A Long Overdue Hello. / Gold.

It’s really been 1.5 years.

1.5 years. 

This post won’t serve as a 18 month catch up, or some think-piece about how my final days in college have changed me.  As you can tell by my lack of posting, it’s hard for me to come across a good blog idea with my current work load.  If I ever do make a post like that, you’ll probably see it in 2020.

Just kidding.

But am I?

What this post does do, is say hello.

A quick catch up: 

  1. I’m in my final semester of college.  I graduate on December 16th. (What the fuck?)
  2. I have a pending manuscript within the lab I work at, where I am a primary author.  Yes, primary author.  (I truly don’t know how I got to this point.)
  3. I moved in with my boyfriend.  (Our apartment is super gay and we have two cats.  Future blog post?)

All these points could make blog posts in the coming months.  And hey, maybe I’ll actually get to it.  But, in reality, what you should really expect, is what comes from my writing Capstone course, Writing 420.

Yes, it’s Writing 420.  I don’t know how they decided on the number 420.  There are only two “Writing” courses at the university:  Writing 220 (the Intro course) and Writing 420 (The Capstone course).  They literally could have picked any number.   Are they trying to say something?  I mean they have Cottage Inn Pizza (and a lot of it) at all the Minor in Writing events… is everyone in the department constantly blazed?  God, I hope so.

Anyway.

As some of you may know, I’m getting a lovely minor in writing through the Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan.  (Just rolls off the tongue, right?)  Because of this, I have to produce not just a website, but a product website.  What this means, is my website cannot be like my Gateway Website, which is very me-focused.  While I can be a part of the website, it’s supposed to serve some greater purpose.  It is supposed to exist on its own as a functioning part of the real world.  (Whatever the fuck that means.)

Also if you haven’t read my Gateway website, you should!  I wrote a 28 page fictional story about two gay guys in high school.   (That’ll keep you out of my Tumblr messages and Twitter DMs for at least a few days.)

Anyway.

My product is going to be a tool for microbiome researchers to process data.  It’s a little hard to explain (ANOTHER BLOG POST?!), but when my website goes live, I’ll post about it on here.  (Explain some news around November/December).

While the microbiome website won’t be as interesting as my usual content, I’ve found some excuses to be sassy.  My website will be able to create nine different types of classic microbiome figures.  Think:  bar graphs, pie charts, exponential plots.  Alongside these “figure makers”, I’m going to write some creative essays to accompany each type of figure.  They’ll teach you about that type of data but relate it back to my own life.  What do I mean by this?  While here are some examples/sneak peeks:

  1. Relative Abundance Plots.  AKA what different bacteria make up a given microbiome?  I’ll explain this figure in simple terms and then switch to talking about what things make up me?  What different things (e.g. traumas, interests, memories) are major components in my own identity?  
  2. PCoA Plots.  AKA how do two different microbiomes relate to each other, are they similar or different?  It’s basically plots two microbiomes on an XY plane.  If they cluster together, they’re the same.  If they cluster apart, they’re different.  (Don’t focus on understanding it yet.)  I’ll switch to talking about How have I changed since moving from Negaunee, MI to Ann Arbor, MI for college?  Do I still relate to the high school version of me?  What ways am I the same?  What ways am I different?  Would I even recognize myself?

In addition to these essays, I’m going to post an essay right now, right here that I wrote Junior year in my English 325 class, Art of the Essay.  (Fantastic class, by the way.)  I reflect on struggling with the lost of my first dog, Molly, which happened while I was taking the class.

So.

Expect some things soon.

Here goes nothing.

I’m going to post it without reading it, without editing it, without changing it.

Let me know what you think.


 


Zachary Carlson

English 325

Louis Cicciarelli

18 April 2017

 

Gold

She was gold.

Was.

I think that’s what hurts the most, was.  Permanently trapped in the past, she is unobtainable in the worst possible way.  

 

She died at 14, like most dogs, which wasn’t surprising. What was was her vitality, her desire to live, run, play, eat, bark.  She was a cancer survivor, had a baseball-sized mass on her chest, and was 20 pounds too big. But that was all meaningless to her. To her, all that mattered was when she was getting her next bowl of food and when she could go outside to smell the fresh, unforgiving, Northern Michigan air.

But that’s all speculation; she was a dog after all. The disconnect between species both brought us together and shattered the connection we had.

 

A bark.

Food?  Outside?  Water? Play?

There was no way to decipher the sound and its meaning, so an endless game of guess-and-test dominated my life since I was seven.

 

She was a golden retriever.

Her name was Molly.

And she was most definitely gold.

 

&

 

I don’t know the specifics, I don’t know how, all I know is I’m on my way to a house to pick out a dog.  A dog.  I’m in second grade, with my best friend Luke, and I’m about to own a dog.  In between my incessant questions of “Are we there yet?” I imagine all the things we’ll do:  play fetch, run around in the creek behind my new house in the woods, and play tug-of-war with toys.  Lots and lots of toys.  My small, first grade mind – immune to the understanding of time – suddenly finds itself surrounded by puppies.  Overwhelmed, I can’t decide which one to pick up. My mom comes over, sees my hesitation, and points to a small golden retriever lounging under a chair.  

“Why not get that one, sweetie?” She guides me to the puppy.  “Isn’t she soft!”

Without realizing it, a smile creeps onto my face and I start giggling.  All at once, the barrier, the hesitation, the fear shatters and I reach to touch her.  She is unbelievably soft and will not stop licking my face.  Oddly enough, I love it.  I scream with delight and I become absorbed in this small puppy’s presence.  I cannot remember a time before this dog and all I know is that I want it. This tiny ball of energy is the missing puzzle piece I didn’t even know I had lost.

&

Five seconds pass before she pushes me again to leave. Her voice is tense, a little annoyed.  “Zachary, go get your sister.”  

My mom is relentless.  Since I got my license on my 16th birthday a few months ago, she’s made me drive everywhere.  And I mean everywhere.

I overcome the static friction gluing me to the couch, get up, and reluctantly get in the car.

It’s 9:00pm and I just want to play Mass Effect 3.

The second I step outside, I knew I made a mistake:  snow dominates my entire field of vision. All I can see is cold, harsh, white, balls of fury, plummeting towards me, daring me to even attempt to drive through it.  I guess this is how I die.

With my thin jacket and pissy attitude, I get into my 2007 Envoy.  (A terrible excuse for a car that is even worse on gas.) Ironically enough, the only reason this monstrosity is in our garage is because of the fact it has all-wheel drive and we live on a dirt road in the middle of the woods; yet, somehow I broke the all-wheel drive the previous fall.  Nevertheless, I buckle my seatbelt and hope to get to the ice rink five miles away before I die from hypothermia.

Slowly but surely, I get to the CR-510.  From there, I am feet from Midway Drive, which will bring me directly to US-41, also known as a snow-free road.  Drowning in anticipation, I fail to register the brown blob of fur on the left side of the road and I go over a bump.  

Suddenly, it clicks:  I just hit a deer.

“Oh!” The surprise in my surprised reaction is embarrassingly unconvincing.

Immediately, I laugh and start orchestrating a tweet, knowing this quirky, yet fun moment in my crazy life will be sure to get at least 12 favorites.  I play with “I just hit a deer and I’ve had my license for one year, wtf Mother Nature, I thought you were on my side” but it doesn’t feel right.  

This is where things get serious.  I had assumed the deer had just graced the car and the damage was trivial, but something was nagging at me.  One mile from my sister, I pull over and check on the car. My heart drops; the right tail light is completely smashed and a piece of metal is dangling dangerously close to the tire.  There’s no way I could drive the car safely.

My quirky moment turns into an annoyance and later an inconvenience.  

I call my mom and she picks me up, equally annoyed.  

She asks where the deer came out, I tell her, and we stop to get a piece of the car with some animal fur in it, so our insurance will cover the repairs.  Also our curiosity got the best of us and we went to see if the deer was anywhere nearby.

It was still there.  Dead.

I feel nothing.  Not necessarily numbness, but nothing.  Neutral. Unfazed. I don’t feel upset, or satisfied, I just see a dead deer.  I get back into the car, we go home, and I am greeted enthusiastically by my three dogs.

Right then and there I realized something, when I first hit the deer, I didn’t even check on them, I just kept driving.  What if I had hit a dog? Would I have acted the same way? I look at my dogs. Do they know I just hit a deer and kept driving?  I note the similarities between dogs and deer.  What really separates them into different categories, the fact we gave the dogs individual names?

&

When we brought Molly home for the first time, she immediately declared that she owned the place.  Prior to her arrival, we placed small wooden boards in the doorways to contain her to one hallway. She jumped over the small boards without even thinking and exited the hallway immediately.  (Clearly, we had never owned a dog before.)

 

The Beliefs Of The Modern Golden Retriever #1:

Never stop moving.  If you do, you will die.

 

Moving almost too fast to see, she didn’t wait for us to catch up.  Only after investigating every single square inch of her “confined” space did she relax and let us see her, let us see what we let loose in our newly built home.  

She was perfectly sized, soft, and gold.  The color was comforting, it felt safe and familiar.  Her aura completely changed the house: while it was dark and vast before, after her arrival, the house was bursting with life.  Juxtaposed up against the bare, white walls, her gold fur was borderline offensive. She made the house feel like it was breathing.  My three-year-old sister was crying, she had no idea what Molly was, but with my superior First Grade mind, I couldn’t stop smiling.  

A dog.

A dog.

I squeezed her until I couldn’t any longer.

&

Let me guess:  when you see a dog on campus, you look but you also don’t.  You don’t immediately scream, “Dog!” but instead, with your well trained eye, you give it as many side glances as you physically can without obviously obsessing over its existence.

 

The Mantra Of The Modern College Student:  

A Dog’s Owner Cannot Know I Want To Steal Its Dog

 

So instead, you scream internally, perk up regardless of the weather, and send the dog your love telepathically, desperately hoping it receives your message.

But that’s just a guess.

&

Regardless of what I say, she wasn’t perfect.  No matter how soft or beautiful Molly was, she was still a dog.

 

The Beliefs Of The Modern Golden Retriever #2:

We Are Not Herbivores.

 

During the first few years, she’d get too excited and run away, she’d get sick and poop disks on liquid feces on the floor, she’d bring back dead birds, squirrels, and deer bones and sometimes leave them in the house.  No matter how much we trained her, she was still a dog. But we loved that about her. She had a side of her that was untouchable by us, something she held tightly and only let go of due to old age. Her rare gifts of dead animals caused fights over who would put a towel over the dead squirrel and throw it away.  (I did and my mom gave me $1.00 for it.) Her poop disks, oddly enough, trained us and conditioned us to be patient with dogs. If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have gotten three more. When she ran away, we’d fear she’d never come back. Her absence reminded us of how much we needed her presence.

She was our first, and we’ll never forget that.

&

“She has cancer.”  I’m in sixth grade.

It hit me like a bullet.

I look at her on the couch: she’s smiling, oblivious.  Does she even know?

I muster out a response through the panic and my mom repeats:  “She has cancer, I’m so sorry.”

She’s bigger now, filled in.  Almost four. Almost a little too big.  I can’t say I’m surprised. She had a mass on her chest for months, but we just hoped it was a fat mass, something common in larger dogs.  I never figured out how she got so big. She was outside just as much as the other dogs, ate just as much as the other dogs, but something made things stick to her more.  Food, people, friends, me.  Something about her made you give her a second glance, hug her a little longer, make her see you.  She wasn’t elitist, she didn’t discriminate, but there was an additional level of purity she had alongside being a carefree dog.  It’s hard to describe, you could just feel it.

She always looked powerful, almost like a queen.  I really don’t mean to be cheesy, that’s just how she really looked.  Her full coat condensed more so on her chest, it made her look proud, majestic, and all-knowing.  Have you ever noticed how sometimes dogs blink weirdly and it looks like they’re winking at you? She did the same thing, but for her it actually felt like she was.  

They were able to successfully remove the tumor, but it didn’t fix everything.  I don’t mean from a medical perspective, she was fine for the next few years and the cancer never resurfaced.  But our view of her changed irreversibly. She still ran the same, smiled the same, ate the same, but it felt, I don’t know, different.  It wasn’t necessarily, ‘Maybe the cancer will come back,’ it just felt like there was something fragile there that wasn’t there before.  Something deep within her that we couldn’t get out no matter how hard we tried to destroy it.  I don’t mean to be blunt, but it ruined the next eight years. Rather than enjoy the time we had with her, embrace her energy, and assume that was the norm, we half-joked that she was going to die within the year.  There was no way she’d make it. The doctors were as shocked as we were.   But she was a dog, she didn’t care what humans thought.  She didn’t live by the same guidelines.

She was the Queen of the Forest.  

&

Why do we love animals as much as we do?  

I’m not asking scientifically or philosophically.  (This isn’t a research paper.)

This is a question you ask when you don’t want the answer.

The intense feeling of joy you feel when you see a dog on campus, the sorrow most pet owners feel when their pet dies.  Do we really want that dehumanized to a formula?

I think we love pets as much as we do because of their purity, their innocence.  Their unburdened lifestyle. We see them each morning before we go to class and think, ‘You are so lucky.  Do you realize how lucky you are?  I’d give anything to switch places with you.’  They don’t need to worry about science, or politics, or death.  They just need to be.  

It becomes a privilege to witness that feeling, that type of existence.  To be the perceived cause of joy and life for a pet. They think you are their king or queen, when in reality your life is probably a mess or at least bleak in comparison to their own beliefs.  

But it doesn’t really matter, does it?  Because all of our thoughts about what pets are thinking or the fact they only live a fraction of our life melts away when we become absorbed by their ability to love endlessly, when we see how their face lights up when we return home, when we see them do ridiculously stupid things.  When they make us feel loved, which is something we desperately, desperately want.

So we jump in.

&

Every summer I went back home from college she was the one thing in the house that was constant.  The other dogs aged and caught up to her, but Molly was consistently large. Consistently old. Consistently smiling.  At the end of every summer, I was secretly relieved. It meant I survived another four month period at home without her dying.  Meaning, she was more likely to die when I wasn’t there. I was terrified of having to be faced not only with my first dog dying, but having to figure out what to do logistically.  Who do I call? 9-1-1? The vet? My mom? I have no idea how I’d feel, what I’d do. I was even scared I wouldn’t cry.

But each spring when I came back again, there she was.

See?  I told you I was fine, stop being so dramatic.  

&

It seemed as though dogs started appearing out of thin air.  First it was Molly, the original. Then when I was in middle school, a few years later, came Raney, a black lab – named after the creek near our house.  Dexter came after that once I entered high school, an incredibly fluffy gold pomeranian who still poops inside.  And this past summer my sister added Remi, a yellow lab who will not stop moving.  (Even when she sleeps she somehow finds herself all the way across the house when she wakes up.)

It was fascinating watching each dog interact with Molly, but also depressing.  The first blow was with Raney. Raney was beautiful, with a rough but soft coat comparable to wolves.  She was a poster child, fit, and above all, a puppy.  I’m sure you can conclude who we (unfairly) focused all of our attention to.  It devastated Molly. Due to unintentional abandonment and her growing size, she was noticeably more lethargic and depressed.  But how could you blame us? Molly’s thick fluffy hair didn’t feel nearly as good as Raney’s wolf-like coat. Her fur was so much more cleaner.  Molly’s hair naturally became matted if we didn’t wash her that often.  (We didn’t wash her that often.) It’s not like we wanted her to suffer.  

It took years before the house dynamic returned to equilibrium and Raney’s presence began to match Molly.  Only then did our Queen return, cool and as nonchalant as ever. Only then did we see her smile, see her jump, see her soar.

&

She died again when she was 10.  I was a senior in high school and it was late – a school night – and I was just about to go to bed when I heard a creaking noise coming from the hallway.   The house was quiet with everyone else asleep and the creaking noise was amplified accordingly, jolting me from my focus. Thoughts starting going through my head:  What the fuck was that?  Was I going to die?  Was I about to be murdered?  How will I turn in my Calc homework?  Somehow, I forced myself to open the door.  

In the brightly lit hallway was Molly.  Molly was standing on all fours and focusing, painfully, on the ground with her lips pulled back revealing her sharp, stained teeth.  She wasn’t choking, growling, or about to puke; it was something else entirely. She was uncontrollably making this sound.  It sounded like someone was taking a metal rod and hit each of her teeth within milliseconds of each other creating this sound so disturbing I thought I was watching my dog die.  

I panicked.  I had no idea what was happening – Google told me nothing – and with her cancer in remission for only four years adding onto her massive size, I feared the worst.  I saw this image I had of her in my mind fade away even more, her courage and strength deteriorating into nothing. I didn’t think she’d live through the hour. How quickly this strong image of her comes crashing down after it took years to rebuild.

She, of course, was fine.  Twenty minutes later she stopped and continuing living as if nothing had happened.  We, on the other hand, did not. If we thought she was fragile after her cancer scare, imagine how we felt then.  I looked at her – seemingly a more fragile version of what she was the first day she blew through our hallway like a tornado, jumping over wooden board barriers, saliva flying everywhere – and then I look at our other, younger dogs – both larger than life, constantly overshadowing Molly’s former glory.  How could Molly possibly survive before the morning let alone before I graduated high school?

&

 

Towards the end, I’d start taking “just-in-case” pictures.  Once I started college, I felt like I entered the danger zone, where she could drop at any moment.  I’d ignore the other dogs and try and capture the spirit, softness, and vibrant shades of gold every summer before time ran out.  There was a particular vulnerability when I photographed her sitting, facing me. Her true self was masked by how well trained she was.  She was too focused on getting a treat rather than being herself.

 

The Beliefs Of The Modern Golden Retriever #3:

Never let your owner take your picture in exchange for a treat.

We are better than that.

 

It was better to photograph her when she was sitting outside, oblivious to paparazzi, or her looking out a window, focused on some small prey. The best picture I got was her standing on my bed, looking into the forest.  Focused more than ever, I noticed how complicated her coat was. It wasn’t just gold, she owned every possible shade of it. She was covered in playful swirls of light and dark gold that lead to bursts of fur on her stomach and chest.  These explosions balanced her smooth, slick backside, both of which attracted light in different but equally powerful ways.

She was a beacon, reminding the forest that she was still Queen and not going anywhere.

&

Like I said, I was relieved when I left each summer.  But not entirely. Just as I was about to drive down to Ann Arbor in fall, I’d tell my mom, “Sorry!  I forgot something,” and I’d go back inside and sit with Molly. She isn’t special in this respect, I do this to all the dogs, if I’m being honest.  But with her, it’s a little different. For her, I’d spend a little more time and I’d whisper:

It’s okay to let go, you’ve had a good run.  You’ve done enough.

And then I’d go to back to college, come back the next spring, survive the summer, and repeat.

 

It’s okay to let go, you’ve had a good run.  You’ve done enough.

It’s okay to let go, you’ve had a good run.  You’ve done enough.

It’s okay to let go, you’ve had a good run.  You’ve done enoug-

 

&

Brokeback Mountain II

There will never be a day where I won’t be thankful I grew up surrounded by dirt.  Living in the woods has its disadvantages, yes, but there’s something about coexisting with wild animals that humbles you.  I forgot about that when I went to college.  I forgot what a forest looks like in the fall.  I forgot what dirt smells like.  Even though it was easy to lose myself in college essays and physics exams, there’s still a small sliver of me that remembers.

As cheesy as it sounds, I needed a retreat.  Living in a larger city than those in the Upper Peninsula exposed me to dozens of perspectives and countless stories I otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to, but what it made up for in collective human experiences, it lacked in reminding me where I came from.

Coming to this realization, I felt suffocated.  My life felt dangerously routine and alien.  I had to go somewhere.  Not just to a forested area but to a completely different climate.  I needed to throw myself into a habitat that was different, raw, and a little alienating.  I needed to remember what it felt like to wake up to birds and not car horns.  I needed to remember what silence felt like.  So my boyfriend, Ben, and I went to Arizona.

The trip was fantastic, filled with spontaneous detours to monuments and coffee shops.  We made a point to not plan what we did each day, rather see where the signs would take us.  It was a type of calm and fluidity that each of us desperately needed.  With a little bit of money, some snow storms (yes, it snows in Arizona), and some luck, we saw Arizona for what it was worth.  And on top of that, the airbnb host left us alone.  (Thank God.)  

 

While all that was great – and believe me, it was – an awkward moment still sticks out to me like a sore thumb.  We had planned to climb Camelback Mountain in Phoenix on our first full day.  The hike was only 1.6 miles and had an ascension of 1,648 ft.  That sounds doable, right?  Well, no.  Now that I think about it, people in Arizona use the word trail pretty loosely.  Yeah, the trail was clearly labeled and present for the first half of the hike.  But the second?  Trail isn’t as accurate as Literal Rock Face, Hope You Brought Your Rock Climbing Equipment!

Somehow against all known laws of physics, we got to the summit.  Sweaty, smiling, and thirsty, we took in the Arizona landscape.  Which was pretty dull to be honest.  Arizona is basically one giant zen garden, with rocks and dirt taking up the majority of the space and a few plants barely poking through, choking on the dust.  But rather than feeling appalled, I loved it.  Instead of massive amounts of grass, trees, and bushes, I saw dirt.  The contrast between rubble and cactuses was mindblowing.  The isolated plants looked almost offended; I questioned their ability to survive in the bare landscape.  It was almost as if they wanted me to challenge their existence, square up, and fight to the death.  

Hidden among the other tourists at the summit, we took our mandatory “We made it!” selfies to prove to ourselves (and the internet) that we were actually doing something with our spring break.  After a few snacks and a chance to catch our breath, we began the descent.  Bottlenecked behind a terrified couple, it took us a mere three hours to get down the 1.6 mile trail, a climb that only took one.  Counting down the trailer markers, it seemed like it we would never get to the bottom and the slowly growing hunger pangs didn’t help either.  It was almost as if the couple in front of us didn’t want us to get to the bottom.  I bet the two women scouted out at the summit for hours, chose us as their prey, and as we were about to descend, decided to jump in front of us and hope our inevitable frustration at their slow progress would cause us to get distracted, misstep, and fall to our deaths.  But that’s all just speculation.
Somehow, two gays conquered Camelback Mountain.  Yeah, that’s right.  Two gays.  We found ourselves back on the access road, barely beating the sunset, and we made our way to our rental car a quarter mile down the road.  And then it happened:  once we stepped foot on the access road, Ben tried to hold my hand.  For some reason, I hadn’t expected it.  I mean, yeah, he’s my boyfriend, but our hands were dirty from the hiking and I assumed we were too exhausted to show intimacy, preferring to hide within ourselves, embarrassed by our own filth, until we could shower and come back to reality.  

But there he was, trying to hold my hand.

Great.

I noticed a group of men behind me and another group on the other side of the access road.

Even better.

A whirlwind of images flash through my head:  my high school, my parents, coming out, being fifteen.  I know I have to make a decision sooner or later.

What the fuck am I going to do?

 

 

I have a feeling I know what you’re thinking, “Of all the issues you could freak out about on a spring break trip, you pick this one?”  And to be frank, yeah.  I did.  I come from a homophobic town.  My entire life in the closet was filled with episode after episode of being called gay slurs and shunned for my eccentric, feminine personality. Even in sixth grade, I couldn’t catch a break.  It’s almost as if every man at Negaunee Middle School knew I started watching gay porn the second I did and without fail called me out on it every chance they could get.  I slowly made my way through middle school suffering through one – and exactly one – forced heterosexual relationship every year.  These “relationships” were a month long and involved me avoiding the girl at all costs.  After a month of dodging conversations completely and maybe one trip to the mall, I’d break up with them.  Why after one month, you ask?  Well, after about a month in a heterosexual relationship I thought the fact I avoided kissing the girl would change from being viewed as “cute, shy, and a challenge” to being viewed as “suspicious, and probably gay” and the last thing I needed were more suspicious people digging into my closet filled with rainbows.

I’m not going to get into it, but I came out on Facebook.  (How millennial, I know.)   Once I came out, whatever male friends I had mustered abandoned me literally right after commenting “Will never abandon you bro!”  I’m not even exaggerating.  Those that stuck around for just a little bit longer, soon faded away.  It just didn’t feel the same.  It’s not like I had changed or anything.  I was still Zach, but all they could see was the gay oozing out of me.

So for years I was conditioned to view men around me as the enemy, people I couldn’t trust.  If there was even a 10% chance one of them would call me a fag, or talk about me behind my back, that wasn’t a risk I could take.  So I trained myself.  

Straight man = potential for harassment.  

A simple equation.  

 

What the fuck am I going to do?

He’s about to hold my hand, and I don’t know what to do.  Part of me is exhausted, tired of hiding, and just wants to hold his hand.  But another part remembers what happened in Negaunee.  The conditioning comes back when I notice the two groups of men and my heart sinks.  Even though I want to, I can’t hold his hand.  

I admit defeat and move my hand away and mutter some excuse about not wanting to hold his hand because we’re both dirty.

He doesn’t buy it.  He gives me a look, his smile gone.  “What?”

“It’s just, my hands are really dirty.  And you know how clean I like to be and how weird I get, I just don’t think I’d be comfortable.”  I start to feel this moment we just had, this perfect moment we had climbing the mountain fade away and become replaced by something ugly.  You could almost smell the shame radiating from me.

“Um, okay, Zach.” He takes his hand back and looks straight ahead.  He almost looks rigid, like something severed between us and he’s trying to recalibrate.  I don’t know what he’s thinking.

I’m nauseous.  I know he doesn’t believe me.  How can I tell him my irrational fear and expect him to believe I’m not just embarrassed to be with him?  And even if he did believe me, why should I let my assumptions about people all the way across the country affect how I interact with my boyfriend on a trip we spent a lot of money on?  People suck.  As much as I don’t want to somehow accidentally fall back into the culture I grew up in, someone will call my boyfriend and I fags before long.  No matter how much I hide, how much I shrink, it’ll happen.  Why can’t I just accept that, shield myself from the slurs, and enjoy the moment?  

We don’t say a word until we get to the car.

We sit.  

The car’s hot from sitting in the sun all day.  

I take a breathe and reach for his phone to enter in the directions back to our airbnb.  He breaks the ice, “Are you sure you want to touch my phone, Mr. Dirty Hands?”  He’s not smiling but I know he’s being light-hearted.  Or at least I think he is.  I hope he is.  There’s humor there, I can taste it, but there’s something darker, too.  Anger.  Frustration.  Confusion.  It all comes at me in a regurgitated mess.  

I shrink a little.  “I’m sorry I didn’t hold your hand…” I trail off.  I don’t know what to say.  Actually, I do.  I should’ve said I was afraid the group of guys would have called us faggots.  I should’ve reminded him of my upbringing, the pushback I got from classmates, parents, and teachers.  (Yes, teachers.  Let me repeat that: teachers at NHS openly opposed same sex marriage.)  I could have mentioned that.  I could have explained what it felt like to grow up in a town where those who were educating us opposed same sex marriage and handed us health textbooks that told us being “gay” was just a phase and we’d grow out of it soon enough.  I could have explained what it felt like to grow up in a town where a student in an English class wrote a story that only featured LGBT characters, and the teacher refused to grade it.  

But I didn’t.  

I said nothing.

 

 

I always wonder who I would have been with different parents.  Different teachers.  Different opportunities.  I mean, who hasn’t?  I wonder if the U.P. allowed me to grow, with its endless forests, or it suppressed me, with its narrow views and small populations.  If my dad wasn’t homophobic, would I have held Ben’s hand?  What about if my government teacher hadn’t said he was against gay marriage?  Would I haven’t smiled more?  What if every time a classmate called me a queer, gay, a fag, they told me they liked my shirt, or I don’t know, asked me what I got for #4 on the worksheet?  (I got 16.4 grams, Eric.)  

I sound ungrateful of the support allies have given me.  Let me say this:  I’m not.  Although my life has its flaws, I can acknowledge my privilege not only as a white man, but as a gay person living in America.  Of the 195 countries the U.S. recognizes as independent, 10 of them list homosexuality punishable by death and 65 have it listed as illegal.  We think we’ve made global progress with gay rights, but only 22 countries have same sex marriage legalized (Cameron).  That’s barely 10%.  Yes, two other countries (Mexico and the U.K.) have legalized same sex marriage, but only in some territories but not others.  And yes, an additional 13 countries have same sex civil unions legalized, but civil unions only offer the same protection as marriages in state issues, not federal.   

Clearly, we’re not as progressive on the global scale as we’d like to seem.  

 

 

I can still remember where I was when same sex marriage was legalized in the United States.  I was staying the week at a friend’s house downstate, I had just woken up, and naturally, I went to check my Facebook.  If I’m being completely honest, I was still a little high from the night before and I had slept in a little too late.  (It was 3:00 pm.)  Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide.  27 June 2015.  It took a few seconds for the headline to sink in.  I didn’t think same sex marriage would have been legalized in my lifetime, let alone when I was only 19.  I almost didn’t want to believe it.  I didn’t want to force the “same sex marriage” ideology more than I already had.  I didn’t want to see homophobic opinion after homophobic opinion from my high school friends as they heard the news.  I didn’t want to be pushed into the limelight; I wasn’t prepared.

Same sex marriage has been legal for roughly 629 days.  What’s happened since?  Has anything actually changed?  President Trump had originally planned to repeal Obama’s executive orders for LGBT citizens (the administration had even started drafting the executive order) but only after public pressure and relentless questioning, did they backtrack (Grindley).  I guess that’s comforting?  The public opinion seems to favor gay marriage, so the President backs off.  But the President wouldn’t have proposed that change in the first place unless someone told him to – either himself, the Republican party, or his semi-formed cabinet.  Clearly we aren’t all in agreeance just yet.  

We also aren’t done.  Same sex marriage was an incredible step for LGBT activists, but the fight is far from over.  For example, what about anti-discrimination laws for housing for LGBT tenants?  So far, 22 states have passed legislation for housing anti-discrimination but an equal number of states neglect sexual orientation in hate crime data (Cameron).  With hate crimes like the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, can we really call our progress progress if the states themselves don’t recognize hate crimes for what they are?

 

 

My viewpoint isn’t entirely unsatisfied.  (Shocking, I know.)  Since same sex marriage was legalized, the entertainment industry had its own sort of revolution.  This past February at the 89th Academy Awards, Moonlight became the first LGBT movie to win Best Picture, the Academy’s most prestigious award.  Not only was Moonlight a huge step for the LGBT community, but it was a huge step for underprivileged inner-city black youth and a huge step for Muslim actors, with Mahershala Ali becoming the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar (Stolworthy).  Ironically enough, this historic moment was overshadowed by the infamous oscar flub which immediately created two hours worth of meme material when La La Land was accidentally announced the winner of Best Picture.  Hopefully after three weeks, the fact that Moonlight won is prevailing over the fact La La Land didn’t.  (And just as a side note, let’s not pretend La La Land was better than Moonlight.  Where Moonlight left me speechless, La La Land left me satisfied.  Best Pictures are more than pleasing an audience, they’re about challenging them.)

The Oscar voting pool is 91% white, 76% male, and has an average voter age of 63 years old (Keegan).  If an organization that is drowning in that much privilege can select Moonlight to be Best Picture over a movie like La La Land, what’s stopping the rest of us?  (Remember, La La Land was a movie about glamorizing Hollywood, which the Academy loves.)  

The facts are clear: times are changing, regardless of how slow it may seem.  So is my viewpoint of the U.P. still accurate?  I haven’t been back in that high school in almost three years and even as I was going through high school, the slurs became more and more intermittent, to the point of near nonexistence.  Instead of the rest of the country being behind, was I the one that was this whole time?  

I don’t think so.  Although Moonlight was a historic win and a rightfully deserved one, it was one movie.  We’re talking about massive social reform for the entire globe after persecuting homosexuals for centuries.  No matter how much money Moonlight makes or how many people see it, it can only extend its reach so far.  The vast majority of people from my hometown probably don’t know what Moonlight is.  Above that, the teachers I mentioned at my high school still teach and still suppress expressing pro-LGBT ideas.  And above that we have the Trump Administration and countries that list homosexuality punishable by death.  We not only can’t see the finish, we are nowhere near it.  

 

 

“What are you talking about, your eyes are black.” I squint, trying to see Ben’s supposedly brown eyes.  All I could see was black.

“What?  I’m telling you, my eyes are brown.”  He sounds a little hurt, but it’s playful.

An idea.  “Wait, move into the light more, maybe it’s just too dark.”

He shifts his body towards the light coming through the Bubble Island window behind me.  It’s 2:00pm and the beginning of December.

And just then, I see it.  An entire world comes to light before me.  Brown was an understatement.  It was too generic, too common.  His eyes were anything but.  Illuminated by the early afternoon sunlight, I saw the warm, maple syrup eyes he’s been hiding from me for the past month since we started talking on Tinder.  I see the delicate peaks and troughs in his colorful – yes, colorful – brown irises.  It’s almost as if I’m seeing him for the first time all over again.  

I’m speechless, flustered, and I try to take all of him in at once.  His skin is flawless, still a little tan, and even from across the table I can tell how smooth it is.  There isn’t a single mark on his face, aside from the stubble already growing back since he shaved this morning.  The stubble complements his hair, which is almost painfully thick and curly.  If you run your hand through his hair, you get stuck.  But it’s a good kind of stuck.  Getting your hand to go smoothly from forehead to the back of his neck would defy physics.  His curls reflect the December light alongside his eyes and I swear to God, he’s glowing.  Don’t even get me started on his eyelashes.  Women would end lives to get the long, black lashes he was blessed with.  I don’t want to be cheesy and I don’t really believe the eyes are the window to the soul, but for some reason I get it.  I get the saying because I see him.  I see this introverted, beautiful, 5’6 guy sitting across from me and I smile.  I see pain and struggle.  I can see his cat, Simon, in him, too.  I see this inquisitive guy, who loves coding, cats, and lemon bars from Espresso Royale looking back at me.  I see a guy I want to date.  He widens his eyes a little and moves his head slightly from side to side almost impatiently, waiting for my response.  I snap back to reality.

“Holy shit, your eyes are brown.”  

He smiles and we eat the rest of the mochi.

 

 

I think back to Arizona, back to the moment this whole thing started.  In between then I’ve gone back to Negaunee, MI, explored the world status of same sex marriage, and considered Moonlight, but I’m no more certain than I was before.  Is my fear of large groups of men irrational or rational?  I see wins like same sex marriage and Moonlight and I want to be relieved.  I want to feel a weight has come off my shoulders and I want to cry tears of happiness, because, ‘yes, it’s finally over.  The days of my homophobic childhood are distant and were just bad dreams to begin with.’  But, I can’t.  

I can’t because I feel this presence.  I feel this darkness inside me – almost like someone else – telling me that ‘that group of guys, yeah, that group of guys over there, will definitely call you faggots, so if you know what’s best for you don’t hold hands.’  I hear muffled threats from my dad when I was thirteen and I hear my classmates tormenting me.  I remember what it felt like to pray to God that something would happen and I’d promise to stop being gay in return.  I can smell the trampoline I jumped on with my bestfriend when I was eight years old when I told him I was going to be bisexual when I grew up for science.  (I soon learned there wasn’t enough demand for that in research labs.)  But I also see Ben courageously telling his conservative parents I’m his boyfriend.  I see our meals finally come after I suffered through an awkward and forced but equally sweet and endearing dinner with his parents.  (They liked me.)   I remember I can say I have a boyfriend to begin with and I do so slowly, feeling and chewing each syllable in my mouth as I declare it to whoever will listen.  I see my friends eagerly awaiting updates from how meeting his parents went, and I see old classmates commend me for how much I’ve grown since I’ve graduated.  You’re not even the same person, anymore.  To which I respond, I know, with a smile.

But the one thing I can’t do is hold Ben’s hand.

And that’s okay.  Even if I still don’t know why I can’t hold Ben’s hand, rather than let my experiences control my decisions, I’ll push back with as much force and see what lies underneath.  Instead of assuming my fear just stems from my childhood, I’ll lift up the curtain, explore, and hopefully understand.  But is that something I really want to do?  I market myself as fearless and provocative.  I constantly think about who people are, but if I look at who I am, will I like what I see?  

In ten pages, I’m not really any closer to feeling comfortable with holding his hand, but maybe this isn’t an ten page issue.  We’re talking about a lifetime long journey here.  This can’t fit conveniently into a few thousand words, double spaced, with work cited page stapled to the back.  I mean, there are other ways to show intimacy to each other and to the public.  We don’t have to hold hands in public and if I’m being honest I’m a pretty sweaty guy.  But now that I think about it, we both have instagram accounts and I’m sure we can take some incredible pictures together if we tried hard enough.

 


NOTE:  This was the second essay I wrote for English 325, Art of the Essay. 

This Isn’t Funny, It’s Actually Pretty Gay.

It’s been five years.  Five years of growth and laughter and failure.  Five years of almost more change than I can handle.  Five years of being openly gay.  I’ve never acknowledged July 15th, 2011 and I think it’s about time.

I’ve always wondered what I’d say when I’d do a reflective essay regarding that night.  What would I say?  Who would I address?  Would I be pissed?  Would I thank anyone?  How personal would I get?  As I type this, I still have these questions, so let’s start with something easy:  a little background.

Most don’t know how or why I came out.  (Everyone has a story, right?)  A combination of depression, indifference, and crushing a little too hard on my straight best friend (not necessarily in that order) led to the inevitable:  the bitchiest Facebook status ever posted by a 15 year old.

I was confused, upset, and dressed as Colin Creevey from Harry Potter.  Frankly, I don’t remember much about the final Harry Potter movie, just that I didn’t want to be there.  But there I was, with a handful of older friends excitedly taking in every scene leading to the end of the cinematic Harry Potter series as we knew it.

It was 12:00am.

July 15th had begun.

While storyline after storyline ended nicely, I was thinking.  Pondering.  Why am I still in the closet?  What would happen if I came out?  Why am I still in the closet?  It’s hard to describe how I felt during that movie but I think the word terrified comes close.  I had spent the previous two years barely holding onto this image of heterosexuality, and here it was, crumbling before me.  Now, I know it wasn’t a surprise to some of you and I know that I’m not the most masculine, but 9th Grade Me didn’t know that.  Hell, he rejected the claim of homosexuality so strongly he almost convinced himself it wasn’t true.

It was 2:10am.

The internal questions didn’t stop; I was constantly going back and forth between my sexuality, my future, and my friends.  The movie ended and we left the theater.  I didn’t really notice what was happening as we entered the McDonald’s drive-thru.  I remember my friend paying at the middle window and then it happened in the fucking McDonald’s drive-thru.  I thought:  What would I say? 

It was 3:00am and the threshold was met.  Something about the ambiance of McDonald’s pushed me over the edge.  (Naturally.)  It was impossible to back out at this point.  I had never felt more alone in my life, I was 15, and this was all I thought I had.  This secret, this potential for exposure. I wanted to see how far I could push this.

So I did.

The drive home was a blur.  3:30am.  I was dropped off and immediately went to my laptop and started typing.  It took thirty minutes.  I showed a friend and she approved.  Loved it, even.   (Thanks, Courtney.  I miss you.)  The decision was made.   4:05am.

I went to sleep.  (Or at least tried to.)

I woke up.

2:10pm.

I went to the computer.

I typed the Facebook status.

I took a deep breath.  (Or maybe five.)

This is it.

July 15th, 2011.  2:18pm.

I clicked post.

(Warning: this paragraph is really disgusting and sappy.)  I walked downstairs, saw my sister sitting down watching TV.   I put on running shorts and took one last look at her.  She was 14 and she was about to find out her brother was gay. This is it.  I ran on my symbolic run as a sort of rite of passage.  (See, I told you.)  I came back ready.  (SEE, I TOLD YOU.)  I went on Facebook and was flooded with love and acceptance.

This is what shocked me.  There’s an paradoxical culture in the U.P. about homosexuality.  (Or at least there was when I was in high school in 2011.)  There wasn’t an incredibly strong LGBT presence in school, homophobic slurs were rampant, and the indifference was intoxicating.  I wouldn’t mind if you were gay, I guess.  It wasn’t much surprise to me that I became that kid.  I wasn’t Zach Carlson, the guy who loved math and science, was a little too excited, loved running and music, and cried watching Mars Needs Moms.  I was the gay guy.  Although I left the closet, I was in a new imprisonment.  My sexuality was my defining feature, I was different, and regardless of what anyone said or how they comforted me, the sugarcoating was clear:  I was never going to be one of their best friends.  One of the friends.  One of the guys.  I was just gay.  A token character.  The end.

So that’s the story.  That’s how I came out, that’s why, that’s when, that’s the reaction.  But why make my five month comeback to WordPress with just a history lesson?  That day was important, yes, but that was just the start.  In-between July 15th, 2011 and today a lot has happened.  I went away to college, changed my major four times, and did a lot of things I probably shouldn’t have.  I volunteered in Florida.  I joined TEDxUofM.  I listened to every Radiolab posted back until 2013.  I ate way too many bowls of Reese’s Puffs.  I developed an intolerance to tequila.  (I wonder why?)   I looked at things with new perspectives, I challenged myself.  I grew.  I changed.  I lived.

I think back to before I was openly gay and I’m just astonished.  I’m not trying to invalidate the lives of those who are still closeted nor am I trying to invalidate every experience I had prior to 2011, but if I’m being honest the way I’m living my life now is completely different than before. I know that being a white male I have the most privilege of anyone within the LGBT community.  Regardless, it’s still hard and I’m not going to pretend it isn’t.  If I had the chance to be straight versus gay, I can’t say with full confidence that I’d respond without hesitation with “don’t change anything.”  I’m not this person that can feel confident in every situation, I still have feelings.  I’m still insecure.  Words like “gay” and “faggot” really hurt.  Really.  Most of the time, I wish I wasn’t gay even though my life, my friends, my personality would be completely different otherwise.

A lot has faded, though.  My fear of befriending straight guys is almost non-existent.  (But that’s a really generous “almost.”)  I don’t consider whether someone will still like me if I came out to them.  My sexuality is almost never brought up and I can even comfortably bring up my own sex life with friends and it’s almost completelywell, normal.

I didn’t realize this until I left Negaunee High School but my sexuality was always on my mind and it seemed like everyone else’s, too.  Constant uses of the word “gay” in a derogatory sense, constant questions of if I have a boyfriend, constant “Oh my god.. I know this gay guy… and you’re gay… so you’re perfect for each other!” reminded me of what everyone thought I was:  just a gay guy.   It reminded me of how little they actually understood me.  Which is kind of understandable.  We were 15-17 year olds in a small, pretty homogeneous town.  There wasn’t much diversity or variety.  Without sounding self-inflating, someone coming out wasn’t something that happened everyday five years ago, and with that comes the time needed to adjust.

I’m not trying to blame and shame any individual I went to high school with by posting this.  First off, there were those who were strong allies and those who weren’t.  I truly appreciate some of the help a lot of you provided to me through 9th-10th grade.  (Hi, Amanda.)

This isn’t an attack on all of you, this is a larger critique of the environment we all grew up in.  Although I understand some your good intentions, they were usually drowning in the mistakes you all didn’t realize you were all making.  Each time someone calls something gay or makes fun of someone feminine, your “support” for LGBT rights becomes more veiled and futile.

 

I think back to my years in high school and almost laugh at how awkward and ill-fitted I was in myself.  I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t even want to.  After this five year long journey, I’ve filled into myself, I know who I am, and I know what I like.  (Or at least I think I do.)  I’ve taken on the University of Michigan and the Midwest, not the easiest of competitors.  I’ve been to EDM concerts and low-key venues. I’ve crammed for organic chemistry exam until 1:00am on Saturday nights. I’ve fallen in love.  I’ve realized, no, I haven’t fallen in love.  I’ve been kissed by those who want to kiss me.  I’ve been challenged to the point of tears and then challenged more.   I know what compassion is.  I’ve come out of my closet.

Let’s see what the next five years bring.

Until next time.

(Hopefully a little more gay.)