimes came across as so interchangeable that it could have melded together at certain times. Trying to tell them apart when they get angry or upset – which happens often enough – can be something of a chore. The characters on HIMYM never fell out of their personas and blended together to such an extent. Of course, that’s an issue with Friends, and not exactly a flaw…

Cast Chemistry
It’s very possible Friends and HIMYM were cast in two different and very distinct ways. The cast of HIMYM looks like the actors were all tested and chosen purely on the strength of their individual character portrayals before being rounded up and thrown at each other, and it turned out to work for the best. Friends seems to have been cast with character chemistry as the first thing in mind, like the actors were whittled down to a particular selection and then tested against each other. HIMYM cast the most talented actors it could find for its characters; Friends cast good actors who made each other look great. The difference definitely shows in the final products. Friends ended up casting six unknowns and making household names of not only Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross, but also actors Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt Le Blanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer. The actors flew off each other like atomic particles and were so closely bonded when the cameras were off that the emotion they felt in the final episode was genuine. HIMYM can counter using the fact that its individual performances were better; Neil Patrick Harris and Cristin Milioti could both clearly act circles around every other cast member on either show, and the others were excellent as well. The particular traits of every character on HIMYM were also highlighted more, so all six actors had to perform an exceptional balancing act to see their characters were able to merge those traits into someone whole, and not just a mess of ideas the writers could flanderize at will. They all succeeded.
Winner
This one goes to Friends. While the cast of HIMYM did everything right, it wasn’t enough to stop the emergence of Barney Stinson as a breakout character. Although Barney eventually developed into a complete character, it’s still his early Bro Code and Playbook musings which dominate HIMYM popular lexicon. In the meantime, Alyson Hannigan’s name is still synonymous with Willow Rosenberg, her character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Neil Patrick Harris didn’t make anyone forget Doogie Howser; and Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders are both still remembered purely as Ted and Robin. Jason Segel and Cristin Milioti are popular movie and Broadway commodities, respectively. The Friends cast, meanwhile, are still associated with each other, no matter how far away from the show they’ve gotten. No matter how successful Jennifer Aniston gets, when her name is brought up, she is still just another name among six particular TV actors.

Overdone Romance We Got Sick Of
In the first episode of Friends, we met Ross Geller, a very recent and heartbroken divorcee; and Rachel Green, a runaway bride. Right off the bat, from first to last, the show did everything it could to throw the two of them together. So the two of them took some pretty nasty trips in the ten years Friends lasted on the air before finally settling into their surefire happily ever after in the final episode. The drama between Ross and Rachel took such absurd turns that, at some point, you have to wonder if the writers were intentionally prying the two of them apart and teasing the audience just to prolong the romance. It devolved into soap opera territory. Everything moved right along for the two of them at first; they crushed on each other in the first season; were dating in the second; broken up in the third because Rachel decided she needed an indefinite alone period, in which Ross jumped another girl’s bones; and reconciling only to break up again in the fourth. It’s a reasonable trajectory, but it gets spoiled by the end of the fourth when Ross marries a rebound fling and says Rachel’s name at the wedding, and from there it just got absurd. HIMYM did a bold thing by introducing Ted to Robin in the pilot episode, only to clearly establish in the end that Robin isn’t The Mother. It helped free up the show to give a few romance storylines to Ted and Robin because, since it was established that Robin wasn’t The Mother, the show was able to try anything it wanted for awhile. Like Rachel and Ross, though, it devolved, and by the eighth season they were dredging up the idea of Ted still being in love with Robin, who had been established as Barney’s match for some time by then. Ted’s romantic past with Robin, in fact, hadn’t been any obstacle between him and Robin or Robin and Barney for a long time, but creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas decided to shoehorn an ending they had written for Ted and Robin seven years before the show concluded.
Winner
You know what? I’m giving the edge here to HIMYM. I know I have every reason in the world to prefer Ross and Rachel; after all, Friends didn’t tell us well in advance that Ross and Rachel weren’t ultimately each other’s other halves. It didn’t make a big show of one of them completely letting go of the other one in the final season to show us once and for all that it wasn’t meant to be, over and out, only to renege. Friends didn’t kill one of the main characters, as if she was an inconvenience to the writers, just to make it happen! But what Friends did do that made Ross and Rachel inexcusable was turn their first breakup into a goddamned punchline! “We were on a break! We were on a break!” I’d like to show Ross Geller a fucking break! Besides, between their drunken Vegas wedding, their love child, and Rachel’s final decision to stay with Ross, it’s not like they were lacking for drama.

Resonance With Times
For being a voice sitcom sparked from the grunge era, Friends certainly packed a lot of shining optimism. I’m not saying everything was always wonderful for the characters on the show. Hell, Phoebe sang “Smelly Cat,” which could have fit right into the Lilith Fair lineup. The characters, however, seemed to develop that great Hollywood character habit of failing upward. Setbacks never seemed to affect them very much, and usually they quickly landed on their feet. Friends also came off geared toward a mainstream audience; right in the first season, Phoebe has a quick fling with a physicist who is a little uncomfortable with the idea of romance and spontaneity. It was the typical trope of the time: Nerds are to be ridiculed. In addition, while Friends did deal with homosexuality, it treated homosexuality like an odd character tick; something which was bad at the time, and absolutely inexcusable now. In HIMYM, setbacks were really that; they properly set the characters back. Although it’s treated like an idealistic fairy tale, there is a very dark vein streaming through the world of HIMYM, and the characters regularly end up in compromised positions, frequently embarrassed and humiliated while trying to make the best of what just happened to them. Lily leaving Marshall to pursue her dream of being an artist is one example; Robin’s anchor job on early AM TV is another; and Ted trying to start his own architectural firm is a third. There is also the geek factor; HIMYM actually has TV’s best attitude toward geeks. Marshall, Ted, and Barney are all huge Star Wars freaks, and Barney even has life-size Stormtrooper armor in his apartment; they love to play laser tag; they’re frequently seen playing video games; and they enjoy an annual event called Robots vs. Wrestlers.
Winner
HIMYM. Although Friends featured cell phones and laptops long before they were in vogue, and it did improve its view on gays – even showing a wedding between a gay couple long before the current gay rights movement – it still set out to give viewers a look at normal, mainstream people with socially acceptable interests. It perceived outsiders as geeks or thugs in a negative way. Setbacks on Friends barely made any lasting dents in the characters. On HIMYM, setbacks were real stingers, and the characters were frequently seen doing things they wouldn’t ordinarily do in mentally broken states. HIMYM also had the more accurate take on geeks – their geek interests, while prominent, aren’t caricatures, and they don’t define the characters. Rather, geek interests and tendencies are treated as side interests of the main characters, who are able to keep their geek lives and professional lives separate.

Emotional Impact
In any good TV show, we need to be able to sympathize with the characters; otherwise, when we laugh, we’re laughing at them instead of with them. Therefore, it helps to have great ways of projecting times and scenes of deep emotions. Friends axed one of the most insufferable tropes that came to define sitcoms in the previous decade – the Full House music, which replaced real emotion with gagging melodrama. Otherwise, emotion was conveyed by the actors and the script, both of which did fine jobs, and music which was performed by professional musicians. Occasionally, the camera would zoom in very slowly on the troubled character or the character would be isolated. HIMYM, being a more surreal show than Friends, would frequently use surrealism to convey a sense of sadness. It was also privy to using its stilted structure to do the same, allowing it to move back and forth between conversations about the character and the affected character. The portrayals of the characters and the music was frequently a big help as well. Friends, however, conveyed its emotion in a straightforward fashion while HIMYM usually had a joke or two waiting to be used to lighten the mood a little bit.
Winner
HIMYM. The trouble with trying to provide emotional heft strictly through the affected characters is that it’s like describing the symptoms. Sure, you can sympathize, but there’s no real relation unless you’ve personally been there yourself. HIMYM’s surrealism is more than a quirk; it’s an effective way to paint a very exacting picture of what the characters are experiencing. In one episode, for example, Robin learns she’s barren and can never have kids. Instead of simply saying it, the episode cuts to a pair of kids in a living room which are ostensibly Robin’s as Robin narrates to them. Then they fade away as the room is replaced by snowy Central Park and the sofa is replaced by a park bench which Robin is sitting in, drinking a carton of eggnog, contemplating what she just learned. One later episode of season eight, “The Time Travelers,” so brilliantly captures the true essence of Ted’s loneliness that I have trouble watching it: Ted, Barney, Robin, Marshall, and Lily meet in MacLaren’s for a night or Robots vs. Wrestlers Legends. Ted is busy the following day and unsure whether or not to go, and debates the pros and cons of going with Barney as well as future versions of themselves. This might sound odd, but it’s a sort of surreal vision the show has come to be known for. Marshall and Robin get into a fight about who named a drink served by the bar. Soon, Coat Check Girl – a guest character from one of HIMYM’s first episodes – walks in. Ted recognizes her and starts to wander over to talk to her, but is stopped by two future versions of Coat Check Girl. Both warn him that a relationship with her would be doomed, and he gets distracted long enough for the real Coat Check Girl to leave. Finally, he returns to Barney and says he’s out for the night, and in an understated and very eloquent monologue, Barney tells Ted the cocktail incident is a five-year-old memory and the rest of the night was a product of his imagination, and Ted was debating whether to go alone the entire night. Ted leaves, and Narrator Ted imagines his past self running to The Mother’s apartment and delivering Ted’s now-famous “45 days” monologue to the unseen Mother. The effect is heightened later; of note, “The Time Travelers” is the final episode which involves any interactions with the unseen form of The Mother. Four episodes later, after years of teases, the conceptual Mother ceased to exist, and the actual Mother was finally revealed. Although the reveal was simple – even anticlimactic – it worked because of the sense we received for Ted’s sadness over the course of the season and the fact that the story’s endgame was now in sight. Ted himself wasn’t aware of it yet, but the audience knew he would be meeting his perfect girl within – in the show’s time – just a couple more days.

Opening Theme
Friends opens with one of the greatest opening themes of all time: “I’ll be There for You” by The Rembrandts. The song is a definite by-product of the 90’s, and it has the rough, unvarnished edges of the traditional grunge sound. It’s a pretty downcast song, too, describing a lot of bad, serious situations before launching into its memorable hook, which promises that, no matter what happens, they’ll always be there for you. It’s one of those theme songs that transcended its opening theme status and became a heavily rotated radio hit. HIMYM opens with an iconic “ba, ba ba ba ba” going along with its title card, but what most people don’t know is that’s the very tail end of a legitimate song called “Hey Beautiful” by The Solids, a band the show’s creators play in. Like the Friends theme, the song is a definite product of the times in a musical sense. The lyrics don’t make nearly as much sense – I’m surmising the second verse is about the song’s narrator trying to gather the courage to talk to a girl he spotted and thinks is beautiful, but the phrasing is a little random and haphazard. It’s a great song, though, and it’s one of the few millennial rock songs which, while it relies on the slow-driving, smoothly-laid harmony and melodramatic vocals, still lets the background music massage the scene instead of dominating the song and destroying rock music for a decade to come. Also, while the synthesizer is used throughout, it’s used in a minimalist fashion.
Winner
Friends. The HIMYM theme was an early version of a trend that’s setting rock music back decades. The Friends theme is a great song, and its message about optimism and togetherness through even the toughest of times is more resonant now than it was when Friends was the show to watch. Also, “Hey Beautiful” isn’t the most technically sound song, either. Even with better lyrics, its time signature changes are less than subtle. Face it, there’s a reason you didn’t know “Hey Beautiful” was a full song until you read this.

Format And Structure
Although every story has a beginning, middle, and end, Friends and HIMYM both got around to showing their beginnings, middles, and ends in different ways. Both of them also used heavily serialized formats. Friends took its cues from most every sitcom that came before it, which means it tells its stories in a straightforward, linear fashion. While this makes the typical episode of Friends easy to follow, it also makes it a bit more difficult to jump in the middle of an episode. Since the show is serialized, a big secret revealed in an episode with series-changing ramifications could easily be missed. When Friends performs flashbacks, it does them smoothly, skillfully weaving them into the main structure of the show. HIMYM uses a flashback as the very plot of the show. It’s prone to jumping and stilting around a lot more; a frequent device seen on HIMYM is to place the audience into the middle of a scene and then go back and explain how the characters came to that point. HIMYM tells stories in a much more freewheeling manner. It will use surrealism, roshamen viewpoints, intercutting, and flashbacks and flashforwards in order to get the point across. Both shows demand your attention, but HIMYM will go out of its way to make sure it has it. HIMYM also based its entire existence on a large story arc, which demanded bold risks from the creators when it worked and ended up sticking around for awhile. Some of those risks were good and allowed the show to keep revealing hidden depths to its characters; some were bad and allowed them to prolong the show (Ted and Robin, ahem).
Winner
HIMYM. The format keeps finding different ways of telling stories to emphasize small moments which impacted The Narrator’s life. Not only is it an effective way to keep interest in a story, it frees up the writers to splice other scenes into the narrative, make concurrent callbacks, and even reformat the entire show, which is what happened in the final season. Furthermore, the ultimate story arc allowed the creators to gradually reveal the show’s big secrets about how Ted met The Mother. Think about it: What did we know about Ted meeting The Mother in the pilot? They met at a wedding. That was it. After the first season finale had Marshall and Lily break up, most of the the subsequent season finales peeled back more big secrets about the wedding and the meeting. At the end of season two, Ted and Robin broke up, which we knew would happen, since Robin was established in the pilot as not being The Mother. In the season three finale, Ted proposes to Stella, but she isn’t The Mother. Season four, Ted tells his kids that The Mother was in an economics class he taught by accident. In season six, it started really heating up; the groom, long believed to be an offhand friend of Ted’s like Punchy or Ranjit, was shown to be Barney. In season seven, it was the bride’s turn to be shown onscreen; it was Robin. The season eight finale gave us our first glimpse of Tracy McConnell. And the series finale the next season, well, I’ll be nice and just pretend it never happened.

Running Gags
Every good sitcom has its share of in-jokes which, despite being an eternal theme in the series canon, can be easily picked up and appreciated by newcomers. Friends and HIMYM are no exceptions. In fact, they even share very similar running gags: One is that Barney and Chandler both work mystery jobs which no one else on their shows knows. It works better for HIMYM, though, because Chandler eventually gets promoted while Barney – who seemingly drags in endless oceans of money for nothing – reveals that his “eh, please” response to everyone else’s job inquiries is really an acronym for Provide Legal Exculpation And Sign Everything. Basically, if his corporation is ever caught in one of its more unseemly activities, Barney is the one set up to take their fall. Another is they each had a character with a musical career. Friends gave us Phoebe, who sang some of the darkest, weirdest folk songs you will ever hear with an earnestly upbeat attitude. HIMYM had Robin, a former teenage pop star in her native Canada named Robin Sparkles who had one minor hit and was so embarrassed about it that she told outrageous lies to her friends to try to hide it. They both had catchphrase-spewing ladies’ men as main characters – Joey and Barney. Beyond those, Friends introduced us to Ugly Naked Guy, a nudist from a neighboring building. HIMYM had The Bro Code and The Playbook. There was Fat Monica on Friends, and HIMYM had Lily’s odd sexual fetishes. These lists aren’t even close to exhaustive.
Winner
This should be even, but I’m giving the edge to HIMYM for a few reasons. First of all, Phoebe’s songs are only written to highlight her ditziness, and sitcom ditzes are a dime a dozen. Robin’s singing career gave her backstory an interesting twist, and her reluctance to ever talk about it added a dimension to her character. Second, Ugly Naked Guy was originally a hidden character who was there strictly for laughs. At some point, though, Friends decided it had to break that rule and give Ugly Naked Guy screen time. There’s a sacred law of sitcoms which have hidden characters there strictly for laughs that says you never, ever show the character. Never, because it would ruin the mental projection of the character the audience built for itself. It’s why all the Maris jokes from Frasier worked so well – they never showed Maris, and we were given unlimited depth to project how awful she was. Third, Friends turned “We were on a break!” into a catchphrase for Ross. It’s with that one Friends torpedoed any chance of winning a battle of running gags.

Friends just got its ass handed to it. Yes, Friends was great when it was good; upon my repeat viewings, it holds up much better than I expected it to. It was one of the major cultural voices of its generation, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a Cheers knockoff which became popular because it came along at the right time. How I Met Your Mother was something that came flying out of the blue, combining the surrealism of Scrubs, flying hijinks of Malcolm in the Middle, and yes, the emotional gravitas of Friends itself with a groundbreaking story structure. Friends was a product of its time. How I Met Your Mother turned out to be well ahead of it.

The Collectively Malfunctioning Gaydar of Arizona

The Collectively Malfunctioning Gaydar of Arizona

Jim Crow has arrived in Arizona, as the government there has seen it fit to let businesses discriminate against gay people, not serve gay people, and basically introduce gay segregation. It’s worth noting that bass-ackward-in-everything Kansas recently voted against a bill that would have let Kansas businesses do this very same thing.

This poses a small problem for me. No, let me rephrase that; it made a problem I plan to have very soon a little bit easier to solve. I’ve made no secret of my intention to leave Buffalo again, and as it happens, the Tucson area of Arizona holds quite a bit of appeal. Legendary world-class bicycling, an active population, and a lack of rain make Arizona’s primary college city stand out. Now, with gay segregation coming into vogue across the state, I’m out on my ass, and I’m not even gay.

I’m straight. Unfortunately, this stupid country still holds onto some cherished dark age beliefs regarding homosexuals, one of which is the idea of a working gaydar – that supposed inner instinct which allegedly allows people to tell if other people are gay strictly by looking at them. The whole idea is totally fiction, of course. I found that out early when I started meeting real homosexuals and all those flaming and butch stereotypes I had held before meeting them were all shot to hell. There is no ubiquitous cross-sexual look that all gay people hold, and no way to tell whether or not a person is gay by looks alone. I’ve been invited into the lives of many wonderful gay people – probably a fifth of my friends, at least – and none of them have any particular method of conforming to their homosexuality through anything other than their sexual preferences.

Yet, we get to be like those idiots who believe they can tell if someone ever committed a crime just by looking at them. Again, fiction, unless you happen to be looking at a picture of them on a Police report. It’s the same with gay people. There’s no way to tell if someone you’re looking at is gay through looks alone, but that doesn’t stop people from trying.

Arizona’s new Jim Crow law does the old Crow laws one better because of this habit. Do you “look” gay? If you do, be prepared to take hikes from a lot of bigot businesses in Arizona. It’s going to be like the stop and frisk law that was recently shot down in New York City: They can stop and frisk anyone they want if they suspect some random passerby on the street is carrying something or did something. I never did get to se a cop blotter for the stop and frisk law, but I’m guessing civil rights action complaints weren’t filed by a whole lot of Wall Street suits. I expect the business bigots of Arizona are going to play by a lot of those same rules. If you talk with a lisp, wear certain clothes, say certain words, and have certain hairstyles, don’t expect to be shown to your table in Arizona when you go to a restaurant, whether or not you’re really gay.

I guess in one sense, I should be happy about these stereotypes because they may ensure that more Bible-thumping homophobes than gay people get booted onto their asses.

On the other hand, there’s me, and I’m apparently a magnet for malfunctioning gaydars from both sides of the field. I really don’t know what it is about me that makes me scream “homosexual” at the first sight to more people than I could possibly count, but I do know that I have no interest in romantic intimacy with my own gender. I also know that large cross-section of people have mistaken me for a gay person, and that’s not even counting all the junior high bullies who threw the word “faggot” at me. These were full-fledged adults who are supposed to have fully-functioning brains in their heads. I’ve had far more men than women sexually proposition me, which I will admit is pretty flattering, but makes for awkward verbal exchanges.

So, say I go to Arizona now. I wonder how I could dress myself up to avoid “looking gay.” I’m not an Abercrombie and Fitch kind of person, I wouldn’t be caught dead in biker gear, but even dressing up in the ubiquitous Upstate New York look of a t-shirt and jeans has gotten me attention from my own gender. I like to present myself in a fairly well-groomed manner, and when I’m not an emotional wreck swearing up a storm, I actually speak with large words normally found in books and the occasional clever colloquialism. Also, I try to keep myself healthy because I don’t want to turn into a guy too large to tie his own shoes. So what would I do in Arizona to avoid raising a malfunctioning gaydar?

What this will raise is a de facto excuse for Arizona to discriminate against minorities. It’s a ready-made excuse: Someone in your insurance company the wrong color? Then they look gay, so get rid of them.

I guess avoiding the place completely isn’t out of the question. I hear Seattle is nice.

Why I Question

Why I Question

My annual catch-up with Nanette ended up waiting a few days. She had just flown in on a flight from Malibu, and those travel change climate colds don’t wait for anyone. So instead of doing the how-ya-been routine at Grace Commons per normal, we ended up going to one of the local coffee shops a few days later for the latest highlights.

At one point, Nanette asked me if there was a place in my life now that filled the question cavity left in my heart after leaving Grace Commons. There really isn’t, and distance has been the determining factor in my ability to find one. While some people have asked me why I don’t simply attend the Wesleyan place across the street and down a block – thus completely missing the point of what made Grace Commons so important to me, why I went, and my entire fucking belief system – I’ve run into a couple of potentials. One was a dead end because of distance and time. The other, which was located right on the UB campus, was a dead end because it seemed unwilling to tackle a lot of the big issues I have.

During our conversation, Nanette once again presented me with the question many people, herself included, asked me a million times: Why? What is it that makes me, an outspoken disbeliever, attend this odd little church in an attempt to find some sort of spirituality? I gave Nanette my answer. It seemed like a reasonable answer, and at the time, it sounded convincing enough, at least in my own little world. Honestly, though, I can’t remember a single word of the answer I gave. A million times being asked that very question have resulted in about two million different answers, and that doesn’t even include the overlap. Through every iteration of the question and the explanatory statements I always struggled to come up with, I’ve been asking myself that very question. I hate organized religion, so what was the entire point of going into a registered presbyterian church during prime football hours? I would cite the old Catholic guilt theory, but I’ve never been Catholic.

Finally, I think I have the answer. Not one I was forced to improvise on the spur of the moment, but the thought-out, honest reflection that I’m really feeling. Of course, it came to me in the fashion of that perfect insult comeback in that I managed to think of it after our meeting, but here it is.

The first reason is that this world keeps putting the strain on us to pick and choose between either the wonder of knowledge and the wonder of imagination. Grace Commons was able to find a way to offer me both at the same time. I love the solid inarguability of those fun little things that give us greater understanding on the universe – maths and sciences – and am guided in large part by my vast imagination. And let’s face it, some of the stuff written in these holy books is pretty ridiculous. It doesn’t take an evolutionary biologist to see just how much of it was pulled from the air to go with what was thought to be scientific fact back in those days, and back then people believed that when it rained, the sky was obviously crashing to the earth. Yet, it’s my imagination which has been a primary source of comfort, companionship, and imagination for an enormous chunk of my life. I haven’t seen a science yet that has been a divinity killshot, and so I still remain open-minded about the whole god-actually-existing issue. Declaring a more positive form of atheism based on scientific evidence which – while disproving a lot of scriptures – has nothing to do with some all-powerful force that controls everything. Although I’m very skeptical and will ask for harder evidence than Jesus Toast to determine miraculous happenings, I’m still very open-minded about the idea of some supernatural being acting as a giant science puppetmaster. Ruling out the possibility of a deity just because another biological gap was scienced out of the equation would be going against something which, despite only being a part of my imagination, has still been enough to encourage me to better myself and reach for greater heights as a person.

We can call this my Mulder and Scully Node, in order to keep it simple.

The second, more important reason is that religion is a device people frequently use to find comfort and contentment if they’re doing it right. After I discovered Grace Commons, it didn’t take me very long to discover something odd about myself: I like my religious uncertainty. My inner peace comes from my right to ask big, mysterious questions about the nature of gods and religions and have them be taken seriously in lieu of the usual brush-off answers. I love to ask questions in Bible study groups and listen to their various interpretations of what one passage or character means to them. Questioning is my real religion, and I enjoy the uncertainty because it keeps me grounded and always in search of greater knowledge, both religious and scientific. Questioning is, ironically, how I manage to keep my peace and sanity in this odd little world. Some churchgoers pray or meditate or read through their favorite holy books. I ask difficult questions and demand answers beyond having a little faith, reading scriptures more, or the lord working those mysterious ways of his.

As you can imagine, churches that are able to provide me with such an outlet are rare and precious things. Most of them are exclusive worshipers of Cowboy Jesus who, when confronted with the big questions, will give out answers created to bring me closer into commune with the god they created themselves. I’ve never felt marginalized or pressured into conversion there. I was always free to be as critical as I thought was necessary. I felt a connection with the place that I had never had before at church or mosque because many of the others were damaged questioners themselves. Yet, they’ve always been able to challenge my perceptions of the scriptures, and the very idea of religion itself. I once asked Nanette what she saw in The Bible, since she accepted its logic imperfections, translation messes, and blatant plagiarism of other religions. She said, in a nutshell, that she saw a book about human beings and their imperfections and the consequences of their actions.

I once believed self-discipline and everyday prayer were the keys to getting on God’s good side. Now I’ve challenged and exploded everything I was ever taught about The Bible, which is okay since, you know, God doesn’t exist anyway. But there’s a wonderful irony in the fact that, during my misguided youthful attempts at being Mr. Altar Boy, it was only after going atheist and having everything I ever knew about my former religion wiped out by a wrecking ball that I started really thinking about and applying myself in a way reminiscent of the earliest followers of Christ.

If my old confirmation class had been like this, I might not have been scolded by constant parent/minister meetings. And I might have gotten something a lot more out of it than just resentment and contempt toward the Wine and Wafer Club and all those other brainless church traditions.