North Korea has tested a nuclear device of some kind underground and the world's response has been quick: unanimous condemnation. Our President is now using the words "threat" and "terrorists," saying that if North Korea gets the bomb they may transfer it to Iran or Syria, and thus we would hold North Korea "responsible" meaning, I assume, we'd start yet another war.
So now, we're supposed to be afraid of a midget with poofy hair and a bomb, the guy with the ultimate little man's complex, who is using missiles to extend the size of his penis (instead of buying a Hummer or Escalade like American men). Great, one more thing we're supposed to fear...maybe this was Karl Rove's October surprise. I wouldn't doubt it, since this administration has done nothing but try and scare us in to keeping them in power since the coup of 2000.
I know a lot about fear. I had a long discussion last night about it on my KGO AM 810 San Francisco radio show with Arianna Huffington. Her latest book, "On Becoming Fearless" really struck a nerve with me and I wanted to talk about it on air. During that time, I asked those that visit my chat room during the show at http://www.karelchannel.com to share some of their biggest fears. It's telling that terrorism and war never popped up. Mortality, health issues, parenting issues, those all popped up, but no one seemed to worry about an eighth nuclear nation.
Maybe it's because we've come to believe in assured mutual destruction. You know, the theory of we have a bomb, and you have a bomb, and if either uses it we both basically die. Or maybe it's because our fears are more personal, more internalized.
I've had a love/hate relationship with fear my entire life. It has always entered my life, sometimes paralyzing me and other times motivating me. Often fear has been a luxury I couldn't afford because I had to act whether or not I wanted to out of necessity. I grew up relatively poor, with parents that always worried about how the next month's rent was going to appear. At times, when my father's disability checks didn't make it to us because we were "in between" apartments thanks to the eviction process things were so tight that my handicapped, 4'9" mother would go to agencies like St. Vincent De Paul or the Veterans of Foreign Wars (my father was a veteran of the Korean war) and we'd be OK for a week. I could have been afraid about what would happen next, but was too busy dealing with what was happening at the time.
As a teen, I discovered I was gay. Very early on I knew it was no fad or phase, it was me, and the thought of a gay life terrified me. In the mid-70s there's weren't a lot of positive role models for gay kids out there (not that there's a plethora now) so I thought I was destined to a life of seedy bars and back alleys a la Al Pacino's character in "Cruising." Also, I have battled my weight (with it winning for the most part) my entire life, so I was gay, overweight and a 4.0 student in inner-city schools where poorer families lived. Many of you are probably afraid for me right about now. But no worries, I made it, and probably with a broader appreciation for people of all types than someone with a different life experience.
I also knew early on that I had been genetically engineered to be in the entertainment industry. There was nothing else on the planet that I wanted to do. I was safe on stage, in a TV studio, behind a microphone or on the written page. I was untouchable, completely in control. Maybe it's arrogance, but while I am insecure about so much, I have never doubted that I could make a movie, record an album, be in a play, write a column. People around me were afraid for me. They all told me to be sure and have a backup plan. But I refused. Everything I have done in my life has utilized some skill I needed in the entertainment industry, from computer abilities to the ability to deal with people, multi-task, take control. Yes, I've had countless jobs in the regular world, but they were jobs. My career has always been entertaining. That's not to say that I'm terrified at times. I recall the first time I did stand up. I debuted, on the marquee, at the Comedy Store on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. I had toured around singing, doing comedy in between songs, but this time, there'd be no singing to fall back on. Andrew, my late partner of 11.5 years, literally pushed me on stage. But once there, it was fine. My fear wasn't being bombing, it was letting him down, letting down the audience, letting down myself. I was more afraid of how the people that believed in me would feel, not about my performance. But it was their belief in me that gave me the strength to overcome that very fear; by surrounding myself with people that would love me either way, the outcome didn't really matter.
There's a lot more ground to cover, times where fear entered my world and tried to derail it, but let's skip ahead to my ground zero of fear, my nuclear test, the moment when life truly ended as I knew it. It was 2001 and my life was finally going very well. Andrew and I, through a series of unbelievable events, had become the first openly gay male couple in history to host a talk show on major market radio. We had taken over afternoon drive, one of the most coveted spots, on KFI AM 640 Los Angeles, the number one talk station in the country. Our peers were Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh, Phil Hendrie, giants of talk radio. We had literally two years experience in talk radio and never had wanted it as a goal. But, here it was, and there we were, having a blast. Andrew had HIV, and for 11.5 years we had battled and won that war. I never got to be afraid of HIV, because he needed me to be strong, so I was. It was a virus, and we could beat it together. And we did. And suddenly, we were on major radio, doing television all the time, and making $250k combined. Just three years before I was doing graphic arts for an evil politician from Huntington Beach, CA, making about $40k a year combined (Andrew was on disability). Now, we were living in a house we were buying, had our two dogs Owen and Alley, an extended circle of good friends and we were still in crazy love.
My friend, the then Pop editor of Billboard Magazine Larry Flick was out visiting (I wrote for Billboard, plus Larry had helped with my musical career). It was May 20, 2001. I stood with Larry, watching Andrew water the backyard that he had planted, the dogs roaming about, our chickens out for an afternoon peck, the koi pond's water fall flowing. I turned to him and said, "Larry, maybe I'll never be as famous as Barbra Streisand, maybe I'll never be as rich as Oprah, but everything I need, everything I love, is right here, right now, in this house. For the first time ever I have a home, a real home, with a man I love, friends, family and a career that is a blast."
I was fearless. I had made it. I had arrived.
That night we went out to celebrate gay pride weekend. At 4:30am Monday, May 21, 2001, Andrew woke me and asked to go to the hospital. I was surprised, he wasn't ill, and he hated hospitals. He said he was having a heart attack . I assured him he wasn't having one at 34, he was in great health, so we thought. We walked in to the ER and he had a seizure. He recovered from it. I grabbed his hand and told him I loved him more than life. He said if I was going to be dramatic to go wait in the lobby, typical Andrew. An hour and a half later he died in front of me, and the doctors and nurses that I allege to this day missed the right call.
I came home at 9:30am that Monday alone for the first time in 11.5 years. Andrew and I were one of those annoying couples that lived and worked together. I always either worked at home or with Andrew. We were never apart, ever. There was not two days in a row that we didn't see each other, being apart a total of five days in 11.5 years. And now, I was alone.
Everyone gathered around me, the circle of support, but it didn't matter. I was alone. The bed was so big I slept in the TV room for weeks. The dogs and I hibernated. I was numb, the fear hadn't moved in yet. I was a duo in life, and now, in death, was solo. And professionally I was an untried solo act.
I wish I could write about that time, but I don't remember it. I know I was on radio seven days after Andrew died, filling in for morning drive. My boss and friend David Hall didn't know what to do, so he thought I should get right back to the one place I was in control, the studio. Two weeks after Andrew died, my manager insisted I audition for a comedy show very much like Punk'd called "Ultimate Revenge" hosted by Ryan Seacrest. While waiting in the lobby I picked up a Hollywood Reporter and saw Andrew's obituary. It was surreal.
I worked because I had to. We spent our money on our home, our life. Andrew couldn't have a life insurance policy, because he was HIV positive the entire time we were together. Like so many women in this world, I found myself with no real income, my partner gone, my entire life upended. The fear was paralyzing. While many say, but Karel, you went back on weekends at KFI, you did the TV show, you wrote...that was auto pilot. Inside, I was frozen.
I knew something went wrong in the ER, and that I had to sue No one would take the case because at the time Domestic Partners did not have the right to sue in wrongful death in California. Laws were later passed to allow it, but not when Andrew died. I didn't'care, I had to press on, and did. The case got filed the day before the statute of limitation ran out with the filing attorney handing me the file and saying good luck. I found a friend that was an attorney and took the case, never expecting to get to court. But four years later, we made the laws of California open up and accept the case through the appellate court, thus changing state law. I have since found out that others have cited the case and their cases have proceeded as well, so Andrew's death helped others in the same boat...always helping, Andrew was, even in death.
Fear. Lawyers feared defeat so they refused to press on. I had no choice, and so far, have won. The trial is December 18, 2006, and I don't fear it. Win or loose, walking in the door is a victory. I fear his story not being told, and I know I'll write a book about it.
But, while the public person pressed on, the inner person was terrified. I began telling the dogs when I left "it is my intent to return..." because I truly thought every time I left the house I may die. Andrew did. He left at 4:30 intending to come home and didn't I got a P.O. Box in case I lost the house (it was in his name and I had to go through probate and refinance myself with so/so credit). I began only leaving the house to work. And I began drinking more than I should. I ate poorly.
And my fears manifested themselves constantly. David Hall left his job at KFI and the new program director began by firing me saying I was great, fine, we were fine for months, and then one day, no warning, fired, station moving in a new direction. My mother, who was my rock, my savior through it all, became very ill with COPD. I was very close with my mother, especially after the death of my father in the mid-1980s. She lived with me at times, Andrew and I, and after Andrew's death, she was there for me. I was unemployed over Christmas and New Years, and probate closed during my unemployed state, and I had to try and find a loan for $220k on stated income with a FICO score of 610 (not exactly great). I got a new job after seven months at KGO, the station from which the woman that fired me at KFI had just been employed, oh the irony. Right after that, on New Year's Eve, I nearly died from my appendix bursting and filling my gut with infection. When I recovered, my mom went in a nursing home and died seven months later, me by her side, just like Andrew, right in front of me. The lawsuit had not yet won the appellate process to move forward.
Terrified? The fears were so numerous they overwhelmed me. Each day I woke up wondering what would happen next, and realized, don't think about it, because guess what, something will, in fact, happen if you do. I feared everything, especially living. I did only what I needed to to get by. My career stagnated. I still worked for number ones, number one radio station, number one magazines, but didn't move that national, move it forward. The thought of loving someone other than Andrew was so foreign I didn't even try. And mom...
Arianna's book spoke to my heart, I could relate to it all. I had just lived all of it, over the course of the last six years, hell, over the last 43 years.
But today, October 9, 2006, I can say the fog is lifting. The fears are falling away. The fear of life, of actually having to live without Andrew, without my mom, without a generation of friends lost to AIDS, is disappearing. Life has found a way. My niece and nephew, Jake and Heather (Andrew's sister's kids) moved in a year ago, They are 19 and 22 and fabulous. They make me live. My heart has wanted to love again, to connect with another person. I am expanding my radio show all the time, along with my writing. I am having meetings about getting back in TV and movies. I am living, and doing so looking forward, as well as back.
So how did I do it? I called upon those that passed. I asked them to help me with the fear. I asked for their strength, for the belief they had in me. I realized we can draw on those that have passed, on their energy, on their love. That there's a well of strength that never runs out. I realized my mother would not want an unhappy life for me, that Andrew, who really didn't' want to be a public person, would not want the work he had done with me to be for naught. I realized I had to use the fear as motivation to fail. Because my entire life had been taken, and slowly, ever so slowly, I was getting it back. A new life. My life. And it would be a life where I would fall down more than rise up, but that's ok, because at the end, I'll be with people I love and adore. I'll be with people, both in this life and those that passed, who will embrace me and say, "hey, it's OK, at least you tried, you did something, you showed up."
Well life, here I am, showing up each day. And while I fear still, I know I've lived through the worst. I've eaten out of McDonald's dumpsters at 24, slept in my car in a grocery store parking lot at 13, 21, 24, sold the car, got an apartment, and have never been homeless since. I've loved like no other, a man like no other, and have him in my heart and his DNA actually living in my house. I've watched my 4'9" mother fight for her life with humor and dignity, danced with her every night at the nursing home while standing her up in from her wheelchair to put her to bed (she waited for me every night to do so). I watched Andrew die and then I have told the State of California that Andrew and I mattered as a couple, and made them agree. And I have found a voice on radio, even if just on weekends, and that voice is being heard on the airwaves and in print. I have survived, not in spite of my biggest fears, but because of them.
I have been to the bottom of the well and I'm slowly climbing up to the top. I no longer feel falling, failing. I now fear not getting everything done, not realizing my fullest potential. But I only fear that so much, because to those that love me, I already have. I'm no longer scared in to paralysis, but scared forward. My fearless muscle, as Arianna calls it, has been exercised so now it's buffer than me. I may fail, but I won't be afraid. I realize now, the only thing I fear is not trying. Unlike so many, I have a chance every day I wake up to change simply because I wake up relatively healthy and alive. I won't fear life or death any more, I'll fear not living and use that fear to keep me very alive.
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