A Custard Kinda Guy

Self-proclaimed “custard guy” Michael Dix of Michael’s Frozen Custard opens up about his often tumultuous journey toward self-love and sweet rewards.

As a longtime, gay resident of Madison, I knew Patrick Farabaugh, publisher of Our Lives, by reputation. When he asked me to write the cover article for this issue, I wanted to tell him, Patrick, you must be kidding. I’m a custard guy, not a writer!

I asked what he wanted me to write about, and his reply was that I should write anything about my life that I thought his readers would find interesting, informative, and entertaining. Well, my little squirrel brain started to go into overdrive. I thought to myself, “What can I write that would interest or be a positive contribution to Madison’s LGBTQ community?”

Encountering Drug Addiction

I could write about the growing crystal meth problem in our community, specifically among gay men. I have some personal, firsthand knowledge because my last life partner became addicted to meth in the twelfth year of our relationship. He was about to turn 50, and I had thought that only young adults turn to that s**t. Talk about the destruction of one personal relationship—not to mention the lives of a significant number of persons in our community.

Here was a man I’d known intimately for 12 years, a college-educated person, taking an incredibly addictive substance for the euphoria and increased sexual pleasure its use produces. When he finally admitted that he was taking crystal meth, I did a Google search to find out what ingredients are used in its manufacture, and I was shocked: drain opener! You must be kidding me! Why would anybody want to smoke or inject such a toxic substance and do more damage to their mind and body than I could have imagined? I also learned that, because of meth’s highly addictive nature, its powerful (but short-lived) high, and the permanent changes it makes to the brain’s neurochemistry, a meth addict’s life is almost always unalterably changed for the worse—forever. I discovered that statistics show that only about one in ten persons addicted to methamphetamine are able to permanently stop using the drug. And this scourge is happening in our community, right here in Madison, as well as ruining the lives of gay, straight, and bi men in other communities across the country.

Surviving Domestic Abuse

Perhaps I could also write about domestic violence in same-sex partnerships and marriages, including mine? I have firsthand knowledge of this so-often unreported crime. In my case, I was too scared to call the Madison police when my second life partner started beating me up, thinking they’d do nothing and take no action to make it stop, except to let me continue living in our home with this guy throwing me across the room like I was a rag doll. I remembered stories about Jeffrey Dahmer and about his victims. Of course, I didn’t think my partner would cut me up into tiny pieces, but my fear for my life was very real. Because, again, the man I loved was a college-educated man, working on his doctoral degree, and I was a very successful business man. And there I was, too scared to be able to even cry out for help. For a number of reasons, I stayed in that relationship way too long before I worked up to the fact that I was living with an abuser. I wish I’d known then about the resources available in our community to LGBTQ victims of domestic violence and other forms of abuse. Making these resources better known and available to men and women in Madison is a vital concern.

HIV/AIDS and Loss

Or maybe I could address what I see as the growing indifference by younger gay men here in Madison to using safer-sex precautions? I employ quite a few young gay men in my restaurants and, in conversations at breaks or meals with some of them, learned that few of them were even aware of basic facts about HIV/AIDS or about prevention and safer-sex practices. One of them actually told me, “Even if I get HIV, all I have to do is take a pill, and I’ll be fine.” Really? That’s what many younger gay men today think and believe: “I’ll just pop a pill and any sex-related diseases will vanish.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

As we continued our discussion, my employee mentioned that he didn’t personally know anyone who’d “died of AIDS.” This young gay man, so blissfully ignorant, didn’t even know that no one “dies of AIDS,” but rather from AIDS-related illnesses.

Now, most of my newer employees didn’t know until recently that I’d lost my first life partner, John, to AIDS in 1993. And that with me, he’d been a co-founder of Michael’s Frozen Custard in 1986. By 1992, there was only one medication for HIV/AIDS (AZT) and clinical trials had just begun for the first “cocktail” (drug combination treatment). It wasn’t until two years after John’s death that the first protease inhibitor was made available to persons with HIV/AIDS. Before then, gay men here in Madison, and around the country, were dropping like flies.

I actually watched my beloved John wither away and die in our bed at home of this disease—a disease which is totally and absolutely preventable. Watching John die as he did has left an indelible mark on my soul and is a memory that I won’t forget; it haunts me to this day. That is why, ever since his death, I have been an active and vocal proponent of educating people, especially teens and young adults, about safer-sex practices. I think that if younger gay men today had to watch a lover or close friend die as a result of contracting HIV, as I did, they’d think twice before engaging in unprotected sex.

As an aside, following John’s death, I learned from a friend to whom he’d confided in on his deathbed that John had known he was HIV-positive and hadn’t told me—we’d had unprotected sex for two years. I felt so betrayed and, yes, angry at the man I’d loved with all my heart, that he could do this to me. But, by the gift of God, I never sero-converted and am HIV/AIDS-free to this day; I definitely had angels watching over me. It took me many years to learn forgiveness. I no longer blame John; we’re all human and suffer human shortcomings and failings. I don’t let the past rule my life today.

Youth and Coming Out

I thought, “Why don’t I tell about knowing that, from an early age, I knew I was ‘different’ from the other boys?”  Even though I didn’t have a word to describe what I was feeling, I knew I liked and was sexually attracted to boys more than to girls. In high school I dated a girl but, somehow, it just felt all wrong. I think I was 16 or 17 when I learned the word to describe who I was and what I felt and told my girlfriend that I was gay.

I was tormented all through my childhood and adolescence because I was “different”…because I was gay. I was called “fag” and beaten up by the other boys in the neighborhood and by my male classmates in school—even by my own brothers. I was beaten so badly that, as a result, I became diabetic at the age of 12. I was hospitalized in Madison at one point for a month before tests showed that I had Diabetes insipidus—an incurable form of the disease for which I must take medication, twice daily, for the rest of my life and which, as anyone who must take medication for a chronic disease knows, is not always an easy or convenient thing to have to do to stay alive.

Opening Michael’s Frozen Custard

I could write about my life’s great work: how at the age of 25 I started one of Madison’s long-standing and popular dining places, Michael’s Frozen Custard. Yup, you guessed it: I’m the Michael people wonder about when they read the chain’s name.

I didn’t go to college after graduating high school but instead immediately found work in a local business for several years and then as a forklift driver in Pewaukee. While working in that position, on a visit to Madison in 1985, I met the man who would become my first life partner, John, and knew I wanted to move to this great city and make my life with him here. But I soon learned that some jobs were hard to find. In the mid-1980s it seemed that you needed a college education to find a job even as a forklift driver because so many UW students remained in town after graduation.

John and I had to overcome a number of odds against starting our very own business from scratch:

We needed to decide what kind of business we wished to open, and I had no knowledge about business or where to begin. Neither of us had the money to start a business, and we had no location for one either.

I hit on the idea of using my grandma’s recipe for homemade frozen custard, which all us kids in our family loved and helped our mom out making in the kitchen of our home in the country, even going so far as getting ice in winter from the frozen lake nearby to put into the custard maker. Then John and I did our homework, and we learned a few business basics. Luck was on our side, and we were able to arrange a business loan from a local bank to get things started. Finally, faith in the certainty of our dream was rewarded by discovering, quite by chance, a building for lease that we could afford on Monroe Street, the first of what would eventually become four locations of a chain of restaurants.

After a lot of sweat, labor, and not a few tears, Michael’s opened—to our great joy and excitement—on August 22, 1986 at 4 p.m. By 5 p.m. we had to close due to a fire caused by a faulty fuse panel in our lovely, newly-opened restaurant! There would be more sweat, toil, and tears of frustration before we could re-open again…this time permanently.

Reconciling the Past, Looking Forward

Looking back on my life, there seemed to be roadblocks at every juncture, similar to those I faced starting and growing that business: I could tell you a hundred similar stories over the past 28 years back to the hurdle that fire caused. And so many personal struggles to face and overcome: trying to forget the anguish that I felt as a gay kid growing up in a hostile, heterosexual-dominated society was hell; the physical beatings I received from brothers and other kids that left me with a physical disability, as well as emotional scars that I still carry; John’s death 20 years ago last September and my 20 years of unresolved grief; my second life partner’s descent into addiction, as well as beatings that ended our 12 year relationship and with it, killed my belief that I could ever find love again.

Through all the struggles and challenges I’ve been through up to this point in my life, I have somehow never completely given up; providentially there have been intermittent spells approaching something like happiness of the kind I’d known with John. I am confident that I have now, for me, found the means of unlocking the door to finding genuine and lasting happiness. And a key to that process (which is a feat in itself) has been learning forgiveness.

Shortly after my second partner and I separated and I ended our relationship, I knew that I had to make some major changes in me and in how I was living my life. So I sought professional help, got into counseling, and worked on all those “demons” that had haunted me for so many years. I also went online and searched for “meditation in Madison, WI” and found the Magnificent Living Institute, run by Mary Olsen. I’m so grateful I did; that chance online “hit” on Mary’s Institute has profoundly changed my life for the better. I now believe that everything positive and good I need in life will be provided at the right time and in the right place.

I began attending Mary’s monthly evening meditation classes. I purchased all the guided meditation CDs and really dove into meditating every morning at home. Slowly, an unbelievable transformation started to take place within me. And one day, my soul just opened up, and a new Michael emerged. Finding my rainbow took way too long for my liking, but I’m so happy that I found something great at its end—happiness.

Early on in my meditation practice, I began to identify all the negative people in my life who had brought me no pleasure or joy. So I began, instead, to actively surround myself with positive people, and to practice positive thinking. Today, I only focus my attention on those things I need to be doing and do only what brings me great joy. Life is too short to be lived in the “should haves.”

I’ve learned that it isn’t necessary to use any man-made chemical (legal or illegal) to find happiness. For me, happiness is within the self, and every person contains the inner power to activate it. The willingness to seek and find that beauty and joy is a conscious choice I make each day.

Even though life often seems like a great struggle, I am reminded that there is also great beauty in life: in the sun that rises each morning and in the stars that sparkle in the night sky. Happiness must be sought out by smiling and saying “thank you” to the clerk behind the counter or by telling a loved one “I love you.” I express my joy and love especially to Hunter, my chocolate Lab, and Cody, my French bulldog. I’m rewarded by the very special, unconditional love that only a pet can give in return.

We humans are like seeds, scattered on this planet. Some take root, sprout, grow, and flourish. Some remain dormant their entire lives, so stuck in fear that they can’t even sprout. And still others sprout, only to realize that too much time was wasted in worry and indecision, and so they wither and die.

Sometimes when at work or while shopping in a store or just walking down the sidewalk here in Madison, I realize that that no one is smiling. Why is that? I walk around most of the day with a smile on my face. Seriously! Most people who see me must think I’m nuts—maybe reading this, you do too! Let me suggest something to you though: try walking around, wherever you may be going or doing, with a smile on your face. You may be surprised to see that people you pass smile back. Do it regularly and see if your mood doesn’t change.

I’m so grateful for having a business that has, over 28 years, enjoyed some success and has become a part of the great city Madison is. I have employees (past and present) who are so incredibly great that their devotion and work over the past 28 years bring tears to my eyes. I have close, personal friends who love and support me without condition. And I welcome every person who will, in some way, touch my life today and tomorrow.

I began this article by asking myself what I could write that might interest, or somehow contribute positively to, our Madison community. I rambled on a lot about my personal history and struggles as a small business owner. Maybe what I really hoped to say all along, by sharing my life with you, was simply this:

Life is too short for me to waste a day of mine not enjoying the “why” of my existence, which is that life is meant to be lived in joy and in loving. Even though it brings struggle and sometimes tears, I must make time for fun and laughter. By no means is my life perfect; “perfect” doesn’t exist. Neither does “tomorrow.”

Today, I’ve learned patience. When the time is right, the Universe will open, and I will receive all that I wish for and need. Today, I intend to make a difference in the world in which I live. Today, I’m here to laugh and spread my joy of living in this world.

Today, I’m here to be Michael.