Ken Schneck may be best-known for his radio podcast, This Show is So Gay, on which he’s interviewed an array of activists and celebrities, and for his numerous contributions to HuffPost, but now he’s adding a new title to his hyphenate, “author,” as his debut book has been published. Seriously... What Am I Doing Here?, born from Ken’s travel diaries, explores his adventures on the planet and of the heart. Having been lucky enough to have been interviewed twice by Ken for his radio show, I was so happy to return the favor as we discussed his new book.
Your radio podcast, This Show is So Gay, which you started in 2008, recently hit your 400th episode. During these many years, you've interviewed everyone from author Dan Savage and comedienne Margaret Cho, to internet sensation Davey Wavey. What have been your most resonate takeaways from your time doing the show?
Without question: authenticity is the key to absolutely everything in this world. The individuals who most effectively use their voices to make a difference are those who are tapping into their own unique talents in their own specific way to raise up the voices of everyone around them. When you adopt a persona discordant to your values solely to get more social media impressions, you either burn out or the “success” feels more hollow and less fulfilling than you anticipated. I have seen true passion in guest after guest, whether they are penning a new song, running for President of the United States, or leading a non-profit. Each of the 600+ guests over the past nine years has articulated some sort of riff on the power of authenticity and it’s most certainly a lesson that has pushed me to examine both my own voice as well as what I put out there to the world.
You based your new book, Seriously... What Am I Doing Here?, on your travel journals. You note, halfway through the book, that while initially you were writing for yourself, at some point you realized that you needed to share them with an audience. What prompted that shift?
When I first went to Uganda, I was journaling each night just to help me understand what it meant to be a gay Jew in a country where I could be executed for who I love. I was in such a foreign place geographically and emotionally, so the writing really was a self-serving practice. When I returned to the United States, I agreed to read parts of the journal at a storytelling show. The response was overwhelmingly positive and I immediately knew that there was nugget in what I had penned that might be of some use to audiences, even if that use is either for entertainment or to give them a much-needed pause in their day.
Do you keep a daily journal?
I actually don’t! The radio show largely plays the part of a daily journal in my life. But when I’m out there on these multi-day adventures far from technology, my need for a pen and paper is almost primal. Scribing my thoughts at the end of each day is truly the only way I am able to reconcile the ridiculous situations into which I have thrown myself.
One of the first travel experiences you recount is a trip to Uganda. At the closing of that section, I got the impression that, far from the revelatory experience you anticipated, you were instead left with unresolved questions. Did that trip live up to your expectations?
I had it in mind that my first trip to be Uganda would be transformative simply by it being my first trip to Uganda. I quickly learned it doesn’t work like that. Although I had unfamiliar feelings while seeing unfamiliar sights in an unfamiliar country, I didn’t put in the work necessary to ask the questions I needed to ask to get the information I needed to get. I approached that first journey with a sense of entitlement that enlightenment would simply wash over me. I most definitely learned my lesson about the energy you need to put into an adventure in order to yield some sort of sense of meaning.
And yet, two years later, you returned to Uganda...
I know! It boggles my mind as well. But there really was no question that I had to go back to Uganda. Although I had an incredible experience the first time around, I couldn’t progress through this thing we call life knowing I had missed opportunities to develop and add complexity to how I look at the world. I also was just super excited to interact again with some of the incredible characters I met on this first trip to confirm, “Did that really happen?” That first trip, I was a married, employed, relatively-sure-of-my-place-in-this world gay Jew. For the second trip, I was divorced, professionally adrift, aimless gay Jew. It was a wholly different experience and one that provides a much-needed contrast to the first adventure.
On your first trip to Uganda, you recount an experience in a Pentecostal church service, drawing connections between those fervent churchgoers and your father and his reverence for the Jewish faith. Does religion play a role for you today, as a self-described gay Jew?
My Judaism alters my lens, even as I’m not always sure how. I grew up in a pretty observant household, but I was also the kid who was suspended from Hebrew School one afternoon because I incessantly kept asking, “Why?” There’s so much about Judaism that doesn’t make sense to me and I haven’t been able to find just the right place to get answers to all of my questions. That said, the cultural aspects of Judaism have supported so much of my journey: the importance of family, the appreciation for music, the sense of ritual. I would not be who I am without those aspects of Judaism scaffolding my adventures.
The first several journeys recounted in the book are emotionally driven by the breakup and dissolution of your marriage, and your desire to move past the pain. Did those experiences help you?
I so desperately want to answer, “Yes! Of course! I openly wore my pain, redefined my sense of self, and was then able to walk taller in my own skin!” But that’s just not true. Without question, my emotional turmoil led me to adventures I never before would have considered. I was so desperate to discover a geographical cure, a solution that everything would get better if I simply changed my surroundings. That search motivated me to keep moving forward, while simultaneously recognizing that I wasn’t exactly getting to that place of peace. Ultimately, I have come to a place where I can appreciate that the process of repeatedly getting up off the ground was beneficial even as I chuckle at all the ridiculous ways in which I managed to fall down, all of which are on full display for the reader.
I really identified with your trip to Esalen in Big Sur, as you attempted to heal by undergoing a workshop on surviving loss. Having lost a partner to AIDS in 1995 and suffering through the car wreck of my first marriage, that section really hit home. What lessons have you learned that helped you navigate that loss?
The most important lesson I learned was to stop telling myself that I definitively learned some lessons. I really had it in mind that if I gave over to the process of healing in a structured workshop, the clouds would part, the sun would shine down, and all the other revelatory metaphors would instantly come to pass. And there really were some moments where I “got it.” But it’s just not a one-and-done type of process. What I had learned in California fell apart when I returned to Vermont, and I have had to constantly remind myself of some strategies that helped me at Esalen in the hopes that they would apply outside of the hippie healing retreat. My life has become a never-ending circle of reminders, one that has become astronomically easier to manage as time marches on, but also one into which I need to pour some energy to reapply all that I’ve learned.
You touch briefly in the book about your move from Vermont to Cleveland, Ohio, making that change primarily to get away from the memories of your past relationship. What other changes did that move bring?
So here’s the thing: You actually don’t need to define yourself by the pain you have experienced. I just couldn’t understand that lesson in Vermont. Moving to Cleveland, being in new surroundings, and meeting new people gave me the opportunity to regroup and introduce myself in a way that felt more authentic and less marked by pain. This is not to say that I’m not still the same slightly-snarky, gay Jew. But moving to Cleveland gave me the opportunity to lift my head up a bit higher, forge new relationships, and put energy back into the world that felt distinctly more positive than what I was radiating in Vermont. Plus there’s a place here in Cleveland called The Happy Dog where you can get a veggie dog topped with crunchy peanut butter, alien pickle relish, and sriracha and it’s actually the best thing you will ever have.
I have to admit that I laughed out loud reading your chapter on your days-long backpack trip in Colorado. As we now live in Colorado, reading over your exploits rock-climbing, I totally identified with your annoyance at being nicknamed "Kitty."
Right?!? When I first learned that we could be given a trail name, I never wanted anything so much in my entire life. When I “earned” the name “Kitty”? One could argue my enthusiasm bottomed out quickly.
One of the things I've admired about you is that whether you're hosting your podcast, or writing thought-provoking pieces for HuffPost, or describing your journeys in this book, you're always trying to move the conversation forward. It seems that, at your core, you're an activist. How did that motivator originate within you?
I have Terry and Barry Schneck, my parents, to thank for that. Growing up, they pushed all of their children to be a mensch, a person of integrity and honor who uses his skills and privileges to lift up underrepresented voices. With me specifically, my folks were focused on my voice and my pen. They saw in me the ability to make a difference through communication even when personal turmoil laid me low. I have never identified as an activist. Even reading that word, it doesn’t ring true. What I do is just what I believe I’m just supposed to be doing. The alternative is to disappoint my mother, and no upstanding Jewish boy is capable of doing that!
In the section about surviving loss, you note that your course leader asks you to write down your intentions--with a timeline on how to achieve them. Now that you've gotten 400 episodes of This Show is So Gay and a new book under your belt, what are your intentions and timeline? Another big adventure, or...?
The correct answer would be, “I’m obviously going to pause, celebrate the accomplishment of this book, and breathe.” But that’s just not me. I’m hard at work on my second book which is all centered around the idea of self-forgiveness. There are a lot of words out there on how to forgive others, but not a ton on how to forgive yourself. I still want to throw myself into new adventures, but this time around, I’m doing it with the lens of trying to break my cycle of addiction to chastising myself for my past actions and behavior. And then maybe after that work is completed, I’ll pause, celebrate, and breathe? Also, probably not.