Ben's life story has had its share of bumps -- but that's probably to be expected when a shy, sad, closeted church kid is destined to grow up to be a polygamous gay atheist.
I interviewed Ben this week for my podcast, The Sewers of Paris, a show about how entertainment has shaped the lives of gay men. When he was younger, his dad heard him listening to Tori Amos, hippie folk songs, and Japanese shamisen music, and told him, "you only like things because they're different, not because they're good."
Ben was a lonely child, unhappy with his academic direction, desperate to stay closeted, and and doubting his faith in God.
His dad was using the word "different" like it was a bad thing. But when you don't have friends, you're hiding in the closet, and your church has stopped making sense, anything that's "different" is bound to be an improvement.
And that's when someone unexpected came along to rescue him: Jodie Foster in the movie Contact. Ben saw an atheist scientist confronting forces she didn't understand and remaining skeptical rather than faithful; and he realized that questioning his religion might actually be a good thing.
It wasn't easy for his mom to hear. But coming out as an atheist was good practice for coming out as a gay man a few years later. And not long after that, explaining that he and his husband had a boyfriend.
I think we all know that feeling of being stuck on the wrong track, or trapped in a role that just doen't feel right. Those are the times when "different" can be a life preserver, a chance to try something new. Whether the thing you try is good or bad may not matter, if it shows you a new way to look at yourself or the people in your life.
It's probably no surprise, then, that my conversation with Ben touches on some pretty unusual arts and entertainment: Bjork, Run Lola Run, The Fifth Element, Joanna Newsom, hippie folks music and Japanese shamisen songs. (We also, it must be said, discuss the politics of Fraggle Rock and Ben's affinity for She-Ra.)
His favorite musicians and movies and characters all have a strangeness, an outcast quality, and a willingness to try something new (even She-Ra, a rare female action character who managed to go mainstream). Trying something new is risky, but it can also be just the dizzying nudge you need to break out of a bad routine.
If you'd like to try something different after listening to this week's episode, I suggest you put Jell-o down your pants. Or you could seek out the work of Michel Gondry. You might already know his work -- he directed The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But he's also made videos with Bjork, Kylie Minogue, Cibo Matto, The White Stripes, David Cross, and many many more.
Gondry's videos are mesmerizing and unpredictable and simply gorgeous, and they break all kinds of rules. They'll confuse you, and I mean that in the best possible way: sometimes, confusion can be fun. And if you're lucky, confusion can help you shed the inhibitions that are holding you back from the life you were born to lead.