Yesterday, on a picture of my grade school, Washington Elementary, that I had posted to Facebook, my friend Julie commented that she had a picture of me that had been taken years ago on the playground of that school. I’d love to see it, I told her and a few minutes later, she posted the picture, this picture, in the comment section. I had not known exactly what to expect and yet, I was not completely prepared for what I saw. A t-shirt that clung to my chubby stomach and love handles, oversized glasses, Sears “husky” jeans, shaggy haircut and an extremely effeminate pose.
What was I thinking, I wondered. Did I think I was Kelly Garrett or Kris Monroe?
I looked at this little guy and thought, well, I can’t let Eric see this. In fact, I can’t let anyone see this.
Julie told me that written on the back of the photo was, “Ray Louis Barnhart Jr, 6th, 1980.” I would have been 11.
And while I was afraid for people to see this picture, I couldn’t stop looking at it myself. I found myself awash in memories of those years. Like the time I told Julie and another friend Jennifer that I wanted to lose 10 pounds in a weekend and Julie gave me a list of the foods I was allowed to eat. The only item from the list I remember was pickles and now, to this day, I think of Julie every time I eat a pickle. Also, I remembered attempting a fast and shamefully breaking that fast with a cold roast beef sandwich and a sleeve of Thin Mints.
In my mind, I remember those grade school years as a time when I was anxious or depressed about any number of things: my weight, being called names, feeling like I didn’t have a lot of friends, feeling different, being unskilled at sports.
And yet, this picture is proof that I must have had some good days, happy days, gleeful days. I’ve tried to remember what was going through my head on this day when I posed, and I do mean POSED, for this picture, but I just don’t know.
Our memories, they are sometimes so complicated when we take them out of envelopes in our chest of drawers and scan them to our computers and then zoom in on the details of afternoons from decades ago.
If this was a picture of a boy from the eighties that I did not know, that maybe I’d stumbled on it in a bin of old photos that antique stores and flea markets sometimes have with a sign that says, “25 cents or 5/$1.00”, if I had just randomly come upon a perfect stranger, I could have loved this kid without reservation. I could have looked in those eyes and seen enough of myself to root for him and wonder how things turned out, hoping “it got better.”
At 11, I did not have the skills to take a dishonest picture. As I got older, I learned to butch it up in photos, to affect a manlier pose. My high school and college years, I have so many memories of modulating my walk or my speech in a way to come across as straight and masculine. (Perhaps you knew me then and are thinking, well, you weren’t as successful as you thought. And if that’s the case, that’s okay, too.)
Perhaps I have never taken a picture that reveals the me that is most me than this. This guy loves chocolate cake. He loves his hometown (orange and black t-shirt). He loves playing with girls at recess. His favorite part of the Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog is the Barbie section. He dances and sings to Shaun Cassidy’s “Hey Deanie” and Leif Garrett’s “Surfin’ USA” in his bedroom. He loves being silly. He knows he is not like everyone else and he revels in his uniqueness.
It breaks my heart a little to think that my first thought when I saw this picture yesterday was shame, that I needed to hide this. That I had to take a minute and step away to realize how great this young man is.
Over three hundred years ago, William Wordsworth wrote a poem called My Heart Leaps up about his love of rainbows and realizing he’s always loved rainbows even since he was a small child. That who we are when we are young sets the stage for the person we will be our entire lives.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is the father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
I could not escape this kid if I tried, and I did try, and sometimes, I still do try. I mean, I went to Bible college in an attempt to make myself straight, that’s how desperately I wanted to be someone else. It’s been a long road to self acceptance and it frustrates me that at almost 50, STILL, some days are better than others. But I have to be honest, this guy, this spirited young fellow, he is my hero. When I really think about it, I realize he is everything I aspire to be. So, despite some hesitation, I am sharing him with all of you. I hope you love him as much as I do.
This weekend, I went to visit my parents in Kansas. I had not been to my childhood home since 2014. I spent some time poring over old cards and letters, old pictures too. I was awash, still am, really, in memories of different chapters of my life, junior high, church camp, high school, college.
The summer before my senior year in college, I interned at a church in upstate New York. I uncovered many letters from the kids and adults in the congregation, pictures too, of the friends I made there. Fond memories.
And then, somehow, nestled in the warm, I remembered someone I had not about thought about for a while: Todd Stevens.
Todd Stevens was a guy that had lived in Syracuse. (Don’t get too excited, this isn’t going to go where you think it’s going to go.) He was tall, athletic, handsome. (Seriously, not what you think.) He’d been a baseball player for the Syracuse minor league baseball team. He’d been married, but his wife left him and while I was interning, Todd Stevens came back to town, to go through the things in his storage unit and purge part of it and ship the rest back to his life in Kansas.
The minister I was working and staying with had told me all about Todd Stevens before he came to visit. “Todd Stevens is a great guy, terrific ball player, the whole church went crazy for him. He’s from Kansas too, you’re going to love him.”
We picked Todd Stevens up at the airport. Looking like a young Kevin Costner, he was as charismatic of a presence as the minister had promised. For a handful of days, the three of us, the minister, Todd Stevens and I tooled around Syracuse, golfing, going to baseball games, cooking steaks on the grill. The minister’s wife was out of town, so it was just our unlikely trio.
I did not feel I measured up to Todd Stevens. Short with glasses, paunchy stomach even though I was finally skinny after years of being the fat kid. Trying to act as masculine as possible while still bringing whatever it was that was unique and sensitive about me to my first ministry. When Todd Stevens came to church on the Sunday during his visit, the old ladies and the young kids and the moms and the dads all reacted to him the way I wished they would have reacted to me, he was their golden boy.
“What have you been up to, Todd Stevens? We’ve missed you.” It couldn’t have been easy for him. The minister and I had been there at the storage unit, as Todd Stevens pored over his own memories, memories of a life with another person that was cut short not long after it began. Separating toasters from photo albums, baseball gear from blenders, Todd Stevens started to cry. I was a kid, 20 years old, Todd, just a few years older than me. At 25 or 26, his life was going in a completely different direction than what he had anticipated. A few years before he’d been a professional baseball player married to his college sweetheart. Now he was a divorced assistant manager at a sporting goods store in rural Kansas.
Somehow, Todd Stevens and I did form a bond in our few days together. So, I wasn’t surprised when on the night before his flight back to Kansas he came into my bedroom to ask for a favor. (Again, I’m not kidding, it’s not that kind of story.)
“You know Loyal and Bev have been so good to me, I don’t want to ask for anymore favors. I have three boxes that still need to be shipped back home but I’m out of money. Can you take the boxes to UPS this week after I leave? I’ll send you the money when I get home.”
“I can do that.” Like everyone else, I too had fallen for Todd Stevens.
“Oh man, that’s awesome. And just to say thanks, I’m going to send you some K-State hats and t-shirts! Cool. Also, do you want this blender?”
The day after Todd Stevens left Syracuse I went to UPS to ship his three boxes. It cost me 30 dollars, which was kind of a lot of money for me then.
Days passed, then weeks with no check and package full of K-State memorabilia. I had Todd Stevens’ address and I sent him a letter, asking as delicately as possible, when he was planning on sending me my $30.
The summer ended and I sent him another letter, this time giving him my college address. “Don’t worry about the cap and shirt, just send the $30.”
I never got my $30 and I never heard from Todd Stevens again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the worst thing that ever happened me, not by a long shot, but for years, I did wonder what happened. Did he intend to pay me back and then lose track? Was he purposely deceitful? Was he a pathological liar, not completely in control of his grand promises? Did he suffer a fatal heart attack on the sidewalk outside the post office, clutching my check and Wildcat T-shirt in his hands as he fell to the asphalt? (Active imagination.)
I do think about Todd Stevens from time to time. I’m not wounded, and I do think it’s funny. I know I sound like the paper boy in Better Off Dead, I want my 2 dollars, a never ending refrain. Also, I know now that the memory stuck with me, in part, because I did go crazy for Todd Stevens. I felt things about him I couldn’t articulate at the time, a crush calling itself admiration.
Wherever you are, Todd Stevens, I hope you are well. I hope your journey has offered you joy and love and peace. I hope you created a family, work a job you like, found purpose. I know what it feels like to think your life is set in one direction and have it veer in another. I know what it feels like to break a promise. This weekend, as I sifted through the memories of old friends and old crushes and even old conflicts, I was reminded of what a gift all of it is. That decades later, I can close my eyes and see the three of us, you, Loyal and me, playing golf on a cool, green June New York evening, me vexed that I couldn’t drive or pitch or putt as well as not only you, but also a 60 year old man, all of it, it makes me smile. And then it almost makes me cry. Life, it speeds by. How could there ever be a debt when you gave me something worth so much?
Several days ago, I asked a few friends to write guest blogs about this divisive, explosive election. One of the people I asked was my good friend Ab Kastl, who, like me, grew up in the same part of the country, went to Ozark Christian College and has lived in Southern California for over 20 years. So, we share many of the same influences if not the same perspectives. We often disagree politically. But he was glad to offer his reflection on the election, why it went the way it did, and also what his hopes for this country are. If you are led to comment, whether on here or on Facebook, in agreement or disagreement, I do ask that your comments be respectful. And if you are inspired to write your own guest blog about this election, by all means, I’d love to hear from you.
Mind the Queue
“What has happened to the USA?” asked my good friend from England…the same England that voted for the Brexit. What made them vote for the Brexit? What made the USA vote for Trump? Being from Oklahoma, I hear the grumblings of so many out there in the Mid-west. Oh, stewardess! I speak redneck. There is a sense by so many in the fly over states of things being out of control (borders, spending, security, etc.….out of control). Allow me share what I passed to my friend who lives across the pond in the country where they love showing off their politeness by excessive queueing.
Let me queue up some observations on maybe why Trump got elected ……
1. Bernie Sanders really got screwed. The emails showed the Democratic Party cheated him to push Hillary through. Debbie Wassermann Shultz got the boot because it was clear they sabotaged Bernie. So many are frustrated that he got screwed it was too late to change anything so they had to go with Hillary. So many who were disenfranchised with the system being out of control probably did not go vote for Hillary.
2. Hillary has more baggage than (name your 3 favorite airlines here). The Midwest folks are military loving diehards. The Benghazi attack on 9-11 was four fresh year ago. That it happened on the anniversary of 9-11 and Hillary Clinton did not respond properly and then blamed a YouTube video puts a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouth. Then she went the extra mile to erase anything related to it while she was under subpoena doesn’t look good. Destroyed computers and phones equals shady biz. One of the silliest lies she told a while back was sharing a false story in a speech about landing in Bosnia under sniper fire (remember how people were turned off when Brian Williams said such things?). She went into specific details and they were all lies. I know it seems like it is no big deal but it does show the extent she is willing to go to lie on something that is not even controversial This is not good when you are trying to get some good ole boy famer out in Iowa to show up and vote for you.
3. The Obama family wins in the “Classiest Looking Family” category. President Obama was not as strategically successful as we hoped. Obama’s health care plan was forced on the American public with zero support from the other side. The numbers did not add up but he did not care…he forced it through. We were told to pass 20,000 pages of confusion and then we will see what is in it. His cabinet begged him to go golfing with people from the opposing side in order to find some common ground. He refused. Instead of doing the necessary leg work all presidents have to do to find compromise, President Obama said “Elections have consequences. I won.” He told the other side they had to “sit in the back of the bus.” Recently, health care rates are starting to double and many, including Democrats are upset and concerned. This probably motivated a lot of the middle of the road voters to go another way.
4. Immigration feels out of control here. Immigration is the backbone and pillar of America. There has to be limits, rules and lines. Way back, Ellis Island was the first stop for so many. Everyone understood that is part of the process. Not anymore. In a land of many laws, breaking the law as your first action here does not sit well with many. When so many show up, who’s jobs get taken away? Remember that 70’s movie Car Wash? African Americans dominated that works force in the 70’s….not anymore. So many jobs African Americans filled are now filled by our neighbors from the South. More black people voted Republican (Trump) than ever before. 30% of Hispanics voted for Trump. Why would they? Maybe because they have seen what it is like to live in countries that are out of control. Trump definitely tapped into Americans feeling out of control.
5. The media here does slant a certain way. This upsets the people named Jim Bob and Genevieve. That is why they are so loyal to Fox News….They like Fox because they get a sense of balance and control in a topsy-turvy feeling world. Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Michigan strongly voted for President Obama last time but went for Trump this time (Some say this shows the statement “Everyone who voted for Trump is a racist.” is false?). Those are hardworking blue collar states. So, Trump yelping about creating jobs sounds appealing to these states. Americans don’t want to feel so out of control.
I try not to cuss at or around my two kids. I am no goodie-goodie. I just remember as a kid the adults who never cussed and then all the sudden they wanted emphasis would slipped in a cuss word and BOOM, they have my attention. I knew they meant business. I knew I better sit up, pay attention and focus on what they wanted done. But the coaches, old bosses or relatives who cussed at me all the time and everyday…Yawn….same old same old. Who cares what they say? No one really. The same could be said of people who are so quick to call other people who they do not agree with “racists”. The broken record gets ignored. I know Trump said some bold things that have been interpreted as racist. Calling someone a racist no longer has any power or effect. Every Republican has been accused of being a racist. George W Bush was called a racist for not helping Katrina victims fast enough. McCain was called a racist because he questioned President Obama’s black pastor Jeremiah Wright and he referred to Barak Obama as “that one”. Romney was called racist because he used “dog-whistle” language like “free stuff”, “welfare” and “Chicago”. Now, anyone who voted for Trump is being called a racist. It is so overly used it has no effect. It pushed people to vote against the accusers even if the person they are voting for is a mess.
Not everyone who wants a controlled borders hates Mexicans. Not everyone who questions climate change is anti-science. Not everyone who did not get excited about President Obama is a racist. To be accused of these things creates that feeling of a society out of control. If you accused others of such things….maybe you helped Trump get elected?
I told myself before the election “Whichever way it goes, the USA will be just fine.” We have a system that has checks and balances. If Trump or Hillary wins and is a mess, we will give them the boot in four years.
Like it or not, we have some of that deep English heritage intertwined in the DNA of the USA. Deep down, we crave those organized queues. We know we have a good thing going here and to have that sense of chaos is unsettling. Things were feeling out of control. Maybe 2016 was just a sloppy shake up to try to get us back in queue.
I received an email from my cousin Matt this morning. He had written a thoughtful piece about volunteering and asked if I might like to share it here. I told him I would be more than happy to post it. While we should always be cognizant of what we do in our daily lives to help others, sometimes we need reminders. Thanks Matt for sharing your story of what volunteering means to you.
Sharing Blessings! Why Do I Volunteer?
I have been blessed to be in a position to be able to volunteer in most of my son’s activities. Additionally my wife has also to volunteer as well. I say blessed because I know in today’s world that not everyone’s situation allows for the level of volunteering that we are able to. Both my wife and I have a calling to work with youth, having earned music education degrees but both being in vocations where we do not have direct youth interaction we have chosen to focus our “free” time in our son’s activities. This is not to say that we are perfect parents, I assure you that we will always have room for improvement. Nor are we alone in this endeavor, we have made friends with other outstanding volunteers in the organizations. We have discussed why we do this many times and the main theme that we bring up is to make a difference in a child’s life, our child and others.
With this goal in mind we have tackled Boy Scouts and competitive marching band parent organizations. We have looked at what skills and experiences that we have to offer and have been able to plug into positions for each group. I could not be more satisfied and proud of the impact that we have been able to make. I say this not to boast, but to share the gem situations that I have experienced.
In Scouts I have served as a committee member, but my focus has been on sitting and preparing the boys for Boards of Review that they have at the completion of each rank including Eagle rank, Scouting’s highest youth achievement. I have been able to sit on countless Tenderfoot, 1st Class, 2nd Class, and Life rank boards with our Troop of 60 or so boys. It is a privilege to see each boy develop though each rank in maturity and experience. As well I have sat as a troop representative on over 15 Eagle Board of Reviews, many of which I was able to provide some coaching and sample questions for each boy to prepare. The boys have done outstanding and have represented our Troop well. The Council representatives recognize that we run a well rounded program for our youth. The involvement has also allowed the boys to participate in many adventure actives such are canoeing, hiking, repelling, practicing firearms and archery, as well as skills through merit badges. A wonderful program!
Concurrently my son’s competitive marching band, the Renegade Regiment of the Union High School marching band program, is our other main activity. While Angela and I’s musical gifts were not in concert or marching band, we are both very familiar with the music aspect. There are as many as 30 main volunteers in leadership roles as well as countless other parents, grand parents or guardians that help the logistics, fundraising, dressing and feeding of the band students allowing the schools music directors and staff the ability to focus almost solely on the teaching of music and marching of the students. We have been chaperones on multiple trips as well as serving on the Union Band Parents Club board of directors, Angela as a Uniform Director (or Uniform Queen as we call her) and myself as Concessions Director and Treasurer. Angela and another Scout mom are co Uniform Directors for the last two marching seasons. Both myself and other director’s husband (the Scout Master from our Troop) make up the main uniform crew with our wives. We fit the over 300 band students in marching bibs, jackets and hats called shakos for marching and then Tuxes and dress blouses / pants for concerts. We travel with the students for each competition: fixing damaged items, replacing what can not be fixed, and having borrow items for lost of missing pieces. As part of the Concessions team, I serve as one of the running directors of our football stadium concessions stands and as the bookkeeper for our team. We staff our stands with parents and students as a fundraising element to pay for and directly apply to the individual student’s marching fees. The overall stand net profits go toward the general fund to help reduce the costs for all the band students.
Through our interactions we have met other like minded parents who have been able to prioritize volunteering as an important aspect of giving as a part of the Union Band Parents Club. This has not been lost on the students. They are very grateful, polite and for the most part well behaved. As the band competes at an elite level of competition, we have recently returned from the National competition in Indianapolis, IN (placed 16th in the nation!!!). We stayed at a boutique hotel in downtown Indianapolis, the Alexander. Our band students carried themselves with class. We received a complementary email from the marketing director of the hotel after our visit, advising that they have rarely had adult visiting groups be as polite and courteous as out students and that they would be happy to host our group in the future.
The students are very thankful for all that our parent group is able to provide for them. The reward is to hear the stories from the students. A parent of one student with a knee injury that happened during the season complimented on of the student leaders for his willingness to go out of his way to carry the injured students bags and some times the student herself to get from place to place. Another of our students was able to speak at a local Rotary Club in a Four Way Speech contest speaking to the power of words. These are the high points. We have the opportunity of seeing our students with adversity make the best of their situation. One student works and pays her own marching fee which is usually well over $2000 yearly. That student maturely describes the hardships she faces at home with a single parent who is disabled, an elderly grandparent and a younger sibling that she cares for all while going to school and participating in school activities. The does not complain about her circumstances, but is thankful for the opportunity to work her own way to pay for her involvement in the program. Another student had a out of state grand parent come to the nationals competition, the grand parent also brought the student’s birth parent who had not seen the student in over 10 years. The student was at odds on how to process seeing the absent parent, but communicated the blessing of being a part a group that had caring and willing volunteers to be role models. These are the moments that glisten the eyes and melt the heart.
Upon our return home from the nationals competition we learned as a band family that a member of another competing band lost a band member, parent and grand parent in a traffic accident while in route home after the finals of the competition. As parents and spectators we had shared the stands with the parents and volunteers of the other band though out the competition’s extended weekend. Our band students had been social and had interacted with many bands including this band. The Castle Marching band had made it to finals competition for the first time and one of the soloists was the young lady who’s life was tragically cut short on the ride home from a mountain top experience. Our band family’s hearts were broken with the news: directors, students and parents alike; our Band Family was feeling the loss of another Band Family. Many of our students were touched and responded by posting pictures of themselves wearing the colors of the mourning band to show support. Posting these pictures and support to #WeAreCastle and #SingForSophie in social media. They seemed to understand the idea of community that exists outside of his or her direct family and school. These are the moments that make my heart and soul sing. The title of the marching show this year was Shadow Land, in reference to our show I commented on how you have to be the light in order to create the shadows. This inspired one of band parent leaders to create the hastag #BeTheLightThatCastsABeatifulShadow.
This is the reason that I volunteer, not for personal gain or recognition. The empowerment of our future leaders, the young people of today through example and opportunity to use the skills and talents they have. Instilling compassion and a dedication to the support they received and the recognition of other’s hard work that comprised that support. Lastly for them to show the same levels of compassion and support to others.
As we face times of change and uncertainty in the future, I know that by volunteering I am positively contributing to today’s youth with results in better prepared future leaders with hearts for compassion and dedication to work for self and others. Again I say that I am blessed for my situation and recognize how grateful I am to be able to spend my time as I am able. The benefits and rewards while intangible are the greatest that one can receive. While you spend time being thankful during this season, be thankful for those who volunteered for you. Be the Light that casts a beautiful shadow.
According to family legend, in the weeks before my father’s mother died, she had a conversation with my mother that changed the course of our lives. At that time, my parents did not attend church. I was still a baby so you know how long ago this was. “Find a church,” my Grandma said, “Any church, I don’t care what denomination, but find a church and become a part of it.”
And in the months after her passing, my parents did just that. They found a church. As long as I can remember, church was always a central part of our spiritual and social lives.
When I was in my twenties, I left the church and in my forties, I returned. A very long in the tooth prodigal son.
Last night I wrote about the events of the last week. As I published the post and ran out the door to my friend’s party, I felt a lightness. Eloquent or fumbling, I put into words what I had been feeling. I tried to approach it with kindness, not always the easiest task when talking about polarizing subjects.
This morning, I looked forward to church. I got there early and sat in my pew. There is a thirty minute organ concert that precedes every Sunday’s worship service. You can judge me, you probably should judge me, but I tend to spend that time on my phone, checking Instagram, texting and emailing. As the prelude began it’s final chords and the organ began to swell, I put my phone away. In the time that I had been looking down on my phone, the sanctuary filled up. This morning, it wasn’t average Sunday in November full, it was practically Easter full.
We stood to sing the opening hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. The oft-mentioned beauty of my church comforted me and yes, even surprised me a little. Every Sunday, I can’t believe how at home I feel on my little pew in this grand, old sanctuary. I was grateful to have a place where I could bring the sadnesses of the last week.
I touched on it in my last blog, this complicated navigation many of us are attempting with family members who did not vote the same way we did. Like I said, my parents voted for Trump. I voted for Hillary. And for the last week, I’ve tried to figure out what these opposing positions mean about our relationship. How can we see life so differently?
Big surprise, I cried in church. Believe it or not, it was my first cry this week that was about the election. Yes, I am disappointed that Hillary lost, but my tears were not really sad ones. Well, maybe melancholy.
See, I cried this morning when I realized here I was in church again, after a twenty year break, because my parents showed me the value of it. That church is a place to bring your heartache. That church is a place to look at your heart and see what you need to change. That church is where you have a moment to acknowledge what you are grateful for.
I thought about my ailing Grandma Avis who asked my Mom to find a church, any church, 46 years ago. And maybe the ANY part is what I was thinking about in February, when I attended a worship service solely on the basis that I thought the church looked pretty when I drove by. And when I walked into the church courtyard, I saw a poster that read, “Inclusive.”
The Scripture reading today was David’s Psalm 23. When the man read, “I will fear no evil for you are with me,” I thought about how, like God, my parents are always with me, even when I feel there is a distance.
On Friday, when I spoke to my parents, my Dad stated that if someone ever asked him to deny Jesus, he would let them kill him. He would die defending Christ. I assured him that that would never happen. “You never know,” he insisted. “If I die tonight, I have no regrets.”
Today was the first day that I prayed for Donald Trump and his impending presidency. I prayed that God would give him wisdom and compassion and guidance. With my head bowed and my eyes closed, it struck me that I have more in common with Trump than I’d like to admit. I sometimes say cruel things. I sometimes make bad decisions. I can be self-serving. I grow my hair longer than what is ideal for my age/weight.
I loved that my church was packed today. I looked around and saw faces I’d never seen before. I imagined that maybe, like me, they had grown up in conservative churches in the Midwest or the South. Maybe they had left the church in a huff or snuck out a side door. But maybe, this week, this crazy week, affected them in a way that they said to themselves, I’d like to go somewhere to find comfort, healing. Maybe they thought the church looked pretty. Maybe they had a Grandma who begged, “Find a church, any church.”
That parable of the prodigal son, maybe it resonates because some of us feel like we’ve squandered riches and long to return home to a father that welcomes us with open arms. Today, I thought about the time when my own Dad was a prodigal and the events that drove him back to church. Surely there are differences, big differences, but for now, maybe it’s best to hold to what we have in common, to cherish what we share.
I’ve stumbled into a conundrum at work and I don’t know the best way to get out of it. Or even if I need to get out of it. Or even if I want to get out of it.
As you might know, I am back at Barneys. There is a new parking system, one that was developed in the year that I was elsewhere. We now park our cars tandem style with an attendant who directs us. It’s a pretty thankless job because no one really wants to park in front of or behind another person. The parking attendants are all saints, every one of them.
On one of my first days back, one of the attendants, asked me my name and I told it to him. He wrote my name and where in the store that I worked and placed it on my windshield in case he or another attendant needed to locate me to move the car for the person in front of me.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a revelation from my friend. I don’t know his name and obviously, I should know his name. He is my co-worker and not just any co-worker, one who always greets my kindly even though his job is, like I said, completely thankless. Actually, it’s worse than thankless because most of us grumble that we don’t want to park tandem style to him as if all of these parking arrangements had been his idea in the first place. That being said, it feels too far along in our working relationship for me to, out of the blue, ask him his name.
Anyway, here is the conundrum: he thinks my name is Jeff. On the slip he puts on my windshield, he now writes Jeff and that I work in the restaurant. As I park in the morning and say hello on my way to the elevator, he says, “Thanks, Jeff, have a great day!”
And I’m really torn. On one hand, he should probably know my name. If they need me to move my car and he calls the restaurant looking for Jeff, it might be a while before the deductions are made that I am indeed Jeff.
And I don’t want to say, “Hey, I’m actually not Jeff, I’m Ray.” I’ve never been good at delivering those messages without sounding like at the bare minimum, passive aggressive, and at worst, well, let’s just say “jerk”. Did I mention he’s probably the nicest guy who works in the whole store?
Every day, when he says, “Have a great day, Jeff,” I wonder when and if I’m going to break the news to him.
But I don’t think it will be any time soon, because, between you and me, I get a certain thrill when he calls me Jeff. When he calls me Jeff, I am not Ray. Ray is fine, not horrible, but Jeff seems so rife with possibility.
I really want to be Jeff. Even though, obviously, others think Jeff looks like me, I see Jeff SIMILAR to me, but better. Brown eyes, brown hair, yes. But Jeff weighs 15 pounds less than Ray, he’s also an inch taller. Also, he’s 36. He looks like James Wolk from Mad Men and he has a killer smile and when Jeff walks by (or just parks his car) people always comment to themselves, “Man, I love that Jeff.”
Like Ray, Jeff is gay, has a significant other and dogs at home, but Jeff played high school football. (He wasn’t so great, but everyone loved him.) Ray and Jeff both drive the same car, obviously, but Jeff keeps his Jetta a little neater than Ray. There aren’t about 25 parking passes from the pool at Park La Brea strewn about Jeff’s Jetta. Also, Jeff washes his car every other Sunday morning, whether it’s his day off or not.
Jeff is midwestern like Ray. He’s super excited because his memoir about growing up in the midwest is getting ready to come out soon. (Simon and Schuster, if you can believe it.) He wonders if, when the book comes out, he’ll be able to stop working a day job. Either way, it’s all good. Everything always works out for Jeff. He’s super grateful to have corporate health insurance again.
Jeff is mostly perfect. His one flaw, if you can even call it that, is that he’s always posting motivational sayings on his Instagram. “We get it, you’re totally glass half full, Jeff,” his friends say, kidding, but they still adore him. Can’t stay mad at Jeff!
I could go on, but you get the point.
You see, it’s been kind of a big summer for Ray. There were some sad things that happened, some great things too. I took a risk leaving a job that I hated to go back to Barneys and, while no job is perfect, I am truly glad to be back and to have corporate insurance again. I didn’t blog as much as I hoped to and now I’m kicking myself a little because I’m feeling a little rusty now. I went to New York in August and ached before I went and ached after. Will I ever love a city more than I love New York?
And you know, here I am, trying to wrap up a simple blog about social etiquette that has morphed into a confession of being at a point where I’d just like to have a little bit more. Be a little bit more. Perhaps you can relate.
Don’t we all just want our life to be a little more awesome?
There is some irony that my last blog post, which was intended to be my last blog post, led to me adding a handful of new followers. As if even a stranger just stumbling in for the first time might be able to discern that I don’t always mean what I say.
I’ll tell you a little bit about what the last couple days have been like for me. First, I must say that my post was not exactly spur of the moment, I had pondered ending the blog for months, more seriously in the last few weeks. I was on a walk on Wednesday and decided, definitively, dramatically, despondently, I am ending Easily Crestfallen. I went home, sat at the computer for 45 minutes. If I’d had more time before work, I probably would have sat a bit longer and edited more, but I was working on a deadline. From a writing standpoint, I didn’t see it as one of my best.
I published the post and of course, several friends who subscribe to my blog left sweet, concerned, encouraging comments. And you know, I appreciate those kind words. Most of those friends who commented I only know through blogging and for people to take the time to encourage another struggling artist, is a beautiful thing.
On Thursday, I awoke with a plan to start a new blog, a secret blog. I spent two hours creating two new email addresses, and a blog, called Jouncing The Branch. I hope I still sound humble, but I thought it was a brilliant idea. Based on A Separate Peace, that moment when the title character jounces the branch he and his best friend/competitive nemesis are standing on causing the friend to fall and become tragically injured. I was to explore the darkness within myself and us all. And I was going to feel free to be as unedited and cruel and petty and self-absorbed as I wanted. Also, since I am being honest here, I was going to talk about sex more, since family members would never be able to read it.
But, even before I published my first post, I knew I would always, always fear that someone I love would somehow discover this secret blog and they might be shocked or wounded or angered. Also, I thought, how could I ever promote a blog if I’m not on Facebook?
Last night at work, there was a bit of chaos for about an hour. God knows, YOU know, I’ve experienced worse, but I did have the standing in the dish room, how much longer can I do this, moment. I’m just so sad, I thought. Waiting tables at 46, creatively stymied, poor, in a fight with one of my dogs. (Ricky. Don’t ask.) I’m so sad, I have nothing. I don’t even have my blog.
And this morning, I woke up, made my coffee, had an Entenmann’s chocolate covered donut. I am currently reading a book called Actress to Actress: Memories, Profiles, Conversations by an actress named Rita Gam. She remembers, profiles and converses with and about several movie and theatre legends. At one point, Rita is at her friend Shelley Winters Upper West Side apartment, interviewing her for this book. Rita asks Shelley if she ever had an affair with Brando. Shelley scolds her. “Just read my book. You obviously didn’t even read it, much less memorize it. A good friend would memorize it. I’ll give you a copy: read it.”
I loved the story because I can see it. Shelley and Rita, just eating chicken soup in the dining room of a Central Park West apartment. It’s no wonder Shelley Winters had the fascinating career she had because she was so tough and strong and still could say, to her longtime friend, that vulnerable, “Hey, please read my book. You’re my friend. Here, read it.”
I realized this morning, I need this blog. You might like or loathe or love this blog, but I am the only person in the world who needs it. At this moment, it’s my only platform and I have to make the most of it. Might I continue to storm out in a huff, only to return contrite a few minutes later, over and over and over again? Perhaps.
For as long as I live, I am quite sure that my two literary touchstones will be Charlie Brown and Uncle Vanya. At the end of the third act, Vanya comes into the house, waving a gun, threatening to kill the professor. The gun goes off, no one is injured, and somehow, because he is Vanya, all is forgiven and, mostly, forgotten. As if, everyone in the house just thinks, oh, that’s just Vanya being Vanya.
And I suppose quitting a blog FOREVER and resuming two days later is just Ray being Ray. You’re used to it at this point. So, in other words, I’m back.
If I have Vanya in spades in me, I also have a bit of Shelley Winters too. More vulnerable than tough, to be sure. It’s a sad little plea, I know, but if you are my friend, please read my book. Here, let me give it to you again. Read it.
It’s a movie star interview staple. He or she is asked by the interviewer when they knew they wanted to be an actor. He or she mines his or her personal history and shares a memory of being in a school play or talent show, how they made the whole school laugh or cry or both and from that moment on, “I KNEW that’s what I wanted to do with my life!”.
Of course, it is not only the successful actors that have that memory. This town is full of lost souls trying to chase that high, relive that moment, at 8 or 9 or 10, when they stood on a stage and felt the entire world loved them.
The irony that my first great success at anything was my title role in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is not lost on me. Playing a hapless failure came naturally for me. Still does. It was 5th grade and I’m sure not more than 500 people saw my star turn, but even today, that high that came at the end, where the entire cast closed the show with Happiness, well, is probably the happiest I have ever been in my entire life.
I’ve written about my many failed auditions in the last two years or so. It’s been nearly three years since the last time I booked a job. I’ve been lucky enough to have an agent sending me out more regularly than I deserve and yet, nothing. In every audition, I second guess every choice I make because it feels like every choice I’ve made in the last three years is the wrong one.
Last week, my friend Michael, because he cares, asked me what I was doing creatively. I told him that I had all but stopped writing and storytelling. It’s been years since I’ve been cast in a play. He asked me how I might be able to think outside the box a little, create my own platform.
I cut him off. “I don’t really want to discuss this. I can’t. I am stuck and I wish I knew what to do to unstick myself, but I don’t. That’s what I’d hoped to do with the blog. But the blog has just ended up being a failure just like everything else I have attempted.”
“We can change the subject,” Michael offered. And we did. We talked about what we were going to have for dinner and then the play we looked forward to attending.
A couple of days ago, I deactivated my Facebook account. Maybe you are more evolved or just more successful than me, but of late, Facebook has become nothing more than another reminder of all my failures, too. I’d post a picture or a blog post and only get a couple likes. Does one exist if no one clicks like on their FB status update? It should be noted that the only person who noticed my disappearance was my Mother.
I’ve tried acting and sketch comedy and improv and standup and storytelling and writing and blog writing and most depressing of all, social media, to get the world to notice me, validate me. And for the most part, none of it has worked.
So, the good news is, this is the last time I will bemoan my life on this aptly named platform I created almost two years ago. I am hanging up my keyboard, so to speak.
I came and I tried and I failed.
I’m going to step away from the social media. Read some books, catch up on Empire. I’m going to feel sorry for myself for awhile and then we’ll see. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m done with this blog, but I’m not done. After all, I am Charlie Brown and the eternally comforting thing about Charlie Brown is that no matter how many times he’s down, he is never truly out.
It’s not what you think. Well, it’s a little bit what you think. For months now, I have been captivated by the “boost” feature on my Easily Crestfallen Facebook page. My page is nothing to brag about, just a little bit over 100 followers. Sometimes I go weeks without posting on it or I’ll post an old picture of Joan Rivers or Meryl Streep and Facebook will tell me, “6 people saw your post.” wow.
But every time I am on my Easily Crestfallen Facebook page, below everything I’ve shared, there is a little button that says, “Boost Post.” And you click it and it tells you how much more exposure you’ll get if you pay Facebook money and they share you with people who probably don’t even want to see your blog or whatever it is you’re promoting, anyway.
I’ve wrestled with this for a while. Do I want more followers, more exposure? Yes, of course. I also know how annoyed I get when another ad for Dollar Shave Club comes up.
But last night, I succumbed. I spent $5 promoting two of my most recent blogs, each. $10, total. It’s my understanding that this $10 will promote these two posts for 24 hours, it’s been about 11 hours at the time of this writing. And yes, I see a small uptick on my blog’s Facebook page as well as the blog’s actual statistics counter. “Sandra” is currently my 18th most popular post, and to think just 11 hours ago, it was merely my 24th most popular. Sadly, even with the boost investment of $5, that I could have spent on a frappuccino at Starbucks or a happy hour mai-tai from Damon’s, “I Cain’t Go Back to Buffalo, I Cain’t!” is only ranked 47th. That’s what high stake risk is all about, I suppose.
But this morning, I will be honest, I had a little buyer’s remorse, and yes, I did feel a little dirty. And I felt bad for “God’s Pen”, which had been enjoying it’s reign as 18th most popular blog post and found its way there on its own merit. No boosts for “God’s Pen”, thank you very much. And by the way, “God’s Pen” is one of my personal favorites.
Oh don’t worry, I won’t beat myself up too much about that lost $10. Although, if I had a time machine, that $10 might have been enough to buy me a house or trip to Paris or a fur coat, not that I wear fur. But in time machine-less 2014, $10 doesn’t go far. Which I’ve proven.
And no, there is no real reason why I made Joan Rivers the featured image of this particular post, except that she is still all I can think about and I really don’t think enough people saw the picture when I posted it on Facebook the first time!
So, guess what?!? I can hold a grudge, especially if someone does something that hurts the feelings of someone I love. Real person, celebrity, it makes no difference. And that’s why I’m not the biggest Jimmy Fallon fan. I used to like him until I read my friend’s blog where she detailed a rather upsetting interaction she had with Jimmy Fallon. And ever since, I just couldn’t really watch him without thinking about that story.
Cut to last month, when everyone was posting the video of Jimmy, Idina Menzel and the Roots singing “Let it Go.” Everyone in my orbit emphatically told me that I HAD to watch the video, that I’d love it, that it’s seriously, like the best thing in the world. But I resisted.
And then in a weak moment, I watched it on Youtube on my Iphone and I’ll be honest. I did love it. I love Idina and I love the song and there really is something magical about the video. And I sat there on my couch, watching the video, thinking, Ray, there is a message there for you. Let. It. Go. Forgive Jimmy. It’s time.
And then I went and found my friend’s blog and read it and got a little mad again. But I sent “Carreen” a message on Facebook, she’s since moved away from Los Angeles, and asked her if I could share her Jimmy Fallon story. Also, since she posted it in 2007, how does she feel about him today, seven years after posting the original blog? Her response: “You can most certainly re-post my blog because I wish more people could know about what a jerk he is. He will always be a social-climbing jerk in my mind, and that incident with him was the turning point for me that caused me to turn away from comedy and writing and all things Hollywood.”
So, really, I’ll be honest, I don’t know how I feel. I still don’t think I like him very much, but I do love this video, so in the spirit of letting things go, I’ll repost it. And by all means, please read Carreen’s blog:
Why I hate Jimmy Fallon
I know I’m supposed to be trying to behave myself and be a nice person these days, but I just can’t help it. I still hate Jimmy Fallon. Every time I see his faux-earnest face on TV or in a movie poster, I just want to punch him.
But hear me out – I have a good reason for hating him. My hatred has basis in fact, and like everything else in my life it’s a long story.
Many years ago I was in a comedy group called the Groundlings. I took classes there and worked my way up through the ranks very quickly – too quickly in the opinion of some. By the time I was 25 I was in their Sunday Company, waiting to get voted into to the main ensemble. But when it came time to get voted into the big company – much to my shock I was tossed out. I was stunned. Several other really good comedians besides myself were tossed out in the same vote. We just couldn’t believe it.
And I really was good. I’m not usually a confident person, but I know in my heart that I was an exceedingly talented writer and comedian. I could improvise circles around just about anyone who shared the stage with me, and I could get a laugh with any material I was handed by the other writers. That was the problem though. I was a young, idealistic kid and I didn’t realize that being talented marked me for death in the shark pit that was the Groundlings. I foolishly thought that Hollywood was a place where talented people rose to the top and got famous, and everybody helped each other out along the way, and I thought I was absolutely destined to be on Saturday Night Live.
Right before the vote came up for the main company cast, I started to notice that every time I did an improv scene in a show, the director paired me with actors who talked nonstop and never allowed me to get a word in edgewise. They’d immediately grab focus and force me to the background of the scene, ignoring me as they talked loudly and nonstop at the same time as other loudmouthed actors. I also noticed that our bitter, (and might I say over the hill) female director was putting fewer and fewer of my scenes in the shows until finally I didn’t have any material to show the voting committee. For some reason she didn’t think I was funny, and when we’d all read prospective scenes and mine got laughs from my cast mates she’d wrinkle her nose and go “I don’t get it. It’s not funny to me.” and cut it from the roster.
It was years before I realized what had actually happened to me. I had been steamrolled. I’d been completely smudged out by aggressive actors who were older than me and therefore more familiar with the rules of the game – kill or be killed. That was when I started hating acting, and I quit. I thought, “If this is how you have to behave to be successful. I can’t do it. I just don’t have it in me to knock somebody over to get ahead.”
It was a good time for the Groundlings. The main company then featured Will Farrell, Lisa Kudrow, Mike Hitchcock and Kathy Griffin and many others who went on to great success. My fellow actors in the Sunday company included the brilliant character actress Jennifer Coolidge, MAD TV’s Phil LaMarr, Chris Kataan and also Cheri Oteri, who later ended up on Saturday Night Live.
Cheri and I had been close friends during our humble classroom days at the Groundlings but right after she got cast on SNL I saw very little of her. I figured she was busy and our friendship had been sort of on-again, off-again throughout the years anyway so it didn’t really hurt my feelings. A couple of years went by, though, and I still could not bring myself to watch SNL. It was just too painful for me to see it, knowing how much I had wanted to be a part of it and knowing that it would never happen. I continued to write and even signed with the Artists’ Agency literary division, but I distanced myself from actors and acting.
That’s why I was very surprised when I got a call from Cheri in the late ’90’s, out of the blue, saying she was coming to LA for hiatus and she wanted to talk to me about submitting some of my sketch material to SNL. We had lunch and talked about ideas for a film, then she said she’d tell the SNL producers to look for the stuff my agent was sending over. She warned me that it would be very difficult to get my writing seen or taken seriously because the writers were all male at that time, and she was trying to get me in because she wanted a woman writer on the staff. My submissions got read but I was not hired. I truly appreciated her trying, and I still do.
BUT…the last time I ever saw Cheri made me walk away from the entire comedy scene forever. It went down in history as the most awful, embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me, I want to throw myself off a bridge every time I recall it, and yes – it involved Jimmy Fallon.
Cheri and I went out to dinner, again to talk about movie ideas, and she said “We’re going to a party afterwards at the Chateau Marmont. Dress hip.” We had dinner, went to see Jim Wise’s band at Molly Malone’s, then I followed Jim and Cheri in my car to the hotel. As we were walking in the front door I said “Whose party is this?” and Jim said “It’s Jimmy Fallon’s birthday party.” Since I hadn’t watched SNL in two years I said “Who?” I really had no idea who he was. They both looked at me like I was insane.
The party was in a bungalow there – one of those little private houses like the one where John Belushi died. I walked in the door and almost had a stroke. I am a very, very painfully pathologically shy person, and parties are excruciating enough to give me dry heaves all day beforehand, but this was the worst-case-scenario-of-all-time party I could ever have imagined in the subconscious nightmare regions of my medulla oblongata. The lights were all blazing – 100 watt bulbs overhead and in all lamps, so no hiding in any nonexistent shadows for me – and there were ten people there. All ten of those people were famous. Very famous.
And I….was not.
They were also really close friends with each other. Really close, darling sweetie love you kissy friends.
And I….was not.
Cheri introduced me to Janeane Garofalo and I pointed at her and said, “You’re funny!” in a stupid childish high voice that was so weird it made her walk away uncomfortably. That’s when Cheri disappeared and left me to fend for myself.
I tried to join conversations. I lingered at edges of groups, hoping to be noticed and asked to join. I introduced myself to people. Nobody talked to me. They squinted at me, annoyed, as if I was the pizza delivery guy trying to crash their party, and turned their backs to me. I wandered from room to room in that bungalow like the ghost of John Belushi, with nobody seeing or acknowledging my presence, for nearly an hour. Nobody wanted to know me because, you see, I was nobody.
Miraculously, another non-famous person entered the party. It was Chris Kattan’s girlfriend at the time, a very nice and polite girl to whom I will be eternally grateful for the rest of my life for not turning her back to me after I introduced myself. She and I chatted for a long time until finally I felt like I’d redeemed myself enough to make a graceful exit. There was no way in hell I was staying amongst this cold, bloodless horde another minute. I brushed past Sara Michelle Geller (who frowned at me as if to say “What IS that?”) and I found Cheri. I said, “I’ve got to get home – I have to be at work early tomorrow morning.” She looked puzzled, then said, “You have to say good night to Jimmy. It’s his birthday.” I said “Nooo – really that’s not necessary. He and i didn’t meet…” and I headed for the door as if my life depended on it because really, it did.
As I reached the door, so close to freedom, I bumped into a seemingly-drunk Jimmy Fallon. He weaved a little bit and said “Hey – where ya going?” I said “I’m headed home. Happy birthday!” and I tried to squirt past him as quickly as I could. And then he did something truly evil, which absolutely destroyed me and from which I have never fully recovered. He grabbed me and hugged me for an uncomfortably long time, looked at the ten A-List actors in the brightly lit room, and stage-whispered over my head to them “WHO THE HELL IS THIS?!?!??!” which they all found simply hilarious and subsequently died laughing.
And there I was, with a room full of famous people laughing at me. It was bad enough that they hadn’t talked to me all night, and that they treated me like I was an irritant. These people whom I admired so much, and I had hoped would someday be my comedy buddies, my actor peers – and Cheri, who I had thought was my friend, were laughing at me and I couldn’t escape because Jimmy Fallon was still gripping me in this evil, patronizing, life-sapping hug.
I finally wrestled free of him and, looking at the floor with my eyes full of tears, I stumbled out of the bungalow. As the door closed behind me I could hear them all still laughing at this funny, talented, man who was celebrating his birthday, and who was on his way to the top of his professional game at that moment.
And so that’s why I hate Jimmy Fallon. He continues to rise up the ranks in Hollywood and charm people, and to take the moviegoing public’s money and spend it on wonderful things for himself but I know from personal experience that he is a mean person. His friends are mean people too, and I am glad I never got famous and had to suffer the horror of being their friend as well. I am glad walked away from being an actor and a TV writer and failed on purpose because in turn, I succeeded at being a human being. I held on stubbornly to my kindness and my integrity, and I would never, ever in a million years laugh at somebody who came to my birthday party and just wanted to make friends.
I never saw Cheri again after that. I think that night was a kind of litmus test for her to see if I could cut it in the big leagues and I am glad to say, with a sigh of relief, that I can’t. The ten people who were in that room that night can take the big leagues and shove it up their asses.