Class of ’84 Reunion

The-Breakfast-ClubI grew up in a small town. I guess that’s been established at this point. On Facebook this weekend, the class of ’84 held a thirty year class reunion. I have many friends in that class, also my cousin is in that class. They were all seniors when I was a sophomore and I remember looking up to many of them.

A few years ago, at their 10 year reunion a class member drunkenly confronted another class member about being a jerk in junior high and high school. If I recall, the victim threatened physical violence on his tormentor. It was a story with traction, I heard about it several times from several sources in the years that followed.

It was a story that stuck with me because that confronted tormentor was one of my tormentors too. In fact, of all the verbal abuse I received growing up, I must say that Karl Johnson’s (pseudonym) words stung the most and had the most enduring effects. And before I go further, if you are thinking I should have let this go by now, let me agree wholeheartedly. I should have let this go by now.

What was Karl Johnson’s crime? Every day of 7th grade, he would call out loudly names like Fag and Gay Ray as I stood in the lunch line. He and his friends would sit at a table near the lunch line and make fun of various targets as they passed. Karl would call out the name and his cohorts would erupt into laughter. This lasted my entire 7th grade year, every day. It was something I fretted over every night as I lay in bed, trying to fall asleep, and every morning when I dreaded going to school.

So when someone else confronted Karl Johnson at his ten year reunion, all I really thought was, wow, good for him. I heard that Karl Johnson attempted an apology. In the years since high school, he’d become quite religious and considered himself a very good person.

I know that as far as bullying stories go, it’s a fairly average one. And I am okay. Since, I’ve started this blog, strangers have pointed out emotional and pathological issues that they think I have and I think you might be right. I am flawed and I am scarred. I try to move forward and love myself and make the world a better place, but, well, there is always a but.

When I saw the pictures of smiling Karl Johnson and his wife at the reunion, my heart started pumping and all I could think about was 12-year-old me and the fear I had every day. My cousin who had been friends with Karl Johnson and always sat at his lunch table, apologized several years ago about sitting there and never discouraging his friend. At a dive bar in Kansas City over pints of Boulevard hefeweizen, he told me he realized that must have been hard for me. I had to hold back tears because, I remind you, I was in a dive bar in Kansas City, but also, I didn’t want him to see how affected I was by his apology. I wanted to be manly.

Of course, I’m not really manly most of the time. I am sensitive, I do cry. My voice is nasally. I was and still am an easy target for people who want to call me names or point out my perceived flaws.

Maybe this is a story you relate to. I think some are better than others at leaving past hurts in the past.
Forgiveness is not really one of my strengths.

I do keep looking at this picture of Karl Johnson and his wife. I look at her, and while I may be wrong, she doesn’t seem like the kind of woman who would love that her husband was the bully of his junior high, flagrantly homophobic. (Although to be fair, wasn’t everyone flagrantly homophobic in 1980 Kansas?) Maybe he is a kinder person now, maybe she is the reason he is a kinder person now. I don’t know. I’ll probably never know.

I do feel little lighter. My heart has returned to a normal patter. In truth that reaction might have been partly attributed to this morning’s first cup of coffee.

It was all so long ago anyway. Let it go.


179892_142463809146815_2502641_nI had a storytelling show tonight.  I just got home a few minutes ago.  I do these shows every couple of months and some go better than others.  Tonight, I talked about one of my blog posts, The Forgiveness Machine.  The goal with these stories is to be funny, but also share a real experience from your life.  From the beginning, I was a little off my game.  I was more nervous than usual, I didn’t feel like I had a strong opening to the set.  The arc of the set was supposed to be tell something funny (me being drunk at a luau in Hawaii) followed by something sad (talking about my dog Mandy’s last few days) then wrap up with something funny again (me overreacting to some stupid things I did a couple of days ago.)  Halfway through the show, before I hit the stage, a group of drunk people came in to watch their friend perform.  They sat at a table in the main room and talked during their friend’s set.  Then the emcee made a point to tell the room to be respectful of the performers and the people listening when he introduced the next performer.  They talked through his set anyway, despite people around them ssshh-ing them.  Then I got up.  Toward the top of my set, I heard them talking and I said from the stage, “Hey just so you know, there is a room in back where you guys can talk.  You don’t have to be in this room.”  They stayed in the room.  I got into my set, I couldn’t quite hit my groove, but I got a few laughs.  Then I launched into the sad part, talking about dealing with Mandy’s death. I heard that group laughing.   And that’s when I did something I have never done on stage before.  I went off.  I bellowed, “Shut the f@#% up. If you don’t want to be here, go in the back room.”  The ring leader responded, “I thought this was supposed to be a comedy show.”  And then the emcee said, “Actually it’s a storytelling show, it can be funny or serious.”  And then the guy muttered something and then I wrapped up my set, omitting parts of the story that may or may not have paid off anyway.  I got to my closing sentence about how we want forgiveness to be something instantaneous, but in reality it’s a process.  I got off the stage and decompressed while the next and last comic performed.  

Usually, after a show that does not go the way I hope it will, I have a tendency to beat myself up.  I replay all the missed laughs in my head over and over again.  For lack of a better word, I can be unforgiving. Tonight however, I felt exhilerated by what happened.  I’ve had people talk or heckle during my shows before, but it’s the first time I ever addressed it from the stage.  I was giving them the full Julia Sugarbaker and I kind of liked it.  

After the show, several people came up to me and told me how rude they thought that group was.  They were rude, but you, and by you, I mean I, you have to be ready for events like that to occur when you step up on that stage.  It’s what you’re signing up for.  Also after the show, the drunk ring leader came up to me and asked if he could have a minute of my time.  My friend Linda was there and as I stuttered with “uhhh” she told him that whatever he had to say, he could say right there to all of us.  Then he started to launch into something about how my words from the stage made him feel.  And then, Linda cut him off and said, “Minute’s up, you’re done.”  And then his friends pulled him away.  

I realized as he was standing there, that I wasn’t mad at him at all.  He hadn’t ruined my set, it wasn’t great to begin with.  Also, as I said, I was proud of myself for shouting out, in essence, “I don’t want to be treated like that.”  My daily life is filled with experiences where I have to nod and say yes when I want to say no, where the person I’m talking to deserves to be told no.  But tonight, it went a little differently. And somewhere in the midst there is a lesson in forgiveness, forgiving myself and forgiving others. Sometimes, usually, it’s a process, and every once in a while, it is instantaneous.

The Forgiveness Machine

The artist Karen Green has written a book called Bough Down about her grief over losing her husband, writer David Foster Wallace. In a review of the book I recently read, there was talk of an art piece that she built and exhibited in 2009 called The Forgiveness Machine, which is pictured here. Basically you write down something you want to forgive or something you want to be forgiven of and you place it at one end and a vacuum sucks it into the machine and it comes out shredded at the other end. What I read piqued my interest so I googled “Forgiveness Machine” and found a few interviews with Green where she talked about how she came to build the piece and the response people had to it. Of course, the first thing I thought was what would I write on that piece of paper. What would I want to forgive? What would I want to be forgiven of?

In November 2010, I was on Maui with my friends Michael and Kim, on my last night on the island, we treated ourselves to a luau at one of the fancier resorts. Now there are two things you should know about me:
1. I love a Mai-tai and 2. I love an open bar. We had a glorious evening under the stars, watching the show, eating poi and pulled pork, and drinking free Mai-tai’s. I had a few, more than a few. I don’t remember all the details, but at the end of the night, as we were walking to our car through the hotel lobby, I said, “This hotel is so pretty, let’s sit here and talk about what a beautiful night it’s been.” 30 seconds later, I was weeping convulsively. Kind of like an Oprah’s ugly cry, but darker. Uglier.

A few days earlier, hours after landing in Maui, my neighbor who had offered to care for my dogs called to tell me one of them, Mandy was not well and did I want them to euthanize her while I was gone. Mandy had been suffering from cancer, a fatal tumor in her sinuses and I knew her time was coming to an end. I had vacillated between going on the trip and canceling. My neighbor knew Mandy was sick and because she’d had her own elderly and frail dogs through the years, I knew she’d keep a watchful eye on her. I was not prepared for her phone call and I did not know what to do. I thought about coming home immediately. She ended up taking Mandy to her vet, he said that the end was near, but he gave her fluids (she’d become dehydrated) and a cortisone shot, which perked her up a little. Even though I had taken Mandy to my vet just a couple weeks before and she’d assured me that Mandy was in pain, but not so much pain that it was time to put her down. I still felt like I let her down, in fact, just reading these words, I still feel like I let her down.

All of these emotions flooded my rum-soaked heart that night when we were sitting on that couch in the hotel lobby. I started crying and I could not stop for 20 minutes. I was sad that Mandy was dying and sadder because I had failed her as her caretaker, as her father. Michael, who does not drink and Kim, who’d drank less than me, both offered support and hugs. If they were embarrassed by my display of emotion they gave no indication. I’m sure it’s not the first time someone’s cried their eyes out at the Kaanapali Beach Hyatt Regency. Eventually, the three of us pulled me together and we headed to our condo, stopping at another ABC store to pick up chocolate covered macadamia nuts for my plane ride home the next day. A couple days later, after spending about 48 hours with Mandy, I did decide to put her to sleep. It was a sad day, to say the least.

If I could go back in time and do things differently, I would. But I can’t go back. Something people told me during this period is that we make the best decisions we can at the time and just hope for the best. I understand why The Forgiveness Machine resonated with so many people. With it’s bright colored gizmos it presents forgiveness as something convivial and instantaneous. It’s neither, but we wish it was. Forgiveness is not a machine, but rather a process.