Category Archives: America

Anthony Weiner Wants You To Know He’s Not a Dick

I find it a bit difficult to judge the Anthony Weiner story in the NYTimes on its merits. It’s clearly a professionally produced feature, well-written, easy to read, captivating subjects, check check check. But it’s also clearly a marketing vehicle for Weiner. The story even says

By agreeing to be interviewed, Weiner and Abedin [his wife] would seem to be trying to give voters what they want — and gauge public reaction. […]

Weiner and Abedin have realized, it seems, that the only way out is through. So they have agreed to talk — and talk and talk — for the first time about what happened and why and what it looks like from the inside when your world comes crashing down because of, as Weiner puts it, “one fateful Tweet.”

Weiner is planning a comeback to public life, and ‘get a feature in the NYTimes’ is obviously a bullet point on his to do list. He and his wife must have carefully planned what they were going to say, the story they wanted to tell. The fact that the journalist was aware of this doesn’t change the story’s fundamental purpose.

But what’s even more interesting is the tone of sombre bewilderment everyone in the story uses when discussing what Anthony Weiner actually did.

On Friday night, May 27, a photograph of a man’s torso wearing gray boxer briefs and an obvious erection appeared on Weiner’s official Twitter account. […]

It was a sex scandal without any actual sex — more creepy than anything else. But it was hard for people to get their heads around: an affair is one thing, but sending crotch pictures to a virtual stranger? Mike Capuano, a congressman from Massachusetts and Weiner’s roommate in Washington for many years, spoke for a lot of people when he told me, “He obviously did something incredibly stupid that, honestly, I still don’t understand.” […]

Weiner fielded a lot of calls from friends and colleagues, many of them offering advice. One prominent state politician called to confess that he was a sex addict and urged Weiner to join his support group. […]

Is what he did really so extreme? We live in a world where 16 year olds get tips on sexting from talk show hosts, where ‘manage a trois’ is familiar to more Americans than ‘café au lait’, where ‘cyber’ is a verb. Is it really so hard to believe that sending strangers naked pictures of yourself is a turn-on?

But despite the occasional flash of anger or lingering disbelief, [his wife] told me that she had forgiven him. When I asked how long it took for her to think she might be able to get over what her husband did, she said, “That’s a really good question,” and then took a minute. “At the time, we were very early in our marriage, but it was an old friendship. He was my best friend. In addition to that, I loved him. There was a deep love there, but it was coupled with a tremendous feeling of betrayal.”

It took a lot of work, both mentally and in the way we engage with each other, for me to get to a place where I said: ‘O.K., I’m in. I’m staying in this marriage.’ Here was a man I respected, I loved, was the father of this child inside of me, and he was asking me for a second chance. And I’m not going to say that was an easy or fast decision that I made. It’s been almost two years now. I did spend a lot of time saying and thinking: ‘I. Don’t. Understand.’ And it took a long time to be able to sit on a couch next to Anthony and say, ‘O.K., I understand and I forgive.’ It was the right choice for me. I didn’t make it lightly.”

Committing to someone who’s embarrassed you in public is one thing. But I hope people aren’t throwing away otherwise good marriages over a few text messages and a fetish that is, at most, one standard deviation away from vanilla.

Ultimately, though, the most interesting thing about this story is that it exists at all. It’s 8,300 words of a politician talking not about his policies, his experience, his goals, but his marriage. This is what redemption looks like in America in 2013. Don’t convince me to vote for you, convince me you’re a good husband. Convince me you’re in therapy.

By that criteria, the story works. It takes two faroff people, public figures, and puts them into a familiar story of love tested and renewed. It takes something strange and makes it relatable. That’s what all the best commercials do.

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Filed under America, Journalism

Obesity, Unintended Consequences and Why Being a Politician Would Suck

One issue I don’t think gets enough attention as a political challenge is prioritizing. We like to think of social progress as a series of repairs to be made, but really it’s a series of tradeoffs.

I was listening to a podcast the other day on the debate between obesity advocates and eating disorder advocates. Both groups want kids to be in a healthy weight range, but each attacks from a different end of the spectrum.

In the podcast they mention BMI report cards. Schools have apparently been experimenting with reports for parents that include health info alongside educational info. Johnny has an A in math, a B in science and a C in weight control.

Obesity advocates like BMI report cards because they give parents and students information they can use to address warning signs before they become problems. Eating disorder advocates hate BMI report cards because they give parents and students ammunition for bullying. What if one of those report cards falls out of your backpack and the other kids see it?

If you’re a school principal, you can’t win. You don’t institute the report cards, you get a call from the the obesity folks. You institute them, you get a call from the eating disorder folks.

The podcast frames it like eating disorders and obesity are equally severe problems. In reality, 5 percent of 13-18 year olds will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives (the number currently suffering from one would be much smaller). Meanwhile, 18 percent of children 12-19 are obese.

No politician would ever say ‘Dropping the obesity rate by 5 percent means increasing the rate of eating disorders by 1 percent, and we’re prepared to do that.’ But that may very well be part of the calculus.

This is where everyone goes ‘Can’t we just reduce one without increasing the other?!’

Maybe. But no matter what, there are going to be consequences. Making sports mandatory in elementary schools would probably reduce obesity, but it would also probably result in further marginalization of disabled or otherwise un-sporty kids. Improving school lunches might draw attention to the kids who can’t afford them.

And so on. I’m not arguing that we should say ‘Fuck the anorexics, full speed ahead!’ or anything, just that there’s no such thing as social change that doesn’t have consequences.

Luckily, it sounds from this podcast like BMI report cards aren’t such a great idea anyway. Most parents already know if their kids are overweight, and telling them that in writing doesn’t magically give them the  skills or inclination to do anything about it. But someday, we’re going to find a solution to this. And right afterwards, every principal’s phone is going to start ringing.

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Filed under America

Getting Circumcised at 22

Josh:
oh, so something significant happened today

Mike:
yaaa?

Josh:
but it’s happened, so you need to contain your judgement
i got circumcised

Mike:
youre kidding

Josh:
it’s always bothered me. even when i was in foreskin-rich denmark
made me self-conscious, and made it hard for me to have sex

Mike:
like, logistically or aesthetically?

Josh:
logistically
i had like a lot of foreskin. enough to make a condom like work its way off 

Mike:
but don’t they say getting circumcised reduces feeling?
or something?

Josh:
yeah. they do, and I expect that
but i mean, my inability to get off was not because there wasn’t enough sensation
it was just because the really sensitive tissue was getting covered up

Mike:
ahhh
what did the docs say about pros n cons?

Josh:
i mean, nothing really. he told me about the surgical risks
rare but horrifying
gangrene, accidental amputation of penis, etc
and it’ll be swollen for a while
it wasn’t that painful tho. like, a lot of fucking needles
but i didn’t feel a thing from the actual cutting

Mike:
You cant have sex for awhile I expect

Josh:
no, not for a month or so

Mike:
what do people say who’ve had the procedure?
like online n stuff

Josh:
ppl seem generally satisfied if they wanted it
less so if it was like, an emergency

Mike:
so it’s a good thing!
will your boyfriend notice any difference?

Josh:
I mean, yeah i should think so
he was anti at first
thought if it wasn’t broke, don’t fix it
but he realized it was important to me

Mike:
it sounds like it was objectively broke

Josh:
yeah i guess just not broke like, i didn’t have phimosis
i am concerned i am gonna get super hormonal or something
from not having sex for so long tho

Mike:
can you fandangle yourself in the meantime?
I guess not, right

Josh:
not for at least 2 weeks, maybe longer

Mike:
I wonder if you’ll be like WAY productive
Like, write a novel and learn French and do a million pushups because sex isn’t an option

Josh:
yeah i locked off all my porn
i need to wait till the bandage is off at least
i have to keep that on for 10 days

Mike:
will there be scars?

Josh:
yeah it’s hella wrapped up right now
there may be some scarring, but this dude is the fucking best
which is why it costs $2500 out of pocket

Mike:
woah

Josh:
and i had to travel
but i feel like I don’t want to fuck around with this
this is my dick, i want the best

Mike:
hella prudent, son

Josh:
yeah i could have had it done locally for like $600
but seriously some of those adult circumcisions look REALLY bad
like railroad track scars
uneven skin, etc

Mike:
do you get to choose like how much skin they take off?

Josh:
yeah, i showed my like desired outcome
that was the other big deal about going to a specialist
if you go to a local urologist, they just have the way they do it
and you don’t really get a say
so yeah, i have confidence in this place

Mike:
is it a circumcision-only clinic?

Josh:
no, but they do a lot. a couple hundred a year
urologist. does the usual urology stuff too
vasectomy, prostate stuff
all the male employees except for the doctor were gay
and the one who was like prepping me
was using this iodine stuff that’s like orange?
and he’s like, “this’ll have some dye to it, sorta orange, it’ll match your pretty lil hair”

Mike:
super appropriate

Josh:
i know
but he actually put me at ease
even tho he was kinda hitting on me
like he talked about his boyfriend
and asked how mine felt, etc

Mike:
ok that’s nice
he’s one of Our People

Josh:
he did make the whole thing a lot easier
if inappropriate
he also let me take a pic
of the foreskin after the procedure
and offered to put it on a “to-go” container
i declined

Mike:
ew ew ew ew ew ew
I see that you have stopped typing
You had better not be uploading that photo right now
seriously
DO NOT send me it now or ever

Josh:
it’s really not that gross

Mike:
again: DO NOT upload the photo of the foreskin
I need to die never having seen that

Josh:
it kind of looks like a thin piece of seitan

Mike:
nope, I’ll trust you, never wanna see it

Josh:
but i wanted like some record of it, you know?
not preserved in a jar
but something
that thing served me for 22 years

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Filed under America, Funny, Gay, Personal

Random Thoughts From a Week in New York City

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You thought visiting New York City would make you feel cool, but actually it makes you feel poor and un-busy.

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You thought it would be sooooo different from the rest of America.

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But really it’s the same, just better.

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People talk like movies.

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And the street names and landmarks are recognizable from your favorite CBS crime dramas.

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Jogging through Central Park is a cliche, like everything else you do here.

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Going to museums and making ‘hmmm’ sounds

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does not diminish the fact that you went to MoMA primarily to scout for Facebook cover photos.

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And that Prospect Park was a 585-acre struggle not to shout ‘why are you so fucking twee?!’ at the dogs and their walkers.

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And that, fuck the locals, tall buildings are amazing and you’re going to stop every few steps to capture them.

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You’re acutely aware that everything you can say or do or think in this place is already said, done, thunked.

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So instead of trying anything new, you might as well spend it like a week at home.

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See friends, eat meals,

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take long bike rides as dangerous as they are destinationless, 

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take pictures of pedestrian shit like snowblowers, mouth open like some kind of Appalachian.

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You don’t see everything,

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Or maybe  even anything.

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But you realize as you leave, you were busy after all. And maybe even rich.

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Filed under America, Personal, Pictures, Travel

Why Don’t Newspapers Take Unsolicited Submissions Seriously?

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Originally posted on The Huffington Post

A telling paragraph in Michael Lewis’s review of ‘Why I Left Goldman Sachs’:

The author recounts how he spent most of the six months leading up to last March working at Goldman by day while writing up his deeply felt grievances against Goldman by night. When he finished he had a 1,500-word counterblast but no place to put it: he e-mailed it to the general address for blind submissions to the Times op-ed page. He heard nothing for a month, and so finally dug out the e-mail addresses of four Times editors, and sent his piece to all of them. The next morning the Times got in touch with him.

It’s great that ‘Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs‘ eventually got noticed and published, but I can’t help thinking about all the other pieces submitted to that blind submissions address that weren’t.

A lot of people are sitting on fascinating stories about the places where they work, where they live, what’s happening in their lives. This is what journalists, what journalism, is supposed to be concerned with. But sometimes it seems like newspapers are only interested in great stories when their own reporters get to tell them.

Earlier today I read this New Yorker article about ‘slow journalism’, the kind produced by reporters who are embedded, walking a beat, just hanging out until something happens so fascinating the rest of the world needs to know about it. Newspapers don’t have the money for foreign bureaus anymore, the article laments, so now reporters have to parachute into financial reform, scientific debates, economic indicators, write it up and whoosh on to the next one.

In Beijing, the joke among hacks is that, after the drive in from the airport, you are ready to write a column; after a month, you feel the stirrings of an idea-book; but after a year, you struggle to write anything at all, because you’ve finally discovered just how much you don’t know.

That’s probably true, and probably sad. But I wonder if what it really means is that, in a world where anyone can write a blog post or take a photo or make a documentary, we need reporters less than we need harvesters. 

Thousands of people live in fascinating places, are experts in their fields, work in fucked-up and hilarious institutions. Many of these people can tell you their story, and why it matters, better than a reporter ever could.

I’m sure the New York Times gets all kinds of cranks sending them op-eds from curtained rooms, but I’m sure they also get thousands of  stories that are one editor away from fascinating, thousands of people who can’t tell a new story every week but have one great one they’re struggling to tell.

Newspapers are supposed to teach us what’s true in the world. Sometimes a professional reporter is the best person to do that. Sometimes not. I hope that, as journalism becomes whatever it’s becoming, it finds time not just to tell us stories, but to find them.

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Filed under America, Journalism, Serious

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chain Restaurants

Originally posted at The Billfold

 

Last weekend in London I had a cute little lunch at a cute little patisserie in Soho, and was feeling all satisfied with myself until I was on the Strand later in the day and saw the same patisserie—same food, same interior, same smell coming out the door.

Oh, I thought, deflated. It’s a chain.

Suddenly I felt scammed. These punks tricked me! They made me think their little bakery was all artisanal and small-scale, when actually it’s some venture-capitaled, focus-grouped, conveyor-belted profit factory. They probably have a corporate headquarters in midtown Manhattan, some Yale econ grad staring at the surveillance cam footage of my purchase, trying to moneyball me into buying more next time.

So my immediate reaction was Well! Never going there again. But now that I’ve thought about it, I’m less sure of my reaction.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Of course it’s a chain. Soho is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world. Thatcher, gentrification, celebrity chefs, they ran mom and pop outta there decades ago. The only businesses that can afford Soho rents do so through high volume, high margins and manufactured cosiness. That “grandma’s cinnamon roll” smell coming out the door is as deliberate as the font above it. What did I expect?

So I should have known. Next up: Who cares? I had a tasty meal at a reasonable price in a pleasant environment. It was precisely what I wanted. What’s the difference if there is a duplicate of my experience happening elsewhere? Or 100 duplicates? Or 1,000?

When I lived in Copenhagen, my favorite bakery was called Lagkagehuset (“layer cake house”), and it had the best bread on the planet. There was only one location in Copenhagen, family owned, and I glowed with self-satisfaction every time I bought a dense loaf of bread or a misshapen (artisanal!) breakfast roll there.

A year after I left Denmark, it was bought by a private equity firm. Now there are nine of them in Copenhagen (industrial!), and last time I visited I walked past one at the airport (monetizers!).

But you know what? The products are exactly the same. Still dense, still misshapen, still crazy-overpriced, still so salty you want to dip them in a cup of water like a hot dog eating contest. The only difference, as far as I can tell, is that now I can buy them in nine places instead of one.

Which brings me to my last point: What am I actually against?

Among my people (urban, lefty, low BMI), places like Starbucks, McDonald’s and Applebee’s have take the role of a kind of punchline, the culinary equivalent of Coldplay. For us, they’re not restaurants or cafes, they’re totems of America’s—and the world’s—relentless, inevitable march toward sameness.

I’m generally sympathetic to this. Starbucks kills independent cafes, McDonald’s cuts down rainforests, Applebee’s wants you to have diabetes.

But in every other aspect of my life, this doesn’t bother me. I wear Nikes, I shop at Safeway, I use rapper-endorsed headphones to drown out the clacking on my MacBook. All of this is just as mass-produced as anything from Starbucks, and yet I willingly (OK, maybe grudgingly) submit.

But chains underpay their workers, my conscience shouts. They get foodstuffs from poor farmers and nonrecyclable lids from petroleum! They donate to ugly political causes!

All that’s probably true, but there’s no reason to think an independent restaurant or café is any better by default. Maybe the guy handmaking the gluten-free scones at that ‘small batch’ bakery makes the same minimum wage as the teenager at McDonald’s. Or maybe he owns the place, and thinks women never should have been given the vote. Just because I have no way of knowing his conditions, impacts or beliefs doesn’t mean they’re not there or that they’re not problematic.

So if I don’t object to chains in principle, and I don’t object to the goods and services of some chains in particular, then all I’m left with is opposition to chains as a class signifier. I reject them not because the food is bad or they’re worse for the planet than other corporations, but because I personally don’t want to be associated with them. Starbucks is for tourists, Applebee’s is for flyovers, McDonald’s is for the poor.

I’m not defending chains, really, I’m not going to start actively seeking them out or anything. I just need to be honest with myself about what I’m avoiding, and why.

My favorite cafe in Berlin is called The Barn. Silky lattes, snobby staff, handwritten prices, brownies dense as Jupiter—it’s perfect. Just before Christmas they opened a second location, closer to my house than their first. If I’m lucky, next year they’ll open a few more.

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Filed under America, Berlin, Food, London, Personal, United Kingdom

White People Suck, 1866 Edition

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So last week I randomly came across Douglas A. Blackmon’s ‘Slavery By Another Name’ in a used bookstore in London for like a buck. I had never heard of it, but the cover told me it won the Pulitzer Prize, so I bought it and I’ve been reading it in NYC this week.

It’s basically the story of what happened in the American South in the hundred years between the abolishment of slavery and the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.

I’m probably a bad American and human for admitting this, but I never really learned what happened after slavery ended. I don’t mean politically or morally but, like, logistically. On Monday you were a slave. On Tuesday you weren’t. This obviously changes in a profound way your fundamental civic dignity and economic opportunity, but there’s just as much it doesn’t.

You still live in the same house, you still have the same family, you still have (or don’t have) the same education and skills. Some of your challenges have lifted, but others have appeared.

Blackmon’s book is the best account (OK, the only account) I’ve read that describes what this transition was like for the former slaves and former enslavers who lived it.

Human slaves had been freed many times before—from the Israelites, to the Romans, to Africans in the vast British Empire as recently as 1834. But no society in human history had attempted to instantly transform a vast and entrenched slave class into immediate full and equal citizenship. The cost of educating freed slaves and their children came to seem unbearably enormous, even to their purported friends.

Their expectations of compensation radically altered the economics of southern agriculture. And even among the most ardent abolitionists, few white Americans in any region were truly prepared to accept black men and women, with their seemingly inexplicable dialects, mannerisms, and supposedly narrow skills, as true social equals.

According to Blackmon, Southern lawmakers, business leaders and elites did everything in their power to slow down the advancement of African Americans. From restricting voting rights to defunding schools to prohibiting labor mobility, the economies and societies of the south removed every material benefit of living in a democracy. Northern whites, viewing this through the frosted window of newspaper coverage, decided that now that blacks were free, illiteracy and poverty were their fault. Why couldn’t they just try harder?

The subtitle of Blackmon’s book is ‘The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War To World War II’, and it mostly deals with the systematic forced labor systems established by the southern states:

By 1900, the South’s judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites […]

The records demonstrate the capture and imprisonment of thousands of random indigent citizens, almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process. The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totaled more than 100,000 and perhaps more than twice that figure. Instead of evidence showing black crime waves, the original records of county jails indicated thousands of arrests for inconsequential violations of laws specifically written to intimidate blacks—changing employers without permission, vagrancy, riding freight cars without a ticket, engaging in sexual activity—or loud talk—with white women.

Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges of arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime.

Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South—operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial framers. These bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations.

According to Blackmon, every single southern state practiced this form of slavery: Arrest black people on fake charges (‘vagrancy’, ‘inebriation’, etc.), coerce them into pleading guilty, levy a fine and fictitious administrative fees, rent them to a private company, force them to work to pay off their debts.

What’s so chilling about this now is how embedded it was in the politics and economies of Southern cities. The sheriffs actively arrested blacks on trumped-up charges. Judges actively leveed these fake fees and fines. Companies actively sought out ‘convict’ labor. Administrators all the way from mayors to governors passed laws promoting this model of labor supply.

As a black person caught in this cycle—sentenced to hard labor for years, subjected to brutal, sometimes fatal, beatings if you tried to escape—there was no higher authority you could appeal to, no institution or individual who was fighting to free you. Blacks were so systematically disenfranchised, and whites so condescendingly uninterested, no one even launched an investigation into this system for decades.

The message was clear, and shared almost universally among whites: Whatever happens to black men in strictly the result of their own choices. Those choices ultimately were to submit quietly to the emerging new order or be crushed by it.

[This] further underscored how far southern whites could extend their ability to reconcile the obvious and extraordinary abuses of blacks occurring around them with their rhetorical insistence that African Americans were entirely free, content and unmolested. Never before in American history had so large a portion of the populace adopted such explicitly false and calculated propaganda. Many southern whites actually came to believe claims that black schools were equally funded, black train cars were equally appointed, and that black citizens were equally defended by the courts—as preposterous as those claims obviously were.

I had to sort of stop reading at this page and take a little break.

Blackmon’s book makes me wonder what lies we tell ourselves now, what propaganda we swallow today that will make our grandkids cringe. It makes me wish I knew more, agued more, listened more. But mostly, it makes me wish this wasn’t the first book about this I’ve ever read. Next time I grow up, I’m gonna pay more attention.

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Filed under America, Books, Serious

An Open Letter to the Girl I Pretended To Have a Crush On in Eighth Grade

Dear Tracy Dolan,

Every gay teenager has a different strategy for surviving adolescence. Some join the choir, some write or paint, some play sports, some try to make themselves invisible. And some, like me, make themselves as visible as possible.

You were the first girl I pretended to have a crush on so no one would know I was gay. I didn’t intend for it to happen, for it to be you, for it to be so easy. But it did, and it was.

I want to tell you how it happened. In another world we could have been friends. In this one, you’re the girl who told me, on the last day of school, to go fuck myself. And I’m the guy that deserved it.

She had red cheeks, a cheerleader’s skirt and a big triangle smile. Her arms and legs were spread out like she was making a letter in the air, though she wasn’t moving. She had three spindly fingers on each hand, no toes, no shoes and a weak, crooked neck.

‘What are you drawing?’ Trevor Schmidt said from behind me. I had my notebook open to the inside cover. I had given her a sun-blonde ponytail, and was drawing wavy yellow lines around it.

We were sitting in staggered rows, in those cagelike middle school desks. Trevor often made comments like this, what are you writing, what page are you on, etc., because this arrangement gave him a perfect diagonal view of my desk and because he was an asshole.

We were three years into middle school, two months into our eighth grade year, and 30 seconds until Mr. Farina started his lecture.

‘Huh? Nothing,’ I said. My forearm wasn’t big enough to cover up the entire sketch, so I moved it over her skirt.

Trevor leaned forward over his desk to get a better look. His hair, long and parted down the middle like the boys on ‘Home Improvement’, hung in his face. This was Seattle in 1995, so he was probably wearing a flannel shirt, maybe a No Fear T-shirt underneath, and saggy Kris Kross jeans.

But I had never really noticed what Trevor wore. Mostly what I noticed about him was that sometimes, when standing, he would lift his shirt a little and rub the tuft of hair just above his belt buckle. I found this utterly captivating, and for nearly two years told myself I was jealous of his flat, soccer-toned stomach. Between seventh and eighth grade, I realized that I was jealous of the hand rubbing it.

‘Is that Tracy Dolan?’ he said, craning. I remember a silver cross dangling from his neck, but I may have edited that into this memory, to give him some external totem of the bully he was inside. Two years earlier, he tripped me—actually fucking tripped me!—as I was running to class. I got a bloody nose and became a school-wide comedy event for the rest of the week. I never forgot that, and I’m certain he did instantly.

‘It’s just a doodle,’ I lied. I had spent hours on it, cross-legged, colored pencils in a pile next to me. Not that I was good at drawing, or even enjoyed it, but hunching over your notebook is a trick introverts have passed down through the generations for disappearing when you’re supposed to be socializing.

Mr. Farina held up his spread left hand and started counting the fingers down, his way of telling us he was about to start talking.

‘Why are you drawing Tracy Dolan on your notebook?’ Trevor said.

Who the hell, I thought as Mr. Farina started talking, is Tracy Dolan?

You were from Montana, that much I knew, and you had the blondest hair I had ever seen. You wore it the same every day, long bangs and a ponytail, and from the back it practically threw off sparks.

I don’t actually remember meeting you, sorry about that. As boys had slowly, then suddenly, rearranged themselves under the stage lights of my attention, girls had receded into the backdrop. You were just there one day, and it only occurred to me later that you hadn’t been before.

At the time I only knew your hair and your smile. Well, not the smile really, more its limits. You never smiled to be polite, or to be liked, or because you didn’t know what to say. You smiled when you meant it, and stopped immediately when you didn’t.

But the most amazing thing about you wasn’t your hair or your smile. It was your twin brother Mark, who was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.

I noticed him for the first time in history, on the first day of class. The teacher had arranged the desks in a U, facing inward. ‘It’s a Socratic seminar’, she told us as she Sharpied her name on the overhead. I had taken a seat at the front.

At the back, in the bend of the U, was your brother, who I had never seen before. He was as blonde as you, but skinnier, more restless. He reminded me of the poplars we had in our backyard, which lost their leaves in November and rattled in the wind until March. Every time I looked at him he was moving: bouncing his leg, spinning his pencil, flicking his eyes between ceiling tiles. Later I would learn that this this was a symptom of being a born athlete, one of those people who instantly, effortlessly masters every sport they’ve ever tried.

He was sitting as far from the front of the class as possible. This meant that staring at him—which I wanted to do for the entire class period, followed by the rest of my life—meant I had to face away from the teacher.

‘The 20th century,’ Ms. Dalton was telling 29 faces and the back of my head, ‘has seen a growing recognition of freedom and liberty all over the … Yes?’

He had his hand up.

‘What’s your name?’ Ms. Dalton asked.

‘Mark,’ he said. It’s perfect! I thought meaninglessly. ‘What do you mean “liberty”?’

‘That’s an interesting question, Mark,’ Ms. Dalton said. She had written ‘Miss D’ on the overhead. We called her ‘Misty’ all semester, and were seldom corrected. ‘What does it mean to you?’

Mark looked confused. ‘No,’ he said, bouncing his pencil eraser on his desk like a drumroll. ‘Like, what does the actual word mean?’

‘Oh,’ Ms. Dalton said, visibly deflating as a philosophical question was rendered a logistical one. ‘It means freedom, basically.’

‘Thanks!’ Mark said.

‘Yeah, it’s a technical term meaning “fucking retard”,’ my friend Tom murmured next to me.

‘Shhh, he seems nice!’ I said, lost somewhere in that trembling sparkle of blond hair.

I could have taken the sketch off my notebook, but I didn’t. A week later in Mr. Farina’s class, I deliberately left it open to the cover page, and was slightly disappointed that Trevor, tired or possibly hung over under a baseball cap, failed to notice it.

I had known I was gay for at least a year. There were signs before middle school—I’m standing contraposto in every family photo from 1988 onwards—but I didn’t admit it to myself until I read Jean M. Auel’s ‘Plain of Passage’ in the summer between sixth and seventh grade.

I started reading Auel’s ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ series when I was 11, and still not ready to admit the blatant fact of my homosexuality. Yes, I had been transfixed by the German men’s swim team in the 1992 Olympics. Yes, I had asked for a Barbie Dream House for Christmas for the last three years—and had locked myself in the bathroom a la Diana Ross upon not receiving it.

But these were just quirks, I told myself. Hadn’t I also purchased the (mostly female) Marvel Comics swimsuit edition? Hadn’t I traced the swimsuited bodies of Jean Grey and Psylocke with a pencil and put them on my wall? No gay kid would do that.

Jondalar first appears in the second book of the ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ series. He is Early Man, loincloth and everything, and he takes the heroine, Ayla, as his mate.

‘Plains of Passage’ is book three. I had started it when I was 12. I remember lying on my stomach, reading a scene in which Jondalar cuts wood for the evening fire. His ropy arms lifting the axe, his hips putting power into his swing, the sweat dripping from his brow.

Why do I have a boner? I thought.

And then, in that actual instant, I knew I was gay. I don’t know why that did it, but it did. Whenever I recall it, I hear an actual ding! In the room, like the microwave telling me my Hot Pocket is ready. Ding! You’re gay!

… Now what?

In the week since Trevor noticed the sketch, I had discovered that you and I had two classes together.

‘Tracy Dolan?’ Tom said. ‘She’s the girl who always has her hand up in the back of Mr. Fisher’s class.’

‘Oh her?’ I said.

‘She’s from Montana. Her brother is that halfwit Mark kid in Misty’s class.’

Jondalar! I tried not to noticeably react.

‘Who? … Oh right, the twitchy dude.’ With hair like the sun, was how I wanted to finish the sentence, but I stopped.

‘They’re twins,’ Tom said.

Being openly gay at Nathan Eckstein Middle School in 1995 was not an option. The closest thing we ever had to a homosexual was Gaylord Crestbotham, and he wasn’t even gay, just unfortunately named. He tried to go by William, his middle name, when he came to Eckstein in sixth grade, but barely a month went by before someone saw his real name on a permission slip and started telling everyone.

They bullied him so severe he snapped one day in the lunch line. Someone cut in front of him with a shove and a ‘move, faggot’, and he took his tennis racquet out of his gym bag, wailed on the guy for a few minutes and got expelled.

I had seen this from my lunch table, eating by myself. A month later I asked Ms. Stone, the only teacher I had seen in the lunchroom that day, if she knew what had happened to him. ‘What, to Gaylord?’ she said.

‘William,’ I said. ‘Did he go to a private school or something?’

‘There’s no private school where it’s OK to assault someone for no reason,’ she said.

I was going to need a survival strategy.

‘So what’s the deal with you and Mark Dolan?’ Tom asked me as we played Super Mario World at my house.

It was two Fridays since the sketch incident and, like every Friday, Tom was staying over.

Also like every Friday, we had bought $20 worth of weed from my brother (representing a street value of about $3.50), smoked it out of an apple in my garage and settled 18 inches in front of the TV in my basement until sunrise.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

In the two months since the first day of school, Mark had gone from ‘new kid’ to ‘cool kid’ in record time, and my increasingly elaborate attempts to bump into him were thwarted by a growing throng of admirers.

‘You’re always talking to him after class,’ Tom said. ‘And you keep inviting him to stuff, and he never comes. Why are you so obsessed with him?’

Tom was my only friend. I had spent 6th grade bullied (long hair, sweatpants, headgear), 7th grade invisible (introvert, straight A’s, Steven King novels at lunch) and 8th grade, so far, with Tom.

I met him through our neighborhood soccer team over the summer, and when school started in the fall, I suddenly had a companion for period breaks, lunches and bus rides home. Tom was the difference between staring at my shoes when I walked to class and seeing where I was going.

‘Mark just moved here, I just thought he might want to make some friends,’ I said.

‘New friends? Dude, he’s at Sarah Tanaka’s party in Laurelhurst right now,’ Tom said.

We were taking turns on Super Mario World, and I looked at Tom as he played. He had bony hands and a kind of clench in his face, concentrating on the screen. After we saw ‘Desperado’, he had decided to grow his hair long like Antonio Banderas, but he was only about halfway there.

Nine years later, when I told Tom I was gay and had kept this from him for nearly a decade, he didn’t say anything, he just gave me a hug. He’s still the only straight guy who ever did that.

But then was not now. Then was 1995, and we were 14, and our school was a great big battleship ferrying 1,400 souls to maturity, a journey our principal would later tell us, in our miniature graduation gowns, was ‘the hardest three years of your life.’ Hugs, understanding, save that shit for after the storm. Right now, you need to keep from capsizing.

‘So what’s the deal, dude?’ Tom asked, looking at me now.

‘I’m really into his sister,’ I said.

It was the Monday after Thanksgiving. Ms. Hughes, our math teacher, stood at the front of the class and read out our seating assignments. The class huddled by the door.

‘Table 3,’ she was saying. ‘Frank Robbins and Diane Gregg.’

A week after my conversation with Tom, a girl in biology class saw me looking out the window. ‘Are you looking for Tracy Dolan out there?’ she giggled. The rest of her table leaned in for backstory. Tom had told people, and people had told people.

It was working. I tried to look mortified.

A week after that, Trevor Schmidt slapped my shoulder from behind. ‘I fucking knew it!’

I pretended not to know what he was talking about, knowing that each ‘nuh uh!’ just kindled more accusations.

‘I’m with you, dude,’ Trevor said. ‘You don’t see her because she’s all quiet and shit. But get her out from under all that polarfleece, and she’s got a body like Sharon Stone.’

I had never been more proud of myself. I decided to notice you so no one would notice me, and now I was not only assumed straight, but assumed worthy of conversation. I just had to keep broadcasting straightness loud enough to drown out the gay humming underneath.

Despite having two classes together, I had still barely met you. Ms. Hughes’s class was divided into fifteen tables, each with two students. She had already changed the seating arrangement twice. We couldn’t tell if this was a deliberate strategy on her part—obedience through churn—or if she just couldn’t decide how she’d like us arranged. Each time, you and I had ended up at different ends of the class.

‘Table six,’ she was saying as we waited near the door, ‘Michael Hobbes and Tracy Dolan.’

The class, as one, made a kind of awwwww sound, like the studio audience on ‘Full House’.

Fuck. I looked down at the floor.

‘Quiet!’ Ms. Hughes said as we walked to our desk. Even she probably knew about my fake crush on you by then.

We sat down. Ms. Hughes was assigning the rest of the desks. My cheeks were as red as yours were in the sketches I had made of you. I kept my notebook closed and my hand on top of it.

‘You’re Mike, right?’ you said.
‘Yeah,’ I said. I’m a monster.
‘You’re a TA for jazz band, right?’
‘…’
‘Were you at the concert at Roosevelt last week? It was amazing,’ you said.

I looked at you and you were holding out a pack of M&Ms. Was it possible no one had told you?

‘Want some?’
‘Sure, thanks’. I took one.
‘Are you from here?’
‘Yeah, born and raised.’
‘I’m from Montana, we don’t have M&Ms there.’
‘Really?’
‘No, idiot.’ You smiled, and I smiled back.

‘So,’ Mark Dolan said. ‘What are we doing tomorrow?’

It was spring outside, not that we could tell from Mark’s basement. He was holding a ping-pong paddle, swaying back and forth, looking at me, the room, the table, his shoes, the table again. Sometimes between points he balanced the paddle on this finger like a sword. Other times he rubbed his stomach and I could see a little of it. After long rallies, he lifted it to wipe his brow. We played ping-pong a lot.

Pretending to like girls—specific girls—specific girls I had classes with—had been more successful than I had expected. From who’s that guy? I had risen in rank to the guy who has a crush on Tracy Dolan and onward to the guy who has a crush on everyone. 

Talking about girls, it turns out, is a great way to make friends with guys. It’s an opening line, a time-killer, a narrative, a joke factory. Like all great conversation topics, it’s a way of talking about yourself while pretending not to. I started watching mafia movies on weekends for research.

‘Damn, Sara Kreshki looks good cleaned up’ I would tell Tom Monday morning.

‘Her and Teresa Singer are at the top of my list,’ Trevor Schmidt would say as Farina counted down. ‘The filling-out list.’

As the drawings on my notebook went from stick figure to realistic, from Dr. Seuss to Maxim, I found myself with less time alone between classes to draw them.

‘One more game,’ I told Mark.

The social epicenter of Nathan Eckstein Middle School was the foyer just inside the main entrance. During classes, silent, it was a blank crescent of tiles with curved stairways on each side, lit by Seattle’s meager daylight.

Before and after school, though, it was a ballroom, heaving with the din of students forming and unforming in clusters, backpacks in piles, snippets of music playing from unseen speakers.

Before the sketch, before you, I moved through the foyer mornings and afternoons like a virus without a host, following the wall, reaching for the exit. I arrived in an empty classroom, opened my textbook, wrote my name and the date at the top of a sheet of paper, put down my pencil and waited for class to begin. Why did we need 30 minutes between the buses arriving and classes starting?

Time goes by faster as a participant than a spectator, and since the sketch, since you, 30 minutes wasn’t enough. Now my walk to class zigzagged, clustered and unclustered, paused to test and tweak observations I had rehearsed.

Suddenly, one day Mark was there. I was telling Trevor and two other guys about ‘The Last Seduction’, which I had seen over the weekend and had decided would provide me with conversation material through at least Wednesday.

‘That sounds awesome,’ Mark said.

‘I was gonna see it again this weekend,’ I said. ‘We should go.’

I meant me and Mark, but Trevor thought I meant us. ‘Yeah we should,’ he said.

Over the next three months, my school persona began to colonize my evenings and weekends. The clusters that formed in the foyer now formed over coffee, strip-mall teriyaki, Saturday matinees, Sunday capture-the-flag.

‘I live pretty close,’ Mark said after school one day in March. ‘We should go to my house.’

All winter I had watched Mark, looking for any sign that he carried a secret like mine. I watched him listen, I watched him talk, I watched him watch me and watch others. So far my four-month investigation had turned up no evidence whatsoever.

But now he was inviting me over. Just me! You had joined jazz band, so you weren’t home, and your parents worked til at least six.

I made my face appear to deliberate. ‘What, today?’ I said.

‘Yeah, let’s go,’ Mark said.

Like Ayla gathering her stone tools into her oxskin tunic, I shoved my textbooks into my backpack, slammed my locker and set out with Mark down the hill from Eckstein, across 35th St. and up the hill to his house.

That was March, now it was May, and Mark and I did this two or three times a week, sometimes with Trevor, sometimes with other clustermates. Once I brought Tom, who went through the afternoon like a tourist participating in a bizarre indigenous ceremony.

Every afternoon, the routine was the same as the first time. We walked up the hill to Mark’s house and let ourselves in the back door. I turned on MTV and threw the remote on the couch, then stood across the kitchen island as Mark got food out of the cupboards.

My parents had allergies and read health magazines, so Mark’s house was the only place I was allowed to eat frozen pizza. Mark took them out of the box and put them onto little silver trays for the microwave. While they rotated, he took out the blender, a quart of ice cream, a gallon of milk and whichever bottle in his parents’ liquor cabinet was fullest.

Like Ayla and Jondalar, we took whatever we could forage. Some days it was strawberry ice cream and Kahlua, others cookie dough and scotch. They were all equally terrible, but to us, they tasted like adulthood, rebellion. We drank them out of martini glasses.

Then, feeling full and disinfected, we drifted downstairs to play ping-pong until Mark’s parents came home, when I left, breathing downwards.

On that day in May, we had found a zip-lock bag of Oreos and three-quarters of a bottle of champagne in the fridge. Mark aimed the cork at me and popped it, but the bottle must have been at least a week old, and the cork fell flaccidly to the floor.

‘Don’t worry, Mark, it happens to everyone,’ I said, a premature-ejaculation joke I had heard on a sitcom that neither Mark nor I understood. He smiled anyway, poured half the bottle of champagne and the Oreos into the blender. He scraped a huge chunk of mocha chip, your favorite, on top.

I had daydreamed that on one of these tipsy afternoons Mark would make the milkshake a little too strong, look at me over the ping-pong table, lean forward a little.

‘Mike?’ he would say.

‘Mark,’ I would reply, putting down my paddle, knowing where this was going.

‘Do you ever feel… different?’ His eyes would be moist now, pleading.

I wouldn’t say anything, just walk to the other side of the table and embrace him. He would tell me everything, the desires inside him he couldn’t control, how he had tied them up, chained them down, vaulted them in, how they were too strong, he couldn’t control them anymore. In my arms he would finally be still.

Today was the nineteenth or twentieth time this hadn’t happened, and I was beginning to lose hope. As far as I could tell, the only desires animating Mark were winning at ping-pong, shouting Chris Farley quotes at me from across the table and speculating about which girls liked him.

‘What are we doing tomorrow?’ I asked.

‘Lara Farquhar is going to some high school kegger,’ Mark said. Lara rode my bus, and Mark had been bugging me to talk to her about him. I was, not surprisingly, reluctant to do so.

‘She has tits like the balloons over the Datsun dealership on Aurora,’ I said, timing the joke right as I hit the ball to his backhand. He laughed and hit the ball too hard, and it ricocheted off the ceiling.

‘That’s game, bitch,’ I said, glad for the opportunity to end this conversation before it began. I put the paddle down. ‘Your folks are gonna be home in like five minutes ago’—a joke I had stolen from MadTV—‘I’d better bounce.’

‘You gotta admit, she’s hot, man,’ he said as we walked up the concrete steps. He ducked to avoid the low ceiling. I didn’t have to.

‘You haven’t seen her on the bus, dude,’ I said. ‘When she sits at the back it takes two of the Vietnamese kids just to hold her tits down.’ Jesus Christ, this was me in action.

As we rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, I could see that the TV had been switched to CNN. You were sitting on the couch, eating the rest of the Oreos, the bag on your lap.

It had been eight months since I came out as a crush-on-you haver. Mark must have known, but he never asked me about it and I never said anything. Sometimes I dreamed that his lack of interest was premeditated, deliberate. He wasn’t like me, sure, but maybe he knew my secret, could hear the hum of what I was underneath the megaphone of what I wanted to be. ‘He understands me,’ I told myself, ‘we’re connected.’

Either that or he just didn’t want to hear one of his buddies talk about nailing his sister.

From the living room, you looked over toward the noise. Your eyes didn’t meet mine, didn’t even see me. I was used to this.

‘Oh, hey Tracy!’ Your brother said from behind me.

‘Did you and this asshole eat all the mocha chip?’ you said.

We sat together from Thanksgiving until winter break. We shared homework and M&Ms, the two highest grades in the class right next to each other. We were both the kind of good at math that didn’t have to work very hard. Hughes told us the concept, we got it, we filled in the worksheets. Neither of us understood why the other students had so many questions, or why it took a whole period to explain imaginary numbers or negative square roots. We were done with our worksheets by the time everyone else started.

Sometimes you read your novel under the table as everyone else worked, Tom Clancy or Dean Koontz, a different one each week. You wanted to be a doctor, and you were already ranking medical schools on their proximity to mountains so you could keep skiing on weekends. For undergrad you would go to an all-girls school, you had decided, probably Vassar.

‘How come?’ I asked.
‘I want to work,’ you said. ‘Not deal with boy-nonsense all day.’
‘Good thing there’s no such thing as girl-nonsense,’ I said.
You smiled. ‘Whatever, just because you think everyone should go to public school.’

One period later, in Mr. Farina’s class, I told Trevor, ‘You know what Tracy told me today dude?’
‘What?’ he said, not looking up.
‘She’s trying to go to an all-girls school.’
‘For high school?’ His head was up now, I could see his eyes under his baseball hat.
‘Yeah, high school,’ I lied. Clarification on the particulars would only be a distraction. ‘She said she liked the way the uniforms fit.’
‘She did not say that,’ Trevor said.
‘Yes she did, she just told me in Hughes’s class,’ I said.
‘She is a slut, guy,’ Trevor said.

And that was how it was. You and I killed time in Ms. Hughes’s class with books and music, hobbies and plans for the future. Then, between second and third period, I retroactively trolled our conversations for material I could refine and distort, bulletins for my new friends. I even told them we went to see ‘While You Were Sleeping’ together.

‘She asked me to go, I was powerless to resist.’ Telling lies was as easy as math worksheets, just learn the rule, find the blanks and fill them in.

And then it was over. The first day back from winter break, huddled by the door in Ms. Hughes’s class again, I wished you a happy new year.

‘OK,’ you said, cold as Yellowstone, and moved to the other side of the huddle.

She knows.

I was assigned to sit with Ben Neill, one of my morning and afternoon clustermates.

‘Not next to Tracy anymore, huh?’ he asked. ‘I bet that would hurt if you weren’t such a homo.’

‘You’re just saying that because your mom likes it from the back,’ I said reflexively. Someone told her, I thought, But who, and how much?

That was January. Before your brother invited me over, before I made up crushes on Nicole Grant and Gina Lasky, before a late-spring faux fixation on Laura Gilchrist was, mortifyingly, reciprocated and I had to fake mono to get out of it.

The day after we saw you in your living room, I asked your brother why you hated me so much.

‘She thinks you’re a pervert,’ Mark said, balancing the ping-pong paddle on his finger. ‘Everyone kind of thinks that.’

At the time, appallingly, I considered this a triumph. Perverts are not gaylords. I was safe.

‘What did I ever do to her though?’ I asked.

‘Apparently you said you wanted her to wrap her thighs around you like a python. Because she has big thighs from skiing, I guess? I don’t really get it.’

Had I said that? Shit, it sounded like me.

‘Who told her?’

‘Trevor,’ he said. ‘He thinks it’s hilarious how she won’t talk to you anymore.’

This should not have surprised me. Trevor had revealed himself to be as much of a bully as a friend than as an enemy. Two years ago he had tormented me to impress eighth graders, and now he tormented sixth graders to impress me.

Once, in the cafeteria, Trevor pulled down Alec Pentieff’s pants while he was carrying his lunch tray, and he had to shuffle 20 feet with his pants at his ankles before he could pull them up again. I made a show of laughing—Christ, did we high-five?—but I felt sick to my stomach the rest of the day.

Everywhere I looked, the consequences of my survival strategy were piling up. After I canceled our smoke-and-Super Mario Fridays three times in a row, Tom stopped assuming them, and now we walked past each other like strangers. Girls I had liked—actually liked, like, as people—stopped talking to me because I had publicly appreciated their breasts, their asses or, in one case, their ‘haunches’. Alec Pentioff, who rode my bus and whose parents knew mine from church, never looked at me again.

Every time, it came as a surprise. Don’t you know this isn’t really me? I wanted to shout. Just because I’m doing this doesn’t mean I’m the kind of person who does.

I wish I could tell you, ‘I learned my lesson, the very next day I came out of the closet, I never lied again.’ But I didn’t. I kept it up this façade all through high school.

When I finally came out, on the night of high school graduation, in the Denny’s on Lake City Way, my friends told me ‘I never would have guessed’ and I received it as a compliment. Only later did I realize that there’s no such thing as hiding who you are, there’s only becoming someone else.

I remember you because you were the fork in the road. I could have sat next to you, just sat, just listened and spoken, just kept our conversations in that little rectangle where they began. I could have thrown away that sketch.

But I didn’t. The last time I saw you was the final day of eighth grade, an afternoon so bright it steamed the rain on the pavement. We ran into each other between the cluster of portables and the school building. I was heading in, you were coming out.

‘Hey Tracy,’ I said. You nodded and kept walking.

‘Hey,’ I said again. ‘Tracy? Hey, Tracy!’

‘What, Mike?’ You stopped. ‘What is it?’

It was the first time I had seen you without an audience since December. Even then, I wanted to tell you that I was sorry, that it wasn’t me who said that about you but someone else, someone mean.

I wanted to tell you that you had beaten me on Ms. Hughes’s final by one point and I was proud of you. That your brother turned out to be a nice guy, maybe even a friend. That the University of Colorado has a great medical school. That every time I saw you hunched over your notebook during breaks, I wanted to come over to see what you were writing. That I had read two Tom Clancy books this year and they both sucked.

I could have said something decent, kind, something to make you remember who I was and forget what I’d become, could have asked you what you were doing this summer, if you were reading anything good lately.

But I didn’t. Instead, what I said was, ‘You look great in those shorts’.

Your brother and I were friends until junior year of high school, when we simultaneously decided to stop calling each other. I had discovered other boys, girls had discovered him, our nows replaced our thens.

Last month, he added me on Facebook. He sells high-end SUVs at a dealership in Kansas City. In nearly all of his pictures he’s somewhere sunny, and smiling. His girlfriend appears in at least three-quarters of them, one arm around him, smiling just as wide. And in some of them there’s you.

That’s how I found out that you went to Swarthmore, that you live in New York City, that you’re a veterinarian with a daughter and a husband and a Subaru Outback and a Netflix subscription. You’re grown up, lived in, but it’s definitely you. Your daughter has a ponytail, blonde as the sun.

On that afternoon on the last day of school, you turned away from me and walked across the concrete. You didn’t even look back, you just said, almost to yourself, ‘go fuck yourself’ as I stood there at the door.

I didn’t realize it then, and I wouldn’t for a long time, but I already had.

Hope you’re still smiling, and hope you still mean it,

Mike

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Filed under America, Essays, Gay, Personal

‘What It Takes’ and the Weirdness of Politicians

Last weekend Richard Ben Cramer died. Here’s an excerpt from his seminal 1992 book, What It Takes, describing a ‘light’ weekend in the life of Senator Bob Dole:

The Senate was winding up its tem for the fall, and Dole wouldn’t get away till Saturday morning—just in time for a flight to Akron, a press conference and a fund-raising breakfast for two Congressional candidates, then a speech to a rally in the airport; then a quick flight to Sandusky, O., for a press conference and another speech at a luncheon rally; then a flight to Cleveland for a rally speech and a joint press conference on behalf of four GOP hopefuls; then a flight to Findlay, O., for another press conference and a mix-and-mingle for Congressman Oxley; then a flight to Cincinnati for a press conference with gubernatorial candidate James Rhodes at the home of former Senator Taft; then an hour-and-a-half flight east to Monmouth, New Jersey, followed by a twenty-minute drive to a Hilton, where Dole was scheduled to get in about midnight for his Saturday night’s sleep.

Sunday he’d start with a twenty-five-minute ride to a country club in Manalatan Township to do a press conference and a speech at a buffet breakfast; then another drive, another flight, this time to Jamestown, New York, near Buffalo, for a joint news conference with a House candidate; and a drive to another country club for the candidate’s funder-brunch, where Dole would make a few more brief remarks; then another drive to another speech, this to a Chautauqua County veterans’ group, a photo op with members of the Country Veterans Council and the dedication of a bridge in honor of the nation’s veterans; than another flight to State College, Pennsylvania, for a speech to five hundred Penn State students, and another press conference with a Congressman, Bill Clinger, and another drive to another hotel for another speech at a fundraiser, and then another drive and a wheels-up for Washington, National Airport, where the Lincoln Town Car would be waiting in the dark to take him back to the Watergate—unless he decided to stop at the office to get ready for the Senate Monday.

Cramer’s book is totally great (as in large, but also as in awesome), and confirmed my lifelong impression that being a successful politician basically requires you to be a sociopath-caliber extrovert.

Bob Dole was sixty-five when he was living this schedule. The only way to do this, to keep this up, is if you genuinely get energized by constant handshakes, nonstop chit-chat, giving the same old smile to different new people every waking moment. Cramer writes with a deep admiration of these guys, how they keep a million names in their heads, how they can recite legislation by rote, how they can tell the perfect back-slapping joke with the perfect handshake timing. But I read it with a kind of dread. Is this who we’ve outsourced the running of our country to?

But that’s probably just me failing to relate to people who are different than me. Cramer’s book is a powerful reminder of the greatness, the weakness, the weirdness of the people who run our country. And by writing it, he might have achieved greatness himself.

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Filed under America, Books, Journalism

The Only Thing You Need to Read About Guns in America

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is Erik Larson’s ‘The Story of a Gun‘, from 1993.

He traces one small-scale school shooting (ew what a yucky phrase) back to the shooter, retailer, manufacturer and, ultimately,  culture that created it.

What’s most fascinating about the article is how it tracks the constituents we don’t often hear about. The company that manufactured the gun. The store that sold it.  The background check that asks would-be gun buyers ‘are you mentally ill?’ with a tick-box. The understaffed and overstretched regulators.

I’m sure—I hope!—a lot of  the specifics are out of date (Does the ATF have more than 400 inspectors by now?), but it’s a chilling demonstration of how gun manufacturers and sellers have gotten off the hook for America’s violence problem.

To be a gun dealer in America is to occupy a strange and dangerous outpost on the moral frontier. Every storefront gun dealer winds up at some point in his career selling weapons to killers, drug addicts, psychos, and felons; likewise, every storefront dealer can expect to be visited by ATF agents and other lawmen tracing weapons backward from their use in crime to their origins in the gun-distribution network.

One must be a cool customer to stay in business knowing that the products one sells are likely to be used to kill adults and children or to serve as a terroristic tool in robberies, rapes, and violent assaults. Yet gun dealers deny at every step of the way the true nature of the products they sell and absolve themselves of responsibility for their role in the resulting mayhem.

Guns used in crime are commonly thought to have originated in some mythic inner-city black market. Such markets do exist, of course, but they are kept well supplied by the licensed gun-distribution network, where responsibility is defined as whatever the law allows.

If you were trying to reduce car-accident fatalities to zero, you’d definitely make driver’s license requirements stronger, obligate people to take more driving lessons, prove their eyesight, etc. But you’d also make sure every single car had airbags, you’d require manufacturers to prevent ignition unless seat belts were fastened, you’d make dealerships confirm that every car buyer knows how to drive. You’d also change the way you build roads, and how you patrol them.

I know gun manufacturers and retailers aren’t free from restrictions, aren’t entirely ignored in the debate over gun control. But reducing gun crime doesn’t mean you take the guns away from everybody who owns one. It means you prevent guns from being made, and from being sold, in the first place.

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Filed under America, Journalism, Serious

John Steinbeck on Seattle and the Problem With American Cities

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Here’s another excerpt from Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley‘:

Next day I walked in the old port of Seattle, where the fish and crabs and shrimps lay beautifully on white beds of shaved ice and where the washed and shining vegetables were arranged in pictures. I drank clam juice and ate the sharp crab cocktails at stands along the waterfront. It was not much changed—a little more run-down and dingy than it was twenty years ago.

And here a generality concerning the growth of American cities, seemingly true of all of them I know. When a city begins to grow and spread outward, from the edges, the center which was once its glory is in a sense abandoned to time. Then the buildings grow dark and a kind of decay sets in; poorer people move in as the rents fall, and small fringe businesses take the place of once flowering establishments. The district is still too good to tear down and too outmoded to be desirable. Besides, all the energy has flowed out to the new developments, to the semi-rural supermarkets, the outdoor movies, new houses with wide laws and stucco schools where children are confirmed in their illiteracy.

The old port with narrow streets and cobbled surfaces, smoke-grimed, goes into a period of desolation inhabited at night by the vague ruins of men, the lotus eaters who struggle daily toward unconsciousness by way of raw alcohol. Nearly every city I know has such a dying mother of violence and despair where at night the brightness of the street lamps is sucked away and policemen walk in pairs. And then one day perhaps the city returns and rips out the sore and builds a monument to its past.

How did he do all this on a typewriter?!

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My Year in Money

Originally posted at The Billfold

 

1.

This year, I took my first fundraising job. Asking for money is like dating: You hope you never do it enough to get good at it. Then suddenly you’re walking into a room full of strangers and telling them why you are more entitled to their money than they are, and you realize that that you have done this umpteen times, this is literally your umpteenth time, and you don’t even sweat a little bit the first time you say a number out loud.

This year I learned that chasing money in this way is both more and less unseemly than you’d think. More unseemly because you and your coworkers sit around and speculate on which people, governments and corporations are swimming in Scrooge McDuck coin-vaults, and you call them greedy when they don’t invite you to join them in the deep end.

Less unseemly because you hella do need their money more than they do, dammit, your organization is genuinely trying, and occasionally achieving, a slight uptick in non-shittiness for people who deserve to learn how to read and drink unfilthy water and not get diseases, or at least they deserve it more than the strangers in the room deserve another trip to the Maldives.

Sometimes I remember that, and sometimes I forget it, and I don’t know which one makes me worse at my job.

 

2.

My contract on this fundraising adventure expires in May, and I’ve been doing some preliminary LinkedInery to scope my options before I decide whether to renew. I’m genuinely surprised at how large a role money is playing in my decision-making so far.

I don’t have a husband or kids, I don’t eat fancy cheese or drink alcohol (OK I do eat fancy cheese), I don’t drive a car, I don’t need lots of living space. I like to think of myself as the kind of person for whom money isn’t a major concern. I work at an NGO, I wanna save the world and shit, I should be looking at these job ads for impact, responsibility, command over armies of interns, instead I’m skimming straight to the end for the numerics.

Maybe this means I’m anxious about my financial future. Maybe this means I’m becoming old and greedy. Maybe it means my passion has become a job. Maybe it means all three. The only thing I’m sure of is that somewhere in my late 20s, changing the world became a priority in competition with an ongoing supply of cheese, and I fear it won’t win forever.

 

3.

The best money decision I made this year was hiring someone to clean my apartment. I know this sounds imperial and one-percentish, but I genuinely loathe cleaning, and every time I have to, I do it sloppily as a kind of self-directed spite: “See, I told you it was pointless.”

The going rate for a cleaner in Berlin is about €10 ($13) an hour, but I pay €15 ($19) out of sheer oligarchical guilt. Two months ago, I calculated that, after taxes, I only make €13.60 ($17.50) an hour myself. This helps.

My cleaner is from Lithuania and, like everyone in Berlin, is biding time working until she happens in her real profession, which is sculpture. This fall, my apartment fell into a campsite state of disrepair because she was exhibiting in Milan for eight weeks.

Which brings me to the best money advice I got this year, from my friend Brandon, who works at a bank and votes for Ron Paul and has a sneering tattoo of Ayn Rand across his torso (OK only the first one is true, but still): He told me, “You pay $40 a month to never stress out about cleaning your apartment. She gets a living wage, you get a clean apartment. This is how the economy works. So shut the fuck up already.”

 

4.

Every single year, I lobby my family to stop giving each other Christmas presents, and every single year I am denied. This year, instead of spending 15 minutes picking out perfunctory DVDs on Amazon, I got everyone $100 gift certificates to their respective cities’ best restaurants, or at least the ones topping the “Best of 2012″ lists in their local newspapers.

I did this in the hope that these gifts would be so thoughtful and delightful that next year I can do the equivalent of a mic-drop and announce that they will be the last.

Not only did I get all the restaurants wrong (“It costs at least $200 to eat there. You just gave me the gift of spending $100″), but some of my relatives couldn’t figure out the gift certificate websites, and won’t bother redeeming them. My brother, in condolence, wrote, “Looking forward to next year’s DVD, sucker.”

 

5.

I’ve spent basically my whole adulthood moving from small apartment to small apartment, and I’ve gotten good at not filling them up with tangibles. I give away all my books, I’m immune to home appliances, I wear clothes til they’re fishnets.

This doesn’t mean I’m good with money, just that I end up spending it on frivolous experiences rather than frivolous things. And this year I discovered the frivolousest money-hole imaginable: Brunch.

I stole the idea from a friend who, like me, had just moved to Berlin and didn’t know very many people.

“Write to all your Facebook friends in Berlin,” he said. “Invite them all to your house for brunch, and tell them to invite two or three people they know.”

“It gives the impression of intimacy because they’ve seen you in your living space,” he said, sounding like one of those top-hatted dating gurus from The Game. “And these people are sure to reciprocate the invitation, since they feel they owe you for all the free food.”

Three weeks later, I spent $150 on ingredients (OK mostly cheese), spent a day cooking, and ended up feeding 10 friends and 20 strangers in my living room. We started at noon, and the last didn’t leave ’til 8 p.m.

It may have been a calculated idea and a lot of prep work, but in execution, it was a relaxed and enjoyable way to spend a Sunday, and I met a lot of people I still know now. It was also a way for me, a career introvert, to meet a lot of new people in a slow, comfortable trickle rather than a networking-event deluge.

It might not have been my most prudent financial decision this year, but it’s the investment I’m the happiest I made. Now if only I could stop feeling bad about paying someone to help me clean up after it.

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Self-Defense Is a Weird Argument for Owning a Gun

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In this dialogue between Ta-Nehisi Coates (take away all the guns!) and Jeffrey Goldberg (give everybody a gun!), much of the argument hinges on this hypothetical:

let me ask the Augustinian question: Let’s say you’re in the mall with me, or another friend, and a psychopathic shooter is approaching us, AR-15 in hand. In this situation, my life is at stake, as well as yours. I’ll ask the question again: Would you want a gun in hand to help keep us alive, and to keep the strangers around you — each one a human being created in the image of God (I know you lean atheist, but you get my point) — alive as well?

We’ll get to the other questions later, but this is important: In the situation I just described above, would you rather have a gun, or rather not?

I know NRA types think that when you say ‘I would rather have a gun’ in this scenario, they’ve won the argument. But I don’t think they actually know what argument they’re making.

It’s a bit like someone asking you ‘If you were to stumble upon a black cobra, would you rather have a mongoose with you, or not?’

I would like to have a mongoose with me in that situation (and many others, obviously). But what is that an argument for? That I should own a mongoose? That everyone should?

Personally, I would rather live in a society that minimizes black cobra attacks than one where I am required to take care of a vicious rodent to survive. Just seems more efficient that way.

I can’t think of other political arguments where  an extreme, once-per-lifetime scenario is used to justify everyday behavior. ‘If an air conditioning unit fell out of a sixth-floor window and was hurtling toward you, would you rather have a steel parasol, or not?’ 

If I was in the mall and a dude was marching toward me with an AK-47, sure, I might want one of my own. But so what? If he was driving toward me in a tank, I might want one of my own. If he was flying toward me in an F-16 I’d probably want one of those too. These scenarios all equally irrelevant. The real question is, do I want a lethal object in my home, in my bedroom, on my hip every single day on the off chance that such a situation might occur?

We’re all used to this argument in America because the NRA talks loud and carries a big stick. But the ‘more guns’ people aren’t interested in keeping you safe, they just want to feed the cobras.

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The Best Longreads of 2012

Originally posted at Longreads.com

I read news when I want to be entertained. I read features when I want to learn something. Here’s nine articles I read this year that changed the way I look at the world, and made me wonder how I seem when it looks back.

“Diary of a Mad Fact-Checker,” James Pogue, Oxford American

It’s been a bad year for truth. From Mike Daisey and Jonah Lehrer to Rush Limbaugh and Mitt Romney, 2012 felt like a yearlong debate about the role of exaggeration, hyperbole, fact-checking and outright fabrication in the pursuit of an argument. Pogue’s piece, a kind of letter from the extreme-pedant end of the spectrum, illustrates how fidelity to facts can obscure the truth, and how embellishment can reveal it.

“Lost in Space,” Mike Albo, Narrative.ly

Maybe I only feel like I learned something from this essay because I’m in essentially the same position as Albo. I’ve been single for almost 10 years, and I’m realizing that that if I had applied all the hours I’ve wasted on the promiscu-net to something useful, I could have knitted a quilt, learned French, mastered Othello and read all of Wikipedia by now.

If our society has learned anything from the first 20 years of internet access, it’s that looking for what you want isn’t always the best way to get it, and that getting it is a great way to stop wanting it. Albo’s essay couldn’t have been written by any gay man in America because they’re not as good at writing as he is, but I get the feeling it’s been lived by most of them.

“The Innocent Man,” Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly

and

“The Caging Of America,” Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

OK, so it’s not exactly earth-shattering news that America’s prison system is problematic and that “Texas justice” is an oxymoron. But this year brought a new impetus for action, partly due to new numbers (the widely reported stat that 1% of America’s population is incarcerated), legislative action (Obama’s plan to combat prison rape, scorchingly reported in the New York Review of Books) and, qualitatively but no less essentially, longform pieces like Gopnik’s and Colloff’s.

People are always quoting the MLK-via-Obama line “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice,” and articles like these—one a macro view of the problem, one micro—is what that bend looks like.

“Does Mitt Romney Have a Soul?” Wells Tower, GQ

It’s easy now to forget that this was an election year, and that we spent basically all of it squabbling, speculating and pontificating about its outcome, which we now say we knew all along.

Most election reporting is disposable, either gaffe play-by-plays (“Binders Full of Women: Interactive Timeline”), instantly obsolete hypotheticals (What if Romney picks Christie for VP?) or politically orchestrated profiles (“Obama’s audacious plan to save the middle class from Libyan airstrikes”). If you remember these articles past ctrl+w, it’s only until events catch up, and then they poof out of your consciousness forever.

Towers’s Romney profile is one of the few still worth reading after the election. Nominally a standard “let’s hang out in the campaign bus!” piece, it transcends its premise by capturing the conflicting forces tugging at the hem of the Republican party, and how Romney’s sheer empty-vesselness managed to please, and displease, everyone at once.

“Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation,” Max Fisher, The Atlantic

Maybe it’s just the ubiquity of its subject, now the most-viewed-ever video on YouTube, but no article stuck with me this year quite like Fisher’s. In a culture that strains to call itself postracial, sharing “Gangnam Style” on Twitter and Facebook was a safe, quiet way to shout ‘look how weird Koreans are!’ and invite your friends to gawk alongside you.

According to Fisher, “Gangnam” isn’t an expression of Korean culture, but a satire of it. Psy was saying the same thing we spectators were, only in a visual language (and, obviously, a verbal one) we couldn’t understand. He was laughing at his culture too, he just had no idea how easy it was to get the rest of the world to join him.

“The Truck Stop Killer,” Vanessa Veselka, GQ

It’s all in the execution, they say, and nothing demonstrated that this year better than Veselka’s harrowing investigation into whether the guy who kidnapped and then released her on the side of the road in 1985 was a serial killer.

She never finds the answer to her question. But who cares! It’s a great piece, super interesting, suspenseful, creepy, introspective in all the right places. We all know that compelling stories don’t always need happy endings. In this case, it doesn’t need one at all.

“The Bloody Patent Battle Over A Healing Machine,” Ken Otterbourg, Fortune

and

“How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work,” Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, New York Times

I admit it: I have no idea how the international economy works. I used to feel about this the way I feel about not being able to describe asexual reproduction, or the Spanish Civil War, or how to grow tomatoes. I can see why somebody’s got to do it, I just can’t see why it’s got to be me.

Since the 2008 crash, though, knowledge of economics has gone from nice to have to can’t miss, and things like competitiveness, productivity and efficiency have taken a place in politics previously reserved for life-and-deathers like sports doping and the Ground Zero Mosque.

Patent trolling and outsourced manufacturing aren’t the only issues facing the US economy, of course, but both these articles demonstrate how businesses, governments and consumers have made the wrong thing too easy, and how the hard thing might not be the way back.

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Gender Equality Means You Have to Go To The Gym

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So Richard Cohen has this column about the new James Bond movie where he sort of bafflingly laments how buff Daniel Craig is:

Contrast this new Bond to Roger O. Thornhill, the charmingly hapless advertising man played by Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.” Like Bond, Thornhill pulls off some amazing physical feats — his mad frantic escape from the crop duster, the traverse of Mount Rushmore — and like Bond he wears an expensive suit. Unlike Bond, though, when he takes it off we do not see some marbleized man, an ersatz creation of some trainer, but a fit man, effortlessly athletic and just as effortlessly sophisticated. Of course, he knows his martinis, but he also knows how to send out a suit for swift hotel cleaning.

[…] Grant — for all his good looks — represented the triumph of the sexual meritocracy — a sex appeal won by experience and savoir-faire, not delts and pecs and other such things that any kid can have. He was not alone in this. Gary Cooper in “High Noon” wins Grace Kelly by strength of character, not muscles.

Cohen gets some ‘expert quotes go here’ material:

“There has been a striking change in attitudes toward male body image in the past 30 years,” Harrison Pope, a Harvard psychiatry professor, recently told the New York Times. He said the portrayal of men in what amounts to the Bond image is now “dramatically more prevalent in society than it was a generation ago.” That same Times story reported that 40 percent of middle and high school boys work out with the purpose of “increasing muscle mass.”

First of all, when it comes to an increasing supply of fit, good-looking males, I am staunchly in favor.

Not for the reasons you’d think, though. I actually see the increasing prevalence of good-looking males—and the corresponding pressure to resemble them—as a consequence of feminism. The more egalitarian your society is, the less women need to rely on men for status or livelihood. A woman is not impressed by your Ferrari if she drives one herself. Stripped of the traditional condo-and-cufflinks status symbols, men have to resort to the last asset they have—their looks.

My only evidence for this, alas, is anecdotal. After five years in Denmark, I was convinced the primary reason Danish men spend so much time tanning, gymming and hair-producting was because it’s all they have. Danish women have jobs, education, professional status, financial stability, what do they need yours for?

Inequality of good-lookingness between the genders has become a kind of proxy index I use when I travel. Anytime I walk around a country  full of  stylish, beautiful woman and schlubby, hairy-backed men, I fear for its Gender Inequality Index score.

Part of me almost agrees with Cohen’s lament. There is something meritocratic about your attractiveness being based on your confidence, you status, your character. In America, he softly moans, hard work will not just propel you out of your class, but out of your league. For men of his generation, each of Daniel Craig’s jumping pectorals represents something lost, a new bar to hurdle.

So that’s part of my response. But the rest of it is me making a wanking motion and a ‘pfffft’ sound. Living in a country that’s becoming more equal, where other people’s desires are as important as your own, means you no longer get to choose the criteria by which you will be judged. For two millennia, women have been living in a world ruled by men. Nothing makes men angrier than realizing that might not always be the case.

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If the internet is going to destroy our privacy, can it take our prudishness too?

So everyone is all Panic Room about the Petraeus scandal and how it means that we’ll never be able to write e-mails or send text messages or fuck LinkedIn connections ever again. Fallows says we shouldn’t put anything in an e-mail we wouldn’t want our boss to see! Kaylan says there’s no such thing as privacy anymore! Sullivan says no public figure is safe from scandal!

I say we all need to grow up. If we’ve learned anything in the past 50 years, as the press has peered with increasing enthusiasm into the Jockeys of our public figures, it’s that nobody’s clean, nobody’s sinless, nobody’s even all that nice. Social media and the internet have opened the fly even further.

Instead of reconstructing a bygone era when it was easier for public figures to hide who they really are, we need a common understanding of morality and social norms that allow us to separate ‘violation of the public trust’ from ‘meh, everyone does it’. In other words, we need to stop caring. 

We’re shocked every time a politician or  celebrity appears in a sex tape, posts naked photos online, admits to some exotic fetish, etcetera. That shock, though, is a relic, an appendage of the belief that not that many people are doing such things. We gasp at sexual shenanigans under the assumption that they represent extreme human behavior.

And, increasingly, they don’t. I sort of hope that in 50 years we’ll live in an American where most people have ChatRouletted, possess self-taken naked pictures, own their weird sexual tastes, reveal their open marriages. Moral outrage isn’t so much you shouldn’t be doing this as it is nobody else is. Once we can assume everyone is doing these things, we won’t have to pretend to be shocked by them anymore. 

If the internet means losing our privacy, maybe losing our privacy means hiding less of ourselves. Shine enough light and the shadows disappear. I hope that, as our eyes adjust, we’ll realize they were never really shadows at all.

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Gay People Have Crushes Too

This article about a married 50-something dude looking up his second-grade crush is adorable, but I can’t help wondering how it would play out if the object of his affection was male.

I had dude-crushes at the rate of nearly one per year from daycare til middle school (OK, grad school). Some of them turned out to be gay, some of them didn’t. Some I still know, some I don’t. Some I’ve told, some I haven’t.

Everyone knows juvenile crushes are harmless. They say more about giver than the getter, and it should be flattering to know you exist in some neuronal nook of a forgotten acquaintance.

Still, I’d be nervous calling up the dudes I spent elementary and middle school pining over (and terrified of). Even 20 years later, even in 2012, I feel like straight guys wouldn’t find it cute and complimentary, but deceptive and threatening, like I’d stolen something from them.

Or maybe I’m just paranoid. Maybe its worth a shot! Does anyone have an e-mail address for Jonathan Taylor Thomas?

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Three Things I Didn’t Know About The Tuskegee Experiment

In the middle of Snowden’s course on epidemics is this phenomenal one-off about the Tuskegee experiment. Here’s three things I didn’t know:

1. The study was designed to prove a racist hypothesis

Clark [the designer of the Tuskegee experiment] started with a profoundly racist hypothesis that he wished to demonstrate, and that is the simple one that the African-American male was racially distinct from the white male, and was so in ways that could be demonstrated by studying the natural history of syphilis in their bodies. […]

In the body of white males, the damage was overwhelmingly to their more highly evolved — and therefore more vulnerable — neurologic systems. He expected that the result in African-American males would be very different, being less neurologically sophisticated, their bodies would experience damage instead primarily to their cardiovascular systems, and proof was to be gained by studying the natural course of the disease in a group of males — African-American males — who were systematically untreated.

Let’s remember that this is a study that was based not on any therapeutic objective. On the contrary, the main interest of the syphilis study conducted at Tuskegee was to examine syphilitic black male bodies postmortem.

2. The study went way beyond the researchers and test subjects

This study continues from ’32 to ’72. By later in the 1940s, penicillin, a highly efficacious remedy for syphilis, was developed, and it was determined that the members of the study would be systematically denied the antibiotic.

Local doctors in Macon County were all provided with the names of the members of the study, and they were instructed by the Public Health Service that those men were not to be given penicillin. So the study continued for twenty-five more years, when a therapy actually existed. […]

In fact, there was a time when there was a great threat to this Tuskegee study, and that was when America entered the Second World War, because at that time there was the danger that the members of the study group risked being drafted into the Army, and that would entail blood tests. Their syphilis would be discovered, and the Army would provide treatment, ending the experiment. So, the assistant surgeon general of the United States intervened on behalf of the study and provided the Selective Service Board of Macon County with the list of all those men included in the study, and they were exempted from the military draft. […]

Well, by 1972, at the conclusion, 28 of the men in the study died directly from syphilis. A hundred others died of complications related to syphilis. Forty wives of members of the study were infected with syphilis, and 19 children fathered by members of the study were born with congenital syphilis.

3. This study was not a secret

There was, however, no intention in the Public Health Service to terminate the study, and this was not, strictly speaking, a secret study. There were published reports on a regular basis. This is really one of the more disconcerting parts of this study. What does it say about our society at the time?

In other words, this is a study that was published, that was written about publicly in scholarly articles, and people thought this was okay. The first published report was in 1936, and papers were later written every four to six years or so, until 1970. And strikingly, there was never a protest within the medical community about reports on this type of study that appeared in medical journals for forty years.

In 1969, a committee of the Centers for Disease Control determined that the study should continue, and this conclusion was backed by local chapters of the American Medical Association.

I think I grew up thinking of racism as something one person did to someone else. Racist described an individual, some redneck in a pickup truck, a cop car or, worst-case scenario, judge’s robes. It’s only in my 20s that I realized that the history of racism in America isn’t a bunch of bad apples, it’s the whole tree.

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Homies: What Happened to Everyone I Went to Middle School With?

‘It’s your fault,’ Tim says.
‘Ha! … What?’ I say.
‘The weed. You made me smoke weed, that’s how it all started.’
I’m smiling too hard. ‘OK, but if that’s the logic, then it’s really my brother’s fault, because he got me smoking weed.’
‘That’ll work,’ Tim says.

I’m in Bangkok on an extended stopover on the way from Denmark to Sydney. I booked the tickets six months ago and just found out Tim lives here last week. I’ve been sleeping on his couch for three days.

Tim Park and I were friends for the last year of middle school and the first two years of high school. Most of the time we spent together was in groups, competing for the title of The Funny One.

I haven’t seen Tim for nearly five years, and not regularly for ten. I remember him as low-maintenance, outgoing, engaged, and I’m pleased to discover he still is.

He even talks like he used to. Though he’s ethnically Korean and culturally American, he’s linguistically Ebonic, and he speaks with the gold-mouthed drawl of a rapper.

Tim on Bangkok: ‘It’s hella garbagey and shit, guy.’
Tim on work: ‘Shit, my boss be workin’ us like chattel.’
Tim on Las Vegas: ‘You knew them shits was legit when the Italians gave it to Celine Dion and a bunch of magicians.’

With anyone else, it would seem like shtick, but with Tim you get the feeling that his inner monologue sounds like this too.

Tim left Seattle after college. Being fluent in Korean and English made it easy to find a job in Seoul. After two years he got headhunted by a European consumer-products company and installed in their Asian headquarters in Bangkok. He lives in a right-angled, wood-trimmed condo in a tower block, and sells high-end auto parts to retailers all over Asia. He had to get extra pages for his passport because of all the business travel.

In the years since we stopped hanging out, I haven’t actually thought about Tim that much. Though we spent a significant amount of time together in eighth and ninth grade, we didn’t go to the same high school, and we’ve ended up in non-intersecting social orbits. He moved to Asia, I moved to Europe. He spent college partying in fraternity houses, I spent it gradually coming out of the closet. He talks about his high school experience like it’s D-Day. I talk about mine like it’s Stalingrad.

Tim helped me stay awake through my jetlag after I landed in Bangkok. Even without an audience, we joust rather than converse, and over banana pratas we debated Thailand vs. Denmark, noodles vs. pastries, Asian girls vs. European boys. By the time we finish our tea, most of my sentences end with ‘bro’ and my adjectives have been replaced with swear words. Talking like this, describing my life in teenager voice, makes it feel like I’m talking about the future.

For the next two days, I wandered around Bangkok during the day and met Tim when he got off work. Tonight we drank beer at a cocktail bar on top of a hotel tower.

‘Let’s get some cigars,’ Tim said.
‘Aren’t we leaving?’
‘To go, son,’ he said.

Tim’s condo has a sort of courtyard with a kiddie-pool and a half-submerged jungle gym. We’re sitting on the side, dangling our feet. It’s still 85 degrees, though it’s been dark for hours. Tim lights the cigars. I figure this is as good a time as any.

‘Hey Tim: What happened to Adrian?’

Adrian Maeda was a squat, round-faced classmate of Tim’s. Every time I try to picture him, I think of the kid from ‘Up’. He used to walk with his legs far apart, and the last time I saw him I stood there with my hand out as he sort of swayed toward me. I remember that he was both a small-time drug dealer and a genuinely nice guy.

I knew Adrian had died, but only in the ‘I heard’ sense. I wasn’t in contact with anyone who was close to him, and I didn’t know anything about the circumstances. Tim was a pallbearer at Adrian’s funeral.

‘Overdose,’ Tim says.

Adrian grew up in Medina, one of the richest neighborhoods in Seattle. His father was some sort of businessman, and Tim tells me that years where he earned less than $1 million were considered weak (‘You know how them Japanese is’). Adrian started selling pot in high school, just small amounts, just to other kids at Grant.

Tim keeps talking. Adrian was pure business. He used to wait outside of pawn shops for junkies coming in to sell DVDs. ‘Whatever they’re paying you, I’ll pay more,’ Adrian told them, and by the time he was in college he had a whole supply chain of dudes sprinting out of Target with shopping carts full of movies, calling Adrian for a few bucks a pop. Adrian sold them on to friends and acquaintances at a markup, but still below retail.

‘That motherfucker had everything,’ Tim says. ‘No, everything. He for real had stacks of like, The Golden Girls Collection in his basement.’

The dealing evolved from weed to cocaine to prescription drugs. Tim saw packages of OxyContin and Vicodin at Adrian’s place ‘straight out the ambulance, bro’. Adrian’s father apparently knew that his son was dealing, but told him simply ‘be careful’ and didn’t ask specifics.

As I’m taking this all in, I keep asking how Adrian managed to keep increasing the selection and amounts of drugs he sold (‘diversify’, if you want to get businessey about it) without getting caught or even coming close. He apparently had a few handguns, but they were just for show. He hated guns, and wouldn’t even shoot them at the firing range. He did a brief stint in jail, but that was for getting pulled over with weed in his car. Bad luck more than a close call. Adrian, who according to Tim was earning $20,000-$30,000 per month, was completely under the radar.

I brace myself for the beginning of where I know this story is going to end. For Adrian, it’s the day he discovered OxyContin. ‘Never get high on your own supply’ is a drug-dealer rule so widely known that even I know about it, but Adrian had been sampling his retail selection of marijuana since he had first started dealing at 15. No biggie. OxyContin, however, was something totally different.

I have to ask Tim what OxyContin even is. I’ve heard of it, I guess, but in the same way you hear about ketamine or crystal meth. The local news, or a coworker, or maybe Oprah tells you about the powder pillaging some arid elsewhere and you go ‘damn I’m glad I don’t know anybody who’s into whatever the fuck that is.’

Turns out OxyContin is an opium derivative. It has roughly the same effects as heroin—on your body, and on your social life.

‘You start taking it only on the weekends,’ Tim says. ‘And pretty soon you’re thinking “Yeah, Thursday’s part of the weekend…”’

‘So Adrian was a using a lot?’ I ask.
‘We all were,’ Tim says.

I’m a little surprised by the ‘we’. In spite of Tim’s verbal swagger, I’ve never seen him show any aptitude for actual, real-world mischief. When we were 14, he was always the first one to back out whenever we devised an egging or toilet-papering campaign. The light banditry we were involved in at that age—shoplifting, minor vandalism—were always spectator sports for Tim, something we told him about afterward.

‘So the thing you said about the weekend…’
‘That’s me talkin’, yeah.’ Tim says.

He and Adrian, often accompanied by a supporting cast of Grant alumni and University of Washington students, started taking OxyContin every weekend. My head fills with visions of strippers, joyrides, trips to Vegas.

‘Naw dude, it wasn’t like that. All we ever did was watch TV at Adrian’s place,’ Tim says. He describes the least decadent bender imaginable: A group of fratboys in a basement, awake for 48 hours, eating pizza and watching entire seasons of ‘The Sopranos’.

‘That sounds fucking gay,bro,’ I say.
‘The weird thing is, that was the year I finally started to get good grades,’ he says. ‘I could work all week, thinking I wanted to get all the stress done before the weekend.’

Tim finished his senior year with a 3.8 GPA, but he could see the expanding-weekend problem beginning to appear. Adrian, too, was using more and dealing (i.e. earning money) less.

‘That’s why I moved to Seoul,’ Tim says.

Every time Tim visited from Seoul, Adrian was worse. He started using cocaine, then crack. On a visit for Christmas, Tim found Adrian half his former size.

‘He was kind of a scrawny fucker. I never realized how short he was before that, because he was so wide. But when I saw him, I was tipping him over, like “You on Atkins, guy?”’

Two months later, back in Korea, Tim got a call from Adrian’s dad, telling him the family was staging an intervention—‘like on TV and shit’. Tim dialed in from Seoul, telling Adrian from a speakerphone on the living room table that he had to quit it all, everything. Adrian went to rehab and got clean.

A lot of addicts apparently die from overdoses not in the midst of their addiction but after a recovery. The problem is a mismatch between your mind and your body. Your mind remembers how much you needed to get a buzz, but your body doesn’t have the tolerance anymore. It’s like a runner, after 10 years on the couch, getting up and trying to run a marathon.

That’s what happened to Adrian. Two weeks after he came back from rehab, Adrian’s father found his body in the basement.

‘Adrian was realizing that everyone he knew went to college and he didn’t. He was at home, at his parents’ house, being a fucking drug dealer. He was like, I can’t do anything,’ Tim says. ‘The only thing he was good at was selling dope and running schemes and shit.’

‘You think that triggered the relapse?’ I ask.
‘Fuck if I know.’

I ask Tim if he blames anyone. I’m sitting here, knee-deep in a kiddie pool in Bangkok, trying to find some systemic explanation, some loose bolt in the system that should be tightened. Did the rehab institution fail Adrian? Did the education system? Law enforcement? My mind is looking for an ‘if only’ that will turn Adrian, and this whole stupid, routine story, into an example of something larger. If only he was given a job once he was clean. If only he had been prescribed methadone. If only he had been given support to leave Seattle.

‘Ain’t nobody’s fault, man,’ Tim says. ‘It’s just Adrian.’

One of the main reasons Tim and I stopped hanging out was the culture clash between his friends and mine. Grant was nominally public, but was situated in a six-figure neighborhood of detached homes with yards out front and those little sprinklers that pop up out of the ground to keep them green. From up north, we regarded it as prep school, training ground for the future defenders of the status quo, and we mocked them for taking the whole jock-cheerleader thing seriously.

My high school, Lincoln, was like the store-brand version of Grant. We had cliques too, but with more overlaps and lighter penalties for failing to line up single-file underneath a social category. It was segregated by class, like all American high schools, but it wasn’t rare to see a football player doing a Friday-night kegstand with a radio nerd and a pink-haired goth holding his legs.

Tim keeps naming mutual acquaintances, and they keep having the same dire fates. There’s Pete Stanton, who in seventh grade had a mustache and was the biggest 13-year-old on the planet. When he was a sophomore at Grant, Pete stabbed a homeless guy under a bridge in a Seattle park, and is serving a life sentence.

‘I guess he said in court that the homeless guy owed him money,’ Tim says. ‘Even at 15, we were like, damn, this fool needs to rethink his business plan.’

Then there’s Chaewon. I don’t know his last name and I don’t even know if that’s the right way to spell his first name. He had a face that looked like he was being hung from the ceiling by his hair, and he was always smiling a gummy smile, even when he was slamming his chest up against yours or calling you a faggot. He was always surrounded by five or six other kids our age who looked so similar to each other they can only be called henchmen.

Chaewon’s in jail now too. After they both went to Grant, he and Tim were actually pretty good friends for awhile there, and I suspect Tim’s thug-life method acting comes at least partly from his prolonged exposure to Chaewon.

When I ask why Chaewon’s in jail now, Tim says, as if it’s obvious, ‘He was a gangster. Like, an actual gangster.’

I swear I remember him wearing only blue, but I can’t remember if that was real or just me projecting white-boy stereotypes onto someone who terrified the shit out of me.

‘Let me repeat myself: He was in a fucking gang,’ Tim says. ‘They used to rob houses at lunchtime. He was coming to fourth period with, like, pearl necklaces around his wrist, talkin’ bout “sorry I’m late, I had to run an errand.”’

Tim was there when Chaewon went to a party with a crescent wrench at the end of a twisted plastic bag and started hitting people over some high school beef. Tim was there the time cops showed up at Chaewon’s condo and found a duffel bag full of weed under the coffee table. They took Tim and another Grant student into the hallway and told them ‘You don’t belong here. Get your asses back to college.’

Tim was Chaewon’s only friend who ever met his mom. ‘I think he was tired of all that gangster shit sometimes,’ Tim says. ‘He said he couldn’t let other fools meet his moms because he never knew what might go down later.’

I don’t even know what that means, but I gasp knowingly.

Chaewon’s doing ‘like seven years or some shit’ somewhere in Washington state. Possession with intent, Tim thinks. ‘We’re not exactly in touch anymore, dude. Chaewon’s not the kind of guy to be like updating his Facebook, all checking in from prison and shit. Feed my fish!’

As grotesque as it is to say, Adrian, Peter and Chaewon were predictable. We’ve all been told a million times that drugs and gangs lead to death and prison. Theirs are the fates I would have predicted for them as the judgmental 14-year-old I was when I first met them. I’m not expecting, however, this tour through the ruins of our middle school graduating class to suddenly involve Daniel Browning.

‘Oh shit, you didn’t hear about Daniel?’ Tim says.

We hung out with Daniel Browning off and on during the three years me and Tim were friends. Daniel was kind of a social orphan. He was too freckled and shy to fit in with the cool kids, but he didn’t have the offbeat interests or book smarts to make it as one of the nerds. That, somehow, left him with us. I remember him as a shy, polite guy who mostly wanted to play ‘Tekken 3’ and be left alone until adulthood.

Daniel’s currently living in a halfway house in Seattle. He derailed late and hard. He was fine through high school: a little weed, a little drinking, nothing serious. He went to college at the University of Idaho and majored in business. He looked for work in Chicago but couldn’t make anything stick. He moved back to Seattle and ended up parking cars. And, eventually, taking OxyContin.

‘Dude, this was fucking after Adrian died. I have no idea how that shit happened,’ Tim says.

Here’s where it gets predictable. Daniel gets hooked and spends months locked in his room at his parents’ house. He doesn’t have Adrian’s money (or hookups, and therefore discounts), and pretty soon he maxes out his credit cards buying PlayStations and selling them on Craigslist for cash. Intervention, rehab, halfway house.

Of all of Tim’s friends, Daniel was probably the most similar to me. We were both classified as awkward not because we were actually antisocial but because we didn’t hang on any particular rung of the high school social ladder.

‘Jesus Christ, if Daniel hadn’t gone to Grant, he might not have gotten into all that shit,’ I say. I’m doing it again, searching these stories for some sort of theme that’s going to make them all about the same thing.

‘That’s bullshit,’ Tim says. ‘Daniel, Adrian, they didn’t get fucked up because they went to some preppy high school. It’s the drugs, man, it all started with weed. And you’re the one that got us doing that shit.’

Tim’s right. I smoked him out in my basement when we were 13 years old. We loaded my brother’s asthma inhaler with tin foil, then weed, then smoked, then played ‘Street Fighter II’ until we fell asleep. I was playing the expert—‘Naw guy, you gotta poke smaller holes in the foil’—but it was only my second time smoking. One week earlier, my brother had given me a green pea-sized nugget of weed in exchange for doing his paper route.

Tim and I smoked weed regularly through our eighth grade year and, yes, smoked out Daniel Browning for the first time. For me, the novelty wore off quickly. I spent that year almost catatonically depressed, and realized as I started high school that the depression and the weed had started at the same time. I quit, the clouds lifted, I never smoked again.

Tim smoked a few times a week for another ten years. He taught Adrian how to smoke like I taught him. He only quit when he started using OxyContin: ‘Weed just didn’t occur to me anymore.’

‘So it’s the weed?’ I ask.

‘Weed fucking is a gateway drug,’ Tim says.

Tim’s full of shit, obviously. If I hadn’t smoked him out in my basement on that particular Saturday, it would have been someone else smoking him out, in another basement, on another Saturday.

As I’m about to say this, I realize that my own explanation is just as full of shit. There was no dark magic in the halls of Grant that made its students take drugs or stab homeless people or wait outside Target for junkies and their DVDs. Like Tim, I’m just trying to explain the unexplainable by telling myself something I already know.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘About Adrian, I mean.’

‘It’s all good,’ Tim says.

My cigar is a nub, and my fingers are getting burnt. We get up from the table almost in unison.

‘Hey, did I ever tell you about Mikhael?’ Tim says.

‘Who?’ I say.

‘Russian exchange student at Grant, I don’t think you ever met him. Anyway, he got yelled at one day by our teacher—total flamer, no offense—in front of the whole class for getting an answer wrong. The next day, he steals a Buick from one of the houses next to the football field, drives it into the faculty parking lot and rams the teacher’s car. He didn’t even run away. He straight up got out of the car, closed the door all gentle and went to his next class. I saw the whole thing with Adrian and he goes, “That’s hella how they solve problems in Russia.”’

Tim holds the door open for me as we walk into the building. I’m laughing so hard it fills up the lobby.

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Filed under America, Essays, Personal

Yesterday in central Berlin, crying on a bicycle

I happened to be listening to this lecture yesterday on my way to a friend’s house, and I was all quiver-lip  from Tiergarten to Kaiserdamm.

It wasn’t just the speech. Yesterday voters in my home country and my home state decided that gay marriage threatens traditional marriage like milk threatens cereal. We shouldn’t have to vote on this shit, but we did, and we won.

It was also the same day Alex Ross published this lovely essay in the New Yorker:

I am forty-four years old, and I have lived through a startling transformation in the status of gay men and women in the United States. Around the time I was born, homosexual acts were illegal in every state but Illinois. Lesbians and gays were barred from serving in the federal government. There were no openly gay politicians. A few closeted homosexuals occupied positions of power, but they tended to make things more miserable for their kind.

There will always be small-minded politicians, vicious diseases, bigoted thugs. Until recently, it felt like the world was rooting for them. Yesterday, it felt like it wasn’t.

‘Why are your eyes all wet?’ my friend asked when I arrived.
‘It’s cold outside,’ I said.
‘Well come inside, it’s warmer,’ he said, and it was.

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Filed under America, Berlin, Gay, Personal, Serious