The Authenticity Experiment, the Western Weekend Edition. As a kid, I went to Western Weekend in rural Marin County, in a town without a stoplight or a sit-down McDonald’s. I didn’t ride the Ferris Wheel because the swinging cars gave me crawl up and a fear that I’d flip out—literally and figuratively—and plummet to my death.
Strangely, though, I did ride the Zipper, me alone in a car. A blue one, I think, but that could just be an artifact of my imagination because now blue is my favorite color. Two of my other friends rode along, each of us in our own car. That ride, so unsafe—cars shooting up three stories then rotating over and over as you propelled down the other side, the smell of motor oil heating up as the gears drove the cars faster and faster—vaguely comforting, I suppose—to know the mechanicals had been lubed when the ride was assembled. (Either that, or the heat of the gears burning off the oil. Hard to say.) The riders—okay, me for sure—screamed at the greasy, long-haired carnie to let us off each time our cars shot past him at what? 45 miles per hour. Faster? Begging him to stop the ride. I’m sure our sentences were unintelligible because we were moving so fast, because I am pretty certain that every car had a screaming teenager in it. And then finally on the ground again—in what is now a Safeway parking lot—I hurled out who knows what. If I had to guess: corn dog, cotton candy, caramel corn, and Dr. Pepper.
My friends wanted to make out with the carnies. What could I say? They wanted to prove, I suppose, or confirm maybe, their blossoming attractiveness. So when the Zipper guy got a break, we went back to his wood-paneled trailer and he kissed one then the other of my friends, sliding his hands under their shirts and over their bras. I watched him mash on my friend with bigger breasts—pushing her breasts against her chest wall, grabbing at her through her bra. We must have only been in 7th or 8th grade. Old enough, I suppose. Young enough, I suppose, too.
I don’t know if my friend liked what the carnie did to her, but I know it fascinated me. He surely felt my eyes on him, on them, because he stopped, looked over his shoulder, his brown plaid flannel shirt flapping as he turned—when had he unbuttoned it?—and said, “Get out, you freak.”
I left the trailer ashamed and relieved at once. The thought of kissing that man repulsive to me, the shame at not being kissable, burning in me as bright as the midway lights.
I was reminded again this week of that old pain of being different, of having to explain my way of being in the world. It isn’t any easier at 52 than it was at 13. I suppose the difference is, now I don’t really care if someone fails to understand me. But this is not exactly true. I do care. Because I do want to be understood.
What tripped me up this time isn’t as important as much as the tripping itself. That surprised me, stumbling so hard at 52. And I didn’t exactly know what to say, so I said nothing except to the Alaskan Poet. The Alaskan Poet who is so insightful and kind to me. She rarely gives advice except when I am in the worst of ways, as I was this week, and this time she said, “I think that fundamentally, you are afraid that no one will understand you. Ever. When anyone does, even a little, it feels like a gift instead of a birthright. You don’t dare walk away, because what if they’re it? The only ones who get you, even a little. But, you keep stumbling on them. People who get you, a little. And you’re right, no one will ever get you the way you want to be gotten. But, there will be those that get you more than others. I believe this with my whole heart.”
This is advice for all of us, really, especially in this time of such deep misunderstanding, when we are so hurt and distrustful of all that is different. When one or the other of us is freaking out about change (of any kind, really), the Country Music Singing Femme and I will say, “Different is bad!” And that often breaks the spell. But this time in our culture it feels like everything colludes against feeling safe, against feeling secure in who and how we are. It feels like the culture is screaming at us—okay, I’ll speak for myself here—it feels like the culture is screaming at me, “Get out, you’re a freak, and you’re bad.”
And it often feels like nothing can break that spell. Because Bannon. Because De Vos. Because Syria. Because I was the only genderqueer woman in the French Quarter New Orleans wearing a tie. Because I sat alone in the Preservation Hall, when I was not supposed to be alone—in a linen suit and a bow tie—I sat alone and watched a jazz band play while tears streamed down my face, breaking all kinds of rules. Rules about clothing, rules about public displays of emotion. I was different and I feared I was broken beyond salvage.
But here’s the thing, whether you are at Western Weekend, Preservation Hall, or your own house in your own city: you’re no different than anyone else—you just think you are. The trick is to remember that there is someone out there who understands you, who “gets you more than others.” He, she, they—they’re waiting. For you, for me, for all of us. I believe this with my whole heart.