Friday, April 28, 2017

Looking forward to many new summers

Ten years have passed since I began personal online publishing.

In 2007, when my adventures in blogging began, I had written much but shared little of it with the public. I'd never had many opportunities. I had hardly published any place other than local newsletters and opinion pieces for my left-wing mentors in Buffalo. Some of my earlier articles had gotten picked up by CounterPunch and even Daily Kos. 

Those years seem an eternity ago. In retrospect I must admit that the 2000s were a calmer era of my life, though I have always had a tendency to get myself into arguments I probably could have avoided. If it felt calm, it was because I was blissfully unaware of my own depravity. I lived untroubled by knowledge of how far I'd fallen from Christ.

Back then people who read my polemical pieces against George W. Bush's policies, and especially my antiwar screeds, understandably took me for a leftist. If they got to know me and figured out my complex and often contradictory politics, they usually couldn't handle it. Most people I knew then hailed from the left but didn't think they had any political camp at all. They thought their place on the political spectrum was the only plausible position to hold.


I had started a website with a silly name. There I had posted musings and short aphorisms, plus summaries of the various novels and creative pieces I'd written, informally, among a circle of creative people I no longer have contact with. By the mid-2000s I'd written Johnson Park, a novel about five gay boys growing up in Buffalo, New York; The Melville Affair, an experimental novel with a main character named Dodson Silva, who was madly in love with a wealthy sadist named Austan Melville; Demagogue 2037, a dystopian novel about an old woman roaming through the wasteland of America after the "War to End All Wars"; The Window Period, a script about a group of people's twists and turns as they waited to receive their HIV antibodies test results; Snow in Miami, a dark comedy about a boy raised by a Cuban homosexual (this eventually won first place in a screenplay competition); NoveVatorata, a novel about eight people who all had visions about the end of the world; a number of poetry collections; and a host of other short stories, plays, and biographies of people in my family.

A particular malaise sets in for people who have suffered from overactive imaginations, and who write and write without ever publishing anything. At some point--for me, the completion of graduate work in Classics--such a person must confront the fact that the fantasies and imaginary worlds in which he's lived, will either be laid bare for the world to see, or else cast aside and forgotten.

I knew that I did not have a future as a creative writer. Nobody had told me I should write creatively, and I respect consensuses of that scale. My psychiatrist mother hated my writing, though her lesbian lover often read what I wrote and encouraged me, offering constructive criticism with a gentle touch. Nobody in my family saw much hope in my fictional works. By 2007, I held an assistant professorship at a small Catholic college, in an English department, having worked side by side with creative writers since the 1990s. If I was really going to make it as a novelist or script-writer, some sign from God would have alerted me to the fact. Instead all signs around me seemed to echo the immortal advice of Booker T. Washington-cast your buckets down!

The one talent I seemed to have was nonfiction. People had generally enjoyed my analytical writings, my observations on things, my ability to parse and dissect political discourse and make sense of cultural moments. I had not yet done anything autobiographical, save for a short story called "A Christian Boy and a Proud Man of Color," which I'd gotten published in a literary journal in 2005. 

Hence in 2007, as I donned my cap and gown and accepted the umpteenth degree on a mild day in Buffalo, I felt a message from God: I could not bury my talent in the ground, and my talent was not fiction but political commentary. How would I proceed? I had been, up until then, nothing but an arts & literature guy, someone who read great books and lost himself in metaphors and allegories. "A Christian Boy and a Proud Man of Color," narrated the tale of a Latino man returning to a town where he'd been beaten up, but as a muscular adult, now drawn to stories about Greece and Rome because he didn't want to deal with the intractable questions of race and bigotry surrounding him.

I squirmed in that crawlspace too. I could never make it as a "Latino commentator," because I was much too conservative for the Latino circles that orbited around my then friend, Colombian lesbian Teresa Lodo (now she is deceased.) I would have to find the market where I could invest myself, something totally different from what I'd known until then.

And so it happened: in 2007, I took my awkward Dreamweaver site and instead of posting little poems and summaries of random things I was working on, I blogged. As I sobered up and wrote about politics, I realized I sounded like a Republican. I would write something about politics, a little each day. I got better at scanning the news and finding stories that were worth blogging about. I still dropped my literary references in, because that was a habit too ingrained to break. The Colorful Conservative, the literary criticism collection I published in 2011, formed inside my mind.

It took a while for me to find my voice in the world of conservative politics. The entree was scary for it was a foreign world to me. I had grown up in the airless caves of the left, trafficking in the buzzwords and secret handshakes that let liberals know you were one of them and not a wacko. This coincided with my gradual call to be born again. The single thing that always kept me yoked to the left was the Roman Catholic Church, culturally so tied to the Latin American left in my mind, I had always feared that departing from liberalism would be literal heresy.

But things on the religious front had changed for a while. On my pilgrimage to Rome with my wife in 2005, I had fallen into a gloomy mood. As much as I loved the visual arts and architecture in Italy, the Vatican filled me with dread. I'd marinated in Catholic liberation theology since my childhood in the 1970s. As I strolled through Rome it dawned on me that I felt angry and betrayed by it. A demon had haunted my mother, I believed, for much of her life--I felt the hauntings in my childhood home. Her own diaries in Spanish referred to a shadowy specter that followed and emotionally tortured her. Her mysterious death at the age of 53, which resulted from a bizarre malady that caused her lungs to malfunction, had kindled my suspicions for years. Had whatever haunted her literally killed her? My mother was, it seemed, a completely different person to each of her children; to my brother she revealed her political beliefs, while to me she tended to show her spiritual side. She wanted very badly to have the Church in her life, but she fell in with leftist clergy who had seemed to promise her a reconciliation of conflicting spiritual wishes, which never came.

These thoughts worried me as I passed through the ornate chapels of the Vatican. My mother may have died waiting for the Church to make good on its promises-should I gamble in the same way?

As I talked with more Protestants and gradually opened my heart to a direct, personal relationship with Jesus, my thoughts grew more conservative in the political sense. The first object of my Christian forgiveness was in fact George W. Bush, a man I'd pilloried in much of my writing. As I felt called to leave the Catholic Church and be born again, strangely I understood Bush more. I could see what his supporters saw in him. The denunciations by those who hated Bush felt suddenly like the sins described by Jesus Christ in the Gospels: see to the log in your own eye before looking at the spec in your brother's, strain not at a gnat lest you swallow a camel. 

So much changed so quickly in the few years after 2007. My wife and I decided to travel to Chicago in December 2007 to the MLA convention. The trade put me on the job market (yes, like an auction). The Siberian weather made me, perhaps, a little imprudent. A state college in Los Angeles decided to offer me a job and like a fool, I took it. I'd spent hours hanging out in front of cable TV while doing childcare stuff. At that time a host of TV shows were set in southern California, everything from Kathy Griffin's reality show to Top Design to Real Housewives. Why not go for it?

It was hard, as well, to continue in my position at a Catholic college when I knew neither I nor the college could claim to be faithful to the institutional mission. Like most Catholic colleges, this one overflowed with atheists and agnostics who despised the Roman Catholic Church; such faculty had an entente with "good" Catholic students who wanted any excuse to betray their parents' dreams and run around the city engaging in rampant sodomy, promiscuity, drugs, and frivolity. Though robed friars did cross the quadrangle from time to time, everyone knew which keywords to lift from the Catholic mission to justify sheer godlessness. I, too, had still not sanctified myself. I engaged in lots of drunken antics that I could hardly be proud of. As I watched the college fall from its mission I was in no position to judge.

Moving to California would change everything. That drastic relocation in 2008 caused more upheaval than anything I could have anticipated. I drove ahead of my wife and daughter because I had to get the moving truck in and the furniture in place before them. With two buddies I drove across country, listening to random radio and losing myself in fanciful dreams of doing something totally new out west. When I arrived in Los Angeles, my friends helped me move in, and then they left. For a couple of weeks, I was alone in the new city. This was the hot summer of 2008. Barack Obama's face hung everywhere. I had shifted to the right just as the nation rejected vehemently anything tied to conservatism. Something about the constant talk of Obama and his ever-present face threw me into a gloom similar to the one I had in Rome in 2005.

One afternoon, by myself, I decided to take a stroll through the neighborhood. Two older Chinese women saw me strolling. They detected something intense going on inside me. They invited me inside their church-a Chinese Baptist church. There, I went in and met dozens of families busy with summer fellowship plans. An old dentist who'd come to Christ late in life invited me back for Sunday worship. In that church, I was born again and would learn to be a true Christian, over the next eight years.

My career at California State Northridge was rocky from the start. Little did I know that each and every professor in my department-there was no exception in the two crowded floors of faculty-would behave in hideously treacherous ways. In the fall of 2008 I thought the best of everyone, trusting people too quickly and wanting to partake in discourse too eagerly. Whatever hardened their hearts, those colleagues shared an aberrant quickness to annoyance. They became irritated quickly, held grudges for a long time, and not only disliked but insidiously plotted against people who challenged them.

My church was my anchor, keeping me bound to the Word of God. I spoke from the heart about my politics and defended Sarah Palin publicly on my blog. The moment I did that, I lost all my friends in the academic world and drifted more into the life of a pariah.

When I was baptized as a Southern Baptist and became devoted to the Word, I realized what it meant to die to one's earlier self. I had not been a perfect husband until then, but I gradually became better until I could say, I felt like the kind of husband the Bible called me to be. But my wife could find no job in Los Angeles. She ended up receiving a job in 2009, in Wisconsin. We decided to live for a while as a commuter couple, a troublesome status that lasted until 2013, when our family was delightfully reunited. I would have to live on my own in Los Angeles, without my daughter, and without my wife. This blow came just as I was learning to be a better Christian husband. But it was God's will.

It was about that time that I had my first publication in a bona fide conservative venue. My crude blog, which I'd been keeping for two years, had at least helped me hone my ideas and practice my writing. I sent an essay about Sonia Sotomayor to American Thinker, and it was published in the summer of 2009, just as my wife was moving away. I would end up going on to write well over a hundred articles for American Thinker. That site got my name in circulation enough that I would eventually also write for places like Public Discourse, Federalist, and First Things. 


c. 2010
To the extent that one can claim I built a writing career, the career owes everything to blogging. In that sense I find fellowship with the millennial generation. More on that in a moment.

I went away for military training and service by the end of 2009, and returned in 2010 with a manuscript completed-The Colorful Conservative, which would be published in 2011. Also, a head injury that was gradually becoming impossible to ignore.

The concussion happened just before Christmas during military training in Balboa Park, with the local reservists. When I was first admitted to the hospital with a traumatic brain injury in December 2009, there were obvious bruises (there were stitches over my eye and the side of my face was torn up), but it seemed silly to believe that any long term damage was done. I was walking around fine. By the summer of 2010, when I came back from Fort Benning, weird things were happening and I had symptoms that I'd never had before. People recoiled and told me I seemed like somebody else; my speech was different. I had an intensity they hadn't seen before. I felt a lot of weird bouts of anxiety and racing thoughts. (All that receded eventually, but it posed problems for me.)

This summer of 2010 drew the ironclad dividing line in my life. It was then that I actually began blogging in the way I continue to, to this day. Whatever had changed in me--impossible to tell whether it was the baptism, the strained commuter marriage, the head injury, or the move to California--I had become someone unrecognizable to people who knew me before.

My mentors from Buffalo and former colleagues shut me out of their lives. I could never figure out what I had done wrong, though I searched for clues to know what I'd done to warrant being shunned this way. The old friends from Yale, MTV Networks, and graduate school all cut me off, too.

Most tragically, Teresa Lodo, who'd been a confidante and close friend of mine, died. Our mutual friends hid this tragic fact from me. Teresa had moved to Los Angeles, too, and we had hung out and been in contact. But one day her mother called me from Florida to tell me, "Bobby, have they not told you that my daughter died? Or did you forsake her at the end of her life?" She thought I had deliberately shunned Teresa because of my religious conversion, when it was quite the opposite; I had sought energetically to keep her close to me as her health declined. Teresa's mom explained to me that a group of people in Buffalo who used to be my friends as well as Teresa's had flown to Los Angeles, cleaned out Teresa's apartment, handled her funeral, and notified everyone of her demise, but had never told me. This was a woman who had run a Latino writer's circle with me for the better part of ten years. She had read my novels and I had read hers in turn.

"Why didn't they tell me?" I asked Teresa's mother. "Was that Teresa's wish?"

Her mother's hesitancy in explaining things to me had left me with the sinking conclusion that it had been Teresa's instructions to delete me from our circle of friends. I felt like a good person who wanted to be a good friend to everyone. But everybody hated me. It was then, in 2010, that I realized that in the eyes of everyone who knew me before that year--indeed, even in the eyes of the people who'd hired me in Los Angeles--I had committed a breach of contract. They had gotten into a relationship with me assuming I was someone, and now I was someone completely different.

That world from which I'd migrated, and to which I had died, was a realm it would take me years to name and fully diagnose.

It was the dark world of godless liberalism, a callous and inhumane Hades of people with hardened hearts, eager to judge, quick to shame, hard-pressed for patience or compromise with others. I was now a born-again Christian and Jesus was the center of my life; His Word was higher than any of their words; I did not need to be greeted and loved by co-workers or my tenure reviewers or publishers or old classmates from my doctoral program. The freedom God gave me was oppression to those who had built their social world on their power over others (including me); for their world to function they needed me to live under the threats of their emotional retaliation; otherwise I would not do as they bade and my actions could undo their whole system.

To be overshadowed by God felt, to all of them, like an insult. They were accustomed to controlling those around them with the threat of judgment, rejection, or withholding of compassion. Their pains became their calling cards. They seemed to rationalize their willingness to banish me from their networks by perceiving that I had done something wrong to them; I had offended them. I had done so, not by personally insulting them, but rather through categorical statements that they viewed as direct attacks on them. I condemned abortion and homosexuality. They saw these as identities instead of as sins that anybody, I or they, might be delivered from by the blood of Jesus Christ. They lived in a world designed to hate God and rebel against Jesus because they had to punish Christ's followers for believing in Him rather than groveling for their approval.

The lesbians at my university engaged in perhaps the most repulsive behavior. They caballed and manipulated, schemed and lied, causing me an endless string of bureaucratic nightmares. I wanted, at first, to be liked by them. But I saw that no matter what I did, they were offended. No matter how nicely I greeted them, I would be called in by the chair and told that someone had complained that I had offended or victimized them with slights and discourtesies invisible to any but them. They had made their own inscrutable code of behavior a standard of morality greater than scripture. If the lesbian dean didn't like it, it was mortal sin. Unlike Christianity, this system had no place for forgiveness or redemption. Once unmarked by the seal of approval, the "bug" like me had to be squashed and obliterated.

In this disorienting moment I first opened Blogspot accounts and began a series of blogs, culminating in English Manif. In 2010, I launched Text on Trial and Wild West Coconut Show. I deleted the latter on orders of the university because a playwright complained that I criticized him and his play on my blog. Then later I had another blog, Critical News Scan, which I deleted by 2012.

In January 2013, I launched English Manif, initially as a portal to translate stories about the French "Manif pour Tous," or "Protest for All," into English. It got 700,000 hits in its first year. Later, of course, I launched CogWatch, but that was mostly as an online user-friendly storehouse for the podcasts I was recording with Brittany Klein, starting in the summer of 2015.

My blogs soothed me at times. At other times they got me in tremendous trouble. For instance, it was largely out-of-context quotes from my blogs that filled the "hater" profiles on me by GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, Right Wing Watch, and later the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Yet I cannot condemn my own blogs, for these blogs actually paved my way into the higher-exposure writing that has characterized my public work since 2010. By 2010, as I was blogging a lot about Don't Ask Don't Tell, my work had come to the attention of people far beyond the small circles I'd know until then. Many of the more salient blog posts then became the raw material for an uptick in articles I published on American Thinker throughout 2011. Eventually these discussions became the subject of discussion in the comments sections of Chronicle of Higher Education articles, which led to my publication of "Growing Up with Two Moms" in August 2012. The latter would thrust me into the public spotlight in a way I had never experienced before. Arguably the dramatic crescendo was my appearance in Paris in March 2013 for the massive crowd protesting against gay marriage.

By late 2014 I had removed the vast majority of blog posts from online, in an effort to calm down the storms into which my writing had taken me. I go back and forth about whether that was a mistake. It made sense at the time. I believed, then, that I needed to run everything past editors and publish things in hard copies rather than swimming with the sharks in the always-dangerous world of blogging. But on the other hand, there were thousands of people reading my blog every day, who seem to have vanished once I made that change. Perhaps I let them down or perhaps I missed a golden opportunity to amass an even greater cohort.

It is now well into the year 2017, a full seven years after that fateful watershed of 2010, when I became the blogger I am now, and when I saw, around me, clear signs that I had gone through a shocking transformation and become someone unrecognizable to those who knew me before I was Christian. My life has its dramas, still. But I wonder whether it is time for me to look for a graceful path out of politics. Political discourse has opened many doors for me. It has given me the most glorious thing I ever wanted, a chance to share my viewpoints with the public and feel, in some small way, that my love for God might be heard by people whom it could help. It has made me enemies. It has occasioned mistakes on my part. I have hurt the feelings of others. But there is no opportunity that can come only with good things. I take the mixed blessings and am thankful for what I have been given the opportunity to do. I will always strive to be better and more discerning.

What I do know, going forward, is that I need to open up the creative vaults again. No foolish notions could sway me into fancying myself a creative writer at this point. But I cannot help but think that in the thousands of pages of creative writing I wrote between 1993 and 2013, there is some message to me or someone around me, which God meant the old me to leave behind. Perhaps those things will never be published. But I want to crack open some of those old pages, see if there's anything that jumps out, and work through the bizarre conversations that someone who's converted has with the person he once was.