Let Your Heart Break

Where rage flowers and empathy begins

Let Your Heart Break

When Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" was all over the radio, I wanted nothing to do with it. Memory tells me it was a hit in early 1990, and would have really started bothering me around the time I got tired of Heart's "All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You," but Billboard tells me that my memory is full of shit, and the song didn't actually make its unlikely run into the Top 10 until the following year. Either way, the basic point remains: I was a callow teenager, unable to appreciate the depth of this Orbison-aping fellow's emotion. At the time, I'm sure I would have said I found it excessively theatrical, but in retrospect, I'm pretty sure I was just uncomfortable listening to such an unbridled declaration of helpless passion.

Either way, I wrote Isaak off for quite awhile. It wasn't until he released "Somebody's Crying" in 1995 that I was able to begin to appreciate his deal — and only then because I was in the midst of a rather epic breakup at the time. In the moment, I told myself that this was just a better song than "Wicked Game" (and I think I'd still make that argument), and I still didn't consider myself any kind of fan; I bought the cassingle, but wouldn't take the full-album plunge until he released Speak of the Devil in the fall of '98 — when I was smack dab in the middle of a slow-motion heartbreak that finally allowed me to hear Isaak's wares in a new way.

This is all a rather rambling way of saying that I believe there are things you can only learn about the world and yourself after having your heart good and kicked in. It doesn't have to be a relationship that does it, of course; there are all sorts of heartbreaks that are far more profound than anything a wayward significant other can inflict. I'm just saying that it's a whole hell of a lot easier to be careless with the feelings of others when you haven't endured the pain of having your own deeply bruised.

In my personal experience, nothing tests the endurance and elasticity of a heart quite like parenthood. I'm lucky to be the father of two fascinating, intelligent, frequently funny teenagers, both of whom have made me erupt in volcanic love and anger at various points since their mother brought them into the world. As I write this, they are 18 and 16, which is never not deeply surreal to consider; they are my children, and yet here they are, sailing swiftly toward adulthood, whatever the fuck that's supposed to mean in 21st-century America.

The 18-year-old and I flew to California a couple of weekends ago. We were visiting family, all of whom hadn't seen him since he came out as trans in late 2020, during the first fall of the pandemic. It's a fairly hilarious understatement for me to say a lot has happened since then, but I'm going to say it anyway — the details aren't really important. The point is that it was a big deal for them to breathe the same air he was breathing as his authentic self, and I was more than excited to facilitate the journey.

This isn't the worst time to be the parent of a transgender child in America, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. I live in New Hampshire, where the political climate is more comfortable than some places, but less so than others; basically, my parental concerns are the same as any other parent's, only amplified — I just want the world to be nice to my kid. I want him to have it easier than I did (and given than I'm sitting on a couch writing about my fucking feelings for paying subscribers, I've had it fairly easy). Since he came out, I've only wanted to support him, and I've had my head on a swivel, looking for a fight against any ignorant asshole who has the wrong opinion about what he should or should not be allowed to do.

(I also want him to clean his room. As I said, my concerns are basically the same as any other parent's.)

We showed up at Logan very early on a Friday, and found the place absurdly empty — which is a real goddamn gift, as you'll absolutely understand if you, like me, have the misfortune of traveling in and out of that garbage dump on a regular basis. Until relatively recently, he would have gone with me through the TSA Pre security line, but now that he's 18, he's on his own; given that there were so few people in the airport, I figured we'd probably both sail through at roughly the same speed. Which we basically did, until his canister of testosterone gel set off some sort of alarm and we had to wait for a "specialist" to cruise on by from some other corner of the airport while TSA staff searched my kid's bag and gave him a full-body pat-down.

They weren't jerks about it. They were actually pretty apologetic about the whole thing. And we'd showed up so absurdly early that there was never any risk of missing our flight — it just put a half-hour dent in the amount of time we had to get some breakfast before boarding. Still, I couldn't stop thinking about how this is the type of death-by-a-thousand-cuts bullshit faced by anyone who doesn't fit into the relatively narrow confines of whatever happens to be considered "normal" by whatever still passes for our society at any given moment in time. Speaking as a cishet white man who was born in the mid-'70s and has had the preposterous advantage of sailing through a world that was made for me while experiencing music, television, movies, and books that were mostly written for my demographic, I find the experience of being an adult in this country at this moment positively exhausting, and while I can empathize, I cannot truly begin to fathom the mental and emotional burdens faced by anyone widely considered to be "other" for any reason.

As microaggressions go, this was all pretty micro. But like I said before, I've always got my head on a swivel for any excuse to tear into anybody for being shitty to my child, or about folks like him. This bullshit is always on my mind. Still, as often as I can allow myself to do so, I also indulge in forgetfulness to the extent I'm able. I feel like for most of us, just being alive and aware right now can often feel like that one scene in A Clockwork Orange when that one asshole's eyes are pried open and he's forced to see a bunch of stuff he'd rather not — the situation here at home is grim, news abroad is grimmer, and we've had the axe of neocon fascism whirling over our necks for what feels like a generation. To be engaged with the world is to allow it to break your heart, over and over again.

And here is where we return to Chris Isaak and my hypothesis that the heart only truly works after it's been broken, because at this particular moment in time, I am really struggling with the news about Nex Benedict, a non-binary teenager who was beaten by fellow students in a bathroom at their Oklahoma high school and died from their injuries a day later. Like a lot of you, I presume, I often allow myself the luxury of scrolling past headlines that cause me to flinch inside — lately, a whole fucking bunch of them come from Gaza — but sometimes, you just have to stop and let yourself really feel, no matter how unpleasant that feeling is.

And look, yeah, the stories of Nex's horrible treatment and infuriating murder probably resonate more deeply with me because I'm the parent of a trans person. But we're also talking about the killing of a child by other children for absolutely no reason at all, and no matter what your personal experience might be, I'd like to think that's a fairly universal third rail. On one side, we have a young person who just wanted to be themselves; on the other, we have budding sociopaths who were indoctrinated into lethal violence by adults and a culture that demonizes difference. In general, I prefer to believe in the Taoist version of events, in which there is a more or less equal reaction to every action, and everything evens out in the end. That belief is sorely challenged by shit like this, when the only sane reaction seems to be howling at the moon with wordless cries that try to jolt the universe into telling us what the fuck we're even doing here.

So today, I feel like it doesn't really matter what I listened to, or watched, or read. Today I feel like it's important to let my heart break, and to simply sit in the bottomless sadness and futile rage that comes in response to the thoughtless, brutal extinguishing of infinite possibilities. I have no answers here, and I think it'd be somewhere between crass and useless to link out to a GoFundMe; there is no true salve or justice for Nex or their parents beyond a world in which people can openly be who they are without having to fear ridicule, violence, or death. Maybe the first and best step is the most basic one: Stop scrolling, face the news head on, and sit with it for a while, no matter how much it might hurt. That's where empathy begins, and right now, it seems like more of us could sure as shit use more of it.