“I Have to Tell You”

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My senior year of college, I lived in an apartment in a mostly secluded corner of campus. It felt right, that year, to be such a long walk from the action, from my friends, at least half of whom had graduated the year before. Until then—with the exception of the semester I’d studied in Italy—I had lived in dorm rooms and made it a point to cultivate an air of “Come by any time you want.” My door was rarely locked—even when I was away—and friends frequently stopped by to chat, watch TV, or play guitar and did so until the wee-est hours of the night.

My senior year was different. Almost as soon as I returned to campus in August 2001, I came out. It didn’t go great. What I’d hoped would be a personal undertaking, done in private and respected if not agreed with, soon became the basest grist for a gossip mill I didn’t know existed. Almost all my friends were evangelical Christians, and I considered myself one of them despite my growing conviction that not only was it not wrong for me to be gay but that God was leading me into a life of being openly, unapologetically so.

Except before I had a chance to tell most of my friends, a few people who knew or suspected the truth beat me to it. It didn’t help that these conversations terrified me and I was finding it hard to initiate them. It didn’t help that I was in a new relationship and sure, deep inside, that the guy I was dating was all wrong for me and I for him. It didn’t help that I was (and remain) a person afraid of conflict who has a hard time initiating the hard conversations. Before long, I didn’t have to—everyone knew, rumors were flying about my supposed behavior, and I was out. I finished the job with a column in the school’s newspaper—I’m gay.

I’d never felt like I’d fit in on my little East Coast campus, and now I felt even more like an outsider. So my apartment, out on the edge of campus, became a hiding place. Between having three jobs, a full class load, a roommate whose girlfriend stayed over most nights, and a boyfriend of my own who did the same, I had little time alone, but as has been the truth throughout my life, I loved the time I did so. So it was surprising whenever anyone came by. One day, there was a knock at my door. A friend—”We need to talk.”

My roommate and his girlfriend were just waking up—I’d heard them talking in their room—and my boyfriend was in the shower. “Let’s go sit in your car,” I said, recognizing the look in this friend’s eye and wanting this conversation to be private.

The next twenty minutes or so will forever go down as some of the worst in my life. My friend cried, ranted, blew up—”You’re going to be excommunicated from the family of believers,” she said. I eventually excused myself—”We’re not going to figure out anything right now,” I said, “so I’m going to go back inside.” I was calm outwardly but felt like a derelict building within—dirty, unloved, caving in.

As I walked back to my apartment, I heard my name. Some friends lived in the building across the street and had seen me walking up the sidewalk. They opened their window, called to me, and when I looked up, they threw a water balloon that landed at my feet.

A harmless gesture. They didn’t know what I’d just endured, what I was still enduring. But I said nothing, looked up just long enough to see them, then put my head down and walked back to my apartment. My boyfriend had emerged from the shower not knowing where I was. I asked him to leave; when he was gone, I cried and cried.

That was a Saturday morning. The next Tuesday was 9/11.

I think I had a little PTSD from that experience, because every time someone knocked at my door after that, it sent chills through me—”Who is it and why have they come this far? Am I going to get yelled at again?”

Once, a girl I barely knew from my campus fellowship group showed up with a Bible—a comically oversized New International Version bound in blue leather—and just knew God had told her to come over and look at Scripture with me. She was convinced she was the key to pulling me back into the fold and away from the evils of homosexuality. I politely refused to let her in.

I was really gun shy after that—sometimes, if I was in my room and knew no one could tell if I was really home, I didn’t answer the door at all. I lay still in my bed and just waited for them to go away.

By the spring, I was doing well to go to classes. The whole year had been a disaster. My relationship was going off the rails and yet I felt powerless to end it. I felt like none of my friends wanted anything to do with me. I invited one friend over for dinner, and she said, suddenly very seriously, “I feel like I have to tell you that I believe you’re living in sin.”

“Yes, I know you believe that,” I replied. The words echoed in my mind for days, amplified each time they bounced off the throbbing inner walls of my brain, louder each time they echoed. You have to tell me? I thought. What about all the things I felt like I had to say? I swallowed them; I swallowed almost everything. I listened to my friends, whether their words were kind-ish or awful, as the friend who said, her voice full of spit, “I am traumatized by the fact that you’re gay.”

So I couldn’t tell you why I opened the door one spring afternoon when I heard a knock. Maybe I didn’t even think about it. But I went to the door and there she stood—another friend from our fellowship group. This time, a friend I knew well—we’d been to Ireland together our freshman year, and though we didn’t hang out much socially, she’d never looked at me with anything but delight.

“I have to tell you something,” she began.

Oh Lord, I thought. Here we go again.

I almost stopped her, but again, something stopped me.

“I’ve been volunteering with AIDS patients,” she said. “And I felt led to come tell you that I don’t think you’re sick, or that God is angry with you.”

I don’t remember how long we talked, but it was a long time. She listened to everything I’d been through; she was the first person who’d listened to me in longer than I could remember. That conversation was desperately needed balm to a deeply wounded soul. I carry it with me nearly thirteen years later, as I look around the world and wonder and fret about the impact of Christianity on this world—a force for good or bad? For greater or lesser integrity and love? I don’t always know. But this moment of pure love and grace and hopeful vulnerability has remained to remind me that sometimes, by some mystery, what we need is sent to us at just the right time.

Doing the Math on the Class of 2018

When the class of 2018 was being born, I looked like this—but much more in focus—and was a sophomore in high school.

This morning, my boss and I spoke to a college class. Nothing new—magazine professionals are few in this market, and we’re both friends with the instructor. She told us that many of the students in the class—an intro to writing for mass media course—were freshmen, and during our 75 minutes of talking and answering questions, I got to thinking about who this year’s freshmen are, and when they were born.

The class of 2018, entering in fall 2014, likely were born in about 1996. That means:

- When Brian and I moved into our house, nine years ago this month, they were half the age they are now. We have lived in our home for half their lives.

- The iPhone came out when they were eleven years old.

- With the exception of NPR and the occasional local high school football game, I’ve never listened to terrestrial radio during their lifetimes. I quit my sophomore year of high school, when all my friends started getting cars. Almost all of them kept their radios tuned to the local Top 40 station, and I got sick of getting sick of hearing the same songs over and over—especially when they were songs I really enjoyed. So I started making them all mixtapes, and when I got my own car, I don’t think I even programmed the stations.

- We asked them how many of them subscribe to print magazines. One girl raised her hand and said she used to subscribe to Thrasher. Used to. One.

- Things they probably don’t know: how “tracking” works on a VCR, who Lauryn Hill is, or that The Simpsons used to be considered super edgy.

- They’re true digital natives, born at the beginning of the tech boom and likely never having lived without internet. At thirty-four, not two full decades older, I remember having five channels, no VCR, and no computer. Being born in 1980 is basically exactly like having survived the Oregon Trail.

- Two years ago, I was twice their age. In a decade, we’ll be colleagues. Peers, even.

What Happened When I Forgot I’d Given Up Coffee

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I’m still working on getting my blood pressure under control, and one of many things I’m doing toward that goal has been to give up caffeine. I haven’t had any coffee, soda, etc. in a couple weeks. Earlier today, this new resolution having slipped my mind, I rather robotically went to the break room and fixed myself a cup. I took two sips before I remembered—oh right! I don’t drink coffee any more!—then went in and poured it out. But two sips were two too many—my heart started racing, I felt like I was burning up, and a little bloom of pain spread across my forehead. So, yeah. The giving up of caffeine just got a whole lot easier. It’s so much easier to quit things that make you feel sweaty, panicked, and horrible.

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I keep thinking I can’t write a blog post until I’ve a well-thought-out, cogent argument of somewhere between 400 and 600 words at the least. But I spent the past four days at a journalism conference in Nashville (more to come on that), and my thinking on many things has started to change as a result. One thing I thought while holed up with hundreds of other journalists in the Opryland Hotel was that a thought is enough. So while I do hope to populate this blog with cogent, well-thought-out pieces, I’m also just going to use this space to share thoughts and observations that don’t quite fit into 140 characters. Like this one.

Just Jam Your Hand Down Its Throat

Noodling at Temple Lake, May 2012

So far, I’ve been noodling exactly one time. Ostensibly, the trip was in aid of research for a story I published last year. Non-ostensibly, I might be insane.

It was a weird weekend. The day before, I’d had my first experience buying a car on my own. I test drove, researched, compared reviews, and decided what I wanted, then went to the dealership, haggled a little, avoided buying the warranty, took some lighthearted verbal abuse from the finance guy, and walked out with a Jeep of my very own. The next day, I drove said Jeep to southwestern Oklahoma to learn how to handfish.

Turns out, shoving your hand down a catfish’s throat is a tad easier than getting out of a dealership without an extended warranty. But there I stood, on a cold May morning that was getting warmer, on the banks of a muddy southwestern Oklahoma municipal lake, my noodling guide beckoning me to come stand next to him in the waist-deep water.

“I’ve got my foot in a hole,” he said. “I want you to go down there and stick your arm in and see what’s in there.”

Oh, okay. Let me just get my face out from under this rototiller and I’ll be right there.

I’m sure my hesitation was comically painful to the seasoned noodlers around me, some of them only twelve or thirteen years old. I finally did end up shoulder-deep in that hole. It was under a concrete piling that had been dumped in the lake and had rebar sticking out of it but no catfish living underneath. But that one taste of the dark was enough. I’d been in a hole and found nothing, and now my fear had become a need.

I needed to find a fish. When our guide, Bobby, pointed out a space under a rock or between two logs, I was eager to take a breath, sink down, and jam my arm in. After a couple little channel cats wriggled out of my grasp and the rest of our group all had a try, we gave up for the day. A couple large flatheads, each about twenty-five pounds, were tied up near the bank—some among our group were filming for a TV show, and they needed to film someone pulling a monster out of the water. TV doesn’t leave much to chance, which is how I got my photograph taken holding a monster flathead (which did, in the course of filming, bloodied up my hand something fierce).

I’ve been dying to go noodling again for more than two years but haven’t been able to line up my schedule with the few guides and seasoned handfishers I know. Still, I can’t wait.

Well, insert clunky metaphor about writing as a way of examining one’s own soul. It goes something like: Once you’ve gone into the dark, scary place looking for something—then not found it (or worse, have)—you get eager to go back. I’ve spent the last three years learning how to be a magazine editor—with lots of learning still to go—but I’m missing casual writing. So here we are. I’ve got a lot of things to say about writing, editing, and journalism—that’s what I spend my days doing. But I’ve also got a lot of things to say about religion, love, Oklahoma, music, books, television, and this whole stupid thing where we all have a body and a family and are more or less expected to care for them.

And away we go.