Post 32: System errors

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“Danger, Will Robinson!”

—Lost in Space

It’s been a week too short here in Lake World-be-gone, my new home. I’m going to keep this part of my post very brief this time. We’ve just deeply enjoyed a visit here by Shannon’s brother, Eric, his lady love, Page, and their son, J.J.. They arrived two days after we got back from Victoria. Eric is leaving tomorrow afternoon. The next day we’ll spend in America getting a few ‘recall repairs’ done and a cracked windshield replaced on our Subaru. On Friday, we leave for a family wedding in Portland. The day after we return from that, my cousin and her husband are coming to visit for a few days, and a couple days after they leave, Shannon’s dad and step-mom will be here for the rest of the month. Somewhere in there, we’ll be squeezing in all our paying work for the month, getting episodes of TWICE and these blog posts out, finishing and sending off Shannon’s next novel, taking care of the garden, and managing whatever else comes up—because something always does.

So, let’s move right along to the meat of this post, shall we—before I lose consciousness from all the Gees we’re pulling here? :]

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Two weeks ago, before I was kidnapped and briefly marooned on Planet Victoria, B.C., I posted some thoughts about “the invisible world,” reflecting on the largely interior and intangible nature of the adventures I’m reporting here. I rifled through some distinctions between what ‘happens to us’ and what we do—inside and out—with those ‘objective’ events. And, finally, I ruminated on the concept of ‘invisible train wrecks’ in general, and their potential significance in regard to the wider world’s struggles these days. At the start of that post I also mentioned wanting time to think about how best to proceed from here.

Well, I’ve decided to try proceeding through this ‘Dark Wood Tour’…a bit faster. You’re not the only one who read those first few ‘Dark Wood’ posts last winter without any notion of how ‘heads-down-in-the-weeds’ this ‘exploration’ might get. Not even I really want to spend another year here reminiscing about the misadventures of my adolescence, college, young adulthood and beyond, in search of answers to the questions I started out with, which even I have a hard time recalling sometimes now. I too have wondered lately what it might be like if, someday soon, this blog were more about what I’m currently doing and thinking—when I’m not wandering the vast dark wood still sprawling into mist behind my waking mind, I mean. :]

So, yeah. I’m going to strap on a tattered old pair of running shoes now, and experiment with greater reliance on generalizations and ‘overview analysis,’ for a while. This will mean fewer ‘telling details’ and ‘potentially interesting digressions.’ I might talk about what has happened without ‘letting/making’ you watch it unfold in blow-by-blow playback. But I think the developmental and experiential foundation of my life’s trajectory has been pretty thoroughly laid out at this point. I’m betting you’ve gotten the picture, and might not feel need of so much blow-by-blow, yes? So…back to the show.

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Three weeks ago, as you may or may not recall anymore, I left our intrepid village idiot freshly cast out of the Cirque du High School’s malfunctioning Tunnel of Love attraction, full of wild misapprehensions about everything from the fate of his rather idiosyncratic spiritual quest to the exact nature of his sexual orientation. He had just experienced his first prolonged bout of really acute depression, then slammed the door shut on all that the instant a medical doctor suggested talking with a therapist—again—‘cause he was fine, damn it. Just fine. All these eye-rolling hysterics notwithstanding, I also suggested that the real fall was not actually about sexuality itself, or still anything like full blown yet. So what did our sad clown do next with all this inner confusion and angst?

Well… He packed up his mortally broken story and moved right out of it into a fully revised version—with even more exaggerated stakes—as any future novelist worth his salt would have done, no? …What do I mean by that? Hmmm…

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Before I continue down that path, there are some other concerns I feel the need to address first. Despite efforts to clarify my meaning and intent in the ‘Hat Trick’ post, three weeks ago, I worry there may still be too much room for misunderstanding the ‘gay, but not gay’ assertion I related there. If possible, I’d like to avoid just seeming deeply ‘closeted,’ deeply pretentious, or offensively disingenuous—especially to close friends, family members, and any others reading this who are gay—or anywhere else on the orientation rainbow. So, I beg your patient indulgence while I address my own discomfort here for a moment longer before moving on.

There are things I did not—and will not—mean in reporting this part of my life. I did not, and will not, mean to suggest that I have ever known ‘what it’s like to be gay’—without having actually been gay. I did not, and will not, mean to suggest that I was gay for a while—but ‘got over it’ somehow later. I did not, and will not, mean that mistaking myself—or being mistaken—for gay, or being gay itself, was somehow inherently ‘tragic’ or destructive. None of that was ever the real issue at stake here.

If anything in this part of my tale was ‘tragic’ or destructive, it had virtually nothing to do with sexual orientation—or, more accurately in my case, lack of it—but everything to do with confusion and misfiling as profound as it was absurdly gratuitous. I am taking my time and yours to say this—again—because I’m aware that it may very well sound like I am lamenting the ‘tragedy’ of thinking myself gay, or of ‘being gay’ in general. It may also sound like the primary issue for me was whether or not I was gay. But in this world, very different things often have superficially similar surfaces, and are too easily mistaken for one another. I hope to continue talking about this part of my journey without falling into that pit—again—as gratuitously as I fell into it the first time around.

If you find yourself uncomfortable with anything I seem to be saying here, I hope you will feel free to let me know—through comments on the post, or more privately via the website’s contacts page.

Thanks for your patience. And now—onward!

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Having said everything above, I won’t pretend that I attached no shame or judgment back then to the idea that I might be gay. It was still the mid-70s. The Stonewall riots had occurred just a few years earlier—but virtually no one my age in California had even heard of them yet. Harvey Milk would not be murdered for five years yet. The Castro was very visibly just across San Francisco Bay from me—but still more notorious than celebrated then. The ‘gay rights’ movement that has succeeded—courageously and at great cost—in convincing so many, if not yet all of us to completely re-think and correct our whole set of assumptions about what and who is ‘normal,’ ‘good,’ and/or ‘welcome’ was still in its infancy then. As I’ve noted elsewhere, even back in high school I had no interest in being unkind to anyone—including gay peers. But, like most other teens of that era, everything I knew of homosexual orientation or lifestyle had been learned from the largely homophobic culture around me, and its very distorting legal and religious institutions. There was nothing ‘enlightened’ about the ways I thought through my fears—because that’s what they were—of being homosexual myself. Whatever I had told that ‘inner voice of conscience’ asking whether I was strong enough to cope with this—I wasn’t. And, I didn’t, really.

That priest I’d spoken with in a confessional booth, back when my biggest problem had just been masturbation, had assured me that God would never hold us accountable for anything beyond our control. We’d been talking about dreams, of course—which I’d decided were controllable after all. But I very quickly conceded that sexual orientation itself was certainly beyond anyone’s control. The question, I decided, was not what I might be—that had surely been God’s decision—but what I did with what I was.

I had not asked for this. I had never wanted it—not even ‘guiltily.’ If anything, it seemed the absolute inverse of everything I’d ever wanted. As for how I could now continue hoping to be ‘Gandalf’s man in the field’…well, both Bilbo and Frodo had burdensome flaws to carry, potentially monstrous sides to be held at bay by mere threads of will. That hadn’t prevented them from fulfilling their potential. This realization about myself didn’t have to prevent me from fulfilling mine. If I just worked even harder to ‘do good,’ then surely, ‘good’ was what I could still do. Thus began my long, predictably doomed attempt to become a ‘saint’—without ever saying so explicitly, of course—even to myself. I could never have called it that, or even thought it, because even at that age I understood that ‘trying to be a saint’—even daring to consider one’s self a viable candidate—was clear and irrevocable evidence of one’s unsuitability for the task, and proof of failure right out of the gate. …And yet, looking back, that’s so clearly what I was trying to do. And just so, my unsuitability and failure were foreordained.

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As for the question of being gay itself, and what to do about that? Well, here’s where I’d tied myself a truly Gordian knot. The fact that I was, after all, not actually gay made it impossible to work through the fear and shame, and move, eventually, toward the community of others who wanted what, deep down, I didn’t actually want. But the fact that I had become convinced I must be gay made any further movement toward participation in the straight community just as unthinkable for me. I was well and truly immobilized—caught in perfect stasis between two gravitational poles, unable to surrender to the pull of either one.

The physical lust of adolescence didn’t just vanish because of this. It just had no thinkable target anymore. I could fantasize appealing erotic scenes I was now indelibly unqualified to project myself into, or I could fantasize unappealing erotic scenes for which I assumed myself ‘qualified’, but which simply left me tense and miserable. What to do? …For a time, such fantasy just shut down within me entirely. This likely made my determination not to masturbate…well, possible. By the end of my sophomore year at Cirque du High School, I had managed—with a lifetime of assistance and conditioning from family, church and macho/homophobic culture—if not to outright murder whatever was left of my sexuality, then certainly to put it into a profound and lengthy coma.

My erotic impulses were, perhaps, channeled into art, and music, and the pursuit of ecstatic spiritual experience, which I certainly did pursue, in all sorts of private, cerebral and sometimes ‘sensory’ but never ‘sensual’ ways for many years. (More about that down the road, I’m sure, but not yet. Not here.) The virtually complete absence of any sexual intent or pursuit came across to others, of course, as effeteness—an effect only reinforced by the fact that I had very ‘pretty’ features as a teenager: huge blue eyes, wavy bronze hair worn too long in a futile attempt to emulate the laughably styled coifs of 70s teen TV heart throbs and rock stars. My involvement in theater meant ‘stage makeup,’ which—in high school productions—was applied by teenage girls with no concept of what actual stage makeup meant. Under their tender ministrations, I ended up with eye shadow and mascara, lipstick and rouge to make barbie blush, that made an already too-pretty boy look like Marilyn Monroe’s younger sister in guy-drag. There are still a few photos around that make me wince to look at. No wonder everyone thought… And to polish off my disguise, I’d been raised by two highly educated, very articulate parents who’d taught me an elaborate vocabulary and a precise, over-enunciated manner of speech. (Remember Mr. Leonard’s assertion back at Eden Jail that my way of speaking was what caused young thugs to hold me down and cut my hair in class? …Maybe he was right.)

Needless to say, my father found me more and more embarrassing as the charismatic, muscular, randy young man that everyone was waiting for failed to appear in deference to this willowy, androgynous, over-articulate artist and religious zealot. There was a LOT of wincing in our house back then. He tried—a bit too transparently, on several occasions—to get me to admit that I was just hiding all my ‘horny ambitions’ from him, right? ‘You don’t have to hide, son. You can talk with me about it, if you’d like to.’ Except, I sure couldn’t—not even to myself, and least of all to him. He asked me one afternoon if I ‘liked’ this young ‘actress girl’ at school. When I told him I liked her “with my mind, but not as a girlfriend,” he got pretty angry, and replied, “You like a girl with this,” he pointed at his chest, “or this,” he pointed at his crotch, “but not with this!” He pointed at his head. …And yes, I did throw that, along with quite a few other juicy assets from my life, right into The Book of Joby—as one does. But the most funny thing in all of this is that I did, in fact, like that ‘actress girl’ with a lot more than my mind. I thought she was beautiful and smart and funny, and I’d been crazy for her—until she told me I “stank” in class one day. I completely believed her, of course—and quit trying well before that sad conversation with my dad. Years later, I discovered that she was, in fact, a lesbian. Hilarious how these cocktails shake out, huh?

There were other exchanges between my father and me that were…a lot less funny. He really seemed to think I could be shamed into becoming a real boy. But no amount of shame ever quite did the trick. I see no need to elaborate. Water long gone under the bridge now. And yet, in all that time—for all the obvious tension between us—it still never once occurred to me—consciously—that my supposed sexual orientation wasn’t the secret I was keeping from him. That he’d been keeping that secret from me since I’d been practically a toddler would not come into the open between us until well after I was in college.

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Meanwhile, as I concentrated on the carefully disguised pursuit of sainthood, sex and sexuality were simply erased altogether from my daily radar. Irrelevant. Gone. …Consciously, anyway. Unconsciously, they swam day and night in the vast, dark cloud that filled the endless emptiness beyond my active solar system. A vague, oppressive weight and fatigue both so nameless and so omnipresent now that I gave it no more conscious heed than I gave air. And yet, like air, it was present everywhere in everything at all times.

My active solar system, however, was defined and driven by a radically energized day-in, day-out sense of ‘mission’ and a greater attention than ever to finding and fixing whatever might be wrong with me or what I was doing, or how I was doing it. Life became focused on the search for opportunities to ‘help’ and detecting personal system errors to repair or delete. Both of these goals seemed hopeless at home, where I was simply too well ‘known,’ and too long dismissed to have any hope of making differences of any kind. At home, I simply went through whatever motions were required to satisfy expectations and avoid the wrong kinds of attention. I no longer sought ‘family’ there. I was already seeking and building that elsewhere—largely at school. Whenever I left the house—and was free to define myself again—some alert corner of my mind scanned constantly for any opportunity to make something better, someone happier, something painful easier, something ugly pretty, something pretty beautiful. Every time I succeeded in ‘doing something good,’ I had an answer for my conscience, proof that my potential had not been aborted by the ‘brokenness’ hidden inside me—beyond any power to fix.

And that is the last thing I wish to focus on before letting this journey rest until next week: the new level of futility I had strayed into.

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As I suggested near the beginning of this post, though so much of this material seems to revolve around my navigation of an assumption that I was gay, I was completely oblivious to the real problem defining my life then: the complete loss of any recognizable ‘cause and effect’ in my life.

Years of conditioning to see error in myself where it didn’t exist—leaving me blind to error where it did exist; to pour myself into fixing what wasn’t broken—breaking those very things in the process; to confuse ‘honesty,’ ‘courage,’ and ‘preparedness’ with a willful insistence on ‘facing’ the worst possible interpretation of myself while assuming the best possible interpretation of others, had all left me incapable of knowing where or who I actually was at any given moment, much less of steering an effective course through anything. Left had gradually been blurred with right, up with down, in with out and self with others, by the very people I’d most trusted and depended on for guidance—parents, priests, teachers—until everything I did produced the opposite results of what I’d been taught to expect. The harder I tried, the worse things seemed to get—because I had no idea I’d already been trying far too hard for so long—giving others far too much credit and trust while suspecting myself of inadequacy and wrongdoing at every turn, overcompensating for imagined failings to degrees that made me seem ridiculous to others. Every time trying much too hard made things go ‘inexplicably’ wrong, I just thought, “I’ve failed again. I must still not be trying hard enough. I must try harder!” …All of which just sent me farther and farther into spaces that no sane person would ever have thought of trying to inhabit—or had any reason to want to.

The discovery that my budding sexuality and sensuality must be ‘sinful’ had moved me to cut that bud off as forcefully and persistently as I could. The resulting absence of that very bud made me feel that something even worse must be wrong with me, which led me to new, even more self-damning explanations that left me trying harder than ever to fix things I had broken by fixing things that weren’t broken—distorting myself farther and farther beyond reach of any normal teenager’s company or society. Being gay? Not being gay? Total red herring. The real ‘tragic’ malfunction at work here was the hopelessly broken, and entirely invisible process that had gotten me anywhere near these other questions to begin with.

But this particular iteration of that evolving dysfunction had also ushered me across a whole new threshold.

Until that moment all the things I had perceived as ‘wrong’ in my life had seemed ‘fixable.’ Through grammar school and Eden Jail, family struggles, religious training, therapy, I had been struggling to fix things I thought I was just doing wrong. I had always believed that if I could learn to do them right—‘perfect my brand’—I could be ‘victorious.’ This had belied a surviving inner assumption that who I was—at the core—was okay—or at least still salvageable; that only my skills and methods—not me, myself—had needed fixing. But with this latest iteration of the same old ‘distortion formula,’ the ‘broken thing’ had finally become myself—intrinsically and inescapably. There was no longer any hope of fixing ‘me.’ There was only hope of compensating for what I was, by perfecting what I did, despite myself.

Though I consciously understood none of this then, some deeper part of me knew it all too well. The sudden, profound bout of depression that had come over me so mysteriously that year had been a gift from the part of me that understood ‘we’ had just fallen out of orbit in some much deeper way. If there is anything truly tragic in this part of my story, it was my ability to shut that voice down and reject its gift so swiftly and effectively the minute a doctor helped me recognize—no, merely suspect its message. That, I believe, was the moment when I really lost my way at last and for good in this dark wood.

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And I’m out of time here, as I bet you must be too. So, I’ll leave it there for now.

I wish you a kind and nourishing week, cyber-pals. See you next Sunday.

Mark Ferrari2 Comments