the Reality of Fear

scared

Admit it, you love being afraid. But only so long as you can control the fear, channel it in just the right doses.

You love the idea of fear, the way it grips your heart, thickens your blood, and gives you a rush of adrenaline. Fear like this, it helps us escape life, if just briefly, get out of our own heads.

When I was married years ago, my (then) wife and I went on a double date with another couple, Adam and Mary, a blonde-haired and blue-eyed Mormon couple with three kids under five at home. We paid money to go to a haunted amusement park experience, something called Scarywood, one where all the lanes, alleys, and roller coasters had been decorated in frightening images. People in costume hid behind walls, jumping out to say ‘Boo’, and everyone screamed. Our friend Mary was tiny, thin and slight, and thus, perhaps, the easiest target for the teenagers in costumes, continually screamed and then would immediately scold the person who scared her. “Rarrrr!” yelled the ghost girl, the 15 year-old underpaid student in grey and white make-up. “Eeeeek!” yelled Mary as she threw her hands up, then she immediately got a stern Mom-look on her face as she pointed at the ghost-girl and exclaimed “How could you! Does your mother know you’re here!” And we all laughed and laughed and waited for the next person to jump out.

But was it funny? I think back to this isolated experience and the actual things we witnessed. A section of the park had dozens of fake clown corpses, hanging on ropes from the ceiling, and you had to push the bodies aside in order to walk through. In another section, a man stood over a fire and pretended to cook humans in a pot, then when you walked close, he rushed at you with a chainsaw as everyone in the party screamed and fled.

There is a multi-billion dollar industry out there capitalizing on these fears. Companies design realistic make-up to give children leprous sores on their faces so they can stagger around as zombies, they design realistic severed heads with bugged out eyes and knife marks on the neck where the red plastic blood drips out and the bones protrude, they build withered corpses to sit up from coffins as maniacal laughter plays from the ground.

Why do we love it so much, being scared, these chemical rushes in our bodies? Why is it customary to walk my children in the grocery store to buy a bag of apples and to pass an aisle full of plastic rats and spiders, vampire fangs and fake blood? Why do we put millions of our hard-earned dollars toward the latest scary movie franchise, about teenage witches and killer clowns and mass-murdering dream monsters and vengeful devil spirits? If I asked you to name 25 scary movies off the top of your head, you could. Easily. Because we have been making them for decades, and we love them.

I get that there is suspension of disbelief there, something that is just outside of reality and thus we remain safe, and that’s why I say we like to control the fear. We like knowing we can go home afterward and lock our doors and climb under our blankets. But we are titillated by reality as well. We latch ourselves on to serial biopics of serial killers and serial rapists, mass shootings and gruesome medical conditions. When we hear someone committed suicide, we don’t generally ask ‘Are you okay?’ first to the bearer of the news, instead we ask ‘How did they do it?’ We simply must know. And then we retreat to the safety of our lives again afterwards.

Real fear, though, that is something else entirely. Fear comes in all kinds of shades. Fear is associated with loneliness, love, anger, sadness, joy, depression. Fear is tied to worry, to unease, to suspicion, angst, panic, and dread. It’s tied to despair, stagnancy, apprehension, and excitement. There are clinical terms for fear of everything, phobias of heights, of teeth, of hair, of small spaces, of blood, of blades, of elevators. Fear of bathing, fear of babies, fear of falling sleep.

We say we love being afraid, but I don’ think we do. Real fear, the stuff that shuts us down, well, it’s really, truly scary.

Maybe I’ll make a scary movie one day about fear. Real actual fear. In this movie, an old woman sits in the park, and she invites people to experience their truly greatest fear for just $20. Anyone who pays her simply shakes her hand, looks into her eyes, and for one full minute lives their truly greatest fear. These wouldn’t be ghost hunts and werewolves, these fears would be deeply rooted in human insecurity, family and personal history, and in relationships, and they would be truly terrifying. One woman would be cornered in her room, like she was as a child, with her uncle closing in telling her that she could never tell anyone about what he did to her. One man might find out his mother had breast cancer all over again, and he would have to watch her suffer for years only to lose her. A father might go in to check on his baby and find her dead, suddenly, and they would never find out why. A young girl might go to high school and see a man with a gun enter and begin killing her friends. A woman may discover that her husband was lying to her, cheating on her all the time, and he never loved her, never found her attractive. A man might go bankrupt, be homeless, and die alone on the streets.

Real fears, the abject deep and personal ones, are not capitalized on. Fears of abandonment, bankruptcy, cancer, and trauma, of losing our loved ones, of being assaulted, of having our belief systems shattered, of growing old, of never measuring up or being enough. You don’t see these for sale in grocery stores.

I’ve learned to embrace my fears as part of me. They help drive me. They are deeply connected to every other emotion. And I will always have fear. My greatest fears change along with me, every birthday bringing with it a new set of things to be afraid of. And just like anyone, I can enjoy a good scary film, a nice suspense thriller, or a book that leaves me eagerly turning the pages to see what comes next. But real fear, well, the older I get, the less funny it all is. Most people are truly afraid of the things they have already experienced. And in that, I’m proud to say, I’ve faced a lot of my fears and walked out the other side, resilient. But there is still so much to be afraid of…

 

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Ghosts of San Francisco Past: Castro

The Castro SF

The streets of the Castro are covered in Pride flags. The roads roll up and down steep hills and the cars navigate them despite the fact that there seems to be nowhere to park. As I walked along the sidewalks, peeking through the windows of trendy shops, coffee and pastry establishments, bars, and small restaurants, I looked down and noticed small concrete memorials to LGBT celebrities past: Sally Ride, Barbara Jordan, Virginia Woolf, Oskar Wilde, Tennessee Williams. I wondered how many stepped over their memories, their ghosts, without noticing.

There are gay people everywhere. Big beefy men walk the streets, holding hands and and keeping dogs on leashes. Older gay men open store fronts. A lovely black lesbian couple make conversation on the subway. Men sit across from each other at tables sipping coffee, looking up and noticing other men walking by with casual interest. Eyes constantly wander. There are smiles on every face. Asian, Latin, African American, white, men and women of every shape, size, color, and age, in tank tops, jeans, suits, and dresses. And everyone smiling, shopping, eating. The sun shines down on all equally in this moment, another that will soon be passed.

I watch the posters advertising local shows and events. Shirtless men holding beers advertising happy hour; four women in drag as the Golden Girls advertising a holiday special; a drag queen in a cradle advertising a show called ‘A Gay in the Manger’; beautiful men in togas advertising a Bacchanalia festival. I overhear conversations about holiday party plans, see Christmas trees and lights in third story windows, and see bags of wine and booze being rushed up flights of stairs while bags of garbage are being rushed down them.

I stop in the newly established LGBT history museum and look at the two small rooms of displays. I spend most of my time on a computer where a feature allows me to select a ‘random obituary’, and I push the button nearly five dozen times. I see newspaper clippings about funerals from 1989, 1992, 1994, 1997, 2001, 2006. Nearly every one I see is a man dead of AIDS. Some have no photos. Some use aliases. One is about an Olympian athlete, one a doctor, one a flight attendant, one a drag queen and performer, one a Viet Nam veteran, all dead from a senseless epidemic. Several of the obituaries close with pleas to donate to local AIDS research organizations to help find a cure. There are only two outliers: an elderly man who had AIDS yet died of cancer, and a black lesbian who was shot in the head in a random drive-by shooting while her partner held her.

I walk a mile in the other direction, up to Corona Heights, and I ascend several flights or old wooden stairs, climbing and climbing. I arrive at the top, then climb on top of a big rock, and I look over the city. The ocean melts into the land on one side, and the Earth curves in the distance. The homes there are beautiful, ornate, enormous. I turn to the left and see rows of homes with no space between them and no yards. An ocean breeze blows against my face, chapping my lips, and I think of the homeless woman in pigtails and childlike makeup who sat on a street corner with a pink blanket wrapped around her shoulders as she made kissing noises at passers-by, and the man who was dressed in a Spongebob Squarepants onesie, the one who held a cardboard sign that said he’d been recently diagnosed with AIDS; he’d written in black marker the web address for his own GoFundMe page.

I climb back down and walk the streets again. I can’t get the obituaries out of my head. I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like back then, to be part of building a community like this. Now, gay neighborhoods are commonplace and have spread through cities. They have gentrified. Now, gay clubs are filled with straight people. But then, to be a part of building a safe place where there were no other safe places. To see these men and women walking the streets, finding jobs and families, building homes and lives. And then to see it all threatened, compromised, and washed away by AIDS, by violent attacks, by oppressive laws. The rushing thoughts inspired me and saddened me at the same time.

I walked past no less than six shops specializing in sexy underwear, sex toys, lube, and vintage porn, then I came across the Human Rights Campaign’s office, and realized it is based in the original Castro Camera shop, the one where Harvey Milk lived and waged his campaign for election before his assassination. That felt right, felt just somehow. Many may not know the history, but they know the name Harvey Milk. He’s been canonized, he’s become an icon, and to see that structure still standing for equality gave me a sense of hope, of history.

I sit to reflect, with Turkish coffee and a pastry with a name I can’t pronounce, and I think of history, of all who have come before who are only remembered by the lives they touched. I think of the stories I have to tell, and how hard it is to make a living at that yet how it’s the only thing I seem to want to do lately. It overwhelms me sometimes, this need I seem to have to honor ghosts. Yet it fulfills me in ways I never thought possible.

Later, I purchase tickets to see the movie Misery in the Castro, a film decades old about an obsessed crazy woman. Kathy Bates is brilliant in it, fully convincing with her syringes, sledgehammers, and dirty birdies. The theater is nearly 100 years old, with textured walls, old movie posters, carved ornate fixtures, and high ceilings. A man plays a pipe organ where the previews should have been. I look across the crowd and see several dozen people here, in this old building, paying full price to see a movie from the past. The Castro has sing-along nights, silent films, black and whites, and still the people come to see it. They are entertained by the past, in an old space. The love the stories.

And that fact, their joy, that finally quiets the ghosts for a time.

 

 

 

 

Supernatural elements in Religion

angels

I grew up in a religion that actively taught about supernatural forces directed by God for the good of mankind. I was taught that everyone who has ever lived on Earth existed in a spiritual form prior to coming to Earth and receiving bodies. In that pre-mortal form, we had relationships and interactions and intellect, and that we made the choice to come to Earth, knowing we would have spiritual blinders placed on us to restrict our memories of that pre-mortal life. Any spirit who didn’t choose to come to Earth could roam the Earth and was called an “evil spirit”, and there were potentially billions of them, all who worked for Satan. Mortals were meant to choose religion and God and sacrifice, and after dying, spirits would go on existing in another realm called the Spirit World, where they would wait for resurrection (or unification of the spirit with the body) and then judgment, so God could send them on to Heaven and Hell accordingly. In addition to that, God, who lives on another planet, had a planetary spiritual force, called the Holy Ghost, through which he could send messages in the form of thoughts and inspirations to his believing children.

Also, I believed in the Priesthood, a magical type of authority passed from one man down to another, so long as they are worthy according to Church standards. The Priesthood had various levels of authority mixed in, and the men who held it were authorized to channel some of this godly force to perform tasks on Earth, such as blessing the bread and water of the sacrament to performing a valid baptism to laying hands on the heads of another to give them a blessing, or special individualized message from God. Again, very supernatural in its essence.

If the spiritual forces, the spiritual realms, and the Holy Ghost weren’t sufficient, I also grew up believing in spiritual gifts, immortal creatures, and mystical artifacts. Each individual (but mostly the men) has inherent individual spiritual gifts that can be enhanced through belief, things like the spirit of discernment or the power to heal others, gifts that, like mutant powers in a weird way, could be discovered and utilized for the good of God with his blessing. Angels appeared all over the scriptures and in Church history, performing miracles and giving advice and causing mortals to speak in tongues, and the devil tried to possess or influence mortals through duplicity and temptation. And prophets used magical stones to translate ancient records or to light up ancient wooden submarines on ocean voyages,  and golden balls to give directions in the wilderness.

As I look upon all of this with a critical eye with a grown-up, I am a bit taken aback by how fantasy novel it all seems. There are such elements of story-telling to the whole belief structure. Epic franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter and the Wheel of Time and the X-Men that so beautifully explore the concepts of destiny and prophecy, and that allow certain characters to be born with special powers so they can fight against the forces of evil. But somehow when we toss the word God in to the mix, these concepts are taken serious. There is a suspension of disbelief in mortals who belief in virgin births and men being raised from the dead, and who use those beliefs to form and shape entire societies through narrow interpretations of rules.

I now consider myself a very spiritual and non-religious atheist, if I have to use a label, and I have a difficult time understanding supernatural religious belief structures in a world that avoids scientific interpretation and quantifiable evidence and results. I do still believe in elements of “supernatural”-ness, however. When I examine my beliefs, I do believe that individuals have special skills and talents that others do not. I do believe that human energy exists after the body expires, not as a ghost or spirit necessarily but perhaps as a consciousness, even if only in the memories of forms of the people and places they lived among.

Regarding individual skills and talents, for example, I have a unique capacity for empathy: I can easily read the energy and emotions of most people around me, particularly when there is eye contact and communication happening. I am also a quick study, and can often make sense of complex human stories across history and find truth and enlightenment in them. I think I also have a talent for teaching, for facilitating groups, for presenting information, and for writing. Other people are builders, or organizers, or are amazing with machines and industry, or are nurturers. The lists of skills is endless.

After my grandfather died, my mother would often speak of being able to feel him around, near her, especially during times when she needed comfort or guidance. While I never felt his presence, I believed her when she said this. And I think anyone who has ever lost a very close loved one has that capacity, to feel the energy of their loved ones, even to hear their voices, in particular places or during particular times of need. I had this same experience after Kurt, my best friend, died in a car accident last April.

This blog entry is a bit more free-form, but I needed a chance to organize my thoughts and experiences in this matter, and it is all here to set up a blog I will write tomorrow. About a month ago, I had a woman reach out to me stating that Kurt’s spirit had reached out to her and that he had a message for me. And a few weeks ago, I met with this woman, who called herself a medium. I went into the meeting skeptical and open-minded all at once. And it turned out to be a wonderfully healing experience. I’ll be back tomorrow to share more.

 

 

the Museum of Death

skeleton0020

A Siamese turtle! An actual Siamese turtle. About the size of my two open hands together, were they joined on the same wrist, the turtle swam  carefully in its large aquarium, positioned on a rock, both its heads above water. The large shell was conjoined, divided in the middle, so the two turtles each had their own heads, front legs, and front shells, but shared the back of the shell and the back legs. It was simultaneously adorable, mystifying, and absolutely frightening.

“How old is this turtle?” I asked the man behind the desk.

He looked up from his phone. “Turtles. Two of them. Twenty years old. The owner got them when they were babies, and they are healthy, so they could live another twenty. Heck, they will probably outlive me.”

I ended up in the Museum of Death on accident. I had been walking around, and literally wound up on its doorstep. Not one to question fate, I walked inside and bought a ticket.

The museum was crowded, with poorly organized displays and walls covered in photgraphs, newspaper clippings, and wordy biographies. The rooms twisted into each other like an old antique shop, with random collections of things shoved haphazardly into each space. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason except for the primary theme: Death. And I had to admit, a lot of the content was startling.

The first room seemed to almost romanticize and celebrate serial killers themselves. There were framed photographs of letters written by serial killers in jail, trading cards with their photos on them, and original artwork done by the killers during their life spans. Busy wordy posters told their life stories, including terrible details about their murders.

By far the most disturbing in this room were the photos of John Wayne Gacy, a gay serial killer who murdered dozens of men, in his clown uniform. Apparently, he used to host children’s birthday parties as a clown named Pogo. He drew himself as Pogo multiple times while in jail, and there the art hung, next to the massive shoes he wore during those days. On the opposite wall, stories about Jeffrey Dahmer, another gay serial killer. I’ve recently researched both men as I look into gay history, and their stories absolutely haunt me.

In the next room, it got worse. An entire room dedicated to the Manson Family murders, along with detailed stories and something I was completely unprepared for: the crime scene photos and the autopsy photos of Sharon Tate and the other victims. In another room, more photos of the like, including the Black Dahlia victim.

More autopsy pictures. Pictures of dead babies and beheaded soldiers. Crash crashes with corpses. Bodies found decomposing in the woods. It was all shocking, horrifying, sadistic, and stomach-turning. I wondered how I was even able to look at these pictures, and then remembered that I watch the Walking Dead and American Horror Story, shows that glorify horror and violence and murder. The difference here: these were real.

I left rooms discussing mass suicides and assassinations and suicides and mass graves and concentration camps. As I walked away, nodding at the Siamese turtle one more time, I contemplated death. Everything dies and decays. Stone cracks and splits, mountains erode, and humans live their lives and pass on to the next, returning to the earth they came from. Death doesn’t bother me. It’s tragic death that gets to me. It’s human cruelty and lives cut short. It’s lost potential and broken relationships.

When I slept, I didn’t have nightmares, I just felt sad. And then I remembered the Siamese turtle, a little creature that defied all odds and has lived decades, in an aquarium in the front of a museum that celebrates and glorifies death. And suddenly that irony brought a smile to my face.