Two Degrees off Center: The Roller Coaster of Life

September 8, 2019

Two Degrees off Center” is a blog by Rich Keys about the personal struggles, issues, and topics that speak to the LDS/LGBT experience.  Sometimes it will be serious, sometimes humorous, but will always approach things from a slightly different perspective.

Ferris Wheel Carnival Pier

by Rich Keys

“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”—Actress and gay icon Bette Davis, in the 1950 movie All About Eve

Some 30 years and 150 pounds ago, I left the comforts of home with my family once a year and went camping on the California coast near Santa Cruz. So many members from our stake and ward went there every Memorial Day weekend, there was hardly anyone left back home to hold down the fort. It was refreshing to see everyone out of their Sunday uniform and in jeans and shorts, swimsuits and sport shirts. On Saturday mornings, one family would always make their famous sourdough pancakes and we’d invite everyone throughout the campground, without regard to race, color, creed, religion, sex, age, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, or political party to join us for breakfast. No missionaries, no golden questions, no ulterior motives—just the pure joy of making new friends out of total strangers.

We also hung out at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a mile of gorgeous beach, surfers, free admission, arcade, mini-golf, all the usual fair food to pig out on, the carnival rides from the family-friendly carousel to thrill rides with names like Shockwave and Cliffhanger, and always the beautiful weather. The major attraction was the Giant Dipper, the last wooden roller coaster on the West Coast and a National Historic Landmark. I don’t remember the exact year, but I was 150 pounds heavier when I first decided to ride it. I got into the front car with my oldest daughter, excited to bond with her on my inaugural ride. But my dream was shattered when the lap bar wouldn’t go down far enough to lock in place because of my 350 pounds, and I made my walk of shame to the exit gate in front of everybody, my daughter going on without me. I vowed that someday I’d return and conquer.

A lot has changed since then—a divorce, realizing I’m gay, and lots of other things. I also lost 150 pounds, and it was finally time. I invited Tony, a special guy in my life, to make the trip to Santa Cruz with me to shatter the shame and conquer the beast that was the Giant Dipper. Tony didn’t like roller coasters, but I finally talked him into making the ride with me. We got into the car, the lap bar locked into place, and I fulfilled that vow I made many years earlier to return and destroy the demons.

As we approached the park that day, I watched the Giant Dipper, anticipating the ride. From a distance, it looked so smooth and quiet, like a monorail gliding on glass as it travels on its track. But when I finally got on it, it was a non-stop jarring, shifting battle, like being on a Brahma bull and trying to keep from getting thrown off. Even though the lap bar was secure, it still felt like I might get thrown any second. Although I managed to hold my arms up above me a few times and yell with everyone else, most of the time I held onto the bar for dear life, but that’s what made it so thrilling and fun.

In July this year, the earth celebrated the 50th anniversary of man’s landing on the moon. There were a lot of photos of Earth from space. The Blue Marble, a beautiful ball of blue and white, so different from all the other planets, inviting any and all galactic visitors to what looks like a utopia of peace and calm and unity and love. But up close, when you get on the ride and experience life down on the surface, it’s a lot less beautiful. Wars and rumors of wars are everywhere. The past traditional wars of infantry and tanks seem quaint compared with today’s wars—remote control wars, economic wars, trade and tariff wars, cyberspace wars, election hacking wars, identity theft wars—and there are other ways to make wars and rumors of wars: bullying, polarizing, fear, hate, distrust, ignorance, denial, and hoarding our love, all causing tug-a-wars inside us and throughout our world.

The true church from a distance would seem to be smooth as silk and perfectly run by God Himself. But when you experience it first-hand, sometimes it feels as jarring as a roller coaster. With today’s tech tools and instant communication, we are finally close enough to know how the sausage is made, and it ain’t pretty. Up close, it doesn’t always square with what we were told in the past. But we still want to know the details of religious sausage—what’s in the recipe, how it’s made, the history of it, the mistakes and lessons along the way, and the people in charge of making it—because we then see ourselves in them, we identify with them, we understand them better, and their struggle to make their sausage is our struggle to make ours. The truth isn’t always pretty, but it is always the truth, and I imagine we faced the same dilemma before we came to earth, when God asked each of us: Would you rather remain distant and not know how the sausage is made, or get up close and discover the details?

However each of us defines perfection, our journey to it is anything but a straight line. The same holds for the church, and when you mix LDS with LGBTQ, it can be even more like a roller coaster.

I’m looking forward to riding the Giant Dipper again later this year. This time I’ll know what to expect. I can anticipate the jarring, the hairpin turns, the controlled chaos, and I’ll be better prepared. But I’ll still take Bette Davis’ advice and fasten my seat belt, and I’ll make sure the lap bar is locked in place.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out all posts in the Two Degrees off Center blog series.

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