What Price Joy?

Today is my birthday. As we do, I attempted to start celebrating my birthday weekend on Friday night, when Eric and I went to Marie Callender’s for a fancy dinner of buffalo chicken sliders and Happy Hour pepperoni pizza. A good time was had by all. 

We got home and took the dogs out for their evening walk and, long story short, Millie got stung by a bee. Actually, I’m pretty sure she got stung by a bee and then she ate it. All of this is information we have pieced together in retrospect. 

Before I go further, let me say, Millie is fine. As I type this, she is underneath the bed, chewing on her toenails. 

Anyway, it took us a few minutes to figure out what had happened. One minute on her walk she was fine, then she was chewing on something, then she seemed disoriented and couldn’t walk well. When we got inside the apartment, she threw up and then I was pretty sure she’d been stung by a bee. We called our vet, they were closing and they directed us to a 24 hour clinic. 

200 dollars and two hours later, we were at CVS, trolling the aisles, Millie happily wagging her tail as her fathers searched for Benadryl tablets.  

I guess it’s a little indelicate to talk about money, but I wasn’t super excited about spending that much money on my dog. Probably, we could have gone to CVS when it first happened and bought the Benadryl and probably she would have been fine.

As we were hurriedly leaving the apartment, a shaken Millie in my arms, unsure of what lay ahead, with as much victimized passive aggression as you can imagine, I muttered, “Happy Birthday.” And then Eric said, “What?” And I tersely said, “Nothing!”

I fretted all the way down Beverly as Eric drove and Millie burrowed her snout into a blanket and my hands trying to alleviate an itch that had developed from the bee sting. 

But like I said, she’s okay. They gave her a couple of shots, we had a fun little visit to CVS, and then we took her home. 

Update, Millie is no longer under the bed. She is now on top of the bed, inches from me, licking the sheets. 

Anyway, when we got home, Brokeback Mountain was on tv. That’s a fun movie. I felt like maybe I’d had enough sadness for one day, so I went in the other room and read a book. Ricky snuggled next to me. After a time, Millie and Eric came to bed too. 

And then this morning came, and I woke up next to Eric, Ricky between us, Millie sprawled at my feet, all of us in our assigned positions. I checked to make sure Millie was okay. She was. And, I don’t know, either you get it or you don’t, but I was so happy this morning. My little family, we had weathered another challenge, and we lived to tell, or bark, the tale (or tail). 

Update: Millie is now rooting around underneath the duvet cover, trying to settle in for the night. Actually, she just came out and rested her head on Eric’s legs. I took a picture that I’m going to use for this blog post. And now she’s licking sheets again. 

It’s crazy when you think about it, how something as mundane as a licky dog, or a morning cuddle, can bring you so much joy. I am 49 now, today, and I have gained some sense of what moments in life hold the most value.

Now she’s giving me a kiss. 

Good night, happy birthday.

The Facts of Life

3039_1084349233848_8185094_nAs a person who receives some satisfaction from documenting his experiences and thoughts in words and sharing those words with others, I sometimes I ask myself, what is it about my writing, my point of view, that is my essence. Who am I at my core? Obviously, I am an Angeleno, a reader, an art lover, a Kansan, a former New Yorker, a swimmer. But what makes me me? What are the hallmarks of my writing?

I was talking to someone last night and we were discussing our separate junior high and high school experiences. And I said that for me, junior high and high school are never very far away from me. For me, and perhaps it’s because those years were not what I wanted them to be, I can be in the middle of the most random moments, like taking a table’s order, or walking down Larchmont, or drinking my morning coffee, or driving along Mulholland (Full confession, I do not drive along Mulholland nearly as often as I should.) and suddenly, often inexplicably, I am in Ms. Willis’ Algebra II class, or receiving my 2nd place medal at a Chanute Forensics competition, or getting in trouble for talking too much in the Living Christmas Tree at my Bible college, or standing in the lunch line at IJHS.

And I don’t think I am the only one who finds his memories almost oppressively accessible. I think many people remember many things from 25 and 30 and 35 years ago, but often, people don’t like to wade into that muck. Because, really, it’s muck and often muck can weigh you down. The past is the past.

But you know, just to play Devil’s advocate, you CAN learn from your past. You can ponder it and say, I don’t want to ever do or feel THAT again. Or you can say, there was a purity or joy that I want to bring back. For instance, I don’t remember a happier childhood time than the summer or weekend days when I would visit my friend Chris and we would play all afternoon with his sister’s Barbies. I marvel at how much of my childhood was spent dreaming of having my own Barbie doll. Every September, when the Sears, JCPenney and Montgomery Ward Christmas catalogs came, I would memorize, circle, cast a spell on every single item in the Barbie and fashion doll pages of each book. It’s crazy, I know. So much yearning for something that the culture I lived in told me was bad.

On New Year’s Day, as I was swimming, I thought about my friend Alan, with whom I spent most of New Year’s Eve. I’ve talked about him here before from time to time. We grew up together in the same small town, but, probably because even then we could both smell the gay on each other, it wasn’t until our adulthood that we became friends. And now, he knows this too, he is one of my best friends. That night, as a group of us sat at our friend Traci’s dining room table, discussing Serial, (Am I the only one who has little doubt that Adnan did it?) we also talked about Independence, gossiped a bit, showed our LA friends the mugshot of a childhood classmate that had (Drew Droege in Chloe voice) recently come to our attention. While we laughed over Malbec and Mu-Shu Pork, a Happy New Year text came in from our childhood friend Curt. Curt and his husband live in Ecuador, but were in Independence the same weekend I was there in December and we got to connect. I told Curt that I was with Alan and he wished Alan a Happy New Year too.

While I was in Kansas, I spent a good deal of time, documenting the trip with Alan and another friend Joel. Joel and I knew each other growing up, but our friendship was cemented when we took Mrs. Spencer’s American Literature course through the junior college one summer. It’s a bit of a magic trick to make something written centuries ago feel personal and contemporary, but that’s what she did in that class. There were only a handful of us, but whenever I see someone from that class, we always nod our heads and say, “THAT was the BEST class.” And then the other says, “YES, it was!”

So, yes, that first weekend in December, Alan and Joel and I spent a great deal of time texting each other about the weekend’s sightings, happenings, uncoverings, nuances.

I ached to have a large circle of friends when I was growing up. I mean, I had some friends, but I remember a lot of Friday and Saturday nights hanging out with the Ewings, the Channings, the Stubings and Mr. Roarke when what I really wanted was to go to the movies with friends my own age. I don’t doubt that I was an oddball. I mean, I don’t think anyone else was tape recording episodes of The Facts of Life and listening to them over and over again every night as a lullaby before bed.

The thing is, what I really wanted to say, when I started this Miss Havisham of a blog post, is that I’m grateful for my fellow gays from Independence. Not long ago, one of us, probably Alan, uncovered on FB someone else from our little town, who, it appears is living a gay life in a large city, far from Kansas like the rest of us. In trying to glean as much info as possible from his profile, I got a sense, true or not, that he wanted and succeeded at putting a lot of distance between himself and his hometown. And I certainly don’t judge that decision, there is a part of me that thinks that way too. But, I also felt a little sad. Sad that he doesn’t seem to have an Alan or a Joel or a Curt or a Chris to say, “Yeah, I remember. Growing up in Independence sometimes SUCKED, but look at us now. Look at how fabulous we’ve become.”

Teenage Dream

brady2A friend of mine shared a video on Facebook of two little boys lip-syncing to a Katy Perry song. He captioned the video, “Honey, the gay babies.” I clicked to watch it and it appeared to be two little boys, perhaps in the Philippines, one in a dress and one in a bikini top and a towel wrapped around his hips like a long skirt. I’ve posted the video, you can see it here for yourself.

I watched it and I must admit, I had a complex reaction. Don’t get me wrong, I am rooting for these little boys. I want them to grow up to be fabulous and I believe that they will, but there was something, I’m not exactly sure what, that unsettled me.

The biggest night of my life, when I was 8, was going to be the little talent show, my cousin Susie and I were to put on in my living room for New Year’s Eve. I had a tape recording of The Brady Kids singing both It’s a Sunshine Day and Keep On. Susie and I had worked for days learning the songs, the choreography. On the afternoon before the show, Susie accidently taped over about 10 seconds of one of the songs. When I realized it, I became inconsolable. I really thought there were going to be talent scouts in our home in rural Kansas for the 8:45 New Year’s Eve show. Every one tried to calm me, it’s okay, it’s just a few seconds. But even then, I was easily crestfallen. Still the show did go on. After we returned from bacon-wrapped filet mignon dinners at the Whistle Stop restaurant, Independence’s fanciest steak house, Susie and I changed into our costumes and sang and danced our two songs. By then, something had been lost. There was polite applause from my parents and relatives, but I couldn’t hear it, I was still bereft. My odds of being in The New Mickey Mouse Club with Lisa Whelchel and Kelly Parsons were slim to none.

I couldn’t help but think of that little 8 year old me. (Susie, if you’re reading this, I apologize for being the world’s most annoying, high maintenace 8 year old. It’s a wonder you still talk to me, I love you!) But these little boys reminded me of this fire I had, really I always had. I always wanted to be on a stage, prancing about. And because the performers I loved most were women, they were the ones I emulated. I really did want to grow up to be Carol Burnett. Or Jan Brady.

As I watched, I told myself that it was chiefly the sexual element of their dance moves that bothered me most. I don’t want kids to think about sex, I want everyone to stay as innocent as possible. I’m like Mary Jo on Designing Women who, on one memorable episode, said, “Don’t have sex,” under her breath every time she talked to her teenage daughter.

But as I watched these boys, I wondered if I was disturbed also by how feminine they were. I know that when I was that age, I received a lot of messages from a number of different sources, to butch it up. Act like a boy, don’t play with dolls. Don’t put a towel on your head and pretend it’s your long blond hair. My first grade teacher, Miss Bartlesmeyer, punished me for talking to the girls too much by making me go a week of only talking to boys. I got caught at one point whispering to my friend Sheila and received an added week of punishment. (Miss Bartlesmeyer, if YOU’RE reading this, I don’t think you had the best approach to teaching.)

So I have posted this video here, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts. You might have your own reactions when you watch the video. If I am a little uncomfortable about watching this, does it mean I have my own unresolved internalized homophobia?

I do want to say, I think these little boys are amazing. They are talented and confident and inspired and fabulous and I hope the world is always kind to them and tells them they can accomplish anything, because they can.

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.

“Where Did You Get That Dress? It’s Awful! And Those Shoes and That Coat! Jeez!”

stephen-stuckerairplaneA few months back, I participated in an intimate reading of a friend’s play.  He had written the play years ago, before the group of us became friends.  When we gathered, he told us there was a great part for each of us.  My character’s name was Russell.  He was passionate, silly, camp, funny, ridiculous and wise, the kind of part any actor dreams of playing.  And if I say so myself, I was pretty darn good.  I know it was just a little reading at a dining room table with a group of people who loved me even before we ever got to the first page, but still, it was a fun night.

And driving home, I thought about my characterization, how it just kind of spewed out of me, I didn’t have to second guess how I would say a line or do an impression, I knew what to do instinctually.  And let me confess, for me, anyway, that’s not always the case. I thought about Stephen Stucker, because I realized, that a lot of what I was doing came from him.  I’d like to think it wasn’t a complete copy, that I took what I’d gleaned from a master and gave it my own take.  At least that’s what I’d like to think.

Now, okay, maybe you didn’t know immediately who Stephen Stucker is.  To be honest, I didn’t know his name until I went to IMDB a few years ago.  Most simply, he is known as the gay guy from Airplane.  I’ve posted a YouTube video of some of his character’s best moments.  They are all priceless and when I watched it, it reminded me of all the times I watched that movie on HBO when I was a kid.   I remember doing the bit “Oh, I can make a hat, a broach, a pterodactyl…”  on a regular basis for anyone that would listen.    I loved that guy.  I certainly did not understand at 12 or 13 why he resonated with me, I just thought he was funny.  And I wanted to be funny, too.  

When I did a little google sleuthing about Stephen Stucker, I found that he was born on July 2, which is my birthday, too.  Like me, he  hailed from the midwest (born in Iowa, raised in Ohio) and he eventually made his way to Hollywood.  His IMDB page only has 11 credits, but most are significant like Airplane, Airplane II, Trading Places, The Kentucky Fried Movie and Mork and Mindy.  He died of AIDS related complications in 1986. He was 38 years old. Besides work as an actor and musician, he is important in GLBT history because he was one of the first actors to publicly disclose his HIV status.  I’ve also posted an appearance he made on the Donahue, not long before his death.  His comments are polarizing, his histrionics at times, disturbing.  But he’s still, in the midst of his illness, clearly, full of life.

I wish I knew more about Stephen Stucker. I found an archived interview with him online where he spoke about how supportive and loving his entire family was as he battled AIDS. It moved me because I know that when you’re going through life’s challenges, it’s nice to have family holding you up. Maybe one of these days, a sibling or niece or nephew or close friend will come across this blog and share a story or two. I’d love that. To me, he is so much more than that gay guy from Airplane, but when you think about it, that’s really not such a bad thing to be known as either.

Night Blooming Jasmine

securedownload-1When I moved to LA from New York several years ago, I went about 8 months without having a car. I bought a car for $800 and it broke down irreparably three weeks later and I scrapped it for $120 which means I lost $680, not counting the money I spent to get it smog checked. But this story is not about a bum car or even about foolish decisions. Well, maybe it’s a teeny bit about foolish decisions.

It’s spring in LA and it seems everywhere I go, I smell the night blooming jasmine. I’m not an olfactory expert, I wouldn’t know how to describe the fragrance to someone who doesn’t know it. Pretty? Flowery? Springy?

There are a copious amount of jasmine plants in Southern California and I love walking down a sidewalk and catching a whiff of it before I even see the distinctive plant and flowers.

And every time I smell jasmine, night blowing jasmine, I think about my first few months in LA, when the town was new, new to me, anyway.

I moved to LA from New York, where everything was outside my door. In New York, how do I put this delicately, I sometimes frequented watering holes that catered to a gay male population. Trust me when I say, it was a lot of me standing in the corner, watching the room, futzing with my bottled water, hoping someone would come over to talk to me. And I’m not going to lie, sometimes guys, some handsome, some not, would make their way to me to start a conversation. And most nights, I would head home from Uncle Charlie’s or Splash or The Break unattended, my safety assured by the many others who were also walking through the streets of Chelsea and the Village at the same time, regardless of the hour.

And then when I moved to LA, to Detroit St and Wilshire, the nearest gay bars were 3 miles away in West Hollywood, 2 different bus rides away. And because I did not have many friends at this point, I would go to West Hollywood by myself. I’d take the bus, two buses, to go to Revolver and Rage and Mickey’s. And for the most part, the results were the same: I would stand in a corner, bottled water in hand, hoping someone would come over to start a conversation. And sometimes they did, but mostly they didn’t. And before I knew it, it would be 2:00 a.m. and I’d have to weigh my options of how to get home. A $20 cab ride was not an option. A few times, I took the bus, but that took over an hour, with long waits at each bus stop. So eventually, I just started walking home, from Larrabee and Santa Monica to Wilshire and Detroit.

My routes would vary each time, sometimes I would walk along Willoughby, other times I’d take Waring. I learned the street names, like Sweetzer and Spaulding and Martel and eventually, I’d unwind my way back home. I’d dream about living in homes or fancy old apartment buildings I’d pass by. I’d dream about being a working actor and finding my way. I’d dream about making enough money to afford a $20 cab ride. And also, I’d dream about falling in love. That hope of meeting someone special was what called me to those places in the first place, I understood that much.

And the entire walk, in the middle of the night, through the heart of Los Angeles, the night blooming jasmine was my constant companion, my accompaniment, my pomander. And finally, I would make it to 649 S. Detroit, unlock the door and go inside. I’d lie in bed, the jasmine permeating my apartment through an open window.

Last night, as I walked along Melrose to meet Eric and a friend for dinner, I passed by block after block of jasmine. I breathed it in, took the above picture and went on my way. As I continued walking, I remembered those late night walks. Oh my, how things have changed. And yet, a part of me will always be the Kansas boy discovering a new city for the first time and with every inhale discovering that Los Angeles can be his.

Carolyn and Mary

bilde-2They seemed like the unlikeliest of best friends.  I was fascinated by their friendship because I saw something kindred in it.  They were both popular, in their ways.  Carolyn was a singer who often sang solos or duets during chapel services.   Mary was a star athlete on the basketball team.  Even as a Bible college closet case, I had pretty decent gaydar, and I was sure that Mary and I had something in common.  Their best friendship kind of came up out of nowhere.  Carolyn and I had been friends since our freshman year.  And then in our sophomore or junior year, I noticed that she and Mary started to spend a lot of time together.  They became inseparable.  They dressed alike.  At one point, Carolyn even cut her long hair into a dramatic bi-level that was popular among the budding lesbians of the late 1980s, just like Mary.  And then, after a few short months, they were no longer inseparable.  In fact, I never saw them together at all.  One day, I asked Carolyn about Mary, I can’t remember what my question was exactly, something like, “Hey, have you seen Mary lately?”  I remember trying to phrase my question delicately. Carolyn quickly and finitely told me that she and Mary were not friends anymore.  “But you were so close,”  I said.  And the look on her face told me that this was not a conversation that was going to be continued.  For the rest of that semester, Mary walked around campus like a broken-hearted puppy.  I don’t think she even came back to Ozark after that eventful semester.  Carolyn, on the other hand, continued to thrive.  Carolyn was and is a woman who thrives.   

Because I was experiencing my own overwhelming same sex emotions, I watched this play out with a vested interest.  It’s probably no surprise to anyone who knew me in Bible college, but I had a habit of falling in love with my best friends.  Three different times, I fell in love with three different friends and each time, I feared what would happen if he found out my feelings.  One of those friends sometimes bragged that he didn’t like gay guys and I wondered if he would beat me up if he knew how I felt.  I certainly never had the audacity to make a pass at either of these three loves, but I feared that in every look and in every action I might be revealing my secret.  

Of those three loves, I am still friends with one of them.  The other two just kind of drifted out of my life.  I’m sure they know I’m gay.  I’m sure they know that I was in love with them in college.  And I really don’t care whether they hate me now or not.  I have some good memories of those years and each of those three friendships are cherished, even if I never have another conversation with them.

But I do find myself wondering about Carolyn and Mary.  I have so many questions, of course, starting with, did they ever hook up?  I actually don’t think they did.  I don’t think that Carolyn was gay or bisexual even, but I suspect that at one point, Mary confessed her feelings, perhaps she even made a pass.  And Carolyn responded by cutting her out of her life forever.  

I don’t know whatever happened to Mary.  I keep thinking she will show up on Facebook, eventually, but I’ve yet to see her profile pop up in the “people you may know” section.  I wonder if she came to terms with her sexuality.  Does she have a life partner? Is there a chance I was wrong and she’s straight, married with kids, labradors, etc.? Is she still a little in love with Carolyn?  Does she still have that bi-level haircut?

And I wonder what goes through Carolyn’s mind when and if she thinks about Mary.  Does she feel shame for cutting out a friend who probably really needed a friend?  Does she think she would do it the same if it happened to her again in 2014.  We prayed so much back at Bible college, did Carolyn pray for Mary to find her way?  Does she pray for her still? Did Carolyn have some feelings of her own that she did not know how to process? Maybe she doesn’t even remember any of this.

But of course, I do remember. I remember it because at the time, I thought the worst thing in the world was to be gay and the second worst thing was to tell the person you’re in love with how you feel and they reject you.

The first person I shared my secret with was one of those college loves. At the time, not long after we’d graduated from Ozark, we were separated by several states. I was still a youth minister and one night, I went to a Christian concert where the singer (I think it was Steven Curtis Chapman, actually) had everyone in the audience write down the thing that burdened them most in their faith and then ushers collected what people had written and the idea was that God would lift that burden. For the first time in my life, I wrote that I was struggling with my sexuality. I was there with the kids in my youth group and I was so afraid that one of them might see my words. After the little, folded papers were collected, the musician prayed with the mass of people about their secret burden, that the weight might be lifted. And later that night, when I got home, I needed to talk to someone, so I called my best friend Ab. I called him and I shared and he listened. Even though I didn’t tell him that I had been in love with him, I still feared that he would drop me as a friend for telling him I thought I was gay. But he did not judge, he told me this would not change our friendship. And nearly 25 years later, he continues to hold to that promise. That was the beginning of my coming out. Certainly, on that night in a tiny rural Missouri apartment, circa 1991, I could not have foreseen the road my life would take. But I’m eternally grateful for the friend who listened as I bared my gravest secret and responded with, “You will always be my friend.”