Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy Father's Day

This, too, is the Dharma.

My dad grew up in an isolated, rural community on the high plains, the eldest of six. His own father was absent for the first two years of his life, off in Belgium and Germany fighting Nazis and facing horrors as a POW that he rarely spoke of while he was alive. My dad didn’t know his father at all when he came home from the war in 1945.

My grandfather severely abused my dad physically and emotionally throughout his childhood. My dad used to tell my younger sister and me stories of that abuse that seemed surreal to my young mind. Even though my grandfather loved me very much, I never grew that close to him; I always held him at arm’s length. I had heard too many of my dad’s stories of a painful childhood and adolescence. I loved my dad very much and I was always angry with my grandfather for hurting him.

Perhaps because of the abuse, my dad learned to be extremely self-sufficient growing up. He would escape the pain of home regularly by disappearing into the smoky hills and windy bluffs of southwestern Kansas. He also had many stories of adventures along the many creek beds around his hometown. Sometimes he would be gone for days at a time, especially once he was old enough to drive. He fished and hunted for food. His knives and guns were his lifelines. He knew which plants were edible and which were poisonous. He tanned hides and built fires without a match.

My dad was a scrapper and a survivor.

He sought solace with his paternal grandparents who lived in the same small town. They knew their own son’s penchant for narcissism and anger and they took pity on my dad, putting him up and feeding him for weeks at a time during my grandfather’s many extended rampages. My dad loved his grandparents more than his own parents. They were kind and supportive, nurturing in a way his own parents were not.

My dad never respected his mother. He told me so on many, many occasions. In his stories of growing up he often expressed disdain for her because of what he saw as her impotence in the face of his father’s rage. It was clear to me from a very young age that he bore much anger toward her for not stepping in, for not being the mother he desperately needed as a child. He rarely had good things to say about her.

As a child this confused me. I loved my grandmother with all my heart. I thought she was the greatest grandmother anyone could have. We always lived far away from them and only saw them once or twice a year. As a child I longed to go to grandma’s house and literally grieved when we would leave. My grandmother loved me unconditionally and doted on me whenever we were there.

Over the years, my grandparents changed a great deal. My grandfather frequently expressed regret to me over the way he had treated my dad all those years ago. My grandmother expressed sorrow and shame for not defending my dad more from my grandfather’s abuse when he was young. But for my dad, it was too little, too late.

My dad married my mom when he was nineteen, she eighteen. I came along a few years later, my sister three years after me. Both my parents were high school graduates, my dad coming close to being valedictorian of his class, just missing it, though, because of a rebellious streak that frequently landed him in the principal’s office. He played hookie an awful lot to be outdoors, raise hell and chase girls. He always seemed very proud of that.

My dad was always infinitely capable, forever indomitable. His self-sufficiency was at once a necessity for his survival and his “fuck you” to a world that was hostile and to people who were never there for him. He didn’t need anyone and he had no qualms about saying so. My dad was a man’s man of the first degree, and most of the rest of the world was weak and stupid. Growing up, it was clear to me that you didn’t have to do much to end up in the ignominious club of the soft and reviled. My dad didn’t suffer fools lightly. Common sense was always more important to him than book smarts. You might not be able to quote Chomsky, but if you had a sense of adventure, an eye for the ladies and could survive alone in the wilderness with nothing but a Buck knife, a few fish hooks and some twine for a week, you were worth your salt in his eyes.

Growing up, my dad inspired awe in me. I looked up to him and respected him above all other men. He could take the worst of situations and turn it around for his family. Despite not having much money, we never lacked anything. I had a magical childhood in my dad’s shadow. He was affectionate and never afraid to say I love you. He was supportive and protective and gave me my freedom at the same time. He was masterful at comforting us after a loss.

My dad instilled his values in me and taught me many of the skills he had learned as a boy out of necessity. To this day I can hunt and fish. I can build a lean-to in the woods. I can rappel down the face of a cliff and I know which rope knots to tie to ensure my safety. I know how to coax a channel cat out of shallow waters with just the right bait. I know how to walk silently in the woods and how to prepare cattails and dandelion greens with wild onions for a delicious, nutritious meal. I can skin a jack rabbit and a rattlesnake. Drop me into any wilderness, and I’ll find my way out. I am the best navigator I know.

Some of my fondest memories are of the days he would take me bow hunting in remote areas of Routt and Moffat counties on Colorado’s western slope. We would start the day before sun up at Daylight Donuts on the west end of Steamboat. I would always have a bear claw and a chocolate milk. He would take his coffee to go. We would drive for what seemed like an eternity, park the GMC Jimmy and hike into the wilderness. We’d spend hours on hilltops looking into ravines with binoculars for mule deer and elk. Those days with my dad were like a real-life Wild Kingdom, full of every mountain creature imaginable.

During all the hunting trips I took with him, I never once saw him take a shot at anything. Once, toward the end of one season, just before dusk when the sun shone low through fall aspens, casting a golden aura across the entire world, we came across a doe, completely unaware of our presence. We had gone the entire season without bagging a deer, and my dad asked me if I thought he should take a shot at it. I said yes.

My dad drew his bow and took aim at the doe. He was ready to release his arrow when a fawn slipped out of the underbrush behind her. I cried out for him not to shoot, and he lowered his bow to the ground. We both breathed a sigh of relief and set out for the truck to go home. That was the last hunting trip I ever took with him.

My dad wrote poetry and played the guitar. My dad taught me how to be a man. He taught me how to think. He taught me how to question what others accept at face value. My dad taught me that a forest clearing is just as good a church as any cathedral, probably better. He taught me to take risks, but not to do so haphazardly. He taught me to be conscious of the results of my actions and how to think strategically. He taught me that I’m going to get hurt sometimes, and that all wounds heal. He told me once he thought I would make a good Buddhist. My dad’s favorite saying: it’s a good life if you don’t weaken.

When I was thirteen my dad began traveling abroad for work. His job was to bring power to places in the world that had never had electricity. It was his dream job. My dad spent the rest of his life traveling to exotic lands far from civilization on every continent, learning new languages, traversing terrain a mountain goat couldn’t climb to build steel towers and string high voltage electrical cable. He earned an amazing living for his family by being an adventurer. He also took us many places with him.

Thanks to his air miles, I traveled alone around the globe when I was nineteen. At one point on that trip I met up with him in Indonesia and followed him to remote regions of Java to train crews of men to maintain electrical high lines without shutting down the power. Dangerous work, for sure. But what else would Superman choose as his career?

I met him in El Salvador on two occasions in the 80s, traveling to once war-torn areas, to ancient Mayan sites, to pristine, undeveloped Pacific coast beaches. He visited me once while I lived in Costa Rica for a year, too. We traveled to an active volcano and explored the jungle together along the Pacific coast.

During my college years my mom and dad lived in east Africa for two years. I got to live with them for a couple of months the summer before I went to grad school. My dad was working on a long-term project to electrify remote areas of Tanzania, taking advantage of hydro-electric projects financed by the IMF and the World Bank. The three of us went on safaris. I filmed a lioness killing a zebra from the rooftop of a Land Rover, not 30 feet away. I stood atop that same vehicle in the bottom of a gigantic volcanic crater surrounded by a herd of wildebeest that stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions. We traveled to Zanzibar where I explored the ruins of a sultan’s palace now claimed by towering mango trees.

During my brief stay with them I fell ill and wound up in a Nairobi hospital, subjected to tests involving blood draws, injections of dyes and x-rays. My dad was by my side the entire time, looking out for me, worrying about me, telling me how proud he was of me and that he loved me. I recovered and was able to set out again on new adventures.

I hiked to a waterfall at the base of Kilimanjaro. I witnessed a flock of flamingos take flight from a salt marsh at Lake Manyara. I followed herds of elephants and families of giraffes as they meandered in an endless search for the greenest acacia leaves at Ngorongoro.

My dad nursed my mom back from the brink through two bouts of malaria while they lived there. He built a water tower and filtration system for their expat house and three others on the same compound. They enjoyed the cleanest, safest drinking water in the entire town. He worked doggedly day in and day out to come home to his wife and a beautiful, rustic house at the foot of a mountain that supported an ANC military training camp. The two of them survived cobras, green mambas, dysentery and potholes the size of craters. They were the happiest I had ever seen them.

My dad was beyond compare. He occupied an unreachable place in my mind. He was the ultimate, my hero. He was the die I would cast myself from. His was the standard to which I would hold all other men. He was the man of steel, beyond reproach, indefatigable and larger than life. He was self-made and followed no one. I loved him with every fiber of my being. I love him more now than I will ever be able to express.

My dad hasn’t spoken to me since 1997.

That was the year I came out to my family. I had gone to Naropa to get a second master’s degree and was living in Boulder. By this time my parents were living in rural central Missouri. My dad continued to travel abroad, only now he had formed his own company and was working for himself. I came out to my mom first over the phone. My dad was in Spain at the time. I couldn’t tell him myself because I was too afraid, too ashamed. I made my mom tell him for me. She resents it to this day.

You see, my dad is his father’s son. He can be prone to anger. He doesn’t go on rampages like my grandfather. Instead, he goes inward and seethes in his rage, fleeing the scene when it becomes too much to contain. His career of foreign travel has always served as a convenient excuse for him to be alone. Sometimes he’s gone for up to a year at a time.

My dad will be 67 this September. His body has begun to betray him. Decades of hard physical labor and even harder self-imposed exercise regimes have taken their toll. He has skin cancer, kidney problems, a chronically painful and debilitating condition in his lower spine and now, according to my mother, he’s developing macular degenerative disease.

I haven’t been face-to-face with the man since 2000 when my grandmother was dying. Watching her die in their home was surreal enough. To top it off, my dad refused to interact with me the entire time I was there. I had just started a new job in Boulder and had to come back home and get back to work. She died the day after I got back. My dad was alone with her when she passed.

Since ‘97, my life has been about reconciling the ideas of the loving dad I knew as a child and the dad who has abandoned me as an adult. That contradiction informs everything about me to this day. When he dies, I’ll go to his funeral. But it will be a unique experience for me, to say the least. I’ve been grieving the loss of him for thirteen years now. The rest of my family hasn’t had as much time to get used to the idea of him being gone. I don’t know what that day will look like, but I’m sure it will change me profoundly. I feel that sea change welling up inside of me already.

Every Father’s Day brings me another opportunity to go deeper into reconciliation with the idea of my dad. He was an amazing father growing up. He has been a heartless, cruel bastard since I’ve been an adult. It’s impossible to convey completely the complexity of family dynamics in such a short piece, but you get the gist of my experience. I love my dad more than I’ll ever be able to express. I also want to pound his face into a bloody pulp for abandoning me. Those two extremes exist side by side in me. I never would have imagined they could.

This seems to me the ultimate in human contradictions; it has certainly informed everything about me for the last thirteen years. Contradiction has shaped the man I’ve become. Growing up, my love for my dad was always punctuated by not a small amount of fear. He beat me as a child (albeit infrequently), sometimes with implements. When I became a teenager he was very clear that there would be no more spankings. From that day forward, he would hit me with a closed fist when I deserved it. I tested him on that claim once. Just once.

My dad is a man of his word.

I don’t have children of my own, probably never will. I’ll be the branch that fell off my family tree. I’m okay with that. My sister has provided my parents with four beautiful granddaughters. They live very close to each other. My sister spends her weekdays working in my dad’s home office. They share a large tract of land in the country where they have horses and can hike and fish. I’ll admit I experience a pang of jealousy when my sister tells me about the latest arrowhead they’ve found along the creek. Arrowhead and fossil hunting was always one of my favorite things to do with my dad.

Things aren’t easy for my mom, my sister or my nieces in this mess. They endeavor to maintain a relationship with me while trying not to piss dad off too much by bringing up the whole gay thing in conversation. He won’t speak about it and shuts down when forced to. For the next year he’s in the Middle East. He won’t have to confront it or any of us for quite some time. That seems to make him happy.

He loves my mom, sister and nieces, and he can’t be around them for too long. He loved me more than life itself when I was younger. Now I don’t exist. That contradiction is the air we all breathe.

I’ve had my theories about his vehement reaction to my coming out over the years. I’ve invented all sorts of stories in an attempt to make some sense of the senseless. In the end, none of the stories matter, though. Just like my dad, the events of my life have forged my personality. I am where I am because of them. As a Buddhist, I have obsessed on the karma that led me to this place of contradiction. That kind of obsessing has never gotten me anywhere good. It just leads to more suffering. Over time I’ve learned to choose how I will react to my world, to act in a way that hopefully sows karmically positive seeds for the future. Meditation has taught me how to sit in the midst of contradiction and allow it to be what it is.

My dad is an awesome man, and I love him more than words can say. He’s also a cruel, abusive asshole I’d like to see groveling at my feet for mercy some day. I love you, dad. Happy Father’s Day. And fuck you, motherfucker.

It feels good to say both those things. It also hurts. I won’t pretend it doesn’t.

This, too, is the Dharma.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Blessed Be the Ties that Bind

For my three readers who aren’t acquainted with the very confused soul who answers to the name of Peter LaBarbera, allow me to introduce you.

Peter is the president of Americans For Truth About Homosexuality (sic) (AFTAH), “a national organization devoted exclusively to exposing and countering the homosexual activist agenda.” AFTAH also claims that it

“seeks to apply the same single-minded determination to opposing the radical homosexual agenda and standing for God-ordained sexuality and the natural family as countless homosexual groups do in promoting their harmful agenda. Americans For Truth is a rare single-issue national group on the other side of this critical ‘culture war’ issue. Meanwhile, there are over a dozen national American ‘gay’ groups with annual budgets ranging from just under $1 million to over $30 million working to advance this agenda — which threatens to criminalize Christian opposition to behavior that most Americans believe is wrong.”

I encourage you to have a look at the AFTAH website. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Seen enough? I certainly have. If you’ve read my posts on elephant you know that the ideas of a “gay agenda” and “culture wars” confuse me. Over the years I’ve asked many gay-haters what they mean when they use those terms, but not a single one has been able to give me a working definition we can all agree on. It’s frustrating, to say the least. Venture even a quick glance at AFTAH’s website and you’ll see both these terms thrown around like confetti at a Rip Taylor opener for Celine Dion.

I never signed up to fight in any culture war, did you? Can you, dear reader, give me a definition of the term that doesn’t make a mockery or a martyr of either side in the struggle? Is the culture war just between the gays and the straights, or are other groups involved as well? Am I going to be forced to engage in this battle forever, or will one side eventually win?

I think about these so-called culture wars a lot. I also think a lot about the war on drugs and the war on terror. All of these fabricated, asinine struggles have issued from the conservative Right. Every last one of them. The pattern stands out like a Judith Leiber clutch purse on Tony night. The semiotics here are dazzling… of the war imagery, not the clutch purse, silly.

I grew up in conservative parts of the country. Ever been to the small mountain towns of Colorado’s Western Slope? Ever been to the Show Me State? Then you have an idea of what I’m talking about. People are always at war against something in these places. They hoot ‘n’ holler when Lee Greenwood plays. They tear up easily whenever they see a yellow ribbon. If they leave these places for larger urban centers they invariably attend mega churches. They seem to have an appreciation for gingham. Growing up I heard these folks pepper their sentences in all seriousness with nigger, spic, gook and faggot. Not words “like” those… those very words! And these were proud, devout Christians! I grew up hearing things in Sunday school like ‘Hitler had the right idea with the faggots; they should all be lined up and shot.’ I crap you negatory, my friends. How did I not repress that memory?

I’ve also lived in relatively progressive parts of the country like Boulder and Chicago, so I’ve been able to make meaningful comparisons. Let’s just say there’s a reason I don’t live in small towns far from big cities anymore. There’s something to be said for an integrated urban neighborhood. It requires residents to educate themselves about the other. It puts the other in full view all the time. An integrated neighborhood promotes mutual understanding, and that leads to acceptance, and that leads to friendship, and that leads to compassion and regard for others’ wellbeing.

What’s unspoken yet implicit here is that in order to get from one point on this continuum to the next, one necessarily has to overcome something: fear of the unknown. It’s just that simple. Don’t let nobody tell ya it ain’t. Fear makes us do some pretty screwed up shit sometimes. I’d like to direct your attention once again to the AFTAH website and Peter LaBarbera.

Peter has literally built his career around his fear. He has made his life’s work about juxtaposing himself to the other. Peter LaBarbera has chosen to be of service to his nation and his world by promoting the very un-Christian notion that judging others is okay, nay, compulsory if you want to be an upstanding citizen in his God-fearing America. My friends, Peter LaBarbera is a mess!

I’m not going to psychologize Peter’s behavior by saying he’s just in denial of his own latent homosexuality or that he must have been sexually abused as a boy. Many people have already said such things about him, and much worse. Frankly, I find that kind of analysis non-nuanced, boring and plain old unhelpful. I do, however, want to point out the power of fear to motivate and inspire.

As a child, I chose to be baptized because I had heard one too many apocalypto-hellfire-piss-yer-pants-it-burns-so-bad sermons in church. I was scared shitless of hell. So I consciously decided that if not landing there meant I had to get a little wet while other people for whom I bore no respect witnessed the surreal spectacle, I’d go ahead and suffer the humiliation. You know, to cover all my bases. I was nothing if not a logical thinker. I say humiliation because at that age I was painfully shy about being exposed in public. I was mildly traumatized by the boys’ locker room Monday through Friday and I hated getting up in front of people to speak or perform. I literally remember thinking that these church-goers were going to be able to see my scrawny body through the wet baptismal gown and make fun of me. The semiotics here are also dazzling.

As an adult, I recognize that what I feared back then was being outed as a gay boy. And one wet t-shirt was all it would take for my charade to come tumbling down like the walls of Jericho. (By the way, was Joshua always portrayed as a hottie in your children’s bibles like he was in mine?) So you can you imagine, then, how great my fear of damnation was if I decided it would be better to risk being outed (the greatest fear of my life) than face an eternity in hell. Yeah, fear’s a real fuckin’ motivator sometimes.

So I did it. I got dunked in front of all those Christian soldiers and I looked like a fool to any non-religious fly on the wall and I didn’t get run out of town on a rail for being a fag and God was in her heaven and all was still right with the world. Oh, and I’m not going to hell now!

That experience also made me realize something: reality almost never resembles what it looks like in my imagination. And so began my protracted, uphill slog toward emotional, intellectual and psychic maturity. Or at least that’s how I remember it. Who the hell knows what actually happened?

I think back on that time and I’m amazed at how much fear informed the things I did, the things I said, the choices I made, the ways I behaved. I also imagine all those church-goers who saw me get dunked that day still sitting in those pews, still singing the same hymns, still clutching on to the same old notions of heaven and hell, still motivated never to look squarely at the things that scare them, using that particular iteration of Christianity as a shield, putting their heads in the sand beneath the old rugged cross.

Dear God, if there is a heaven, I hope to hell there aren’t any Christians in it.

And that’s the kind of smart remark that gets me in trouble with the Peter LaBarberas of the world. Peter doesn’t understand the events of my life that led me to the place where I can say something like that and still love Jesus. Because I still do, despite all the smack people talked about him while I was growing up. I’ve been courageous enough to take a closer look... at Jesus, at fear, at love, at myself. I use that word hesitantly because it doesn’t feel like courage at all. It feels like a matter of survival.

If I had never questioned the things I was taught growing up, if I were still sitting in that church with all the other Christian soldiers knowing what I know about my homosexuality, I guarantee you I’d be dreaming up ways to off myself in the least painful, yet most dramatic way possible. Imagine me, freshly dead in my mother’s bed, wearing a sheer white chiffon dress, a thin crimson Herm├ęs scarf tied around my neck, a bottle of Valium lying on its side on the powder room vanity, pills strewn about in a trail from the bathroom to the bed where I lie face up staring at the Home Depot Hunter ceiling fan, stigmata forming on my hands and feet. Aaaaand fade to black.

No, Peter doesn’t understand me. I’m complicated. Of course, I don’t understand the events of Peter’s life either, the ones that have led him to this place where he can forge a career out of fear, but there’s a difference. I’ve taken Jesus’ teachings to heart to some degree. I dare say Peter has not. I endeavor not to harm others by projecting my fear onto them. I try very hard to keep my heart open to all people who cross my path, not to judge them, to get to know them, to hear their stories in the name of cultivating compassion for them. When I fall short, I try to forgive myself and move forward with more awareness of my judgmental tendencies. In doing so for myself, I learn how to make allowances for others. And Peter’s the one who calls himself a Christian.

This August 5th through the 7th, Americans For Truth is holding its first ever Truth Academy to train youth ages 14 to 25 how to fight the gay agenda. AFTAH claims Truth Academy will be a three-day intensive that will
“bring together some of the country’s leading pro-family experts on homosexuality to teach both young and old how to answer the lies and myths that so readily emanate from the ‘GLBT’ (‘gay’) camp.”

Slated to appear at Truth Academy is a veritable who’s who of gay-haters and conversion therapy fetishists. Here’s the lineup.

Robert Knight, Coral Ridge Ministries
Ryan Sorba, Young Conservatives of California
Prof. Robert Gagnon, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
Prof. Rena Lindevaldsen, Liberty University Law School
Matt Barber, Liberty Counsel
Laurie Higgins, Illinois Family Institute
Greg Quinlan, Parents and Friends of Gays and Ex-Gays

Read just a little about each of these characters and you’ll have a good sense of what the event holds in store for all the poor little bastards forced to attend by their homophobic parents. The only thing worse than having to sit through this fear-based, uninformed, bigoted, hypocritical horse shit at all is having to sit through it for three freakin’ days.

Don’t underestimate the psychic damage that will be done to many, many young people over the course of this torture fest. Peter LaBarbera bills it as a reversal of decades of “pro-gay brainwashing” in schools and popular culture. He’s very excited about the whole thing.

Peter gets so excited about de-programming gays from deviant sexual behavior, in fact, that he makes the ultimate sacrifice on occasion. He travels to BDSM and leather sex venues like the Folsom Street Fair and gay bath houses across the land to takes pictures. He then posts those pictures on the AFTAH website to show Christian soldiers everywhere what they’re up against in the culture war. Check it out.

Dirty, dirty gays.

Creeped out yet?

No? How about now?

You get the point.

Just so we’re clear, I find the spectacle of naked bodies walking down a public street scintillating and beautiful. Male and female! I find the idea of public displays of sexual behavior in an age-appropriate context exciting and fascinating. I think group sex among consenting adults in the privacy of a D.C. hotel room is a bang-up idea. Doesn’t matter if it’s all men, all women, men and women, inter-sexed, transgendered.... If it offends you, don’t go! It’s just that simple. Don’t let nobody tell ya it ain’t.

People… Peter posts this stuff on a “pro-family” Christian website. If it’s “pro-family,” it stands to reason children will be looking at it. The issues LaBarbera writes about and the photos and videos he posts have to be viewed in an age-appropriate context. Anything else is child sexual abuse, in my humble opinion.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently listed AFTAH as a hate group in response to heavy lobbying by the Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network. Personally, I wish there were such a thing as ‘fear groups’. It’s a much more apt moniker for groups like AFTAH.

I totally get that the Peter LaBarberas of the world don’t feel like they come from a place of hate when they espouse their prescriptions for a moral society. I believe them when they say they’re out to save people. The problem is, they’re wearing the emperor’s new clothes. And George Rekers is the emperor’s poster child.

Lately, every time I hear a right-wing evangelical type attack gays and lesbians in a public forum, I start my countdown clock: T-minus sixty seconds before the highway patrol discovers him in a car under an overpass with a boy’s dick in his mouth. You can set your watch by it. See also Pastor Ted Haggard. If you don’t want to Google his name, just type in “drug-fueled gay trysts.”

Who do these people think they’re fooling? Who are they trying to convince?

Listen, Peter, George, Ted, I know what it’s like to live with so much fear that it clouds your judgment. I know how that fear can kill your mind and make you believe black is white and good is bad. In a world paralyzed by fear, you can turn the most beautiful thing in the world into a corrupt, horrible, monster. But have hope, my friends, because Jesus saves! He saved my wretched ass. And he can save yours, too. Blessed be the ties that bind.

I’m not going to psychologize your behavior because I don’t care if you’re gay or straight. I have a feeling God doesn’t give a shit either. Now, I won’t pretend to speak for God, but my prayer for you is that one day you’re able to see this beautiful, mixed up, paradoxical world through lenses other than fear. My prayer for you is that you might be capable one day of ceasing projecting your fear onto others, hurting them deeply in the process. My prayer for you is my ongoing prayer for myself.