Saturday, January 31, 2009

TO FACEBOOK, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING! JEREMY HELLIGAR

Speaking of memory, sometimes mine is super-selective and wildly unpredictable. This past week, it's been working overtime. My old college pal Chip is visiting Buenos Aires with his friend Lauren (that's him on the left in the photo above, with Lauren between us, and Tom, a fellow expatriate, from New Zealand, on the right). Chip and I were close friends during my senior year in college, and we've been intermittently in contact over the years. When I joined Facebook a little under a year ago, he sent me one of my very first "friend" invitations (and yes, I remembered him).

The most surprising thing about spending time with Chip for the first time in nearly 18 years isn't how well we still get along, but the memories that have come flooding back, some of which I had put away and hadn't thought much about since we were both journalism majors at the University of Florida in Gainesville. There's Professor Sullivan, our instructor in the magazine journalism class where we met who committed suicide halfway through the semester. And there is the time, shortly before my graduation (I was the first of my friends to graduate), when I was depressed because no one seemed to care that I was leaving. Chip promptly cured my blues by telling me that some of our mutual friends were planning a surprise going-away party for me.

And then there's the biggie, something which I'd never, until this week, stopped to seriously consider: Chip was the first uncloseted gay friend I ever had. When we met, with the exception of my big brother Alexi, he was the first "out" person I'd ever known who wasn't a stereotypical prancing queen. (These were the days before the current "straight-acting" phenomenon among gays under 35 -- but seriously, can any guy who sucks cock be described as "straight-acting"?)

Chip had been a pivotal influence during my formative gay years, in a way I hadn't realized at the time. It came to me like one of my jog-time epiphanies on Monday night, while Chip, Lauren and I were having dinner on the terrace at Minga in Palermo Hollywood. In college, I was still very much in the closet, and being around him, someone who was openly gay and seemingly un-tortured about it, showed me that one could be gay and "normal" and in a sense, shaped the person I would become once I dared to come out of the closet myself. In terms of influence, that would make Chip second only to Alexi.

One of my most vivid memories of our college friendship is one weekend when we were working on the magazines that we had to put together for our class. I can't even remember what kind of magazine I was creating (which I think is telling, for reasons I can't quite pinpoint -- Chip is certain that it was music-related), but I can vividly recall Chip's: He was launching a gay magazine. And this particular evening, as Chip was cutting out pictures of hot semi-nude guys, and we were listening to k.d. lang's Absolute Torch And Twang CD (he introduced me to k.d., too), he looked at me and said something I would never forget: "I wonder if my mother knows how gay I am."

It's funny because over the years I've asked myself the very same question several times, and each time, I remembered where I'd first heard it. To me, Chip was the ultimate cosmopolitan guy, good-looking and wordly, even though we were living in the middle of cow country. Boy was I wrong (about the wordly part). Chip is now a poet, and as he talked about his new about-to-be-published book of poetry on Monday, his first night in town, I began to realize that he hadn't been the person I thought he'd been all those years ago.

He had been just as insecure and messed up as I'd been, and as we both, in some ways, continue to be. I also discovered that we'd had very similar childhood experiences: religious upbringing in a small southern town in a family dominated by our mothers (I know, I know, how gay cliché). Somehow, Chip had found the inner strength, despite having as much doubt and uncertainty as I did, to come out of the closet, while I would remain trapped in there for two more years.

But despite his being out and my being in, we really hadn't been so different. Perhaps a subconscious awareness of this is what brought us together in the first place. Or maybe I'm reading entirely too much into this, and we were brought together simply because we had fun hanging out. Whatever the case is, I'm glad to have reconnected with him, and I owe it all to Facebook. Yes, although I still despise all that ridiculous spam and those time-wasting applications (if anyone figures out what "flair" is, please let me know -- but don't send me any!), I recognize that without Facebook, Chip may have come and gone in and out of BA without ever knowing I was living here. In fact, he now lives in New York, and our time there overlapped several years, but we never knew it because we didn't have Facebook to bring us together.

I've said it before (see one post below), and I'll say it again: Doesn't Facebook just rock?
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