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Talent

Two-and-a-half years ago I auditioned for America’s Got Talent. I figured I didn’t stand a chance, but I thought it would be interesting to learn how they make these talent shows, and getting audition experience is always good. To this day, I’ve never even watched the show apart from random clips online. (I don’t have a TV because I’m a TV addict in recovery.)

I did learn a lot. I learnt how much is faked for the TV screens. The scene where the crowd stands in a long line waiting to fill out their forms? Totally faked–we had all filled out forms and submitted our forms before that scene was staged. Plus, we were all instructed to hide our coats because, despite the fact that it was February and 10°F outside, we were told that, because the show would be aired in the summer, they didn’t want the audience associating the show with winter.

And auditioning before the celebrity panel? That doesn’t happen in the first round, though they make it seem so on TV. Instead, we were all divided by talent, each talent was broken down into groups of six, and each group was sent off to a small room to audition. I auditioned for a friendly young Indian-British woman, who was apparently part of the production staff, as well as her assistant who was taping.

By astounding coincidence, each of the six of us sang in radically different styles. There was a country singer from Wisconsin. An R&B singer, a genre I had assumed would dominate the auditions. A twelve-year-old rapper had come all the way from Chicago to Minneapolis. There was another twelve-year-old who sang opera. Her mother was the most stereotypical stage mom you could imagine. At one point, before we entered the audition room, the mother asked, “How much do you want this?” and the girl spat out her computer program, “With all my heart.” (I wanted to throttle the mother and tell the girl that, whilst her technique was advanced for her age, she was really flat on her high notes.) One guy in his twenties sang Broadway. He said that he had auditioned for American Idol before, and the judges asked if he sang anything modern, and he told them, “No, I’m a Broadway singer,” or, as he might as well have told them, “I really don’t care that the entire premise of your show is to look for a contemporary pop singer, so I’m going to waste my 20 seconds of audition time.” (He told me that at American Idol, you only get 20 seconds to audition. At America’s Got Talent you get 90.) And finally, as for my part, I was marketing myself to the show as a jazz singer, so I performed my own jazz rendition of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”.

But, as I said, I already knew that I wasn’t going to advance past the first round. It was not because I totally whiffed the opening of my song. (The judge told me I could start again; the Broadway singer told me afterwards that in American Idol, they don’t allow you to do that. And I totally get that: different shows, different purposes, different approaches.) And it wasn’t just because I wasn’t even the best singer in the room (that would have been the R&B singer), let alone the Minneapolis Convention Center. It was because I understood that my back story was not ready for prime time. (I think everybody in the place knew that the one who would go far was this guy in the warm-up area who did these impossible things with yo-yos. And he did.)

I had filled out my paperwork several days before the audition day. The contract was several pages long, most of it fine print. One of the most telling things is that you give the show permission to have them portray you however they want, and that you rescind your right to go back on them if they show you in an “unflattering, embarrassing, or insulting” light. (If that’s not an exact quote, it’s awfully close.) Another part of the application is to provide some back story. If you’ve never noticed, contestants on these talent shows almost always have dramatic back stories, which the judges have been tipped off beforehand even though they make it sound like it’s the first time they’ve heard it. They filter out folks who don’t have much of a back story because that doesn’t make for compelling television.

The big question they asked about the back story was, “What challenges have you had to overcome in the pursuit of your talent?” And for me, the biggest obstacle I’d had to overcome was that my church had forbid me to sing on stage because my ex-gay “therapy” had not yet been successful, and if I stood on the stage as less than fully “cured” and totally heterosexual, I would be seen as representing the church’s beliefs as something other than what they actually were.

Two-and-a-half years ago, such a story would have been much too controversial for a prime-time family show.

Look just how much has changed in that amount of time. I saw a video this morning of an America’s Got Talent audition from this season by a young opera singer named Jonathan Allen. (The video has since been removed for copyright violation.) He told of how his family kicked him out on his eighteenth birthday because he is gay, and that they haven’t spoken to him in the two-and-half years since. (Odd coincidence–that means he was kicked out right around the time I auditioned.) And he had nothing but support from the audience and judges. And it doesn’t hurt that he had a truly remarkable voice.

We’ve come so far, and yet have so far to go. There was gay bashing spree in Columbus this week, coming on the heels of one in New York City. And that’s just talking about the United States–LGBTQ folks are having to face much worse around the world.

And that’s just looking at the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities. There is so much more going on the world. Assaults on the poor and homeless and immigrant and disabled–whether with fists or with legislation. Women who are on the constant lookout for potential attackers. The exploitation of children and workers. And wars–always, always wars.

And I wonder, how long? How long will we speed our extinction? When will we wake up to the truth that we are all equal and important and need each other?

UPDATE: America’s Got Talent has posted a shorter video of the performance on their official YouTube channel. See it here.

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Bully

The conversations continue since I dared to post a certain picture the other day. My initial response has fostered some pretty astounding discussions. This makes me happy–it’s kind of why I’m a writer.

Two conversations in particular stand out to me this morning, one of which was not directly tied into the whole brouhaha. These particular conversations stick with me, actually, because they are not that remarkable, at least, not in my life. I’ve had these two conversations repeatedly with dozens of people since joining Facebook in 2008.

First, I’ll preface all this by explaining that I was ambivalent about joining Facebook. Don’t think of Facebook as it is now, with the constant VilleVille requests, flame wars, ever-mutating interface, and general mediocrity. In 2008, Facebook was just made available to people who weren’t presently in high school or college. Zuckerberg and Company had positioned Facebook as the way to reach back to find people from your past, a deft marketing maneuver that helped to distinguish Facebook from then-dominant MySpace. Reach back to my past? That would be no mean feat. At the time, I had not finished my Bachelor’s degree after two aborted attempts, and I was working an entry-level job from which I was unlikely to advance. I was embarrassed, actually. I had hoped to accomplish so much more by this point in my life. And then, of course, there was the giant pink boa-wearing skeleton no longer in my closet. Though I had no intention of hiding the fact that I was gay, I knew that reaching out to people might mean rejection over this one simple fact.

By and large, my interactions were overwhelmingly positive. I had underestimated people. And I discovered that some folks have surprisingly progressive values–they are just, for many reasons, either unable or unwilling to air them or make a big production out of them. (The one big backlash I got was from someone very close to me. I do not wish to divulge his identity in this context, but I wish desperately that we could connect. Unfortunately, at this point, the ball is in his court.)

But in the midst of all these discussions, two patterns emerged:

One was the conversation with the penitent bully. My former aggressors would fall over themselves apologizing for the awful things they had done to me, begging for my forgiveness and understanding if I wouldn’t give it. Though I appreciated the gesture, I thought it odd that folks didn’t think I would have overcome those demons by now. (I have been to a hell of a lot of therapy, after all.) I couldn’t get hung up now on things that happened twenty years before. I had to move on in life. This was not to excuse what they had done–there was a reason I had to go to the hell-of-a-lot-of therapy, after all. But I saw their actions as performed by different people. I am not at all the person I was at 14, and this is a very good thing. I assumed that they had grown up, too. Anyway, I had kind of assumed that what my mother said was true: that bullies “weren’t raised right,” so I didn’t place the blame entirely on their shoulders. (More on that later.)

The other type of conversation is with fellow former bully-victims. They look back on the suffering we endured, and it has marked them like it has me. But, for a lot of us former bully victims, we have carried those scars into adulthood and are not willing to extend the hand of friendship. They have been betrayed past the point of reconciliation. They’re not going off to the reunions or combing through their yearbooks to friend-list absolutely everyone they knew, friend or foe. Honestly, can you blame them? There is something to be said for moving on, not looking back, and not actively seeking to reopen old wounds.

I fully respect their right to do so, and understand all the motivations behind their actions. It’s simply not the choice I’ve made for myself. For me, I knew that if I was ever going to truly be healed from past abuses, I needed to redeem my past somehow. This meant reaching out, reaching back. It meant risking getting hurt again. It meant running on the assumption that they had changed as much as I had. And, overall, it’s been successful. We look back on the tragedy that was, but then look at what good there is now.

It may sound like I have some sort of Stockholm syndrome going on, that I’m justifying the actions of those who have hurt me. Far from it. The best analogy I can give comes from a conversation I once had with a man who was sexually abused as a child. He described the experience as “sexual education.” I was aghast at such a justification–he seemed like the perfect victim. Then he explained that he wasn’t justifying what had happened to him. He said that in order for him to move on from this unspeakable tragedy in his life, he had to find something redemptive out of it, regardless of how far he had to stretch to do so.

There is something else I can do in re-establishing and redeeming these relationships. I had mentioned before that my mother had thought that bullies “weren’t raised right.” And, indeed, children pick up their parents’ attitudes in ways we don’t even think of. (I’d like to dig up the studies that prove this, but I’m really wanting to wind this up right now. Maybe later.)

Before I began kindergarten, my mother took me to the living room and sat me down on her knee. She said, “Son, when you get to school, you’re going to meet all sorts of kids. Some of them are going to look different from you. They’re going to dress different from you, and talk different from you. You’re no better than they are, and they’re no better than you are.” She and I were both in for a shock once I started school and discovered that not every parent had given that talk to their child.

By building bridges, I can encourage people to have that talk with their children. I can implore them to raise their children to be kind and thoughtful, to understand that we human beings are all equal, and the radical consequences that this understanding entails. I sometimes say that our generation is lost. We’re already set in our ways. Not so for our children and grandchildren, not to mention those generations not even born yet.

As I’ve studied the issue of bullying, particularly as it pertains to adolescent psychosocial development, I’m discovering we’re doing a number of things wrong. We’re looking for magic-bullet solutions to complex problems. We’re ignoring contributing factors. (For example, the sharp class divide within my hometown certainly prompted a rich-versus-poor mentality in my junior high and high school.) We’re misunderstanding the way our children develop psychologically and socially, and we’re ignoring children when we discuss bullying, cooking up our own solutions in a vacuum and not asking for their input as to what would work.

I’m not an educator. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not even a parent. But this doesn’t excuse me from the responsibility of ensuring that my fellow human beings have a bright future. I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve gone through. I don’t want to have children hurting, and I don’t want them to grow up to become adults who are hurting.

I write. And I work to build bridges of understanding. This is what I do.

I’m curious as to what you’re doing. How are you working to overcome bullying? If you were bullied, what has been your healing process? Does it look like mine or is it radically different? If you were a bully, what have you done to redeem your past? How are you raising your children so that they don’t repeat your mistakes? What are you doing to ensure that our whole species has a bright tomorrow?

Feel free to post a comment or contact me personally. We’re not alone in this.

Utopia

I’m enjoying my break from school–more than I expected. I haven’t got done quite as much as I had planned, have goofed off more, but in the mix, I’ve also got to spend time with friends more than I had planned, which is a definite bonus.

I finally worked out some longstanding technical issues I’d been having with The Sims 3, and played some in earnest yesterday. I currently have a massive project going on with the game, to create a utopian Victorian/Edwardian-ish village, with the Miss Marple stories as my inspiration (minus the mayhem). I’m still just building the houses, but I’m making duplicates of houses to make the process easier, which will later be customized.

I have been a fan of the Sims franchise for a long time. I confess that one of the first things I do when I obtain the latest edition is to learn the cheat codes for giving my Sims a ridiculous amount of money. By doing so, I not only provide them with every luxury they could want (and ask for, in the case of Sims 3,) but it permits them to not have a job, so they can invest all their time in their hobbies and relationships. This was one of my first discoveries in the original edition–that jobs made it a lot harder for Sims to make friends and fall in love.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should all just quit our jobs and become slackers. But I do think that we have a collective propensity to confuse our priorities. A little less investment in chasing the golden ring, a little more time with our loved ones and doing what fulfills us–this would go a long way.

I know that there is nothing revolutionary in what I’m saying. It’s just sad that one of the few places I find it in this life is within a computer game.