Archive for June, 2013

The Light Behind Their Eyes

I just spent a wonderful afternoon with a former teacher, I don’t dare call her my “old” teacher (though 78, she’s hardly what I would call old–let’s face it, there are young old people and old old people). Regardless whether she is old or young or somewhere in-between, we reminisced about those mostly halcyon undergraduate college years I spent at a small liberal arts university in Minnesota. I worked for her as a writing lab tutor for three years, and I was the first student she hired who was a sophomore. Before that they had all been juniors and seniors, so I felt privileged to work under her tutelage for a full three years.

One time a tutor once asked her, our fearless Writing Lab Director, how she decided who to hire to work for her, and she answered, “I look for the light behind their eyes.”

Now obviously our parents have a great impact on who we are and who we become, and their importance can’t be underestimated, but I would state categorically, without reservation that it is teachers and mentors like her who do so much to put the light in our eyes in the first place. I was the first person who had ever come out to her as a gay man, and she taught me that it is okay to be who I am, that God doesn’t make mistakes (this was before that catchphrase was in vogue). Since then quite a few other young men have told her that they are gay, and she is always accepting. I guess people have a way of sensing when someone has a gentle, kind spirit. More than just a kind spirit, though, she is a guiding spirit, and a guiding force in so many young people’s lives.

Just because I was struggling with issues of sexual identity, however, didn’t excuse me from educational obligations, and I knew better than to test her, much less turn in a late paper! She taught me deadlines and responsibilities. She also taught me how to lead others. She may as well have invented the term, “kill ’em with kindness.”

She instilled in her tutors that they must be respectful of others’ work, but also work to help students discover ways to improve their own papers rather than having us simply correct their mistakes. She suggested (early and often) that we tutors pick out the more glaring shortcomings in the student papers before us, and engage in what she termed, Socratic Questioning. This meant we would ask “leading questions,” questions designed of course to get a student to think about her paper critically, but also to guide her in a specific direction. We might have had an agenda, but we needed to disguise it. In doing this, we ourselves learned to write as we taught others how to write. I’ve heard the best way to learn something is to teach it to others, and that is what we did.

Before I had her as my Writing Lab Director, I had her as a teacher for my Honors’ Symposium. I think, in fact, she would prefer the term teacher over professor. And as our teacher, she taught us what the other great teachers who had come before her had taught the generations, with special emphasis on Aristotle and Ethics. At St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, we learned to pick apart and consider what is the nature and origin of good and evil, what makes an ethical man, and what makes an opportunist. She never had a specifically Catholic agenda; she merely wanted us to make a decision, in a million little ways, to do our best to live a good life.

There’s a saying in Judaism that you are only truly dead when no one longer remembers you, and in this respect, certainly, Betty will live on for generations. Her impact has been that profound, and her lessons will most certainly be taught by her students to their friends, co-workers, children, and extended family, both orally and through example. The best way to live a good life is by example, and Betty, with quite grace, showed me “the good life.”


Who Wants Responsibility?

I’m a caregiver for my mother’s cousin, and she’s been admitted to a nursing home for rehab, the second time in six months. Last time, she was “incarcerated” for six weeks, and this time around it looks to be the same.

You would think that I would be able to really relax and enjoy my free time, time without responsibilities or accountability to anyone or anything, but that’s not been the case. In truth, I’ve been in a kind of funk. I think I miss the companionship and the need to get up and care for someone other than myself. Two days ago I went to bed at 10:30pm and finally got up at 4pm the next afternoon. Last night was a bit better: I went to bed at 8:30pm, woke up just in time to see the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup at 10pm, stayed up watching the second Sherlock Holmes movie, woke again at 5am, but decided it was far too early to greet the day, and finally got up and started my day around noon. I can, perhaps, blame a bit of my depression on the weather. In the Chicagoland area we’ve had a slew gloomy days in a row recently, and even had a severe storm with a tornado warning blow through here yesterday. Still, not everything can be chalked up to bad weather.

Much as I hate to admit it, I think I rely as much on my cousin as she relies on me. Though I’m in grad school, it is she who gives my day focus. My school schedule doesn’t require that I get up early–so I’ve had no compelling reason to get out of bed. I was thinking as I walked the dogs today that very few people at the end of their life will say they haven’t slept enough. Okay, maybe there are a few hearty souls out there who could use more sleep, but I don’t particularly like them anyway. I first heard the saying, “I can sleep when I’m dead,” when I lived in LA and worked in TV. Despite its laissez faire reputation, people in LA, at least those in the entertainment industry, work really hard, and scrimp on sleep.

I guess this blog is just me musing on what it’s going to take to motivate myself to get out of bed and start my day, my effort to find a reason for being outside of being a caregiver for someone else. When, for that matter, did the term caregiver even evolve? My solution, I suppose, is to ride out the proverbial storm, and create reasons to start my day.

The Big Hush-Hush

Although I’m gay, I have been experiencing great, I repeat, great difficulty creating interesting fictional gay characters. Right now I’m working on a novel where my main character’s best friend, a gay white man named Dewey, is in a relationship with a black man named Prophet who was formerly married to a woman. It sounds just a tad bit like the storyline to a soap opera, don’t you agree? Therein lies my problem. Dewey and Prophet are supporting characters, not even part of the main storyline, but they’ve proven the most difficult to render realistically on the page. I’ve written many scenes between Althea and her husband, then ex-husband, but trying to find the right tone for Dewey and Prophet, striking the right balance in developing a plausible gay characters, has eluded me.

I’m learning that capturing the truth on the page can be difficult, rude, cumbersome even. I think I may unconsciously be afraid to offend my parents by what I write. They haven’t really read much of my work, but when I recently described the plot of my novel to my dad, he responded by asking whether I really needed a gay character at all.

It’s frustrating when heterosexual authors like John Irving, famous for The World According to Garp as well as his most recent novel In One Person, and recent phenom Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding), have free rein in creating captivating characters who have a different sense of their sexual orientation whereas I’m stymied for writing about something too close to home, as if I were writing an autobiography instead of fiction.

It’s an interesting conundrum to be so inhibited because when I first came out of the closet, way back as an undergrad at the conservative Minnesota liberal arts school St. John’s University, one of my all-time favorite teachers Betty will assure you that I came out with a vengeance. What can I say? It was the late-80’s, frosted hair and ear rings were de rigeur for a certain subset. I won’t say that they were ever truly popular, at least not so in Minnesota, but it certainly made a man stand out.

As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve learned to be more polite, to create less waves and avoid controversial topics. One example: my dad is convinced that global warming is a fallacy and the leftist leaning politicians propagate alarmist prognostications to advance their own careers. We don’t discuss Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to prevent climate change. All my dad will say in regard to Gore is that those leftist Hollywood types made him their darling, and somehow won the prize on his behalf.

I truly hope I don’t have to wait for my father to die in order to write a publishable novel. I don’t want to spend so much energy worrying what other’s think about my abilities and talents. Charles Bukowski once famously said that when you get the shit kicked out of you over, and over, and over, you have a tendency to say what you think. I’m just not sure what it will take to get me to write my truth as well as live it.

The Seventh Sense

People have long talked about the sixth sense being intuition, what some might call extrasensory perception. There’s a great movie, titled, The Sixth Sense, where a young boy can sense the intentions, wishes and desires of the dead. In many ways, belief in the sixth sense has taken the place of belief in a traditionally understood afterlife. Then, of course, there are those who dismiss the sixth sense entirely.

Never before, however, have I heard of a seventh sense. I’m reading The Once and Future King, by T.H. White right now, about the legend of King Arthur, Lancelot, Guenever, and the Knights of the Round Table, and the book mentions a seventh sense. Specifically, it defines the seventh sense in contrast to a different definition of the sixth sense. White writes, “Balance was the sixth sense, which she won when she first learned to walk, and now she has the seventh one–knowledge of the world. The slow discovery of the seventh sense, by which both men and women contrive to ride the waves of a world in which there is war, adultery, compromise, fear, stultification and hypocrisy–this discovery is not a matter for triumph.”

This seventh sense relates to our need to understand our place in the world, to understand our relationship with a God of our understanding, to make peace with the things we will accomplish and the things we will not live to do. I guess you could call it some kind of ordering principle. The interesting thing about the book The Once and Future King is that it tells the King Arthur legend from a modernist perspective. It references contemporary thought and contemporary belief systems. The author further writes, “Middle-aged people can balance between believing in God and breaking all the commandments, without difficulty.”

One reason the King Arthur legend is so powerful and continues to resonate today is that Arthur established a code of conduct, a code of chivalry. This mythical character believed that people ought to behave decently, and his strongest proponent, his most chivalrous knight Lancelot, turned out to be the one to break the code most dramatically by having an affair with Guenever.

In many ways, White establishes the seventh sense as the “grown up” sense. I have long remembered the New American biblical quote, “When I was a child I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child, but when I became a man I did away with childish things.” I did my undergraduate at a Catholic university, and my belief system then was simpler, more well ordered. I look around at the seeming chaos in the world, and realize that now, the trick is to hang on to faith in spite of doubt. There’s a good reason why doubting Thomas has become one of my heroes. That’s why, I suppose, they call it a leap of faith. To put it another way, an author named Julia Cameron wrote a book called, The Artist’s Way, and she said, “Leap and the net will appear.” She is talking more specifically about creative leaps, but isn’t the same thing required in religious terms? When bad things happen to good people, we are called to use our seventh sense, not to abandon faith, but to embrace it all the more.

Dare to be Proud

I’m working away on my Renaissance Literature, Virtues and Vices, class, having decided to write about how pride served Queen Elizabeth I as a virtue. This may not seem all that astonishing in today’s culture. We are indoctrinated with the notion that pride is a good thing, but this wasn’t always the case. There’s a reason pride heads up the list as the most deadly of the Seven Deadly Sins (I happen to disagree with Dante and the Catholic church on this one, but there you have it). I will definitely acknowledge that too much pride can be a bad thing, can blind someone to a personal moral code and a sense of wrong and right. Consider for a moment the overreaching pride and arrogance of political figures in history such as Hitler or the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge who killed an estimated 1.7 million people in a four year period, all because they felt they guided by the hand of righteousness.

Contrast that, however, with the instability of the political environment when Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne, and her need to hang onto a sense of pride. Her very life had been threatened because of her religious beliefs and because many considered her to be a “bastard queen,” having been born of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn after the Catholic church refused to grant him an annulment. Anne Boleyn was later beheaded, accused of treason, possibly because she conducted an illicit affair, some thinking the affair might have been with her own brother. Queen Elizabeth’s legitimacy as a successor to the throne was questioned from the very start.

Though her claim to the throne was in dispute, her pride allowed her to endure the humiliations thrust upon her. She was imprisoned in the Tower of London, accused of plotting against the reigning monarch, Queen Mary. Without denouncing her Protestant beliefs, Queen Elizabeth I navigated tricky waters while the Catholic Church plotted against her, believing that only a Catholic could be the true king or queen of England. After she was finally named queen, Queen Elizabeth relied upon advisors, especially William Cecil and Lord Burghley, who successfully foiled assassination attempts and other plots and dangers to the newly named monarch. Even those within her own religion questioned her right to rule, believing that a woman couldn’t be head of the church since the monarch was automatically believed to rule not only her subjects, but to act as the ultimate religious authority, and religious leaders hesitated to bow to the will of a woman. Elizabeth resolved this issue by naming herself Supreme Governor of the Church of England, not Head of the Church of England, a subtle difference, but one designed to appease the pride and arrogance of male religious leaders.

Another consideration was the question of succession. Queen Elizabeth refused to take a husband, a man who would surely end up ruling in her place, and partly for this reason she was known as the Virgin Queen. If she had married, she would have effectively subjugated herself to the will of a man, and Elizabeth was not one to bow to any man. She had been through too much: nearly beheaded, plotted against, questioned about her authority as head even of the Protestant Church. She famously noted, “I will have but one mistress and no master.” Many whispered that she was actually barren and that theory still exists today, but I believe she simply didn’t want to weaken her position as the ultimate authority in England in a time of great uncertainty, when England was still threatened by foreign powers, most especially Spain. Queen Elizabeth I needed to remain firmly in charge. She let her subjects know, “I may not be a lion, but I am a lion’s cub, and I have a lion’s heart.”

Her pride, her sense of divine righteousness, that is, her belief that she had survived not by accident but because of God’s will, served her well. One of my instructor’s at St. John’s University, the school where I got a BA in English, said that pride was accurate self-appraisal, and in this regard, Queen Elizabeth I could rightly be accused of pride in knowing that she was destined to alter history.