The Integrity Paradox

27 07 2012

DGAF [di’gaef] v. int. : to not give a fuck

I watched the movie “The Devil Wears Prada” last night.


Because I fuckin wanted to, that’s why.

I always tell people that in Peru I learned to DGAF. I find that the final, ironic step to DGAFing about being a gay guy is not caring if people perceive you as gay. Ironic because it’s machismo-obsessed Peru, after teaching me how to use a machete and how to play soccer and how not to be afraid of spiders, who finally taught me this. The last step to being brave is DGAFing about whether people perceive you as manly or not. That’s what truly makes you a man.

Now, I just listened to my boss’ answering machine for the first time. My boss is a very gay, very hipster man who’s super professional and lived in New York City doing theater for some years. So I was kind of weirded out to hear on his voicemail a butch, vaguely Bronx-accented, Average Joe kind of voice that was still unmistakably his, telling me in a tone reminiscent of what a firm handshake would sound like, “Hey. You’ve reached my voicemail. Please leave a message and I’ll call you back as soon as I can.”

To be brutally honest, it sort of made me lose respect for him. Why can’t he let his flag fly as a gay man, especially since his sexuality is so blatantly obvious when you talk to him? He was in theater in New York. You know he’s good at accents, so you know he did it on purpose. I think uneasily of how many doors he’s opened, how many social ladders he might have climbed by putting on that butch voice at an audition.

There are a lot of threads to this tapestry, and even more than usual, I’m struggling at how to bring them all together. I am one thread: knowing that people don’t really perceive me as gay, I wonder if I’m just not in a position to judge anyone for putting their freak flag at half-mast. Another thread lies in Peru. I found that there, the only gay men to be found were hyper-feminine types who were into cross-dressing. They, I hypothesized, were the ones who are so genetically feminine that they just couldn’t suppress the naturally sashaying dance of their bodies. The ones who couldn’t hide. And meanwhile all the in-between folks living in Peru, trapped by an old-fashioned culture where marriage happens at twenty and affairs start at twenty-five, just marry women, slap their wives into not talking about the uncomfortable sex, and deal with it.

So do you even credit the gay guys who are out of the closet in Peru, because they are truly doing something brave? Or are they simply the ones that lost a game of cultural assimilation in which everyone has a bet?

Gay isn’t the only part of the tapestry I’m trying to weave either. The heart of it, as a matter of fact, is this blog. I was talking to my friend today, a friend who writes for a travel blog (unpaid but I’m still really effing jealous), about how it’s kind of uncomfortable to make something as personal as writing into something you’re suddenly trying to get views and hits on. My soon-to-be-travel blog isn’t quite in the same situation, but I’m going to hopefully have a lot of stories to tell next year,  and all stories must begin by introducing their main character. Knowing that the few people who read this blog already know me very well, continually re-introducing myself feels egocentric. Like I’m selling myself and my life.

I think blogs – the entity of Blogs as marketable, valid pieces of media – inherently have that problem. My sister’s friend is a very well-known fashion blogger (apparently), and after reading her blog, which is all quirky and thoughtful and has posts beginning with things like, “Oh, how I love the halcyon sunny days of spring!”, I met her for the first time and sort of instinctively didn’t like her. Even though she’s obviously smart, and has the thoughts in her head that lay the seeds for her blog posts, she’s just, like… not the kind of person who would say things like that. Which I find really weird. But that’s sort of what all writing is: continually reinventing and reintroducing yourself, and not caring that the few people spying on all your personas catch you reusing a few jokes. Or at least, trying not to care.

“The Devil Wears Prada” is actually a pretty good indicator of the whole thing. It might even be telling that the example I mentioned is a fashion blog. In the movie, Anne Hathaway is forced to choose point-blank between being pretty and being a good person; giving up her integrity for good clothes or staying frumpy and smart. In the end, she chooses frumpy over evil – and the movie never really addresses the obnoxious choice that it’s presenting people, especially women. Inner beauty versus outer beauty. Integrity versus… clothes.

I think this world is so bankrupt of integrity that people who pursue it fall into the trap of fetishizing it as well. It’s simple: there are ways of portraying yourself to the world that are savvy; that smooth ruffled feathers and help you get along and get ahead. You can make a conscious choice to try and stick to those ways. And there’s a school of thought which posits that every conscious choice to be someone you aren’t naturally, without thinking about it, chips a teeny bit into your integrity. I’ve struggled with that, as a Jew and a gay man, for a lot of my life, because I can choose to show those things or to not show them. And as you can guess, there are a lot of situations where not showing them could definitely get me ahead.

But Peru taught me to DGAF from both directions, and I think that’s an important lesson. It is possible to reinvent yourself with integrity. You can worry constantly about people judging you, and become a totally fake person dressed head to toe in haute couture – or, I dunno, an Arequipa soccer jersey, depending on what the world is asking of you – but you can also worry constantly about losing your integrity, and keep yourself from grabbing life by the horns because you’re afraid of people going, “Oh, look. He changed the way he dresses, what a try-hard.”

I hope I can make this blog into something an aspiring writer can be proud of during the coming year. I mean, hell, I hope it already is. But at some point, somebody I don’t know that well will follow the link from my Facebook and look at the cutesy article titles that yeah, I spent some time thinking about. They’ll scroll down a little, realize that I write about surfing a lot more than I actually surf, snicker and go, “Hah. What a douche.”

But you know what?



The Tale of Bookworm Ben

13 12 2011

Blasts from the past are everywhere when you’re home. They can hit you without warning. They’re dangerous.

The other night I went to the library to pick up all the Sammy Keyes books written since I was in middle school. It’s a mystery series clearly oriented towards teen girls, and let me tell you, there’s nothing more awkward than having to repeat 3 times to the librarian, “Yes, it’s called… Sammy Keyes and the… Cold Hard Cash. Uh, no. No, it’s not on the shelf. Yes, I looked.” It was 8:30 at night and slinking around the library with an armful of books labeled “for ages 11-15” under my arm, I felt sort of naughty, like I was out past my bedtime. But nerdy-naughty, like I was up reading underneath the covers. Nerdy-naughty was a specialty of mine once upon a time.

It’s incredible how fast a place can take you back. My first thought was, man, this library has changed since I was a kid. But then the layout of the place began to flood back to me, the layout of the shelves that I knew like the back of my hand, in terms of where all my favorite authors used to be located – Coville on the third or fourth shelf back, Vande Velde in the middle near where the Dewey decimals started, Wynne-Jones controversially under W right nearby, Anthony forty feet away in the creepy, towering avenues of the adult fiction section. And I realized that the library hadn’t changed – had.

I am now nineteen, and I tower over the shelves of the YA section, making it conspicuous for me to peruse them without the librarian at her desk regarding me with what I still feel to be a judgmental gaze. In third grade the message I was sure she was beaming at me was “Another fantasy book? Shouldn’t you be adding some variety to your summer reading list? Shouldn’t you be reading something more appropriate?” Now the message is more like “What are you doing in the young adult fantasy section? Are you some kind of creepy child predator? Shouldn’t you be reading something more appropriate?” I didn’t care then and I don’t care now, and nineteen-year-old me carried an armful of books with brightly-covered colors past her desk just as shamefully as nine-year-old me.

See what I mean? Going to the library makes me revert. It makes me think back – way back to the days of elementary school where my life was a string of pastel rooms filled with books and boring adult obligations where I could get away with reading in the corner. I felt a sort of sadness, a guiltiness, like I was hanging out with a group of friends I had sort of ditched, and seeing where they had all ended up. And wondering what I would be like if I was still part of their group. In this case, those friends were books.

What did make me stop going to the library? I’m still a nerd, but something snapped – one day in high school I woke up and I wanted adventure, I wanted friends and partying and love and everything there is to have, and faster than you can say “puberty” my real friends replaced my paper-and-ink ones.

What changed? Well, for one thing, I turned out to be gay.

It’s weird and it’s a connection I’d never made before, but now that I think of it, that was a catalyst for a lot of my changes. Because yeah, I was bookish, I was quiet, I was bad at sports, but for some reason my self-esteem could handle all of it; I never felt a need to be more than I was. I would have been perfectly happy to thus live out my days, becoming a novelist and marrying some cute outdoorsy girl and living in a cabin in Boulder Creek with a lot of books and a dog and a well-used library card, dreaming the day away. But somehow this one final difference between me and all the other guys was the last straw. Somewhere during the struggle between me and my masculinity, a spark was kindled. A spark of competitiveness and determination like I’d never felt before.

Determination to go to parties even though I was shy. Determination to learn a new sport even though I was chubby. Determination to get out of this town, no matter what. Being gay gave me an ax to grind.

What would my life be like if I were straight? In the past I’ve usually answered that question in my mind with “perfect” and then grumblingly shoved it off. But now, for the first time, I’m exploring the options. I wouldn’t be friends with people as cool as the ones I’m friends with, that’s for sure. I’d probably be in Crown playing Skyrim all day. I wouldn’t be brave. I wouldn’t be adventurous. I wouldn’t have so outlandish a life plan. The list goes on. I’d be content with it, but… I wouldn’t be this version of me.

For the first time in my life, I am thankful for being gay.

That’s right, I’ll say it again because it feels good. I AM THANKFUL FOR BEING GAY. I’m GLAD I am. Thank you, Fate! Thank you, God! Thanks for making my life go on this direction!

I see it like this: there’s this life into which I was born where we’re raised to spend our days toiling uphill towards a good university and a gleaming white wedding and all this stuff. And then one day I was suddenly teleported onto some godforsaken vista point far away surrounded by mist and rain, able to look over a world of chasms and mountains and see that gleaming white hilltop in the distance, utterly unreachable. I was not normal, and I was cast out. And it sucked. I figuratively curled up in the dirt and cried for a few hours because I’ll never make it to that white hilltop. But there are trails here, and paths through virgin forests, and ancient stairs leading down through the mist to cities I’ve never dreamed of, and you know what? I’m going to have a look around.

The world of the outsiders is a lot bigger than the world of the insiders, and if I hadn’t been forcibly cast out, I would never have known. I would just have marched like a zombie to the simple little wedding and family that I was raised to want.

Once upon a time, I zoned out at school so I could read books about the Amazon. Next quarter, I’m taking time off from school so I can go live in the Amazon. So you see? A prophecy is fulfilled. It’s not that the new me has ditched libraries. I’ve just discovered that nerdy-naughty isn’t the only type of naughty.

Do you believe in cultural memory?

9 01 2011


It’s a pretty central fact of Jewish culture that everyone else always tries to kill us. Maybe because of that, Jews as a people have a tremendous penchant towards cultural memory. I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad thing, but we keep grudges. My rabbi only went to Germany for the first time a few years ago, and he said he was terrified. My good friend Ori told me how weird and backwards it felt to him that I was studying Arabic, the language of an anti-Zionist people.

I am, at my core, a very positive person. I believe in acceptance and forgiveness. As such, I’ve always been leery of this sort of collective grudge-keeping. It’s with that attitude that I started taking German this quarter. A few people mentioned to me how ironic it was for a Jew to take German, but it wasn’t that serious of an issue.

So I’ve gone through my first two classes of German with a pure imagination, seeing it as the language of Wagner and Faust and Gutenberg, the language of intellectuals like Einstein and Freud, imagining myself in the tidy Northern cities I was so impressed with this summer or in the mountain meadows of Switzerland. To me, German is not an ugly language, Nazi parallel or no. I actually find it truly beautiful: lilting, crisp and musical.

And then there was today. We were reading a sample dialogue, about a guy meeting his friend who works at the cafe. The setup read like this: “Luisa arbeitet am kafe.” And when I read that sentence, my heart just sort of stopped. It was like being punched in the face: not the pain, but that sudden visceral plummeting of confusion and surprise. Arbeitet. That’s how you say “works” in German. You can conjugate the verb: ich arbeite, du arbeitest, sie arbeitet, wir arbeiten. And this simple word, “to work”, which would crop up early and often in any language textbook, is the same word displayed over the black gates of Auschwitz, the work camp where so many Jews were sent to die. The sign that lied: Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work sets you free.

There are two kinds of people, who will have two reactions to this anecdote. The first type, the hypersensitive, empathetic people, are probably nodding their heads or clutching at their hearts, thinking that my reaction of horror was perfectly understandable. The other contingency, the more logical set, are probably wondering why I could get so worked up about a word. I would be part of the latter group, so I guess I’ll explain to them first. Partly because I want to explain to myself.

There is a precedent for this, first of all. A lot of Jews are really, really deeply affected by the Holocaust, even many years later. I mean this internally; psychologically. As a people we are kind of obsessed with it, an obsession that I’ve always found unhealthy. My mother is a prime example. When we were watching Toy Story 3, during the scene where the toys are being sent to the furnace, my mom piped up, “Oh, no! It’s like a Holocaust movie!” This was met by a chorus of groans from me and my sister, with sighs of “Moo-om!” and “You compare everything to the Holocaust!” It’s sort of a running joke in our family. Typical of the Jewish spirit, to take something unfunny and make it into a bad-taste joke. Another time, I was talking to her about my friend Charlotte, whom I met this summer in Switzerland and whom I want to visit in Germany later this year. I said she lived in Wiesbaden, and my mom let out a little “Oh…”

“What?” I said. “Have you heard of it?”

“Oh, nothing,” she said, wrinkling her nose the way she does when she’s talking about something distasteful. “It’s just – you know – one of those Nazi towns.”

On Passover, the Jewish holiday of spring, Jews ritualistically retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah, the Book of Passover, has us chorus, “We were all slaves in Egypt, and the Lord our God delivered us so that we can be free.” The “we” in Judaism is omnipresent. My rabbi has spoken of this as “cultural memory”, the idea that the experiences of ancestors are somehow present in the psychology of their descendants. He once brought up the concept in order to address a mildly racist question somebody had asked about black responsibility. African-Americans, our rabbi pointed out, unlike other American racial groups, did not migrate here but were kidnapped and taken here – or at least their ancestors were. So today, can a trend be seen that blacks as a minority feel unconsciously ill-at-ease? Were the King riots and similar fiascos the result of a black community that lashes out in retribution for a forgotten injustice? I can’t fairly say, but the more pressing question (for me at least) is whether Jews carry the same kind of burden. “You don’t think we all went to the death camps, every one of us? You don’t think we all carry the Shoah inside of us?” my rabbi once asked to a reverently silent group of B’nai Mitzvah students. At the time, I wondered if it was true. After all, the Holocaust is long over. Old wounds must heal. Right?

But on the other hand, there’s that question about moving on. Maybe, despite our many compelling discussions at Temple, some generation will just have to bite the bullet and forgive. Maybe we don’t have that power… but maybe we do. I think the paranoia of always being the hunted is certainly still with Jews. It’s addressed in one of my favorite movies, “Walk on Water”. The main character, Eyal, is a Mossad agent who has to give a Palestinian man a ride and treats him like dirt. When the Palestinian man gets out of the car he knocks on the window. “You Jews are always so obsessed about what happened in the past,” he pleads. “If you would only open your eyes, maybe you’d see -” But you never find out what he would have said, because Eyal guns the engine and drives away.

It’s true, people have done horrible things to the Jews. Germans have. Palestinians have. But… do we hold on to our cultural anger for too long? Not in terms of finding peace in Israel – that’s a totally different issue – but inside of our own souls? “Angels in America”, the play we read in one of my classes last quarter, had a memorable line: “Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in Guilt.” And I laughed, because it’s true. But why does it have to be that way? What if I want to believe in forgiveness? If anyone needs to believe, we do.

In the end, I think my rabbi must have been right. Cultural memory does exist. I felt it even when going to Egypt, a land that symbolizes slavery and wickedness in the Jewish canon. Even the Hebrew name represents narrow-mindedness: Mitzrayim, “The Narrows.” That all happened thousands of years ago, and yet I felt a twinge of unease a few times while I was there. So it shouldn’t be surprising at all that a cultural trauma from only 60 years ago tingles in my blood.

But I don’t know. You’ll have to tell me if it’s possible that a single German word could jolt me just because it’s still being used today in a pleasant classroom at 9:30 in the morning in Santa Cruz, California. That it could trigger in me visions, as if in a dream, as if in a nightmare. A metal sign hanging above twisted gray gates. Dark clouds and slicing black rain. Images from the past that flash through my mind. The darkness and snow of a northerly land, so far from our beloved Zion flowing with milk and honey. Blond men in well-fitted suits shouting in a language that I don’t understand, a language that is not Charlotte’s beautiful lilting German; an evil language that does not exist and that can never be understood. The men strike helpless women to the ground. My mother, Chana. My sister, Gershana. And then I blink, and it’s gone, and I shake myself because it’s 2011 and Luisa is just a pretty young girl who works at a café, and that’s all there is. But still that word stares up at me from the page. And I realize that Germany is the same patch of earth it was seventy years ago, and that its old lie, no matter how wrong, is still grammatically right. Arbeit macht frei. Work sets you free.

I’ll tell you what I believe in: I believe in the Narrows, and that the language spoken there is not meant to be recognized. I believe in the Germany of tidy streets and synagogues and light-rail systems. I believe in the future as much as I believe in the past. And I believe in forgiveness. I believe you can forgive, but you can never forget.

The animal within

25 04 2010

I just lost a lot of respect for Roger Ebert.

Okay, so maybe respect isn’t the right word. But I just fell suddenly out of sync with him, if that makes sense. I used to worship him as my favorite movie reviewer because our opinions seem to coincide on pretty much everything, and unlike more erudite reviewers (no names, A.O. Scott), he is able to enjoy brainless but fun movies and comment intelligently on them. However, this reverence ended today when I realized what he thought about the movie “Kick-Ass”.

For the record, I saw the movie today and thought it was absolutely fantastic. And it’s not that I can’t respect someone else’s opinion. It’s just the reasons he gave that annoyed me. The main thing Ebert took issue with was the fact that one of the main-characters, Hit Girl, is an 11-year-old killing machine who swears like a sailor. I thought it was fabulously satirical and the comedy was perfectly executed, but Ebert took issue with how disturbing it is to see a little girl killing people in a morally bankrupt setting, where it’s not discussed at length that when people die “they’re really dead.” He likened Kick-Ass to a corpse-littered video game. Classic example of Video Game Curmudgeon Syndrome, the malady by which grumpy adults blindly blame all of the modern world’s problems from malaria to serial killers on video games. Honestly? I expected better of him.

Sensing shades of my dad’s reaction to a lot of my favorite movies, I suddenly had a hunch and decided to look up what Ebert had to say about another of my favorite movies: “Fight Club”. “Fight Club” is infamous as one of those shockingly sociopathic and inappropriate movies that no one over a certain age likes, no matter how cool they are. Ebert rips on “Fight Club” for many of the same reasons he rips on “Kick-Ass”. He makes reference to the fact that for some godforsaken reason, men below a certain age and a certain intelligence level crave senseless violence.

“If you like this movie [“Kick-Ass”], you are part of a world that I am so not interested in,” Ebert writes snarkily. Hearing Ebert of all people make reference to this idea of inherent masculine violence and stupidity makes me feel insulted. I loved both “Kick-Ass” and “Fight Club”, and although I would argue that the latter has some serious cinematic chops, I appreciated the simple appeal of the violence in both of them. But I don’t consider myself a bloodthirsty guy, neither in my taste for media nor in real life. I’m not a Tarantino disciple, or a COD4 online fiend blowing up head after computer-animated head and chuckling all the while. I’m an intelligent moviegoer; I do have a soft spot for indie foreign films, and the fact that “Watchmen” sucked didn’t escape me. Yet I, too, can firmly call myself part of this world that Ebert says he doesn’t want to be a part of. What gives?

That’s why I’m writing this post: to try to defend those of us standing on the opposite shore of testosterone from men more august and controlled than we. Yes, boys and men below a certain age all have a certain sociopathic streak, a secret fetish for violence, whether it’s dormant or not. But why is it there, and is it really a bad thing?

I think first and foremost it bears mention that this tendency extends to a lot more than violence, and all young people feel it, not just boys. We want to break rules. We want to push limits. We want adventure. As Aldous Huxley would say, we want sin. My English teacher calls it the “fascination with the abomination” : people are fascinated with disasters and death and pain. They’re fascinated with the macabre, and most of all with the forbidden. Don’t think for a moment that you’re the only person who gets that delicious tingle of horror when you see footage of a hurricane or tidal wave on TV. Everyone does. Being fascinated with violence in particular is just an extension of the same principle.

The simple, obvious explanation is this: all of us, men more so than women, have instinctive animal instincts to fend for ourselves. We may have a veneer of reason that sets us apart from the beasts, but we are all flesh-and-blood creatures; all animals at the core. Now, I’m not suggesting for a second that war-mongering is part of our truest nature and that men of letters have tamed or neutered themselves. I’m certainly one, and I don’t like to believe that I’m less of a man because I’m not secretly a Spartan. All I’m suggesting is that all of us secretly want to be a Spartan in at least a few tiny ways. The animal violence that was in our nature millions of years ago is still streaked through us, and now it’s just another quirky, variable part of our all-too-human personalities.

I’m also not suggesting that this animalistic nature we share is completely a bad thing. This is something that Ebert and others who critique the violent nature of boys seem to miss. Even in the wildest, most violent warrior fantasy, a typical guy won’t consider hurting or torturing his friends and loved ones. Animals do not see dead bodies as numbers in a video game, and neither do we. We, the teenagers who enjoy violent movies, are not numb to corpses. What I’m saying here is that the animal within is not the same as the evil within. It’s a simple creature, sometimes blinded to compassion by competition, but capable of judgment and reason and love just like any other aspect of the human mind.

I think the reason the older generation underestimates us and our maturity is tied into how different the world is now than it was just thirty years ago. In the modern world, so, so many things are forbidden. Today’s world is a terrible place to be a curious and adventurous child. We have been raised locking our doors and windows at night, never taking homemade candy on Halloween, never leaving home without an adult and never talking to strangers. Order prevails in our world: in the 1950’s you could have had a bonfire on any beach, and brought a squirt gun to school, and camped on private property to watch the sunrise. Today’s world is too overpopulated and dangerous for the authorities to let simple trespasses such as these take place. And if you think for a second that these tiny, insignificant acts of defiance and adventure don’t give an outlet to our inner animal, think again.

There are a million harmless, inoffensive ways to indulge the animal within, all of which Roger Ebert and his peers were able to take advantage of as peckish teenage boys. But in today’s world most of them are illegal and the police enforce that illegality. So what’s a hot-blooded guy to do? Stand demurely in line and follow all the rules? We need an outlet, and we find that outlet in action movies. We enjoy watching bodies litter the screen because we understand that in real life they’re not supposed to litter anything. We like watching guns and bazookas blow things up because we’ve never blown anything up ourselves. And we like watching people kill each other onscreen because we’re not allowed to whack each other in real life.

I thought that “Fight Club” comments on this brilliantly, but Ebert writes that it’s just a mindless action movie and Tyler Durden is preaching to an audience of dumb, violent men who are bound to deify him and his advice. Obviously, he missed the entire point of the movie, but that’s a bone I don’t need to pick.

Ultimately, what I’m saying is that having a certain affinity for violence in movies doesn’t make me, or anyone else, a violent guy. It doesn’t make us unsophisticated and it doesn’t make us dumb. It’s the fascination with the abomination, and everyone manifests it in their own way. Watching action movies is just one.

In conclusion: Kick-Ass was an amazing movie. Go see it. And I still love you, Roger Ebert. You’ll always be the anti-A.O. Scott in my heart.

The singularity is near

19 01 2010


It’s lonely being single.

And it’s funny, because I’ve never really needed to say that before. Although I was very aware of my sexuality, I never really wanted a relationship until recently, just because the inconveniences outweighed the benefits. Being gay involves a delicate minefield of platonic relationships with buddies contrasting with potentially romantic relationships with other men. Figuring out how you, personally, negotiate the balance between the two can take a while. So for a long time my struggles with homosexuality have involved masculinity and identity, but rarely have I faced head-on the very real problem of being alone all my life.

I am going to be 18 years old in two months, and I have never been on a date. I have never asked anyone on a date, or been asked on a date. I’ve never kissed anyone. I’ve never slow-danced; not once. To be honest, I’ve never been in close proximity with another gay man whom I find attractive, let alone one who might be attracted to me. Those magical forces that pull dewy-eyed preteens together – those that simply make two people searingly aware that they are in the same room – have never touched me. I’m almost eighteen, and even that simple force of attraction, that simple joy of discovering what sexual tension is, is unknown to me.

Case in point: Pascal (see #4 in the preceding post) is not gay. Apparently, according to our one mutual friend, he is one of those guys that seems gay, but actually hooks up with a procession of beautiful women. Nice extra detail, that. Now I get to picture my former potential love interest eating the face of some slutty prom queen.

I didn’t think I would take it this hard, but this feeling is different than any I’ve felt before. When before I was in love with a straight guy (not that I’m in love with Pascal by any means) it was different, just because the circumstances made it easy to mute my feelings. I felt like I had a duty to be a bigger person and not objectify him. It wasn’t an issue of love, it was about learning how not to love, just because it was so obvious that I could never have him. It was about learning how to deal with being a guy attracted to guys; learning how to tell myself “no” and just shut out my sexuality when need be. But with Pascal, it wasn’t about me, my masculinity or my relationship with other guys – it really was about love. Well, not love – that’s a big word, and I’ve already thrown it around far too much in an essay about casual attraction and experimentation. But it was about attraction. I really thought I had found the other side of the balance – a dynamic with another male that felt completely different than friendship or even admiration; something fragile and smoldering and maybe even mutual. But obviously it was just in my imagination.

I guess I’ll have to come to terms with the fact that I can’t just meet someone somewhere and feel something click and start a relationship, like normal people do. How do gay people find partners? I guess they go to places like gay bars, where they know everyone is interested. But I hate the idea that I’ll have to do that. Other people have the whole world to meet potential lovers: they bump into them on the street, sit together on a bus, stand in line next to them at Disneyland, get introduced to them at parties, and they just meet and fall in love. Compared to such a vast stage, where romance grows from spontaneity, how can I be content with going off to a little bar knowing perfectly well that I am there for the express purpose of finding a love interest and I have almost no chance of succeeding anywhere else? I feel like one of those pandas that have to breed in captivity. There can be no subtle process of mutual attraction, suspense and courtship; when you call up the only other lady panda at the zoo, it’s pretty clear what your intentions are. And that makes it awkward.

The panda metaphor kind of applies to my school also. Another way for gay people to get partners is just hook up with the only other gay person around. But because of that in-captivity feeling, I can’t stand the idea of getting together with any of the gay guys at my school. Maybe some of them would be eligible under other circumstances. But that eligibility would be ruined by the omnipresent knowledge that I only picked him because there was no one else available.

Being gay is posing more problems to being a romantic than I ever could have imagined. I want to have a real love story; I want to learn about those mystical forces of attraction naturally and spontaneously, when it’s time, like it happens to every teenager. I don’t want to just go out systematically looking for a boyfriend and find one, mission accomplished. But it sometimes seems like it’s either that, or be alone indefinitely. And with the end of high school drawing near, me never having kissed anyone, and even the latest bloomers among my friends quickly becoming more worldly than me… I honestly don’t know which is the lesser of two evils.

Soup and a sandwich

9 01 2010

I was at a college interview today, and I was asked a question which caught me off-guard. You may laugh when you read this, but it was so absurdly fascinating that I had to keep thinking about the question afterward. Maybe you, dear reader, should think about this question yourself. You might even find it deliciously thought-provoking. (I crack myself up.)

The question was this: If you were a soup or a salad, which would you be, and what kind?

Yes, I was asked this at a college interview. And seriously, as random-ass artsy questions go, that’s a tough one. Soups and salads are complicated. One of my friends once wrote a blog post about what kind of fruit she would be; even that seems rather simpler. Everybody knows a lot of fruits, and besides, fruit is straightforward. If you’re a banana, you’re just a banana. What you see is what you get. Soups and salads have all kinds of different ingredients, and if you add more salt you have something completely different. You can’t put salt on a banana (unless you’re my grandpa, but that’s a different story).

Anyway, my first problem was that I blanked out on soups. For some reason the only soup that popped into my head was clam chowder. I just couldn’t think of any others. I knew other soups existed, but my mind was drawing a blank. It took me another few moments to hit on chicken noodle soup, and then the floodgates (soupgates?) opened and I was golden. But if the question was about fruit it would have been so much easier. List of fruits? Apples, bananas, pears, pineapples, mangoes, strawberries. ZING. Man, these colleges know how to keep you on your toes.

I decided right away that I’m not a salad. A salad is delicate, subtle, classy and even (dare I say it?) a little girly. I’m not exactly Captain Masculine, but I mean, come on. I am not an appetizer comprised of lettuce. I’m savory and rich. You only need a little taste of me to be blasted with flavor, and I’m not the greatest thing for your health. Also, I don’t need dressing to taste delicious. This is going in an awkward direction, so I’m going to change tack.

What kind of soup am I? I can’t be clam chowder, because I’m not that fishy, and I am not associated with tasteless little crackers. (If I was a tall black man that would be funny on so many more levels, but… alas.) I can’t be chicken noodle, because you only drink that when you’re sick. And I can’t be minestrone because I’m not Italian enough. I’m more complicated than cream of corn or cream of tomato. So what am I?

Then it hit me.

I am a French onion soup.

French onion soup is perfect: simultaneously classy and classless; an impressive French recipe which actually tastes like a savory, delicious mound of cheese and onions and croutons. I know how to have an uninhibited good time with the simple pleasures of life (cheese), but I also know how to do it in style (with fancy Gruyere cheese). When you meet me you wouldn’t realize how complex I am, just like when you taste a French onion soup you wouldn’t realize how difficult it is to make. And that’s a good thing. Like a French onion soup, I am complicated and unusual, but I’m not afraid to be straightforward and just have some fun in the mainstream of the soup world. I am intelligent and pretentious at heart, but I can easily forget that pretentiousness and be an average Joe. Just like French onion soup can go with pretty much any meal, I can get along with pretty much any person. If I do clash with another dish, I clash badly, but it rarely happens. There are parts of my life (like onions) that normally make people cry, but I mix them up just right with all the other ingredients and make them into something optimistic and tasty.

So there you have it. I am a French onion soup, and proud of it.

My Two Dads – er, minorities

12 11 2009

An early draft of a college essay that I just couldn’t cut down to the proper word count. Nevertheless, I like the way it turned out, so here it is in all its 2,000-word glory.


If only, if only I were black, I would be able to say that I’m a gay black Jew.

I am descended from one of the founding families of Virginia, so I keep the faith that there may have been some slave girl hanky-panky somewhere back in my bloodline. Of course, this is all in jest; being part of two widely persecuted groups, part of me thinks it’s quaint to have a sort of pan-minority pride. Being a gay Jew has taught me a lot about what it is to be a minority. I’ve experienced pride for who I am, embarrassment because of who I am, and prejudice against who I am – pretty much the whole spectrum of the minority experience. And none of it would have been as enlightening without two unique perspectives to look from. Being gay and being Jewish are very different, and both experiences have shaped who I am and how I view diversity.

Difference #1: A Jew is born and raised a Jew. A homosexual grows into his sexuality. To me, this made all the difference in the world. When I started suspecting I was gay, I had nowhere to turn. I had no gay role models, nobody to tell me whether what I was feeling was normal or what I should do about it. I grew up in the liberal Bay Area, so this discovery didn’t involve fear so much as shame. All I knew about gays came with a vague connotation of silliness and ridicule. I knew that they were allowed to do what they wanted, but nobody really liked them and I definitely didn’t want to be one of them. I can only imagine what this stage must feel like for gays who live in intolerant societies.

Being Jewish is different in every way. I’ve never for one moment been ashamed of my religion. I think the main reason for that is that I was Jewish from day one. For my entire life, I’ve been surrounded by Jewish role models – my parents, my friends at Temple, my rabbi, and so forth. I knew all about Judaism before I was ever exposed to stereotypes. In the same vein, I had Jewish experiences and in-jokes that I could be proud of. I knew what a Jewish grandmother was like, what a Jewish deli or a Passover dinner was like – and sharing these experiences with others of my culture, I felt like an insider, not an outsider.

Difference #2: A Jew never has to come out of the closet as a Jew. Having to tell my parents that I was gay was a horrific experience. I was extremely lucky in that my parents were both completely fine with it. I never really feared they wouldn’t be, but even then, the feeling of voicing something so deeply reviled and hidden, knowing that you’ll never be able to take it back, is petrifying.

I didn’t want to repeat that horrifying moment ad infinitum with all of my friends, so when it came time for me to come out of the closet, I decided to do it in a rather unconventional way. I wrote an article, entitled “Closet Confidential”, which was published in my school newspaper. The article started out with me stating that I was gay, but it was mostly a memoir of growing into my sexuality and an exposé of the thoughts and feelings associated with coming out of the closet. A lot of people told me that writing the article was a brave thing to do, but in reality I did it out of cowardice. I did it because it was a way to instantly tell everyone the entire explanation I wanted to tack onto that terrible fact. I did it because afterwards, I never again had to talk to someone and worry: do they know? And would they still be talking to me if they did?

Those two questions, although much more pressing when applied to my homosexuality, also apply to my Judaism. I’ve never been afraid to tell anyone I was Jewish, but I’ve still been through countless reactions to the revelation. The most common one: “Really? But… you don’t look Jewish.” I suppose this is true: I have blond hair and blue eyes, both from my dad’s side of the family. When I was growing up, I always took delight in this moment of surprise, in the fact that I was puncturing a stereotype just by existing. I was the token Jew throughout my elementary school years, and so it fell to me to spread the facts about my culture to the homogenous white kids in my upper-class suburban community. I never experienced any prejudice, and I was happy with my Jewish identity.

In high school, however, things got a bit more complicated. Due to a fluke of districting, my cute little upper-class elementary school feeds into an increasingly farther and more urban middle and then high school. By the time high school rolled around I began to be regularly out-Jewed by my peers. The large Israeli population in my new school was a major part of the cause. If I told someone I was Jewish, he or she would sometimes respond, delighted, with a stream of Hebrew that I was unable to answer. (I eventually perfected ani lo m’dabeir Ivrit, “I don’t speak Hebrew”, as well as a few token dirty phrases.) I was also much more Americanized than the other Jewish kids. Our family gives and gets presents for Hannukah, which is simply an American tradition aiming to imitate Christmas. And we decline to, say, keep a kosher household where the plates designated for meat and those designated for dairy never touch. Before, I was always proud that we made our own choices and interpreted our religion in our own way. Suddenly I felt like a freeloader, someone who wanted to be Jewish without accepting all the troubles that come with it.

These troubles aren’t just rules to follow, but discrimination as well. In my freshman P.E. class, I got my first experience with anti-Semitism. It was in jest, I’m sure; but these were vicious jokes, made by teenage boys with nowhere else to direct their inherent violence. We had an ongoing tag game in that class, and several dark-skinned, curly-haired Israelis. Oftentimes the tag game would end with “Get the Jew!”, followed by a wrestling match and cries of “Throw him in the oven! Throw him in the oven!” I, however, was never the victim of one of these games. The reason for that, obviously, is that I don’t look Jewish. I don’t remember whether the people in that class didn’t know, or just didn’t remember, that I was a Jew. But I always wondered whether I should remind them. I wouldn’t have minded being the butt of the joke. Not really. But I never did remind them. I just watched from the sidelines while the Israelis were chased and dogpiled to the ground on a daily basis. I was definitely not the token Jew anymore.

Whenever I felt less Jewish than the others at my school, I took solace thinking of my extended family in Los Angeles. My mom is the only one of the family who ever left, but we go back several times a year, usually when another one of my many cousins has a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Imagine the family from the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”. Now imagine that they’re Jewish instead of Greek, and you begin to have a good idea. What the Israelis at my school didn’t realize is that American Jews have an incredibly vibrant culture of their own. In Los Angeles, that culture is very much alive. Being regularly introduced to relatives I’ve never seen before in my life (but who insist they’ve met me), eating corn beef sandwiches at a kosher deli, having Shabbat dinner on Friday night with my grandparents, watching the sparks fly as the overbearing Jewish women try to micromanage each other: this, to me, is Judaism.

In Los Angeles, there are a lot of Jewish stores. One day my sister and I were exploring Pico Street when we discovered a gem with such oddities as a glow-in-the-dark yarmulka and stuffed animal Bible characters. We got into a conversation with the shop owner, who eventually asked what school we went to. When we said that we went to public school, he was immediately taken aback.

“But why didn’t your parents send you to a Jewish school?” he asked in bewildered tones.

“We like public school just fine,” I said.

“But you’ve never even considered going to a yeshiva?”


Our encounter with the man from Pico Street got me thinking. If I went to a yeshiva, would I feel more Jewish? The answer, of course, is no, and I finally realized why: if I was surrounded by other Jews, I wouldn’t feel special. I wouldn’t have had the chance to be the token Jew, to educate everyone around me about my culture. Sure, kids who go to yeshiva and say their prayers unabridged have more perfectly preserved their culture. But is preserving your culture really all there is? What about preserving a sense of how special it is?

This problem – the problem of minorities keeping to themselves – can be seen when people of any nationality form enclaves within a city. For gays, though, the opposite problem arises: rather than keep to themselves, gays almost never stick together. How can you have a solid gay identity when you don’t know anyone else who is gay? In the media, gays often appear as fashion-toting, limp-wristed, comical queens. In real life this stereotype isn’t always true, but it seems to me to be the baseline that drives the gay community and its identity. A lot of gay people do like fashion; a lot of them are effeminate. But those aren’t necessarily things to be proud of. I, personally, don’t want to feel like any less of a man because I’m gay. Just like I used to enjoy the surprise in people’s voices when they said I don’t look Jewish, I can now enjoy the surprise in people’s voices when they tell me I don’t seem gay. But where’s the line between rejecting stereotypes to which I don’t want to adhere, and rejecting my community and a part of my own identity?

The fact is, I’ve pretty much always been the token gay in a group of straight friends. In a way I enjoy that role, just as I enjoyed being the token Jew. But for once in my life, it would be nice to have a base of friends who are like me. I do have a group of friends from Temple who are all Jewish, and my Jewish identity is largely an average of the mannerisms, jokes and quirks that I’ve picked up from them. By that definition, it’s easy to see why it’s so hard to have a gay identity. To figure out your identity, you need to be able to play off of others. Maybe the only reason that I sometimes feel like I’m rejecting my homosexuality is because I don’t have enough gay influences to play off of – gay influences whom I want to pick up mannerisms from. I don’t want to be effeminate, and I don’t want to go around wearing clothes that make it look like I just leapt out of a cake. But there are other ways to have gay pride, plenty of ways. If only I knew what they were!

So I’ve come to a conclusion about diversity in general. Too many people err to one extreme or the other – pretending to be normal, or refusing to be normal and hiding among a crowd of fellow outcasts.  I think that there’s more than one way to be in the closet. When a homosexual is afraid to tell people the truth about who he is, then yes, he’s in the closet. But when a Jew is afraid to really interact with a world without yeshivot and kosher dishes, then he is in the closet as well. So is a Jew who refuses to defend his culture against people who make jokes about the Holocaust. I have come to believe that the value of diversity is lost if it’s never shared with others. The key lies in finding a balance between preserving yourself and interacting with others. It lies in the ability to mix all colors in a melting pot that never bleeds into brown. It lies in the art of stretching your heritage as far into the mainstream as it’ll go, never warping or distorting it. Otherwise you could spend your entire life in the closet and never even know it.