Olive Bread, or What Will Your Friends Remember

olivebread1_550A few days ago, I went to the memorial service of a person I had never met.  He was a friend of Eric’s, an artist, specifically, a neon artist.  It was a beautiful service, not without its sadnesses, naturally.  Also, it was not without its laughs.  It was a short service, moderated by a long time friend, wrapped up with a piano medley of Yesterday, Hey Jude, and Bridge over Troubled Water.  All three of those songs were among my favorites when I was a dreamy eyed, vintage cardigan wearing misfit of a Kansas teenager, but I had not listened, really listened to them in awhile. 

When you attend the funeral or memorial of a person you never knew, you get a picture of them, completely accurate or not, from the stories that are told about the deceased.  I’ve thought about this man, and those stories, several times this week.  And I’m not saying that the story I am sharing is the one the most defines him, this artist, but it’s the story that I thought about most, the stickiest story.

A woman got up to share the story of her friendship with the man we were honoring.  She touched on what they had in common.  They were both neon artists, about the same age, he from Japan, she from China.  They lived near each other in Southern California.   She shared that Kunio was the person who introduced olive bread to her. We all laughed when she said it, that hungry laugh of funerals where, between tears, we can chuckle and breathe, remind ourselves that we are still living.  She had never had it before he served her some on a visit to his house.  And she loved it and she introduced it to her husband and he loved it too. And she said that, even before Kunio’s passing, she thought about him every time she ate olive bread, even more so in the months since his passing.

I sat there wondering what Kunio would have thought about that anecdote.  We live our lives trying to accomplish things, climb every mountain, make a difference, give it the old freshman try, be aggressive, make every moment count, and when we’re gone, we’re remembered for olive bread.  And not even for making it, just for liking it.  Well, for liking it and for sharing it.

Sharing a few slices of olive bread with a good friend on a sunny California afternoon. There’s so much more, there’s always so much more, but that’s really not such a bad way to be remembered, either.

The Morning After

1425719_10152094998587755_185085023_nI’m usually the first to hear it, especially if it happens in the middle of the night.  I am not necessarily a light sleeper, but in the years since Millie started having these episodes, these seizures, there is a part of me that, even when sleeping, is always listening for the tell tale signs.  Last night, around 1:00 a.m., I woke up. hearing the sounds, sensing the vibrations, of Millie stirring awkwardly in the bed.  I found her at the foot of the bed and sure enough, she had started having a seizure.  Eric woke up when I started talking to Millie, telling her she was going to be okay.  “She’s having one,” was all I needed to say and Eric was beside her too, also holding, also calming her.

Millie’s seizures, which started in February 2011, are unique, just like she is unique.  She does not lose consciousness, her eyes do not roll back, she does not foam at the mouth, but merely salivates more than usual.  She shakes, her paws clench.  If we were to put her on the ground, she would try to walk, but stumble about.  These seizures have happened enough that we know what to do, or at least we think we do.  We hold her and tell her that we love her until the episode passes.  Usually, it lasts about 10 minutes, and once she’s out of it, she’s still not 100% Millie for awhile.  Even this morning, the morning after, she’s quieter than usual, more reclusive.  When I walked her and her brother Ricky a few minutes ago, she did feel impassioned enough to bark at another dog on the sidewalk which, under normal circumstances is annoying and embarrassing, but today was a relief of sorts, an indication that she’s getting back to normal.  

Eric does better when she is having her seizures than I do.  In fact, the way he is in those moments, is probably Eric at his very best.  He becomes the chief Millie holder, the coddler.  I have to run into the closet to grab a towel in case she wets herself, I have to run into the kitchen to take a Xanax, but the whole time, Eric lays there on the bed and holds her, kisses her, tells her that we love her and need her.  As my mind runs away with the worries, he is calm and present for her.   When she appeared to come out of the seizure last night, I ran back to the kitchen to get her a little treat, to see if she would eat it.  She nibbled on it gingerly while Ricky hopped and moaned and pounced.  He has some compassion for his sister, but when treats appear, he becomes quite single focused.

After the treats and the hugs and the “you’re a good girl”‘s, we settle back into bed, Millie at the foot, in the same place where she was when it started and ended.  Ricky lays on his pillow in the middle of the bed and Eric, on one side, me on the other.  Eric’s joke is that the two of us are always sleeping on a celery stick because of these two.  They are our little bed hogs and we love them.  As I lay there worrying about Millie and how we need to go to the neurologist and how the seizures have picked up frequency in the last few months and how are we going to pay for an extra vet bill, extra medicine and on and on and on, I hear Ricky and Eric snoring.  Millie looks at me and I look at her.  What is she saying to me? I don’t know.

And this is the morning after.  There is a glow that comes from surviving a crisis.  Eric is at work, but told me to keep him posted.  Ricky is sleeping on the couch.  Millie is napping under the bed, also known as, her hotel suite.  And here I sit, typing away, trying to make sense, trying to ease my pain.  We survived another storm, weary and shaken, but happy to see the sunshine of a brand new day.

Guest Blogger, Barbara Cameron: Strike the Stage

barney_greengrassFather’s Day is about families. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I spent with the friends who became family because we all worked together, at Barney Greengrass.  As many of you know, Thursday was the last day of operation for the Beverly Hills restaurant, Friday was my last day of work.  It’s been a bittersweet time.  Laughs, tears, all of it.  I asked my good friend Barbara if she wanted to write a little something about our journey, her journey.  We started within months of each other in 1999 and I count her among the greatest gifts from working there.  If you were part of the ride, you will understand especially, but even if you never set foot inside the place, it’s a story of endings and new chapters and looking back, while still the memory is fresh, that anyone can relate to.

 
Strike the Stage

I am lost. I have nowhere to go. I don’t know who I am, or what I do. As in, I feel like I lost my identity. What I used to do? I managed Barneys New York Restaurant, and it has now seemingly (though it was anything but) come to an abrupt halt. “Barneys New York Restaurant, formerly Barney Greengrass, will be closing for renovations, to reopen in the fall as Fred’s. In keeping with the Barney’s brand.” I have said this so many times over the past four months I thought I wouldn’t be able to mouth the words and speak it again. It is a true statement: it is also a script. I am taking Ray up on his generous offer to finally go off script.

My displacement, oddly enough, didn’t happen when the people left. I thought I was weird for not being upset. I hugged them goodbye, when I had the time, I shared anecdotes, when I had the time, and once, with one friend, because I had even a little bit more time, I told her she was one of my favorites because she was.

Rather, my utter sense of loss began yesterday and culminated today when, of all things, the stupid furniture and the food were finally heaved and hauled out of there, all of it donated to charity, and, in one final act of good will, what was left of the food bagged and placed downstairs for everyone to come and “shop” as they joked, like a farmer’s market. I took my box of assorted goods someone prepared for me. I knew I wouldn’t eat most of it. I just couldn’t leave without it. It seemed such collective act of parting, like leaving a great dinner party, making sure everyone had something when they left.

Only now, tonight, do I think I know what happened to me. I think the people I worked wiith over the years, are so real to me, so vivid, so clearly a part of me and my life, who I am and what I really do, that they didn’t seem gone until all the props of the setting were gone. What do they call that, “strike the set”? They struck the set; the show was over, and with it, some of the best moments and times of my life. Empty and stark, it finally hit me that no one is coming back. Off everyone goes, they’ll get another part, we’ll all come see each other, but as I sit here now, silly fool, all alone crying by myself about missing, in no particular order, the cast and crew, Art, Ray, Vinod & Sean G., Florence, Kristin, Olya, Rudy, Jonathan M., Ian, Jamal, Alejandro, Gabe, Tino, Jacobo, Bayron, Mark, Oscar, Eli, Miguel, Mario, Flaco, Jonathan C., Oscar G., Juan H., Juan Pablo, Ruben, Juston, Diego, Brian, Jon V., Megan, Dawn, Cathy, Ben, Joy, Earl, Vanessa, Margie, Sharyn, Skye, Keith, Blake, Joey, Jennifer, Jennifer K., Robert, Roberto, Edgar, George, Andrea, Conrad, Christian, Kevin, Loriann, Marie, Matt, Bob R., Max., (forgive me if I missed anyone), I know what a hell of a job we did, how many people we affected and moved, together, as a cast of incredible characters. We had a long run, some recast over and over again, some of us staying the whole time, and we were really something! Let’s face it guys, the people loved us!

The proverbial “Barney’s Show” – had it all: the drama, the laughs, the births and even the death of our beloved Art. Some days, some of us weren’t quite able to play our parts, because we all had to flip a switch and perform at work, but we stood in, helped out, took over, supported each other through it. Needless to say, sometimes we had a tough audience. So we performed for each other! But sometimes they cheered for our little troop, and we basked in the praise; yes, we took pride in doing a good job because that is the kind of saps we are.

I left the dark stage today in a sad mood because I deeply miss my friends, on stage and off stage. I can’t say enough about the people I worked with. I will do this job again, no doubt, but for me, plays like this one, parts like this one only come along once in a lifetime, and I am so very grateful for it. By the end, I knew it by heart, by my heart.

God’s Pen

Vintage-ink-pen-and-cursive-writingFunny story.  Several years ago, back in Bible college, my friend, who for the purposes of this story, I will call Dwight, was in the school’s library doing homework.  He needed to use a highlighter for something and he saw that a fellow classmate, I’ll call him Parker, had a highlighter laying next to him as he sat at another table doing his own homework.  Dwight walked over to Parker and asked if he could borrow his pen.  Parker, who we thought of as self-righteous, but in retrospect, was just perhaps a little on the awkward side, looked up in confusion.  “Is it okay if I borrow your pen?” Dwight repeated.  After a moment, Parker defensively answered, “It’s not my pen, it’s God’s pen.”

For some reason, that anecdote resonated with my circle of friends, the guys who lived on my dorm floor, we fancied ourselves young men who loved God, but did not fit the ideal mold of what Ozark necessarily wanted.  Parker, on the other hand, was evangelical catnip to the faculty and administration.  He always wore slacks and a tie, he was always so serious about God.  

Last night, I wrote a blog about my Bible college and my perceived lack of compassion to the passing of a fellow alumni, another gay man like myself.  It ultimately turned into an explosive piece.  I heard from many of my former classmates today as well as a few people from OCC that I’ve never met before today.  I revisited this missive and I thought, did I really write all this?  Did I then really post it for anyone in the blogosphere to read?  Well, I did.  And just 24 hours later, I can admit my error.  There are things I said that I wish I had not said.  There are things I said that I wished I’d said with more eloquence and most importantly, more compassion.  

My goal with that blog was to open people’s hearts, it’s my goal always when I talk about the relationship between the church and the homosexual community.  I read my post and think that what I said was so important, but I approached it so judgmentally.  So, for that I apologize.  This evening I received a kind message from OCC’s president, my former classmate, Matt Proctor.  He did not have to extend an apology, but he did. 

Today, one of the many Ozark friends that I heard from was my friend Dwight.  We talked briefly about my blog and then I asked him if he remembered the God’s pen incident.  He told me he totally did, in fact, he and his wife still talk about it from time to time.  I told him that I always try to tell people the story and it never quite translates.  I wondered to myself, why did this story about God’s pen stick in my mind so prominently for so long.  What does God’s pen even mean?

Maybe it just means that God is the only one of us who can afford to use a pen, the only one who says it right the first time.  For the rest of us, especially for me, it’s better to stick with writing with pencils. Because the good thing about a pencil is that you can erase it and try again and erase it and try again until you say exactly what you want to say in the exact way you want and need to say it.

Dear Ozark Christian College,

imageI am writing to inform you about the passing of one of the young men who attended your institute of learning a few years back.  I sent a note to whoever runs your Facebook page, asking them to share his obituary with his classmates who might have remembered him.  I received a genial, “Thank you!” But several hours later, no one has shared the news of his passing.

It’s been an interesting few days and if I seem angry, I assure you, it is related to the treatment my friend received from your institution and the products of your institution.  If a Proctor or a Scott or Weece had passed away, Meredith Williams would have been all over it, but for some reason, my friend’s passing mattered not.

I posted something on my own Facebook wall about my friend’s death on Tuesday, I wanted people that went to school with him, people who knew him and loved him to know that he was gone.  Several people offered condolences and wishes for peace for his family.  Very few of those who responded were actually Ozark alumni.  I’ll tell you right now, I was surprised on Tuesday by the lack of empathy.

This morning, I posted a blog about his passing, referring to him as Charles.  I probably did not need to change his name, but I thought that if his parents somehow found out about my blog, it might hurt them.  You see, my friend was gay.  But you probably know that, that’s probably the reason why his death means nothing to you.  

After I posted this blog, an attempt to tribute this friend who became my friend only in the past few years, only via Facebook, that I really saw the alumni at Ozark, the people I once counted among my best friends, as the people they really are, the people you taught them to be.  With few exceptions, and YES, there were a few exceptions, the several people that responded, that offered condolence or prayers of peace were people who never knew him at all.  They were friends of mine from high school or New York or Los Angeles.  I was moved that these people, many not Christians at all, did not need to know the guy to respond compassionately. Only a handful of Ozark alumni seemed to care.  

And then I went to my friend’s Facebook page, it was flowered with hundreds of messages of love that my friend will never see.  People telling him how funny he was, people thanking him for always being there for them, people who loved him.  Only one comment was from an Ozark alumni, it read, “Does anyone know what caused ________’s death yesterday?”  In my opinion, a genuine “I’ll miss you” would have been better.  Someone else from my school private messaged me asking about Charles’ real identity.  I felt like saying you don’t need to know his identity to pray for him and his family.  God is expansive enough to figure it out.

If it seems that all of this has unhinged me a little, you are correct.  As much as this is about my friend, it’s also about me.  I know now that when I go, you people will not care.  Oh, some, hopefully many, people will care, but the Ozark Christian College community, as a whole,  will not.  And that’s okay.  I finally figured it out.  Now I know why after 15 years of trying to get the Alumni News sent to me, the administrator keeps telling me my address is, and I quote, undeliverable.  I know.

In the 24 years since I graduated, in the 21 years since I came out of the closet, I always had a certain pride about going to Ozark Christian College.  I have many fond memories and I always thought that I learned a lot there.  I was on a camp team, for pete’s sake!  What I did not realize until today is that the moment I sat in Gary Zustiak’s office, a couple years after graduation and told him I was gay, I ceased to exist to you. I was too much of an embarrassment.

I will not forget this, I will not forget my friend. I will not forget the scores of other men and women, homosexuals, that you would like to pretend were never a part of your institution. We exist. We will not go away. And if anyone ever asks me again about my college education, instead of smiling and saying, “it’s a funny story…” I’ll say, I went to Ozark Christian College were they tried to beat the compassion out of me. They failed.

Remembering a Friend

Sunset on the Missouri RiverA friend died a couple days ago. He was an alumni of the same Bible college I attended. I’ll call him Charles. There is a part of me that feels like I should let this sit before I start writing about it. Even though I’ve changed his name, I wouldn’t want to say anything that would hurt his parents should they ever stumble upon this blog.

I did not know Charles well while we were in college. That seemed like a pity a few days ago and even sadder now. We lived in different dorms, ran with different friends. We only connected a few years ago via Facebook, and to me, that’s when our friendship began.

We had a lot in common. Both from small Midwestern towns who went to Bible college in the 1980s. Also, I’m sure you’re already ahead of me: he, like me, was gay. He was a minister a few years after college, like me. He moved to a metropolitan city, like me, where he started a life with other gay men and women, people who, judging from the posts on his Facebook page, loved him dearly.

A few years ago he returned to his Midwestern home town to take care of his aging parents. I think Facebook became even more valuable to him then because it allowed him to keep close to all his friends, both near and far.

We messaged each other back and forth last week about something that was bothering him. He spoke of a specific incident, a specific person who had been merciless in his views on Charles’ sexuality. Someone he had known many years, someone who even went to our same college, this person, he told me, had disowned him as a friend. And it hurt. I tried to encourage him that he had many, many friends that accepted him exactly as is. He said, “Thanks, Bro, you have been a lifesaver.”

When I read about Charles’s unexpected passing, I was heartbroken. I know he had so much pain in his life, that sometimes it felt unbearable for him. All weekend, mere days ago, he posted pictures of the cute dog he was dog sitting for. I had seen the pictures and goodness knows , there’s nothing I love more that cute dog pictures. I thought I had clicked like on several of them, but apparently I had not and I cursed myself thinking that Charles didn’t even know how much I liked those dog pics. I’m being silly, I suppose.

And actually, that’s the least of it. Since I started this blog, I’m always looking for the next story. When we talked last Tuesday, when he shared frustrations about the judgments he felt from Christian friends and I tried to encourage him, be like that guy Barnabas, the encourager, someone I learned about back in Bible college. I reminded him of the many, many adoring friends he had, tried to make him feel better. We were kindred spirits, sensitive boys who went into ministry to try to save ourselves from being gay.

The next day, I asked him if I could write a blog about his experience, I told him many people would relate to his story. I told him I wouldn’t use his real name unless he wanted me to. I also told him I wouldn’t share his story without his permission. He never responded. My last contact from Charles, if you call it that, is the time stamp on my message telling me what day and time he read it. From his silence, I feared that he thought I saw him more as a story than as friend.

And now he’s gone and I feel like I let him down. Maybe I’m letting him down more by writing about him, but I’m making a decision and I hope that it lands in the spirit it’s intended. Charles was a beautiful, kind, funny, passionate guy. I’d rather not be writing about him in the past tense, because I wish he was still with us, fighting the fight. If you read this and you remember him, I hope you remember him fondly, as I do. And if you are a Christian, a conservative evangelical Christian, I hope you add him and his family into your prayers. And if you are person who had a friend from long ago, a friend you’ve lost contact with because they live a lifestyle you don’t agree with, I hope you’ll reach out and tell them you care, that you love them. We don’t know what tomorrow holds.

I’m really sad this morning. I’ve been sad since I read the news. And I’ll be sad whenever I think of him for awhile. I went to his Facebook page and read the beautiful tributes people have written. One wrote, “You were always so kind to me and I will never forget how supportive you were of me. You told me I could do anything and be anything I wanted and would always remind me of how loved I am.”

“You told me I could do anything and be anything I wanted.” And that is the way I will always remember Charles, a beautiful, kind, funny, passionate man who left us far too early. Rest in Peace, Friend.

Frozen

Never-Been-KissedI’ve definitely been a little sentimental lately.  You might perhaps remember a post from last week where I mentioned that my job of 15 years is coming to a close this week, Saturday is my last day.  A few days ago, I had a conversation with my friend and co-worker Gabriel about another recent blog post.  He chided me that the title of the blog Class of ’84 Reunion caught his eye because he wasn’t even born in 1984.  (Very funny, Gabe!) But we talked about the post, about something that happened long ago, and he mentioned that that’s the thing about people you haven’t seen in a long time, they are locked in, frozen, as the person that you last had contact with.  Years, decades could pass, but they are still that 9th grader or 7th grader or whatever.

And because that particular post had a certain amount of resonance, I have heard from many, many of my classmates in the last 36 hours.  And it’s weird, because that thing that Gabriel talked about, that frozen in time aspect, related to those people too.  I heard from P—–, who when we were in 7th grade, we were in all the same classes.  She was the prettiest girl in the 7th grade and I had a crush on her just like everyone else.  She’s obviously an adult now, kids of her own, but in our exchange, all I could remember was the statuesque girl with the feathered, raven hair.  It was sweet.  And I heard from M—–who reminded me of arm wrestling in the school cafeteria.  He flattered me by saying that he thought I won, but I’m sure he did.  I got a message from H——, my neighbor growing up and I remembered our summer before 9th grade where all the kids in the neighborhood hung out every day.  It was the only summer that we did that, but I thought so fondly about it today.  I talked to S—– who was on the French Club trip to Canada, and T—– who was one of the stars of my summer swim league, and C—- and A—- who, with me, comprised 1/3 of the gayest T-ball team in Kansas sports history.  With a few exceptions, I have little contact with these people in my 2014 life.  They are frozen, at 12 or 14 or 15 or 17.

Also today, I’ve been thinking about one of my favorite movies, Never Been Kissed with Drew Barrymore, as Josie Geller who had to go to high school twice to really appreciate it.  I tried to find a video of her voiceover at the end, where she talks about the people from high school.  I couldn’t find it, but I did find the speech. “Those girls are still there. The ones that, even as you grow up, will still be the most beautiful girls that you’ve ever seen close up.  The athletes, and the immense sense of fraternity and loyalty that they share. The smart kids- who everyone else always knew as the brains. But who I just knew as my soul mates, my teachers, my friends.”  I feel like I had my Never Been Kissed moment yesterday, reconnecting with these people who were my bright spots of youth, people I admired the most in my formative years.  

And now I think about Gabriel and my friends from Barney Greengrass, AKA Barneys New York Restaurant.  It’s a graduation of sorts.  There is a possibility that many of us will be back in the fall in the new incarnation, but the truth is, who really knows what the future holds.  Yesterday, was the last time another friend Kristin and I worked together.  As she left, I hugged her tight in a somewhat successful attempt to make her cry.  “You’re not going to make me cry, Ray,” she said with misty eyes. And then we laughed. It was a nice moment that I hope I never forget.

I’m trying to tie these groups together, old friends from youth and these co-workers who’ve been my friends so long that they feel like family. Some will remain fixtures in my life and others, of course, will remain frozen as they are in June 2014. But frozen is not a bad thing when the memories are warm. (Get it?) If I don’t see Gabriel or Kristin or Rudy or Jonathan or Olya or the rest for another 30 years, they’ll always hold a special place in my heart. And it’s nice to know that in my heart, my sometimes embittered heart that has survived a few hurts, there is room for love for so many, old and new.

I told you I’ve been sentimental lately.