Personal Essay

Getting to Know Me: A primer for my Facebook friends

by Scott Ross

I don’t send many Friend Requests on social media, or accept many, unless they’re vouched for, or otherwise recommended, by others. I de-friended someone I didn’t know well earlier this evening for what I consider jhis uncalled-for rudeness. Clearly, he didn’t know me too well either. As a result, I feel the need to “introduce myself” to newer friends, and family members who’ve re-connected with me. So please bear with this, my own, bastardized edition of This I Believe.

1. I’m gay

I doubt anyone I know, whether in “real life” or Internet reality, does not know this. But I’m covering as many bases as I know how to here, so forgive the epic non-shock.

My sexuality does not define me, but it does inform who I am, and what I feel. I do not believe I chose it. I cannot believe anyone does. I am simply incapable of fathoming the notion, informed by ignorance and fed by inert lack of imagination on the one hand and active, irrational fear and hatred on the other, that most people—especially adolescents—wake up one day and say to themselves, “Gee… I want to part of a sub-group that is in so many places despised, misunderstood, legislated against, persecuted, prosecuted, inveigled against, bullied, assaulted, beaten, and murdered that I’m likely to be miserable, and possibly dead. Yeah, that’s for me!”

I am ill-equipped to understand why anyone’s consensual sex life, with or without a loving component, should be a matter for public discourse, or legislative mandate. Nor do I think that marriage should be for everyone, or that any opprobrium ought to be attached to those who don’t desire it. And while I don’t necessarily believe in marriage itself as a social institution, I do believe that institution, and the benefits derived from it, should be available to any pair of consenting adults. I strongly suspect, should the human race survive what it has done to its earthly home, that in a brace of decades most people will not merely wonder how such a basic right could have been refused to a largely unoffending segment of the population that desired it but will also express dismay that such an expression of love (or affection or even just plain old sex) ever become—like HIV and AIDS before it—so divisive and ugly a political hot potato.

2. I’m an atheist

I was raised Presbyterian, converted to Catholicism, became lapsed, settled into uneasy agnosticism, applied for (and achieved) Excommunication and, finally, after years of spiritual fence-sitting, admitted to myself that I simply am not, and have never really been, capable of belief in a supreme being. Or at any rate, as Quentin Crisp once admitted, “I am incapable of believing in a God susceptible to prayer.” I am particularly antagonistic toward Christianity, in part because, examined in the cold light of day, I find its systems no less fantastic and magic-myth-based than those of the ancient Greeks, and in part because very few “Christians” adhere to the lessons and the teachings of the (possibly real, possibly imaginary) rabbi we call Jesus. Indeed, at least in my own country, the essential—the core—Christian tenets of sympathy, compassion, forgiveness, aestheticism and egalitarianism are as foreign to his alleged followers as a belief in jurisprudence is to the Taliban.

On the other hand, few things in my life have given me more palpable warmth than being named, by several Jewish friends (and one Jewish ex) independently of each other, an Honorary Jew. I have a fellow-feeling with Jews I do not enjoy with any other sect, and a deep sense of the horrors of the antisemitism that has been so pronounced a factor in the history of the modern world for at least the past 2,000 years. That said, I also do not believe in Israel, Right or Wrong. As I don’t believe in America, Right or Wrong, there is no reason on earth for me to put any other nation above my own. I will not, however, engage in debate over Israel and Palestine. That does not mean I give the government of Israel an automatic pass; my emotions on that subject are as complex as anyone’s, but the actions of Israeli leadership is all too often used as the flimsiest possible pretext for deep-seated, anti-Jewish bigotry, and I want no part of it. Would most Americans wish to be judged, as a people, by the actions of our own government? In any democracy, decency does not always obtain in a plebiscite.

At base, my religious philosophy is this: If you wish me to respect your belief, respect my non-belief.

3. I am a radical

As my political mentor Gore Vidal often noted, “radical” means “of or going to the root or origin; fundamental.” My beliefs in the political arena are essentially humanistic. I could never in good conscience, or sanity, be a Republican, but neither do I put any faith in Democrats. We’ve been down that sorry road too many times, and will again. As well, I should say that Politics per se, as practiced by professional politicians, do not interest me. They are, in fact, the most obtrusive impediment to effective political (meaning “of the people”) movement. Social and ethical progress occurs in spite of, seldom if ever due to, politicians. If pressed to define the parameters of my belief system, I suppose I should admit to being a kind of socialist, but with a small “S.” Although I find the very idea of swapping one’s labor for something as ephemeral, imagined, hide-bound and essentially meaningless as money absurd and almost wholly without merit, I am not against the notion of profit. I merely wish the system was no so hideously rigged in favor of so infinitesimally few over so very many.

I believe in life. I dislike, and distrust, firearms. I do not have an automatic love, or respect, for the Military, or the paramilitary, also known as the police. I am against whatever, and whoever, demeans, or kills, life. I am vegetarian and an anti-vivisectionist. (Isaac Bashevis Singer: “I did not become a vegetarian for my health. I did it for the health of the chickens.”) While I am, and have long been, a devoted feminist, I am uneasy about abortion. But then, I don’t trust anyone who isn’t. Those who maintain that some women are indifferent to abortion are not necessarily wrong; when I was a senior in high school, one of my production assistants (a junior, all of 16) when I stage-managed the spring musical told me, with no discernible loss of aplomb, that she had had three abortions. I do not believe, however, that most women approach the procedure with anything less than dread, and do so, moreover, with considerably more thoughtfulness than their knee-jerk critics. I staunchly abhor the moralists who condemn all abortion with one side of their mouths while banning all access to comprehensive sex education and contraception with the other.

4. I am a chronic depressive

I suffer from the delightful confluence of major depression and high anxiety. Together, they have blighted my life, held me back, stymied my creativity, and rendered me as virtual a hermit. I am a playwright who can no longer write a play. I am an unhappy, and impecunious, state employee who makes a salary laughably, and insultingly, small for a person of my talents and intelligence. With two noteworthy exceptions (see 9 and 10, below) I see only my flaws—especially the physical. I beat myself up quite enough I require no one else to do it for me (which among other things is why my ex is my ex.) I am nervous around, and about, everyone I know. That’s every. One. I am unable, ever, to wholly relax, even with my best friend, whom I have known for nearly 40 years. If ignored for more than a few days I am liable to assume I have caused offense, however absurd that rationale. When placed on the spot, my mind shatters. Complete aphasia. The same holds true when I am forced into an emotional confrontation, with the addition of shaking as violently a a leaf in a typhoon. As a result, I avoid conflict, sometimes with disastrous results, ruinous to myself and to my relationships with others. It requires a conscious effort of will for me to do anything: Clean the house, take the trash bins to the street, shower, go to the grocery store, get out of bed. And what makes all of the above so insupportable is that I know, from my own bitter experience with a veritable pharmacopoeia of anti-depressants, that this is not my natural, or normal, state of being. That I can feel, and have felt, my real self, but only once in the past four decades, for a whole six months before I stopped responding to Prozac. I have no doubt my chronic anxiety has taken its physical toll on me and is responsible for many of my physical debilities, from high blood pressure to acid re-flux; one cannot, I don’t think, live with extreme anxiety for four decades without it taking some physical toll on the body.

Depression, like pain, is different for everyone. When the darkness descends on me, when my mood is at its blackest, and bleakest—as it was two weeks ago, when my sister informed me of our mother’s imminent death—I have a tendency to shut down. I become even more reclusive than usual. I speak little. I may withdraw from social media for days, weeks, even months. And even the longest and (seemingly) closest friendships can suffer, sometimes irreparably, particularly when that friend is incapable of seeing that my withdrawal, or my mania (which is a sometime component of my disorder) are not about them, but about my mind.

The past 15 or 20 years have seen the demise of three such friendships. The third case is largely why I wrote this essay. When this friend ran into me last and, after hugging her several times and expressing my delight at seeing her, I asked her to have dinner with me she replied, “That ship has sailed.” Last week, after years of silence, I received a Friend Request from her. I am tempted to send her a message reading, “As someone once said, ‘That ship has sailed. Or at any rate, been cut loose. I don’t see a return to port.”

I won’t send such a note, of course, But the point is this: If you lack that essential empathy, or at least, sympathy, required for mutual appreciation… If you take my depression, and how it affects me, not as a reflection on you but as a manifestation of how I feel… If you aren’t willing to discuss the parameters, and at least allow me to explicate for you the contours, and confines, of my reality… Well, let’s just say I don’t allow anyone, even a close friend, indefinite opportunities to hurt me.

5. I am obsessive; also compulsive

I’ve always been peripatetic. My mind, and my enthusiasms, flit from one thing to another, from one creative artist to a different one. (Doubters need only peruse my personal libraries of books, music or movies.) This in itself may or may not be cause for concern. But the contours of my romantic and emotional life have all too frequently been limned by obsessions with unobtainable, uninterested men (boys when I was a youth), leading to a sense of rejection and lack of worth that, taken as a flood, forms a perfect circular linearity: Rejected, I am unworthy; reject me.

6. I am highly critical, and of myself most of all

I do not suffer fools gladly. I am not predisposed to make small-talk, and have no facility for it. I am an elitist. Like Harlan Ellison I maintain a passion for liberty and a healthy distrust of equality; I believe that there are those who are simply brighter, finer, more creative, more compassionate—more worthy—than others. Not worthier of life, or of opportunity, but of our approbation and esteem. The humanitarian in me believes in the sanctity of life and in the essential rights of all living beings. The realist in me isn’t too wild about the mass of humanity. (Linus Van Pelt: “I love mankind—it’s people I can’t stand!”) I believe, also with Ellison, that everyone is not entitled to his or her own opinion, but that we are all entitled to our informed and enlightened opinion. An opinion based on circular logic, or religious mania, or irrational prejudice, is no more worthy of my consideration (and considerably less worthy of my respect) than a house erected on a foundation of quicksilver. Therefore, my critical thoughts, ruminations and opinions, when set into words, is, however harsh, informed and considered. By living, reading, and by the evidence of my experience.

7. I cannot abide personal betrayal

Either of myself, or anyone I love. If there is a single unforgivable sin in my personal lexicon, betrayal heads the list of candidates. I’ve cut off relationships of long standing over this. I’ve also walked away from lucrative and, potentially, fulfilling freelance situations over unconscionable meddling by editors. I never shy from, object to, or resent serious editorial assistance. I cannot abide having my copy altered on a whim, or in an attempt to change my style.

8. I use profanity

Which expressive expletives very possibly include the taking of your lord’s name in vain. The only true obscenity in my personal lexicon is hatred.

9. I am a writer. (But I love to sing)

I am with Gloria Steinem when she observed, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” What value I place on myself, I place on my ability to parse a readable sentence that, when I am at my considerable best, flows with what this non-musician knows in his bones is a form of grammatical music. If actual lyricism eludes me (and one of the things I most wanted to be in my youth was a lyricist) I am not satisfied unless and until my cadences scan. That which is worth doing, is worth doing well. Or at least, to the utmost of one’s prosaic abilities.

I am proprietary about my words. To paraphrase Iago (and yes, I am aware that he is not the most savory character to cite, but hear me out):

Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good WORDS
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

If you cite my writing, give me the credit. Re-post my Facebook posts without attribution or the courtesy of an acknowledgment and I may be disappointed at your thoughtlessness; re-post my writing on those posts without naming me, and you have stolen the only thing I possess of value. If you don’t wish to be un-friended without explanation… just give me the goddamn credit!

So: Whatever else I am, or am not, I am a writer. But, o blessed Muse, how I love to vocalize on a stage! My range and expression would never give Rufus Wainwright a sleepless night, but I would almost rather sing than do anything else. (Yeah, even that.)

10. I try to be kind

I believe, finally, that the gravest of all human sins is a lack of imagination. Call it a refusal to empathy, if you will. The ability to see, or examine, suffering by a human being or other animal and not experience a twinge of anguish—or worse, to countenance and even to cause, such suffering—is to my mind, evidence of sociopathy so extreme (and, sadly, so common) as to make us marvel at the human capacity for atrocity while at the same time leading us to wonder it isn’t even more frequent. I cannot abide deliberate cruelty—physical, mental or emotional. I have been on the receiving end far too often in my own life to accept it when it’s meted out to others. Om social media, my rule of thumb is to refrain from commenting in a negative fashion on my friend’s posts, no matter how strong the urge, or how deserving the aperçu nor how witty the bon mot. In return I ask only that my friends extend the same courtesy to me. Those who do, are cherished. Those who don’t, are let go.

That’s it. My credo, or credos. So now you know. Fair warning has been given. Please don’t behave as though you were never warned.

Love all - Shakespeare

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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Homoeroticism, Midnight Cowboy, Personal Essay

Enemy: A love story (with apologies to I.B. Singer)

By Scott Ross

I dislike him immediately.

As the sixth-grade best friend of one of my best friends, Michael is in some sense a rival. But what I detest is the arrogant superiority he wears like a second skin. Perpetually carrying a massive paperback edition of War and Peace I wonder if he ever actually reads, he disdains me as much as I loathe him. Knowing of my interest in cartoons, he accosts me once on the playground with a sneering, “Ah — Monsieur Mickey.” A few months later, his is the only name I recognize in the posted list for my upcoming 7th grade homeroom class. And against the odds we become inseparable.

Health-class this year includes sex education. After one late session, which covers V.D., Michael asks me to stay with him after class while he asks Mr. Newman a question.

Health is just before lunch. A good time to linger and speak to a teacher. When our classmates have all left , Michael asks Mr. Newman whether homosexuals can contract venereal disease. Mr. Newman assures him that they can. After we leave the classroom, I ask Michael why he brought that up. He doesn’t answer.

I’m not repulsed, or disgusted, or suspicious — merely puzzled. I’m also, sexually, not so much confused as misguided. Since I believe (as I had been taught) that men and women (or boys and girls) naturally gravitate together, it never quite occurs to me that anyone I might know would be any different — myself included. When I masturbate, I do so with pornographic cartoons I’ve drawn myself, despite one set having been discovered by my parents the year before. My drawings are utterly heterosexual, in that they contain both men and women. And anyway, it’s not the genitals per se that arouse me. It’s the sheer, trembling excitement of contemplating sex.

Yet that same year, and before Michael’s question to Mr. Newman, I find myself opening dictionaries and surreptitiously searching for the word “homosexual,” experiencing a nameless thrill at reading the definition “one attracted to his or her own sex,” and feeling something else, something I can’t pin down or put a name to. It’s only with time that I realize I am searching for my own identity in those dry, dusty pages — just as only the passing of years reveals to me why my infatuations are all with other boys: Bobby, Terry, Scooter.

Michael?

And there’s something else. Despite a couple of close friends, I am deeply, agonizingly lonely, and that is what I believe (if I believe at all) these small obsessions are about.

By this time, through the machinations of some Board of Education members, who think (wrongly, as it turns out) the move will benefit their own children once the planned new school (which never materializes) is built, the local classes of 7th through 9th grades — what we then called junior high, and which is now referred to, curiously to me, as “middle school” — are divided into two districts, and split. One half of Garner will go here, the other there.

Michael is “here”; I am “there.”

While I see and speak to him over the telephone from time to time, I have the uneasy sense that our friendship has largely lapsed. And, despite a pair of very good friends — one of whom is still my best friend today — I am desperately unhappy: Taunted and abused by bullies of both sexes, and aching for something I cannot name. (In my 30s I will date the initial onset of what is now my chronic clinical depression to this period.)*

When my sophomore year begins, at the senior high school, and Michael and I are “reunited,” the happiest period of my academic life begins. In my need to cast off an identity I associate with unhappiness, I ask family and friends to call me by my middle name. The one I have gone through life so far with, “Tim,” has for the last year or so grated on my skin the way my clothing has when I briefly experience that odd, thankfully brief, stage in my physical development in which I have to get my trousers from the “Husky” section of the J.C. Penny boys’ department. Having always been thin, this development makes me feel acutely self-conscious. Curiously, and without any overt changes on my behalf, it ends as quickly and inexplicably as it begins, and I am my normal, skinny self again when 10th grade rolls around.

(Reading the preceding paragraph again I realize that my sudden weight-gain was not exactly “inexplicable.” In my 8th grade year, I was tormented, daily, on the bus ride home by a senior high school with the last name — I am not, as Anna Russell used to say, making this up — Raper. Being weak, and passive, and uncertain, and frightened, I took the abuse, silently. One afternoon as I was walking up the aisle to the exit, young Mr. Raper grabbed me by the shoulders and slammed me, hard, against the side of the bus. I ran home where, coincidentally, Michael was waiting. As I was telling my mother what happened I suddenly burst into tears. All the silent rage and humiliation of a year’s worth of constant bullying came to a head in that moment, I think. In any case, I vowed I would never ride that bus again. And I never did. In the mornings my parents would drop me at the halfway point on their way to work and I walked the rest of the way. In the afternoons, I walked the entire way. Although the distance was only slightly over a mile, the twice-daily walk (in all weathers and conditions) must have made me ravenous. From the time I arrived home until my parents came home and dinner was prepared, I ate pretty much constantly. Anything. Cereal, cookies, apples, bananas, glasses of milk with thick spoonsful of honey or Nestle’s chocolate. Whatever was available. While I almost certainly walked off much of that the following day… well… no wonder I had to get my clothes in Husky.)

During the summer following our junior year, I begin working for the food shop Michael’s father owns at the largest mall in Raleigh. One evening Michael asks me to stay the night with him, as we are expected, early the next morning, to get to the airport to pick up a package. I have never before slept in the same bed with anyone outside my immediate family, and then not since childhood. We’re wearing our briefs and nothing else, and as the night goes on I am acutely aware of Michael’s body beside mine. The next day I tell him that lying beside him gave me an erection.

The revelation makes Michael distinctly uncomfortable, but I press him on it, because my feelings are raw and new, perplexing and, to me, somewhat incomprehensible. Finally, a day or two later, he reveals himself to me but — typically of Michael — in a manner so ambiguous I’m as puzzled as I was before, if not more so; my naiveté about sex is as profound at 17 as it was at 12. Finally, at my urging, he becomes more explicit, telling me about his previous emotional and sexual attachments, which included both that mutual friend from sixth grade and, later, while I was exiled to the other school, a boy I did not like called Tony. A Demascan Road moment for me, in which I suddenly realize not only that I am gay but that he is as well, and that I love him in a way far different from the brotherly love our friendship has previously represented. The next few months are as rocky as any I’d known. For some reason — an uncomfortable awareness of feelings he doesn’t reciprocate? concern that he will be “tainted” by association? — Michael repeatedly discounts my identifying myself as gay when I say I am.

Two observations, by others, occur to me as distinctly applicable. In his memoir Palimpsest, Gore Vidal notes of the perfect complimentariety of his boyhood love affair with Jimmy Trimble, “Everything I wasn’t he was, and everything he wasn’t, I was.” It was a phrase that seemed to leap off the page when I read it, placing Michael’s and my relationship in broad relief. The second is Stephen Sondheim’s encomium for his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein: “If he’d been a geologist, I would have become a geologist; I just wanted to be what he was.” When Michael converted to Catholicism at 16, I naturally followed suit. To paraphrase Sondheim, if Michael had converted to Judaism, I would have converted to Judaism. I just wanted to be what he was.

It is this new, self-imposed Catholic identity that drives the wedge between us at the last — that, and Michael’s own intense, warring guilt at being unable to reconcile his sexuality with his chosen religion. Through that autumn, as I struggle with both my Catechism and my increasingly obsessive feelings of love, my 15 year old’s depression recurs, and deepens, made all the more unbearable by Michael’s chiding of me for both; he sees what I now recognize as a major depressive episode as “brooding.” Prideful. A sin.

The split arrives courtesy of a two separate incidents that feed Michael’s own growing discontent.

The first occurs in the wee hours of a bitter January morning, just after my birthday. We have been to a late show, in Raleigh, of Midnight Cowboy (for which, curiously, Michael later blames what happened next; but then, Michael’s reasoning is, was and likely always will be curious.) After the movie, we go back to Michael’s home. His parents have converted one area of the downstairs den (previously the basement) into a bedroom, giving Michael more or less free access through an outside door. We have recently purchased a nickel bag of pot from my friend and theatre colleague Amy, which Michael now augments with Lowenbrau and vodka. (The vodka is for him; I could not, and still cannot, bear the taste of hard liquor, neat.) When we are both good and juiced, he suggests we go to a secluded place in the woods near him home and light up the weed. (Neither of us had ever smoked marijuana.) We stagger down the street in each other’s drunken arms, giggling, and he leads me to his “private spot,” deep in the surrounding woods. A friend has given me a pipe for Christmas and we use it to smoke the pot, passing it back and forth until we are well and truly buzzed, on top of already being blitzed.

Pot, I will discover, generally does two things to me, in succession: Makes me first amorous, then sleepy. Accordingly, I lay with my back to a pine tree and close my eyes. They fly open again when I realize that Michael is on top of me, kissing my lips. We roll together on the pine straw-strewn forest floor, somehow managing to remove our clothing in the process. (This is in January, please remember.) He lies on top of me and we belly-rub until we both ejaculate. What should be the joyous consummation of my fondest wish is irreparably sullied in one, careless moment, as Michael, in the throes of erotic passion, calls me Tony.

“It’s Scott, Michael,” is my feeble response.

(Years later, when I see From Here to Eternity, I will identify that moment with the end of the famous beach scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, which most people remember as a steamy romantic interlude but which actually ends with Lancaster’s cruelty driving Kerr away in humiliation.)

When we are both sated and reality, or some form of it, returns, Michael abruptly rises and clothes himself in cold silence. I am as puzzled by his shift in mood as I had originally been elated at our finally coming together. I am also, suddenly, aware of the temperature, and begin to shiver, my teeth chattering all the way home as Michael reluctantly leads me by the hand out of the woods. When we get back to his bedroom he immediately takes a shower as I sit nodding in a chair near the bathroom door. (In his typical, ineluctable manner, he’s just ordered me not to fall asleep, and in my stupor I think there must be some reason I shouldn’t. What do I know from marijuana? Maybe it’s dangerous to drowse after.) When he is finished I remove my contact lenses and we sleep.

When we awake next morning he coolly says he is going to Mass. I say I don’t feel up to it — I’m bleary, cotton-mouthed and, essentially, still drunk. He gives me a stony look and observes that I ought to go. I decline, and he drives me home. It is perhaps 7.00 in the morning. Before getting out of the car I ask him if he’ll call me later.

“Maybe,” is all he can manage.

My ecstasy has long since passed, but his coldness remains. When he does speak to me again that afternoon, he informs me in no uncertain terms that what has happened between us will not reoccur.

The second major incident begins with the brief memoir that is our first Psychology class assignment of the new semester. Mine is as unguarded as Michael’s is slippery, and our teacher, Miss Watkins, calls me into her office to discuss the paper, revealing that she’s already talked to Michael about the disparity between truth and fiction in his own. Since she is a very special woman, one of our two most beloved Senior year teachers, this intrusion bothers me far less than perhaps it might, or should, have. But the upshot is that Michael, with his usual flair for the over-dramatic, informs me coldly that I have brought about “a schism wider than the Reformation.” We are no longer friends. Period.

Sometime in the spring, Michael wins a current-events essay contest whose first prize is a trip to the U.N. At the time of his visit I am busily engaged as stage manager for the spring musical. (The advent of which he uses as an excuse to get rid of my presence in his father’s store.) I am taken aback one afternoon late in the spring when he appears at the stage door and asks to see me. We go into the drama director’s office and he tells me how, while in New York, he has seen A Chorus Line on Broadway and has been so moved by the gay dancer Paul’s monologue it has forced him to confront the truth about himself. He apologizes for his behavior, we embrace, and the sides of the “schism” blend into the earth once more.

Sex and love are two separate things with Michael — at least where I am concerned. While he loves me, he is never in love with me. The distinction — which to his credit he never conceals —allows him to engage in sex with me, off and on, for the next two years. But it leaves me as unrequited, as uncertain of myself, and as self-conscious of what I sere as my physical imperfections as I had been that cold January morning.

Michael and I are on-again/off-again for some time — and always at his whim. I know now (and I knew then) that I permit his sexual usury. But my self-regard is so low, and my love for him so high, I follow whenever he beckons. Something in me, aside from simple biological need on his part, must be at work, but more than once he tells me he is simply not physically attracted to me. This instills, quite naturally a belief in myself that I am irredeemably unattractive. Now, when I see photos of the boy who was me at 18, 19, 20 I think, What a cute kid. Which thought is usually followed by, Why did no one ever tell him that?

Alas, when I look into a mirror now I see — as I did then — only flaws, with, now, an addition: The cruel gravity of middle age.

There is more to the story, but it’s less important than the primal fact of it. Although he could be, not deliberately but instinctively cruel, and damaging to my fragile ego, and while his body excited me (especially clothed, which doubtless makes little sense; but to me, Michael’s bubble-like ass never looked better, or more alluring, than when encased in tight corduroy) what I loved most about Michael was that I had more fun with him than with anyone else. He could be marvelously silly, in an impromptu fashion that did not eschew the ridiculous pleasures of slapstick — seeming to crash head-first against the nearest wall was a particular delight for him. It was this as much as anything that led me to cast him in my first play, which was performed at the senior high that year. He was terrible. He was certainly no actor; whatever divine inspiration overtook him in his life off the stage he simply could not channel in performance.

In Palimpsest, Vidal also maintains, apropos his young self and Jimmy, that one is lucky ever to find love, and that having found it once, one should not expect no encore.

I was never in love before I fell for Michael, and I don’t know that I will ever again experience such staggering depth of feeling for anyone else. At least, I haven’t so far. I realize of course that adolescence expands the contours of everything it touches. Love is bigger, fuller, more passionate, more intense — and when it goes awry, more devastating — at 18 than it can ever be again, especially when that love is one’s first.

Interestingly, I have no photographs of Michael. The only one I ever took — of him sleeping in my bed, naked under the sheets — did not come out when I took the film in to be developed. That’s weirdly appropriate, I think — the perfect metaphor for phantom desire.

The author. May, 1979.

The author. May, 1979.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

*I misspoke. My first encounter with “the mean reds,” as Capote called it, was when I broke my wrist at age 6 or 7.

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Personal Essay

I never sang for my father either

By Scott Ross

My sister recently prefaced a remark about our father with the words, “I know you didn’t get along with Dad, but…” What I wanted to say, but didn’t, was this: It wasn’t that I didn’t get along with my father; I didn’t like my father.

i_never_sang_for_my_father

When, in my late teens, I watched on television the 1970 film adaptation of Robert Anderson’s autobiographical play I Never Sang for My Father, I was immediately struck by the similarities of its painfully delineated antagonisms between father and son and that of my own relationship with, and to, my Dad. The Melvyn Douglas character is more charming than my father, and his affection for his son is expressed more fully than it was in our home. But the tension between him and the Gene Hackman figure, never far from the surface, is uncomfortably similar. It’s the reason I have never been able to bring myself to see the movie again, despite its moving qualities and its overall excellence. For many years I told myself it was the movie’s despairing portrait of a nursing home Hackman visits when he becomes concerned that his father can no longer live alone and unattended, an institution depicted in agonizingly unsettling shades of pity and horror, that was the source of my aversion. And while that sequence is harrowing, it is almost incidental. What hurt most was the enmity between father and son. It is this that, not coincidentally, which kept me from seeing the almost universally praised 1979 movie of Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini on its release, which aversion has continued even to today, for both novel and film. Bullying fathers hit all too close to home. My home.

I was haunted, too, by the specifics of the movie’s action, as it is the death of the elderly mother (Dorothy Stickney) that precipitates the crisis between father and son. What would I do — what would I be able to do — should Mom precede Dad in death? Could I give comfort to the man? Would I want to? In our own case, the matter was settled by my father’s contracting lung cancer a decade ago, although the survivors are in agreement that the cure was what ultimately killed him. When Dad died, I was sorriest for my mother; he was pretty much her entire world, and indeed his death at 71, my sister and I believe, was the precipitating event that led to her rapid decline into early-onset Alzheimer’s. But when Dad died I felt little, aside from concern about his widow… and, surprisingly, for me, felt no guilt whatsoever for my lack of emotional response. I thought at the time I would grieve later. I never have. Grief, like trust, like loyalty, is earned. Dad could be thoughtful, and even generous. But he was incapable of expressing love, at least to and for me. Hearing from one’s mother that one’s father loves him, or is proud of him, feels too much like special pleading.

My father’s father was almost universally acknowledged as a bastard of the first rank. Physically as well as verbally abusive (he once struck his own sweet, gentle mother across the face during an argument when she was in her 80s) he is, I suspect, the physiological link to my own chronic major depression, just as my mother’s mother is the source of the high anxiety that, together, have blemished my life for decades. I recognize my father in me, all too well: The mood swings, the dark outlook, the anti-social impulse, the sometimes explosive anger (unlike my father, usually expressed only when I’m alone.) And in fact it was that very recognition that finally spurred me to seek treatment in the mid-1990s. Dad had a splendid knack for goading my mother without seeming to, playing on her nerves and her defensiveness until she reacted, at which point his own stubbornness asserted itself, leading to the argument I sensed was imminent — and, nearly always, easily avoidable.

Occasionally Mom rose above it. An example from late in my father’s life is illustrative.

A year after my parents retired to Naples, Florida, they flew me down for a visit. Mom had baked a pumpkin pie and suggested to me that we cut it after dinner. After lunch, Dad asked, “What’s for dessert?” (Dessert was something he often eschewed, until he gave up smoking at 50; after that, it became a concern of abiding interest to him.) “Let’s have some of that pie,” he added. Mom innocently noted that she thought we would wait until evening, and have it with after-dinner coffee. Dad was instantly argumentative, Mom calmly asserting that he could have pie whenever he liked, but that she and I were going to wait. When she asked if he’d like her to cut him a slice he said no, he didn’t want any pie. After he stormed away from the table and I was helping clean up, Mom, with slightly amused resignation, said, “He’ll keep saying he doesn’t want any pie. He won’t eat it now.” And indeed, that night, after dinner when she asked if we’d all like some pie with our coffee, Dad barked, “I don’t want any pie,” and left the table. Mom, for once, and to my pleasure, was blithe about it, and made no further comment to him. But for the remainder of my visit (two or three days) my father not only continued to refuse pumpkin pie when it was offered, but seldom stirred either from his office space or my parents’ bedroom, where he sat reading paperback mysteries and — there is no other word for it — pouting. And all because my mother had the temerity to suggest he consider waiting a few hours to eat a goddamn slice of pie.

My father, myself, and my sister. Summer, 1961.

My father, myself, and my sister. Summer, 1961.

Things weren’t necessarily always so tense. When I was small, Dad seemed genuinely to enjoy me; it was only as I grew that I became aware of a fissure. When we lived in Canton, Ohio, where I was born (and where, 28 ears earlier, Dad was also delivered) we for a time traveled to the man-made Meyers Lake during the summer, to enjoy the water and, on the 4th of July, the fireworks display set off from Goat Island in the middle of the lake. Once, when we were preparing to leave for the fireworks, Mom served a light supper consisting of sandwiches made from strawberry preserves. Something about the jam, the texture perhaps, disagreed with me, and I found it almost impossible to swallow. My father angrily insisted on my eating every crumb of that sandwich. I forced it down, loathing every bite, and later, on the threshold of the front door as we were leaving, was violently ill. I was blamed for vomiting that sandwich, and it was at that moment that I became afraid of my father, and of his unpredictable temper. I avoided strawberry preserves, and even strawberry pie, for years after that.

One of the worst of the old (now, happily, discredited if not entirely discarded) theories of the “cause” of homosexuality was the Distant Father/Overbearing (or Overprotective) Mother school. A newer theory has been bruited about during the last few years which turns this on its head, suggesting that many fathers may sense, subconsciously, their sons’ emergent sexuality at an early age, withdrawing emotionally as a result. I remember laughing once when Ronnie Schell’s recurrent interior decorator character on the late”60s Jim Neighbors variety show did a pratfall, and being told by my father that it was all right to laugh at the character, but to never be like him. What could that mean to an 8 or 9 year old? Throughout my childhood I kissed both my parents goodnight before I went to bed. When I was 11 my father informed me it was more manly to shake his hand. Whatever his reasons, the edict felt like a rejection. And when for my 12th birthday we were taken to see a dinner theatre production of Cabaret, and on the ride home I expressed my admiration for Frank Kopyc, who played the Emcee, Dad said (shades of Ronnie Schell) it was okay to enjoy the Emcee but not to behave like him. “Like what?” I asked, confused. “Like a pansy,” was Dad’s response.

For a long time I wondered whether our father enjoyed my sister and me until we became little persons, with minds and wills of our own. Whatever the reason for his distance, two events in my then-young life cemented my fear of, and aversion to, my Dad. Both date from the time I was 7 or 8, and 9, respectively, during the period we lived in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. Taken together, these memories anatomize for me the moments that crystallized my distrust, and dislike, of, my Dad, which lasted more or less to the end of his life. While the second event is perhaps the more extreme, it is the first one that really hurt.

Event the 2nd: I am perhaps nine years old. I am arguing with my mother. About what, I no longer recall, and the subject is undoubtedly, in the scheme of things, trivial. My father enters the room and angrily strikes me, hard, across the face. As he’s telling me never to speak to my mother that way, my nose begins to gush blood. I run upstairs in tears. Attempting to staunch the crimson flow, I hear voices raised below, and the slam of the side door. My mother attends to me. I am, somehow, made to understand that Dad has stormed out of the house. It’s the only time an argument between my parents about their children has escalated to that degree, or ever will, but it is also the first time I can remember my parents being so at odds over their respective treatment of me.

Event the 1st: I am seven or eight. On one of our long weekend drives to nowhere in particular — these were the days when Americans could actually afford to drive for pleasure — I begin to notice a plethora of service stations under the banner “B.P.” and finally ask, innocently enough I think, what “B.P.” stands for. I won’t divulge my father’s answer here, as it’s both too private and too painful; suffice to say that he uses the opportunity to make a profane, and notably ugly, joke at my expense. That my sister, and even my mother, laugh uproariously, make my shame and embarrassment that much more acute, as does the story’s being told, and re-told, endlessly throughout my childhood and adolescence. That it has never occurred to any of my relations how damaging that joke, and the subsequent sobriquet, were, and are, both to an 8-year old boy and to the adult he became, is, to me, staggering. What sort of adult takes pleasure in humiliating his children? And why can no one in the family except myself see how hurtful the obscenity was? Would they ever say such a thing to their own children? I strongly suspect not. Why, then, is it so hilarious, that the remark was made to and about me? Had I been older, even an adult, when that joke was made at my expense, I might have been able to shrug, if not exactly laugh, it off. But not as a child. Nor should I have been expected to.

Tom Selleck as Frank Reagan (© CBS)

Tom Selleck as Frank Reagan (© CBS)

I was given some comfort a couple of years ago from, of all people, Tom Selleck. Or, rather, from Selleck and Diana Son and her collaborators, the writers of the Blue Bloods episode “Cellar Boy.”  An elderly neighboring couple of the Reagans have been murdered. The chief suspect is their adult son. During a family meal, one of the splendid hallmarks of that remarkable series, the father’s mental cruelty is discussed. To one of his grandsons’ questions, patriarch Frank intones, with appropriate sobriety, “A father should never humiliate his children.”

Forty years late, but thank you anyway, Frank. And amen.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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History, Movies, Personal Essay

“Surviving is the only glory”: D-Day plus 70

By Scott Ross

Samuel Fuller, who was one of the men on Omaha Beach the morning of 6 June, 1944, had no illusions about war. Nor about “heroism,” or “valor,” or “glory,” or “honor,” or “sacrifice,” or any of the myriad phony platitudes civilians have been throwing around for decades in their fruitless desperation to convince themselves their beloved sons, brothers, husbands, lovers died for something ennobling and worthy of the ultimate penalty of armed conflict. Note that I do not say “sacrifice.” Aside from the fear that if I did Fuller’s ghost (complete with cigar) would haunt me to my grave, I simply don’t believe it. No one but a self-glorifying fool willingly sacrifices himself on the altar of war.

(Although god knows all too many allow themselves to be sacrificed. By generals, presidents, politicians and assorted deluded fanatics and disinterested kibbitzers who’ve never so much as smelled a battlefield. If they didn’t, there’d be, if not no wars, far fewer of them.)

When it comes to memorializing I am as one with another wounded war veteran who became, like Fuller, a vital, idiosyncratic screenwriter. In his screenplay for The Americanization of Emily Paddy Chayefsky, through James Garner’s irrepressible Charlie Madison, preaches cowardice. “That’s my new religion,” Charlie says to Emily’s war-widowed mother:

“Cowardice will save the world. It’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes wars. It’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny – always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some 10,000,000 humans in the interest of humanity. Next war, it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us. It’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved…”

“The Americanization of Emily”: Charlie Madison expounds on the nobility of the coward. (Left to right: Julie Andrews, James Garner and Joyce Grenfell.)

But Charlie/Paddy goes further, indicting in the complicity for needless death more or less everyone, Mrs. Barham included:

“It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a hell it is. It’s always the war widows who lead the Memorial Day parades.

“We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogeys. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers. The rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow’s weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. My brother died at Anzio… An everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud…

“Now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. That’ll be in September… May be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, Mrs. Barham, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? She’s under constant sedation and terrified she may wake up one morning and find her last son has run off to be brave.”

Charlie, interestingly and ironically, later falls on Omaha, a casualty less of the war he reluctantly serves in than of the sudden madness of his Admiral, who insists that “The first dead man on Omaha Beach must be a sailor!” and orders Charlie to film this “glorious” death. That he is wounded, not killed, is a further irony; it puts him in the international spotlight as the very thing he loathes: A living memorial.

Still. Even I, a pacifist to my bones and no lover of either war or of the military, have never been able to think of D-Day without a chill, and a sense of wonder at the intestinal fortitude it must have taken those boys — and they were largely boys — to storm those beaches. “Intestinal” is the right word, I think, not only for the reserves of strength, metal, physical and psychic, it required (even if, as in all organized combat, the only choice was to stand and die, or move and maybe live) but for the short voyage from the troop ships to the shore in those gut-loosening little landing craft rocking on the waves, everyone aboard puking into his helmet or over the side. To know, as you neared the shore, that if your boat was not shelled to pieces before it landed, the moment it did those in the front were almost certain to be machine-gunned instantly and that, even if you survived that, you still stood a pretty good chance of being blown apart by a mine or a bomb, or shot to ribbons as you ran.

I’m also thinking today of Sam Fuller, and particularly of his semi-autobiographical 1980 masterwork The Big Red One, the epic reconstruction of Fuller’s own experiences in the Second World War, including D-Day. Working with a much smaller budget — and, hence with fewer bodies and far less recourse to elaborate special effects — than Steven Spielberg had at his command for his later (and infinitely bloodier) re-creation of Omaha in Saving Private Ryan, Fuller still managed to convey the event in terms that, whatever its practical limitations, left no doubt as to the horror, the confusion, and the hideous odds that attended the event. And, since by the D-Day section of Fuller’s movie we know the five central characters much more intimately than any of the corresponding figures in Ryan, our investment in their fates is far greater than with Spielberg’s version, despite the level of graphic hideousness, necessary to a full, realistic image of what happened on that beach on that day. We are, therefore, less moved by what occurs in Spielberg’s movie than merely staggered. (Fuller, additionally, was not saddled, as was his successor, with a risible, ludicrous plot; Lee Marvin’s Sergeant would simply have shot Matt Damon and finished his mission.) There’s a recurring image in the D-Day sequence of The Big Red One that is at once astonishing, economical, and utilitarian: A soldier’s arm in the shallows, a still-ticking watch on its wrist. Each time Fuller cuts back to that wrist, the water is that much bloodier, and we get an instant sense of time as it elapses on that watch-face.

Speaking of time, I’m struck today, as I often am, by the mutable relativity of it. When I was much younger, and the events of World War II were only 20 or 25 years in the past, I couldn’t fathom that, to me, vast abyss of time. It seemed as far away from my own reality as the Civil War. I don’t know, but I suspect this dislocation must be very common in the young: You can’t quite reconcile the idea of time when your own age can be counted in single digits; coming to grips with a time that’s longer ago than you’ve been alive seems, somehow, impossible. I imagine this is one reason younger people (under 20, say) have difficulty finding immediate relevance in history, or indeed in any period longer than their own conscious memory. When I was 4, the war had only been over for 20 years. Now it’s been over for almost 70, and yet it seems much less long ago to me than when I was a child. Such are the disturbing vagaries of age.

Whatever my reticence to celebrating this as an anniversary, as opposed to merely marking it with respect, I can understand those who do: The inhabitants of Normandy, for instance, for whom D-Day spelled the end of their domination by Hitler, and conquered Europe generally, for which it was the beginning of the end for the Nazi regime.

And, of course, the survivors.

In his memoir A Third Face, Sam Fuller recounts what was said on Omaha by a colonel he particularly admired, “There are two kinds of men out here! The dead! And those who are about to die! So let’s get the hell off this beach and at least die inland!”

As the Robert Carradine character in The Big Red One — not coincidentally, Fuller’s stand-in — says in voice-over at the end of the picture: “Surviving is the only glory in war.”

Amen, Sammy.

Samuel Fuller (with his wife Christa Lang.) Survivor.

Samuel Fuller (with his wife Christa Lang) at Omaha. Survivor.

Text (other than that by Samuel Fuller and Paddy Chayesfky) copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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The Most Amusing Package

Although I loathe the Stones myself – they have my continual vote for Most Overrated Rock Band Ever – this is fascinating stuff, especially for those of us ripe enough to have seen this one, new, in the LP bins. (Ask an adult.) Who’d think a little zipper could cause so much angst, or a set of photographs so much mystery and speculation? Bravo!

The Genealogy of Style

Sticky Fingers cover. Front and back cover


When The Rolling Stones were recording material for their ninth studio album in the early days of the 1970s, the anticipation and expectations must have been daunting. The 60s had come to a definitive close for the band at the December 1969 Altamont Free Concert, where a member of the Hell’s Angels (hired by the Stones as security) knifed a fan to death as the band played on. Five months prior, guitarist Brian Jones had overdosed and was found dead in his swimming pool at the age of 27.

Sticky Fingers was to be their first record of the new decade, their first without Jones, and the first for their newly formed label, Rolling Stones Records. The Beatles had just disbanded, leaving the group no serious rival. The band was presumably eager to maintain their bad-boy status, but at the same time distance…

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