I’ll close by quoting the Facebook status of a friend of a friend that was shared anonymously:
Apologies to R.E.M., but this is the blog post where I talk about God and stuff. Consider this a break-up letter to the church, and to the concept of theism in general. It’s been a fun ride, but all in all, the whole belief-in-God thing is longer something I can subscribe to in good conscience.
I grew up in a fairly inoffensive, milquetoast form of Protestant Christianity that primarily consisted of going to church once a week and participating in Sunday school, singing a few nice hymns, listening to a somewhat dry but uplifting sermon, saying a few prayers, and then heading home for lunch and to enjoy the rest of the weekend. Nothing too political (that would be too controversial), too contemporary (that would be too tacky), nor too traditional (that would be too Catholic). It’s the type of church Hollywood turns to whenever they need a generic setting for a wedding scene in a soap opera or romantic comedy.
In my mid-20s I joined the Episcopal Church, which I found more to my liking for a number of reasons. The liturgy and music were richer, the theology less dogmatic and more focused on social justice, it provided a cultural connection to my not-so-distant English ancestry, and they taught me how to make a damn good martini with the right kind of gin. (In fact, the name of this blog harkens back to that period of my life, as a play on “living in sin”.)
Throughout most of this time I was pretty active in the church: I attended Bible studies, went on retreats, volunteered in various capacities, you name it. There were even a few times when I casually flirted with the idea of exploring a call to become an ordained member of the clergy. (In retrospect, that would’ve been a spectacularly terrible idea, as I don’t have a fraction of the skill set that would be required for that kind of vocation, and I probably wouldn’t have made it five minutes into the initial discernment process.)
The highlight of my involvement with the Episcopal Church came during my time in New York City, where I was active at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, the World’s Largest Gothic Cathedral™. During my first visit to the still-unfinished cathedral, I was struck by its immense size and beauty, and in my mind, its incomplete and imperfect state served as the perfect metaphor for God’s unfinished kingdom here on earth. During return visits, I found the cathedral’s architecture, music, liturgy, and social justice work to be icons through which, perhaps, one might catch a glimpse of the divine. I wanted to be part of that, and before long I had joined the Acolyte Guild and was a regular cast member in the cathedral’s worship services. One Sunday in November 2008, I took part in a grand worship service to mark the rededication of the cathedral after a 7-year reconstruction following a devastating fire in 2001, where I got to shake hands with Hillary Clinton and get my photo on the front page of the New York Times.
All this backstory is to say that, for the most part, my experiences in the church were fairly positive, and I look back upon them mostly with fondness. I was never molested by a priest, I was never part of a church where fire and brimstone were spewed from the pulpit, and I was never emotionally manipulated into anything that made me feel uncomfortable. I still find magnificent beauty in traditional Anglican liturgy and gothic architecture, some of the old hymns of my childhood still bring a lump to my throat, and I still love the smell of incense and candles wafting through an old stone church.
Most importantly, there are the people I’ve encountered along the way, many of whom I still consider my closest friends. They include lay people and clergy from a variety of faith traditions, and unlike the charlatans you see flaunting their piety on television and on social media, they truly represent the example of Jesus in ways that I could never hope to approach. Most of them have pulled my ass out of the fire on more than one occasion, and it’s not much of a stretch to say that their friendship during some of the most difficult days of my life literally saved me from suicide.
Which makes my decision to sever ties with the church a difficult one; this isn’t an aspect of my life that I’d toss aside lightly. It would be different if, like so many other people, I had grown up in a spiritually abusive environment and I could give the church a big “fuck you” and flip it the bird as I stormed out the door for the last time. This feels more like a long, protracted breakup with somebody I once deeply loved and still have strong feelings for, even if the cracks in the relationship have been visible and growing for a long time. (In fact, I began writing this blog post over three years ago, and it’s been sitting in my “drafts” folder all this time.) It’s been years since I’ve regularly attended church services, but now it finally feels like time to come out as an atheist.
The doubts had been gnawing at me for about as long as I was old enough to form rational thoughts. To flip a tired phrase on its head, I was religious but not spiritual: I loved the sense of community that came with being part of a healthy faith community, the social bonds that grew out of that, and the reassuring rhythm of the liturgical calendar. But it always felt like I was going through the motions for the sake of appearances, and over the years I became increasingly aware of the unspeakable damage done to individuals and to society in general in the name of religious dogma. My circle of close friends has grown to include militant atheists who wouldn’t be caught dead inside a house of worship, and their ethical code is no less robust than that of somebody who has spent decades of their life in ordained ministry.
As I now write this, the bodies are still being removed from the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, after the deadliest mass shooting on American soil since the massacre at Wounded Knee. (Which was also motivated and enabled by religion, by the way. Manifest destiny, anybody?) The specific motives of the gunman are still being probed and debated by a million armchair experts, but what’s certain is that 49 people were massacred in a gay nightclub because of who they were and who they loved, and no amount of hollow “thoughts and prayers” will change the fact that religious dogma is at the root of so much of the hatred and violence in the world today, and indeed throughout most of human history.
All this is occurring against a backdrop of violent religious fundamentalism that seems to be consuming the nation and the world like a cancer. I used to think the abuses were committed by a few bad apples, but I’m increasingly convinced that, despite the good works done by some adherents, the entire premise of religion is structurally flawed and ultimately causes more harm than good in the world. The abuses and violence seem like the default condition, and charity and kindness the exception. Sinclair Lewis’s 1932 prediction that “when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross” now seems alarmingly prescient.
And perhaps infused with a certain dose of cynicism, my mind has grown increasingly skeptical of any claims involving the supernatural. Out of the thousands of deities that have been worshipped by humankind over the course of history, I’m supposed to believe that the correct deity just happens to be the one worshipped by the tradition I just happened to be born into? That seems like a stretch. I’m open to the idea that our lived reality offers only a dim glimpse of ultimate truth — maybe we’re all in some Matrix-style computer simulation and what various religions have perceived to be gods are merely glimpses of The Architect who programmed it all — but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I won’t pretend that modern-day science has an explanation for more than a small fraction of all that is knowable about our universe and our place in it, but it provides a robust method of inquiry and openness to critical inquiry that I’ve always found lacking in even the most liberal denominations.
Funny thing is, there’s no fancy ceremony when you renounce the concept of religion; I guess most people who do so just stop showing up to church and becomes the subject of gossip during coffee hour. There’s also no obligation to pick a congregation or recite a creed. The old joke goes that an atheist, a vegan, and a Crossfit trainer walked into a bar, and we only know this because they told everybody within two minutes. My own views are still evolving and will hopefully continue to evolve as long as I’m alive, but right now this blog post I stumbled across on a Google search seems to do a pretty good job of articulating my own point of view. I am an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, and a humanist, with explanations via selected quotes from the aforementioned link:
Atheism is the rejection of God assertions due to the lack of objective empirical evidence for all such claims. […] It is not a religion, no faith is required. Instead it is the null hypothesis, and so until somebody asserting a god claim coughs up some credible evidence, all such claims can be dismissed.
I do not assert a no-god claim, I have no evidence for such an assertion, and so in that sense I am not only a non-believer, but I am also agnostic. I do indeed find no evidence for god claims, and I also find the assertion to be highly improbably, just as I find the pink unicorn hypothesis to be improbable. In essence – I hold to the null hypothesis and until some credible evidence comes to light, then that is where I stand, and so I am not asserting a no-god claim, I am simply rejecting the daft god-claims.
I think of skepticism as the application of critical thinking to any and all claims, be they religious or non-religious. So when faced with any form of woo, … quack medicine, lake monsters, ghosts, aliens, free energy, psychics (frauds), or religious claims, etc… then you can think of this as a methodology that may be used to determine what is and is not true.
I am convinced that most humans (with or without a belief) are decent honourable humans who strive to do what is right. It is humanism that leads me down this road and takes me to a place where we can deploy reason and logic instead of blind dogma to strive for ethics and justice. Belief might indeed dictate that slavery is a jolly good idea and that being gay is a hideous crime, but by deploying some reason and logic it quickly becomes clear that slavery is wrong as is the anti-gay stance.
I first began this blog post back in 2012, during a year when I was making a conscious effort to purge my life of thoughts and habits that I felt were distracting me from living up to my full potential. It’s taken that long to finally come to grips with where I honestly stand on the theological spectrum between belief and non-belief, but here it is. Comedian John Fugelsang once tweeted, “Give me a Christlike atheist over a Godless Christian any day”, and I’ve decided that I’d much rather fall into the latter category than the former.
I may still occasionally show up for Evensong at the cathedral whenever I find myself back in New York, but try not to judge me too harshly if I appear to lose interest during the part where we recite the Apostle’s Creed.
Spong and I rescued each other twelve years ago in Philadelphia, at a time when he was a stray kitten near the University of Pennsylvania campus and I was at the lowest point of my academic and professional career. Since then, he has been across the country and back with me while I finished my undergraduate and graduate degrees. This afternoon, he passed away peacefully in my arms. He was the best friend and sidekick I ever could have asked for.
Some of you are aware that my dad has been battling non-hodgkins lymphoma for the better part this past spring and summer. This is the third time he’s had it. They caught it pretty early, the treatment has gone well, and he’ll be going in for his last round of chemotherapy this week. He currently has no evidence of cancer, and his short-term prognosis is good.
He was given the opportunity to embark on radiation therapy or a bone marrow transplant to make sure they got it all, but either procedure would’ve carried its own serious risks, and would’ve most likely lead to a substantially reduced quality of life going forward. He decided to opt out of both procedures, saying he’d rather drop dead on his feet than languish in a hospital bed for weeks or months. I don’t blame him one bit; I would’ve made the same decision in his shoes.
Unfortunately, this means that the cancer has a good chance of recurring within the next seven years or so, and when it does it will be much more difficult to treat. After this last round of chemo, the plan going forward is to maintain regular screenings and take things as they come. I ask for your good thoughts, prayers, positive vibes, or whatever you feel inclined to send his way.
I could also use a few good vibes for myself… My dad and I didn’t have the best relationship growing up, and now that I’m being faced with his morality, a lot of complicated feelings have been stirred up. This has been a particularly rough year for people in my life anyway; last fall an old friend from Boston took her own life, my grandmother (who is one of the few people in my family who I felt particularly close to) continues to languish in a nursing home with advanced Alzheimer’s — she barely knows her own name anymore — and just last night I got the news that a beloved cat had passed away after a long battle with cancer.
Autumn is normally my favorite season of the year. I love the crisp air, the smell of a wood burning fireplace or campfire, and long drives through through the country while the leaves are turning. This year, though, autumn seems to be more about life’s inevitable decay. I’ve reached that age where various bits of my past are no longer present, and I feel like a little bit of myself is dying each time. I’m almost done with my professional credentials as an architect (I honestly haven’t given much thought to what I’ll do with myself once I’ve cleared that hurdle), and I’ve never had the slightest desire to have kids of my own. That gets me thinking about what I’ll leave behind when my own life reaches its twilight; I’m nearly 40, and facing the fact that I probably have fewer days in front of me than I do behind me. I don’t have any ready answers to that question, but I suspect it will occupy a great deal of my thoughts going forward.
In the meantime, though: Please, people and pets, do me a solid and stop dying for a bit, will you?
I wasn’t in NYC that day; I was working at a terrible job doing construction administration for the acoustical abatement of houses near O’Hare and Midway Airports in Chicago, for people who bought a house next to the airport and then were shocked to discover that planes make noise. Our office was a collection of small construction trailers on the periphery of O’Hare Airport, and during my drive to work that morning I had heard something on the radio about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. I figured it was a little single-engine prop plane or something.
I got to work just after the second plane hit, and everybody was gathered around a small black and white TV in the boss’s office. There was lots of chatter and speculation about other planes being hijacked, and then a plane hit the Pentagon. And then another crashed in Pennsylvania. I then realized the magnitude of what was going on, and I went back to my desk thinking I had seen it all. A few minutes later, a co-worker poked his head in the room and told me the south tower had collapsed. My exact response was, “You’re fucking shitting me.” I went back into the boss’s office and, a few minutes later, watched the north tower collapse on live television. We all just knew the Sears Tower and Hancock Center were next. We also knew that our world had suddenly changed.
After that, the rest of the day is pretty much a blur. All flights had been grounded, and at one point our bosses called us into a meeting and told us we might be needed to assist stranded travelers over in the terminals. It turned out that wasn’t necessary, though, so they just sent us home for the day. I’ll never forget how quiet the airfield was when I left the trailer. Complete silence. I took the bus into downtown Chicago later in the afternoon because I had nothing better to do, and the place was a ghost town.
It wasn’t until the following weekend, while I was helping restore a vintage Chicago ‘L’ car out at the Illinois Railway Museum, that I was finally able to think about something other than burning skyscrapers, people jumping from windows, and trapped firefighters.
Now it’s thirteen years later and I try not to dwell upon it too much. I’ve been living in NYC off-and-on for over a decade now, and it’s hard for me to remember what the WTC site looked like before it was covered in construction fences. But I still get a lump in my throat whenever I see the names stenciled on the fire trucks downtown.
Once again, I’ve decided to dust the cobwebs off this blog and bring it back to life. Over the past few posts I made a big deal about wanting to clear excess detritus out of my life, and the self-imposed commitment to maintaining a personal blog ended up being one of the things that got chucked by the wayside as I concentrated on finishing grad school. A quick rundown of what I’ve been up to in the interim:
I ended up staying out in Los Angeles for an extra semester and delaying my graduation for a year. This was due to a number of factors, mainly some problems I was having with my Structures course sequence being complicated by the university’s switch from a quarter system to a semester system, as well as my desire to spend some more time working in LA and see my project along to a more complete stage. I returned to Cincinnati in November 2012, but not before spending a week stranded in San Bernardino County while my Jeep’s transmission had to be rebuilt. (Buy me a drink sometime and I’ll be happy to recount that story. It’s a real hoot.)
By taking an extra year to finish grad school, I was given the opportunity to take another co-op placement. I ended up working for a mid-sized firm in New York City over the summer of 2013 and greatly enjoying it. I had actually been planning to spend that co-op at a local firm in Cincinnati, but applied to the firm in NYC without thinking I stood much of a chance of actually getting the position. The firm does great work and I felt that my portfolio was, at best, middle-of-the-pack compared to my classmates, and I was somewhat leery of moving back to NYC after getting seriously burned-out with the city twice before. To my surprise, I got hired and the job turned out to be the best co-op placement of my grad school career. While walking back to the subway one night, it dawned on me that, despite all my frustrations, New York felt at least as much like a hometown to me as my original hometown of Cincinnati. I eventually made the decision that I would try to move back to New York upon my graduation the following spring.
I returned to Cincinnati in August and spent the next nine months fleshing out my thesis project, which I had decided would be something small and manageable: a new Penn Station for New York. It was either that or a meditation cabin in Oregon. Meanwhile, I had begun the search for post-grad school employment. After several months of false starts and dead ends, I received two offers within minutes of each other late in the spring semester: one from a local firm in Cincinnati that does a lot of fairly bland workplace design, and another from a small boutique firm in New York that does mostly high-end residential and hospitality projects. I picked the latter option, and began preparing to move to New York while I finished up my thesis.
In April, I successfully defended my thesis and completed my Master of Architecture degree from the University of Cincinnati. While finishing my bachelor’s degree in 2010 was a huge relief at the time, it felt more like a formality than anything else; it was just my permission slip to enter grad school. This graduation ceremony, though, was the real deal. Looking back several months later, I still can’t believe that I actually did it.
With hardly any time to catch my breath after graduation, I put all my stuff into storage once again, boarded a plane to New York, and started working at the aforementioned boutique firm the following Monday… And it immediately became clear that I had entered a world of pain. The work environment could best be described as abusive, the hours were extreme, the work was unoriginal and unproductive, and the firm’s financial standing appeared to be shaky at best. I began sending out resumes again before I had even gotten my first paycheck.
In late June, I visited Chicago for the AIA National Convention. It was my first visit back there since graduating from DePaul in 2010, and the longest I had been away from the city since I first moved to the area in 1993. It was great to see the city again and renew some old friendships, and to let go of some of the bitterness I had been feeling about Chicago since I had moved away in 2007. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are great cities that each have their own unique personalities, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have lived in all three at various times in my life.
Another benefit to attending the AIA convention in Chicago was a chance encounter with one of the principals of the firm where I spent my last co-op before thesis year. One thing led to another, and within a couple weeks of the convention I had accepted an employment offer at this firm and turned in my resignation at the abusive boutique firm. It didn’t happen a moment too soon; I had been expanding my job search to the west coast, and was seriously considering moving to Los Angeles or Portland if the right opportunity came up. I love New York, but it’s impossible to survive for long here unless you love what you do, and my first priority was to find a better employment situation. Luckily I didn’t have to move again; I’ve now been at the new job for about four weeks, and so far it’s been going well.
With my job search happily resolved, my next big priorities are to find permanent housing here in New York and to complete the Architectural Registration Exams. I’m hoping to have enough money saved up for my own apartment by around January or so, and I’m hoping to be registered as an architect within the next year or so.
My resolution for 2012 was to rid my life of distractions as I finished grad school. Now that that’s done, it’s time to start building again. Wish me luck; I’ll certainly need it.
Early in the year I resolved to let go of things that I felt were holding me back, and one of the biggest things I had in mind was the home I had created for myself in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. I moved there in January of last year to be closer to friends and nightlife downtown, closer to school, and to have an overall nicer place to live. And what a place it was: a huge, newly-renovated loft in an 1860’s-era row house, complete with exposed brick walls, three decorative fireplaces, 10-foot ceilings, an incredible view of the downtown skyline, and within easy walking distance of my favorite bars and art galleries on Main Street. I put a huge amount of effort and money into making the apartment into a real home, and the results were spectacular. My friends were properly impressed, and for a while, it felt like the kind of home I thought I wanted. The idea was to stay there until a few years after grad school, when I’d presumably be ready to buy a house or condo.
It was the right idea, but at the wrong point in my life. With my meager student budget and co-op schedule, the apartment turned out to be an incredibly seductive but expensive albatross. The rent was already at the high end of what I could afford, and became untenable when the utility bills started pouring in. (As I discovered, it’s incredibly expensive to heat and cool a huge apartment with exposed brick walls and high ceilings, especially in a climate like Cincinnati’s where winters and summers are both equally brutal.) And there was the fact that I was already thoroughly burned-out with the whole “urban pioneer” lifestyle when I left New York in 2010. I love the city and its neighborhoods, but before long I quickly remembered just how much I hate loud car stereos and obnoxious college kids on a Friday night.
There’s also the issue of Cincinnati itself, and my long-term career options there. My first two co-ops were both with local firms in downtown Cincinnati, and I came away from them with a pretty strong conviction that if I were to stay in Cincinnati and practice as an architect there after grad school, I’d be spending the bulk of my career designing grocery stores and renovations to strip malls. My gaze turned westward, which prompted me to apply to firms in Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles for my five-month co-op. When I accepted the offer from the firm in Santa Monica, I made the difficult decision to give up the apartment and put almost everything I own into storage. My ideal home would have to wait until some other time and some other place.
At the end of the winter quarter, I began packing up and moving out. By the evening of Thursday, March 22nd, all the effort I had put into that apartment had been undone. My stuff had been packed away into a self-storage facility, my cat had been dropped off to live with my parents while I’m away, and my car had been loaded up with my clothing and some other essentials. It was already starting to get dark when I finally hit the road, but at this point I just wanted to get Cincinnati behind me before I had time to think too much about what I had done or what I was getting myself into out in California. Almost eight years after leaving my life behind in New York and heading to Oregon, I was once again taking a giant leap of faith to the west coast, and I had just stepped off the edge of the cliff once again.
Somewhere before reaching Louisville, I had a mild anxiety attack as I was driving down the dark interstate. Now that I was on the road and was finally able to catch my breath after moving all day, the second-guessing and self-doubts started kicking in. What the fuck have I just done? What if I hate Los Angeles? What if the new job sucks? What if everything I left behind in that storage unit gets wiped out by a fire or tornado? I felt a bit like Captain Kirk in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, having just scuttled the Enterprise and now watching its burning hull streak through the sky of the newly-formed Genesis Planet:
I made it through Louisville and a few miles into Indiana before stopping for the night. Tomorrow would be a new day, I figured, and the sooner it got here the better. I left the hotel the next morning feeling rested and renewed, and my focus turned from what I had left behind to what was waiting for me on the road ahead. The following three days took me across eight more states, the Great Plains, the Colorado Rockies, and the desserts and mountains of the Southwest.
In western Kansas the following night, I was treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen. The next day I stopped for a pint at the Cheeky Monk on Colfax Avenue in Denver, which had been the site of celebrating my friend Bret’s ordination to the Episcopal priesthood at nearby St. John’s Cathedral a few years ago. The Rockies, of course, were spectacular, and it was nice to see them again after my last visit to Colorado. I took a short detour to Breckenridge to have lunch at the Breckenridge Brewery, and spent my third and final night on the road in a tiny place called Salina, Utah.
The last day on the road took me through the remainder of Utah, a few more deserts and mountain ranges, a small corner of Arizona that’s home to the spectacular Virgin River Gorge, a monster traffic jam that lasted almost the entire way from Las Vegas to San Bernardino, and finally Los Angeles.
I arrived at the Santa Monica Pier late in the evening of Sunday, March 25th, in the midst of a rare Southern California thunderstorm. I would’ve kept on driving, but I had reached the edge of the continent. I’m convinced that every American should take a solo road trip across the country at least once in their life. Until they do, they’ll never truly appreciate the immense size and beauty of this country.
I checked into my hotel in Woodland Hills — where I’d arranged to stay for a week while I looked for more permanent housing — and began work the next morning. One of the few cardinal rules I have for this blog is that I rarely ever discuss work (I’m happy to air my own dirty laundry online, but not my employer’s), but I will say that it’s going well so far. The firm is well-regarded within the profession and has been widely published, the office culture is generally casual and drama-free, I like my co-workers (and they seem to like me), and the projects are challenging and interesting. More than just being a high-profile “starchitect” firm, though, their philosophy towards design is very closely aligned with my own. No grocery stores or strip mall renovations here. In fact, it’s the kind of place I could see myself working long-term after I finish grad school.
Southern California itself has also been treating me pretty well so far, despite dire warnings from my East Coast and Midwestern friends that the place is nothing more than a traffic-choked wasteland of suburban sprawl and fake personalities. Most stereotypes have a grain of truth within them, but for the most part, I’ve found that Los Angeles isn’t nearly as bad as people who’ve never been here insist it is. (And let’s be honest here. Nobody in Cincinnati is in a position to spew negative stereotypes about any other city. Cincinnati has its own less-than-stellar public image to deal with.) Ironically, I live in a very walkable neighborhood that’s within an easy bike ride of my office, with a 24-hour Ralphs grocery store right around the corner. As such, traffic is a non-issue during the week, and I can usually take an alternate route on the weekend if a particular freeway is jammed up.
As for the fake personalities, I think that stereotype is perpetrated on late-night talk shows by those the entertainment industry, where people’s livelihoods are often based upon how well they can put on a fake persona. The vast majority of the people I’ve encountered, though, are no different than the people I’ve encountered elsewhere. Some of them I like a lot, some of them I can’t stand, and most of them fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Even among the few people I’ve met who actually are connected to the entertainment industry in some way, I’ve found them to be as genuine as anybody else. For every celebrity who manages to be a constant source of tabloid fodder, there are a thousand other people who work regular day jobs while advancing their particular craft during their spare time. And then there are all the behind-the-scenes people who, despite incredible talent, will never see their names in lights. Even though I have no desire to go into that business myself, I still find it all incredibly fascinating.
The things I like most about Los Angeles?
The climate is perfect for me. Just warm enough during the daytime to wear short sleeves (maybe a blazer during the winter), and cool enough at night that I can sleep under a thick blanket with the windows open. It’s amazing to not be living in constant fear of the weather. As an added bonus, my allergies — which normally go haywire whenever I’m within 500 miles of Cincinnati — have been clear for the entire two months I’ve been living here.
The natural scenery is great; within the same county are miles of beach as well as snow-capped mountains. Having lived most of my life near either the ocean or Lake Michigan, I had forgotten just how much I miss the beach and the associated casual beach culture. And of course, there are the mountains. With the San Gabriel Mountains and other nearby ranges, it’s like having a piece of the Colorado Rockies closer to downtown Los Angeles than the actual Rockies are to downtown Denver.
In addition, Southern California is a culinary delight, even on my meager budget. I don’t think I’ve had a bad meal here yet, except when it’s been something I cooked myself. And of course, there is the refreshing lack of Bible-thumpers and teabaggers in the civic realm.
Perhaps most importantly, though: almost everybody out here is from somewhere else, and nobody here gives a fuck which high school or college I went to, or what family I’m from. By almost any account, there shouldn’t even be a city here; there’s no natural port, and the nearest large-scale source of fresh drinking water is hundreds of miles away. But in the same way that the Los Angeles Basin was an entirely blank slate upon which to build a massive city from scratch, my life out here feels like a blank slate that can be given whatever attributes or characteristics I want.
My biggest complaint so far has nothing to do with my job or the locale, but the transitional living arrangement I find myself in while I’m out here. I keep telling myself this whole student lifestyle is only for a couple more years and will be worth it in the end, but a part of me is very much obsessed with getting my stuff out of storage and re-establishing a real home that actually feels like a home. I’m 37 years old, and way past the point in my life where I should be sharing a small apartment with a roommate and going to parties where beer pong is the dominant form of entertainment. My biggest motivation for finishing grad school is to put this decades-long student phase of my life behind me. More than giving me the credentials I need to achieve my professional goals, my masters degree will hopefully be the piece of paper that gives me permission to settle down, sink some roots, build a career, and finally create a real life for myself. It can’t come fast enough, though, as I’m getting incredibly impatient.
A couple weeks after my arrival, I was asked to house-sit at a friend’s apartment in Culver City while she was out of town over a long weekend. The large apartment complex felt almost like a fantasy world, with lush tropical landscaping and fountains between the buildings, several pools, and all the other modern amenities one would expect. The apartment itself had a large fireplace, dramatic vaulted ceilings, and just the right amount of space. At night, the only sounds where crickets chirping and the running fountain outside the window. I did some further research, and found that this apartment complex should actually be within my price range once I’m out of grad school and earning the average salary with somebody at my level of experience. And being a fairly large complex with several hundred apartments, there are always a certain number of vacancies each month. If I end up staying in Los Angeles for good after grad school, they’ll likely be the first place I contact about housing. I just need to hold on until I have that permission slip.
This blog post deals with topics of a sensitive nature, and some of what follows may be considered NSFW and/or TMI for some readers. Continue at your own discretion.
I lived in Asheville, North Carolina for a couple years while growing up, which is located in the mountainous western part of the state. Our neighborhood was perched on the side of Beaucatcher Mountain, and was comprised of a lot of hilly, windy streets. One particular neighborhood street was especially steep, with a sharp S-curve at the bottom of a long, straight hill. Just beyond the S-curve, the terrain dropped off dramatically into a rugged, wooded ravine. If the street had been a busier road, it would be one of those notorious stretches of highway that has a nickname like Death Hill or Blood Alley.
As it was, the street didn’t have very many houses on it and was lightly traveled by cars, so it became a favorite spot for us to play. I’d pull my red Radio Flyer wagon to the top of the hill, climb on board, and then ride at top speed down the hill, with the wind blowing in my face. The feeling of flying downhill was as ecstatic as the first big drop on a roller coaster, but was tempered with the very real danger of missing the curve, flying off the pavement, and ending up broken and bloodied at the bottom of the ravine.
The memory of flying down that hill in a Radio Flyer wagon at high speed, with a near-certain bloody and painful death at the bottom of the hill rapidly getting closer, has become somewhat of an unfortunate metaphor for my love life over the years. The whole realm of relationships and sexuality has been a very difficult one for me, and it’s not without a degree of hesitation that I write about it here. While I do a pretty good job at maintaining close friendships with quite a few attractive women, things always seem to fall apart whenever there’s a hint of romantic feelings involved.
Part of it may have to do with the uptight Calvinist background I grew up in, where sexuality was hardly ever discussed except in the context of there apparently being far too much of it on television and in popular culture. And then there’s the fact that I was sexually abused as a child, by an older neighborhood kid who promised to allow me into his “club” if I performed certain acts down in the woods behind the house. Somehow my membership card to his secret club must have repeatedly gotten lost in the mail, because I kept having to go through the initiation process over and over again.
I also have mild Asperger’s syndrome, and that no doubt plays a big role as well, even though I never knew I was an Aspie until I was well into adulthood. Nowadays I can do a pretty good job of pretending I’m at least somewhat normal, but as a kid I was clueless. Nobody really had a name for my condition at that time; I just assumed I was a weird misfit due to some horrible character defect on my part. While my classmates were playing with their Transformers or G.I. Joe action figures, I was usually off in the corner sketching pictures of bridges and space ships. A few years later when they were having their first sexual experiences, I was still sketching (slightly more refined) pictures of bridges and space ships. It’s not that I didn’t have sexual feelings or wasn’t incredibly attracted to certain girls at school; it’s just that I was too chickenshit to actually act on those feelings. My classmates assumed I was gay or asexual, and bullied the living shit out of me accordingly. During bus rides home in 5th grade, a few of the popular kids would corner me in the back of the school bus and ask me invasive questions about my sexuality. If they didn’t like my answer, one of them would give me a swift punch in the stomach.
As you might imagine, relationships and sexuality – things that, in an ideal world, should be sources of joy and happiness for those involved – had come to be strongly associated with feelings of guilt, shame, rejection, and violence in my mind. When you crash the Radio Flyer wagon into the ravine too many times, you start to dread the idea of hauling it back up the hill for another ride.
Fast-forward to this past week, when a random bit of news during my workday brought back vivid memories of a time when I flew down that metaphorical hill way too fast, and ended up crashing into the ravine in a most spectacular manner.
As it turns out, a former crush of mine is getting married on Saturday, and not to me. You’d think I’d be over it after almost a decade, but this one really stung. For a few months in late 2002 and early 2003, “Jennifer” and I had developed what I considered a pretty deep long-distance relationship, which culminated in her flying to Philadelphia and meeting up with me during her spring break.
I’ve always had a pretty specific picture in my head of what my ideal partner is like, and it was uncanny just how close she came to that mental image, in a number of important ways: her intelligence, her emotional maturity, her overall great looks, and so forth. Nobody else before or since then has come quite so close to my idealized version of Miss Right. I was much more religious back then than I am now, and I was convinced she was the gift from God that I had been praying for almost my entire life.
But there was more to her than just a nice personality and physical attractiveness. Jennifer was born without arms, and used her agile feet to do things that most people do with their hands. A real-life Venus de Milo, I found her unique condition to be incredibly fascinating and sensual. I didn’t think of her as disabled, and she didn’t think of herself that way, either. She had never known any other way to live, and her body was as normal to her as mine is to me.
I’ve always been drawn to the unique and unusual. In a neighborhood full of bland McMansions, I’m the guy who would buy something like the Mushroom House. Whenever I’d get a handful of candy corn around Halloween, I’d always pick out the mutant pieces and eat them first, because they were special and stood out from the others. I was somehow convinced this made them taste better.
Likewise, for as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by and found beauty in people with certain unique physical characteristics – even something as relatively minor as having a pair of webbed toes – but particularly with people who are missing one or more limbs, either by birth or through circumstances later in life. Jennifer wasn’t the first amputee I’d felt romantic feelings toward, and she likely won’t be the last. The first crush I ever had was toward Carol Johnston, a gymnast who was born without part of her right arm. Her story was the subject of a Disney film I saw on TV while growing up, and I was enthralled with the shape and movement of her partial arm, which ended with a small, round stump just below her elbow. (Carol is almost old enough to be my mother, but she appeared much closer to my age in the film, which had been produced a number of years before I saw it.) Jennifer was completely armless, not unlike Simona Atzori, an Italian artist and dancer who was also born without arms. No stumps or even scars, just perfectly smooth shoulders where a pair of arms would normally begin. Her use of her feet for daily tasks was as fluid and natural as most people’s use of their hands. I’d gladly pick somebody like her over any number of plastic-looking supermodels.
There’s a lot more to it than just the physical attraction, though. What I find equally appealing is the fact that people like Jennifer have a unique story to tell, that they know what it’s like to be different and to overcome obstacles. My favorite people in the world are those who strive to overcome life’s challenges with grace and humor, and who embrace their own uniqueness. This might be the one element that all my closest friends have in common, regardless of how many limbs they have.
An army of therapists could spend countless hours speculating on all the reasons why I have these feelings, and still not come up with a satisfactory answer. I wouldn’t really call it a fetish, although sexual attraction is certainly one part of it. I’ve always felt different throughout my life, and I think maybe I find a kindred spirit in somebody who is as different on the outside as I am on the inside, and who has spent a lifetime overcoming obstacles and dealing with other people’s stares and clueless comments, as well as more mundane things like a lack of wheelchair ramps or doorknobs that are difficult to grasp. To be clear, the attraction has nothing at all to do with any hardship or suffering that comes with being an amputee. I’ve had a few close friends over the years who are amputees, and I wouldn’t wish those phantom pains, ongoing medical issues, or the cost of a prosthetic limb on anybody.
As you might imagine, being attracted to amputees brings forth a lot of conflicted feelings that include heavy doses of shame and guilt. Pop culture values physical perfection to an obscene level, and people don’t like to be reminded that they might someday lose a leg in a car accident, or give birth to a child that has less than ten perfect fingers and ten perfect toes. Veterans who lose limbs in combat are either swept under the rug and ignored by the people who sent them into combat in the first place, or are maybe put onto a pedestal and briefly worshipped as folk heros – but never portrayed as the guy next door who lost his legs and a couple of close friends to a roadside bomb, and who still has nightmares about it. But I didn’t choose to have this attraction any more than Jennifer chose to be born without arms, and I reject the notion that I should beat myself up over an aspect of my psyche that I never willingly signed up for.
Soon after high school, my family got a computer and I was introduced to this new thing called the Internet for the first time. After doing a couple of Alta Vista searches (I’m really dating myself here), I soon discovered that I’m not the only person who has this attraction; people like me are typically referred to as devotees within the community. (The phenomenon also has a very dry technical term: Acrotomophilia.) Personally, I find the terminology inadequate – the term admirer has also been tossed around, which I find more apt – but for better or worse, devotee seems to be the accepted label.
How do amputees typically feel about this attraction? Opinions vary widely. Some find it very flattering and liberating; a common sentiment is that it’s nice to be seen as an attractive woman with no caveats, as opposed to being seen as attractive despite a disability. Others find it extremely repulsive and threatening, feeling that devotees are getting their jollies from what for many amputees is the most painful and traumatic episode of their lives. Most amputees’ feelings probably fall somewhere between those two extremes, perhaps accepting of the attraction despite some reservations. As a gross generalization, my experience is that amputees who were born that way tend to be more accepting of the attraction than those who lost a limb later in life due to trauma or disease. It’s a very controversial issue within online support groups and other amputee-related communities, with very passionate feelings on all sides of the issue. The purpose of this blog post isn’t to change anybody’s mind about it, but to simply articulate my own feelings.
Back in the 90’s there used to be a small online community of devotees and devotee-friendly amputees, mostly on IRC and an email listserv. There were even occasional real-life gatherings, and a number of marriages have come from those meetings. With a fairly intimate community it was easier to keep the predatory elements away, of which there are unfortunately quite a few. In the amputee-devotee subculture, the bad apples usually consist of guys who get off on some sort of power trip by being with somebody they perceive as helpless, or people who live out their fantasies by pretending to be amputees online.
Unfortunately, with the explosion in social media such as MySpace and then Facebook over the past few years, what used to be a fairly tight-knit and self-policing internet subculture has become a free-for-all, with some devotees pursuing amputees with all the grace and chivalry of the Nazgûl pursuing the One Ring, and ruining it for those who have better social skills and more honest intentions. There are still some vestiges of the old community left, but it’s a pretty small and isolated group with relatively little in the way of new blood.
I know of a number of amputee/devotee couples who couldn’t be happier. I also know of devotees who have gone their entire lives without finding their ideal partner to settle down with, and I know of others who ultimately married non-amputees only to find themselves depressed and frustrated, and their marriages failing. As for myself, it certainly makes things difficult because my ideal dating pool is a tiny fraction of the general population. I can go months or years at a time before seeing an attractive female amputee out in public, and the whole online scene is a crapshoot. On the rare occasion I see an attractive amputee out in public and I fail to make any kind of meaningful contact with her (which is almost always the case – I universally err on the side of keeping a respectful distance and doing nothing, rather than annoying her with any awkward advances), it can haunt me for months or years after the fact.
Mind you, I’m still very attracted to able-bodied women as well. The longest relationship I’ve had so far was with somebody who wasn’t an amputee, and I don’t regret a minute of it. But in looking for a long-term relationship or marriage, I face a bit of a dilemma. When I was in that relationship, there was always a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I wasn’t being true to my feelings and that I was “settling” for something that was less than my ideal, and I was overcome with feelings of guilt. I didn’t feel like I was being fair to either her or myself. Nobody likes to be told they’re a second choice.
Jennifer seemed flattered by my unusual form of attention, and I was thrilled with the idea that after so much longing and searching, I had finally found somebody to share my life with. But the day after she arrived in town and we first met face-to-face, she called me up at work just a couple hours before we were supposed to meet again, and slammed the brakes on any notion of a relationship. She never did give a clear reason, but seemed to imply that she wasn’t ready for a relationship and that the chemistry didn’t feel right.
On one level it was understandable, as there was a pretty significant age difference between us, we had different backgrounds and ambitions, and lived a couple thousand miles apart. At that moment on the phone, though, I felt like a bomb had just been detonated within my already-fragile psyche. I blame myself for getting my hopes up too high in the first place, but that euphoric feeling of being head-over-heels in love was incredible while it lasted. For a brief few weeks, I felt like I was racing downhill in that Radio Flyer wagon, and the S-curve and ravine were no longer a threat. I haven’t experienced anything like it since then, and part of me wonders if I ever will.
She said she wanted to remain friends, and held out the idea that maybe sometime in the future, things might work out between us. But it never happened. The phone calls and online chats became less frequent, and then stopped altogether. My greetings went unanswered, and after a lot of heartbreak and depression on my part, I eventually moved on. She became somewhat of a minor media celebrity with her motivational speaking gigs and amazing accomplishments, and I continued quietly making slow but steady progress toward my academic and professional goals.
I had pretty much put her out of my mind until now, but learning that she’s getting married this week brought it all back. In all honesty, I wish her the best, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I can now look back and see about a million reasons why things never would have worked out between us. As painful as it was for me, she probably did the right thing by breaking it off sooner rather than later.
So now I’m spilling my guts here, mainly just to get it off my chest and hopefully gain some catharsis, but also to shed some insight into an aspect of my life that, until now, I’ve kept pretty private. No doubt some parts of this blog entry dove pretty far into TMI territory for some, but I’m hoping the benefits outweigh any negative blowback. A few of my closest friends already know about this side of me, and seem generally accepting of it, even if it’s impossible for them to fully understand it. One friend quipped, “Most of the women I date are missing a brain, so I’d have to envy you if your girlfriend was only missing an arm or a leg.”
One of my resolutions for 2012 was to try and let go of some emotional baggage that I’ve been carrying around my neck like an albatross, and this is part of that process. With people all over the country being denied equal rights and bullied to the point of suicide because of who they love, it seems hypocritical for me to champion their rights while keeping my own sexual proclivities safely tucked away in the closet, out of danger. Maybe some good will come of this blog post, and there may be some negative consequences as well. But I think I’ve reached the point where I’m finally willing to stop living in fear of the what-if scenarios, and to let the chips fall where they may. Fuck that ravine.
People grow up and grow old, and if they have children, those offspring will likely see the day when their grandparents and parents die and are laid to rest. And then those offspring have kids of their own, and the cycle continues. That’s the natural order of things, and if that natural order is somehow disrupted – say, if a parent buries a child – then something has gone terribly wrong. But under normal circumstances, we’ll live long enough to see our elders grow old and reach the twilight of their lives. First our grandparents, and then eventually our parents. In the back of our heads we know it’s coming, and that it’s how the world is supposed to work. Like clockwork.
At least that’s what I keep telling myself, but somehow that never makes it any easier when it becomes apparent that somebody who has always been a part of your life won’t be part of it forever.
My first grandparent to die was my paternal grandmother, when I was in middle school. She had been in poor health for many years due to diabetes and heart disease, and it didn’t come as much of a surprise when her ailments finally became more than her body could handle. My next grandparent to pass on was my material grandfather a couple years later, due to leukemia. A couple years after that, it was my paternal grandfather. He died of a rare form of cancer in his muscles, probably related to his working in a steel foundry in rural England as a child. God knows what he was exposed to in that place.
Both my grandfathers lived into their 80’s, and I figure once you live that long, you’re pretty much on borrowed time. If ailment X doesn’t get you, then ailment Y is lurking right around the corner. This isn’t to trivialize their passing or make light of the mourning felt by those they left behind, but they both lived long, full lives, had relatively short illnesses, died peacefully surrounded by people who loved them, and left the world a better place than they had found it. We should all hope for so much.
That leaves my maternal grandmother as the last surviving member of that generation in my family. Technically, she’s my step-grandmother, as my true material grandmother died of complications from breast cancer at an early age, years before I was born. My mother’s father remarried, and my mother’s stepmother would become, for all practical purposes, my grandmother.
Like the Energizer Bunny, she simply refuses to stop living. Now 86 years old, she’s still sharp as a tack, and as sweet and good-natured as ever. Always quick with a laugh or a compliment, she vaguely reminds me of “Granny” from the Looney Tunes cartoons: endearing and motherly on the outside, and tough as nails on the inside. She’ll always be there to offer you a bowl of ice cream, but don’t you dare try to reach into the birdcage and grab Tweety. I’ve never once seen her raise her voice, but even as kids, we knew that misbehaving in her house simply wasn’t an option.
And what a house it was. My earliest memories are of a simple split-level ranch house in Milford, but for the past 20-some years she’s been living in a little yellow house in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Madisonville, just a block from the Mariemont municipal boundary. More significant than the house itself, though, were the things it contained. My late material grandfather built and restored old clocks as a hobby, and the place is loaded with them. Floor-standing grandfather clocks, wall clocks, clocks that sit on shelves, you name it. They were all in impeccable condition. In the basement was his workshop, loaded with woodworking tools and all the clock-related spare parts you could imagine. And given that this was the German side of my family, everything was impeccably organized and labeled. A little drawer full of clock gears here, and another little drawer full of clock hands there. Craft was a strong tradition on that side of the family; my grandfather Monte Hillerich was the grandson of Bud Hillerich of Hillerich & Bradsby fame, the family-owned company that continues to make Louisville Slugger baseball bats a few miles downriver from Cincinnati.
On Saturday afternoons, he’d go around the house and wind up the clocks for the week. He deliberately kept them unsynchronized by a few minutes so that the entire house wouldn’t erupt into a cacophony of chimes every hour, on the hour. But beginning at around five minutes before the hour, a clock on the wall would chime. A few seconds later, a grandfather clock in the other room. Then another clock out in the hallway. This would continue for roughly ten minutes. Each clock had a sound that was as unique as its visual appearance. The chimes on the grandfather clock in the living room had a deeper, subtle pitch, while the little brass clock that sat under a glass dome on a nearby shelf had a more metallic, high-pitched chime.
In addition to the clocks were the antique furniture, family heirlooms, chinaware, photographs, artwork, and various other knickknacks. The house was like a museum for my maternal side of the family. Like the clocks, everything was kept impeccably clean and orderly.
The house — first out in Milford and then in Madisonville — always seemed like a refuge when I was growing up. Most family gatherings were at the house of my paternal grandparents in Fort Thomas, mainly because it was much closer to us, and such gatherings were usually pretty chaotic affairs with aunts and uncles talking, and small kids running around.
Visiting Grandma Hillerich’s house, though, was always a special occasion. The drive was a bit longer and involved crossing a large bridge, and the house was much more calm and orderly than anything on the Kentucky side of the river. I have fond memories of quietly playing with Tinker Toys in front of the fireplace in the family room while the adults carried on adult conversations nearby. All the clocks on the walls and my grandfather’s meticulous workshop in the basement were a constant source of fascination. Before we got into the car to head back home, my grandmother would always prepare a “goody bag” for me and my siblings, a small sandwich bag filled with a few candies and treats for each of us.
In 1988, while we were living in coastal South Carolina and Hurricane Hugo was threatening to wipe the state off the map, we evacuated to Cincinnati and stayed with my maternal grandparents for a few days. I remember watching the live reports on CNN from the house’s family room as Hugo battered the hell out of Charleston. My grandfather was already sick with leukemia at that time, and it would be the last time I saw him.
My grandmother, now a widow for the second time, had the house to herself and did her best to take care of it. Family members and neighbors helped her out, and she remained active in her little church just up the street on Plainville Road. I continued my nomadic lifestyle of moving around to various locations throughout the country, but tried to visit my grandmother whenever I found myself back in Cincinnati. She was as spry as ever, and the house itself hardly changed. It still felt like a place of refuge, the one remaining element of my childhood in Cincinnati that had been a constant throughout my life, no matter where I was living or what sort of trouble I was getting myself into. Grandma would always be there to welcome me into the home, remark about how tall I’ve gotten, ask me why I’m still single, and catch up with all that’s happening in my life. The clocks would chime, and like always, she wouldn’t let me escape the house without giving me some sort of treat to take home with me. On some level I hoped that, for as long as I lived, I could always come back here and find Grandma Hillerich among all the clocks, ready to give me a hug and a goody bag.
But that’s not how it works. A couple months ago she took a nasty fall at church and broke her arm. She wasn’t seriously injured, but the incident prompted the decision to move her into an assisted living facility out in the suburbs, closer to some relatives. The house, which had been a place of refuge throughout my life, is now being slowly emptied of its contents, and will soon be put on the market. I understand all the clocks, save for the large grandfather clock in the living room, have now been sold off.
I paid one final visit to the house a few weeks ago with my mother. The clocks had been appraised, and were lying on tables with little price tags attached to them. The house’s other contents were being divvied up among the relatives, and the place had the look of a garage sale. The walls that had once held clocks and family photos were now mostly empty. The house, which I had always known as being full of laughter, now felt like a silent, empty shell. That last remaining spatial connection to my childhood is now gone.
I always knew there would come a day when that house would no longer be there for me, and I knew it would be painful. But I didn’t know it would hurt quite so much.
Over the past few posts I’ve mentioned that I’ve been searching for internship positions outside of the Cincinnati area for my five-month co-op term that will begin in late March. I applied to a few firms each in Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles, and one firm in London. After a couple of tense weeks of not knowing where I’ll be living next quarter, I was offered and accepted a position with a very cool firm in Santa Monica.
As far as logistics go, I’ll be moving out of my apartment on March 20th, and putting almost everything I own into storage. Either that evening or first thing the following day, I’ll hit the road for Los Angeles, and I expect that trip to take about three days. If all goes well, I’ll arrive in LA late in the evening of Friday the 23rd. I’ll have a weekend to get settled, and then I start work on Monday the 26th.
Housing is still up in the air at this point; I have an extended-stay hotel room in Woodland Hills reserved for a few days, but I’ll have to start looking for something more permanent as soon as I arrive, most likely a small studio or a roommate/share situation.
This will be the first time since 2004 that I’ve moved to a city that I’ve never lived in before. I’m seldom happier than when I’m exploring someplace new, so I have a lot to look forward to over the new few months. It helps that I already have a couple good friends out there, and the weather will certainly be a refreshing change.
Perhaps just as importantly, Los Angeles feels like a blank slate to me: I have very few personal connections and no sentimental attachments to that city, and very little in the way of preconceived notions of what life will be like out there (although I imagine it will involve a lot of sitting in traffic and dining at In-N-Out), and there’s something very liberating about that. There’s something to be said for showing up in a new place with no expectations, and the opportunity for a clean start. If things work out well enough, Los Angeles might well become my top choice of places to head to once I’m done with grad school here in Cincinnati. But regardless of whether I ultimately love it or hate it out there, it will no doubt be interesting. Stay tuned.