Frosted Hair and Feather Earrings

madonna-80s“It’s so interesting that the people with the loosest morals in high school, college, and the mid-twenties always have the best bible verses on Facebook.”  My friend Alan, who is the king of Facebook, posted this statement on his wall about 6 minutes ago.  In that time, he has already received 107 likes and 20 plus comments. And counting.  He is a person who has a knack for striking the right chord, and I must say, his observation is, per usual, on point.

I have thought something along the same lines myself.  I could write about assholes in high school who now post “I support Duck Dynasty” pictures to their Facebook wall, which is a little interesting, but not surprising.  Instead, I would like to write about the first person who came to mind when I saw Alan’s post.  And let me just say, it wasn’t in a bad way, either.

I grew up in a small town in Kansas.  There were less than 800 people in my high school.  If you didn’t know every person, you knew of every person.  There was a girl I’ll call Pepper that I grew up with, but had very little contact with.  I think we might have been on the same bowling league when we were in grade school.  Pepper was one or two years younger than me and from as early as grade school, she had a reputation.  I cringe when I think of the labels that were placed on Pepper while we were growing up.  Wild, Slut, Whore, Stoner, Easy, Loose, Bitch, Drunk.  I have no idea if any of it was true, I had no first hand knowledge.  I do remember she was one of the youngest girls to get blonde highlights and she did have a propensity to wear dangling feather earrings that looked like roach clips, but hey, what do I know?

I have not been in the same room with Pepper once in the 28 years since I graduated high school, but she did send me a Facebook friend request several years ago, which I accepted.  Like me, Pepper spends a lot of time on Facebook.  And in the years between high school and now, she has become a deeply religious person.  Nearly every post is something about her faith, her walk with God.  If it isn’t about God, it’s about her family, which she is always quick to say is a gift from God.  If it isn’t about her family, it’s about the good friends that she is grateful for, more gifts from God.

One of the goals of religion, all religions, is to make the follower a better person, more loving, more compassionate, wiser, at peace.  And I read Pepper’s posts and I always think of Bible verses like 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  She does not seem to be the girl I knew growing up, not that I really knew her growing up anyway.  Looking back, it does seem that she was a young person in pain, looking to find her way, something most of us can relate to.

Granted, I don’t really know her now, I can only understand her by what she posts and her message, quite literally, moves me to tears.  If she has posted anything anti-gay, I’ve yet to see it.  I think we all kind of have a Facebook persona. My friend Alan, for instance, is an acerbic mother hen, as if Bea Arthur had 2,574 children and her only contact with them was via Facebook.  My persona is, I don’t know, you could answer that better than me.  And Pepper’s persona is a woman who understands God’s grace.  I don’t know that that thirteen year old girl with frosted hair and feather earrings had any idea that her life would be filled with such riches.

The world is full of Peppers. Believe me, most of my best friends are Peppers. I’m a Pepper. And for the most part, we’re all just the adult versions of our thirteen year old selves, just trying to find our way. Grace.

I Look to You

Whitney Houston I LOOK TO YOUI thought about Whitney Houston a lot this month.  I remember the day she died quite vividly.  February 11, 2012.  I was on my computer that Saturday afternoon and the news popped up on Yahoo.  I had been at work, just a few blocks away from the Beverly Hilton when she died.  I do not know of a celebrity death that has affected me more.  I loved Whitney Houston.

Her music was part of the soundtrack of my formative years,. I remember watching MTV in hopes that they’d play the How Will I Know video and then dancing to it, alone in my room. There was also something about her story that resonated with me: she was a church girl. She grew up in the church and sang in the church and talked about her faith in interviews.

Not surprisingly, she was a polarizing topic at my Bible college. Her albums had songs about faith sandwiched between songs about infidelity or sexual longing. I remember belting out I Wanna Dance with Somebody in my ’79 Monte Carlo on those long drives from Joplin to Independence to visit my parents.

Like many of our first loves, somewhere along the way, I lost track of Whitney. I saw The Bodyguard, of course and had a boyfriend give me a cd single of I Believe in You and Me. (As it turned out, he did not.) But somewhere between 1991 and 2012, I stopped buying Whitney’s music.

And then she died. And I started listening to her all over again. I bought the greatest hits collection on iTunes and I found this song that she released shortly before her death.

As a chubby, awkward, gay boy growing up in Kansas, I would stare at the picture of Whitney on the cover of her first album and think, “She’s just so pretty!” And then, after her passing, I found myself staring at the cover of her last album, I Look to You in a similar way. She was still so beautiful, of course, but her face gave some indication of the struggles that she had endured, the struggles that she had seemingly overcome.
Whitney Houston had her demons. She had this voice and face and look that was a gift from God, but there were things that she struggled with. And as much as I loved her because of her beauty, I think I understood her because of her weaknesses. I have demons myself. Some you know about, others I hope you never know about.

I love this video. As someone who grew up in church, it’s a plea from the broken to a merciful God. At the end of the day, whether we are Grammy winners or restaurant hosts, we all need a little help. So, if you have a few minutes, have a watch and listen. And don’t be too judgmental about your own brokenness, because at the end of the day, we are all the same: the lost looking for a cause, the weak looking for strength and the melody-less looking for a song.

The Pages

1660523_10152174788269437_2144488630_nI participated in a storytelling show on Monday, Spark Off Rose.  It was a piece that I had been writing for about three months.  There were several drafts and I had regular meetings with this particular show’s lead producer, Janet Blake, who is also a friend of mine.  (Started 13 years ago, by Jessica Tuck, Spark Off Rose does ten themed shows a year, with 5 different producers taking turns as lead producer.) It was an arduous process that was ultimately rewarding,  one of the best night’s of my life.  

The story that I shared on Monday was framed within the context of an acting class I took a few years ago, about my identification with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.   Really, though, it was the story of Ray in less than 8 minutes.  I didn’t even know if there was even a story there, but Janet encouraged me.  I hated what I wrote.  I fought to salvage threads that Janet told me didn’t serve the piece.  I complained.  I lost sleep.  Every looming deadline was something I dreaded.  But Janet was faithful.  Finally, the two of us arrived at a rehearsal draft for the show.  Our rehearsal was on Saturday.  I had a flat tire that morning, dropped my phone and chipped it a little, spilled coffee on my favorite sweater.  But the rehearsal itself went okay, actually, it went pretty well.  Every storyteller shared a beautiful story, some very funny, some haunting, some sad, all were affecting.  

And then the night of the show came.  Eric didn’t make it to the show because his car broke down.  I was nervous.  My chest was tight, one of my arms was sore and I wondered if I might be having a heart attack.  Also, I had the added pressure of going first.    I stood backstage, listening to Janet welcome the crowd, introduce the show, talk about the night’s theme, You Don’t Know Me.  And a resolve washed over me.  All the work has been done, I thought.  At this point, it’s just me and the pages.  All I have to do is go out there and read.  It was freeing. And then my introductory song, Is It Okay if I Call You Mine, chosen by me, began to play.

And what was on those pages?  My journey, in fact, things I’ve written about here on this blog.  I read about growing up in Kansas, dreaming of the world out there. I read about Bible college and New York and the game show and working in a restaurant and meeting Eric and finally, about swimming.   And the entire time, I clung to those pages. They weren’t just pieces of paper, of course, they were MY pages, MY story.

And it went the way I thought I could only dream it might go.  

Starring Oklahoma

2483653_GA couple days ago, I went with my friend Vinod to see a screening of a film called August: Osage County that is coming out in a few weeks.  It’s an adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Tony winning play starring a who’s who of great actors including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, and more.  There are a lot of heart-wrenching performances, but the one thing that stuck with me the most, the one thing I’ve continued to ponder since seeing the movie is the performance, or presence of the state where the movie is set and filmed, Oklahoma.

There is a pervasive heat that you feel the entire time you are watching the movie.  That sticky, sweaty, cloying heat is alluded to even in the title of movie.  If you’ve ever spent an August in Osage County or near Osage County, you know what I’m talking about.  The movie was filmed about an hour away from the town in Kansas where I grew up.  In fact, because of my Dad’s illness, I was in Kansas last summer, when they were filming the movie, and it was a particularly hot summer, some of you might even remember.  So, while Meryl and Julia and Margo and Julianne and Juliette were proximating a dysfunctional family dealing with a family crisis in the part of the world I know best, I was with my (probably slightly more functional) family dealing with a family crisis of our own.  

There is a funny scene in the beginning of the movie where Julia Roberts’ character Barbara, who grew up in Oklahoma but lives in Colorado now opines, “Who was the asshole who saw this flat hot nothing and planted his flag?”  And growing up there, it’s a sentiment I thought myself several times.  I used to say that the good thing about growing up in Kansas is that it makes every other place I go beautiful in comparison.  (That’s harsh.)  Later in the scene, I think Barbara gets it right when she says, “This is not the Midwest. All right? Michigan is the Midwest, God knows why. This is the Plains: a state of mind, right, some spiritual affliction, like the Blues.”  

I wept every time the state of Oklahoma flashed on the screen.  Several scenes take place when people are driving down the road or driving through a small Oklahoma town.  Certainly, there was recognition for me when I saw those old-fashioned churches, or once grand country homes that had fallen into disrepair or that sky, wide open, both in day and night.  But it was more than recognition, it was wist.  And it was love.

I was born in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and raised most of my life, just 45 minutes away from there in Independence, Kansas.  I’m proprietary about that part of the world, because it’s still mine.  And watching this film, moments of which were masterpieces, I understood why people stay and why people leave and why they come home again, and also, why, even if you never come back to live, the plains will always be a part of you.erez-12

I Can Catch the Moon in My Hand

FAMEJust a few minutes ago, I finished watching a French movie called Beau Travail that I’d dvr’d on Turner Classic Movies, it is a movie about, wait, never mind, there is no need for me to tell you what the movie is about, there is no reason for you to watch it.  It’s boring and it’s not even long.  For 90 minutes, I sat on my couch, sipping a little whiskey and eating cheese and crackers, wondering why I was watching this movie.  My answer came at the end, or rather, after the end, when after the credits, TCM played a mini-documentary about the making of my favorite movie (one of my favorites, anyway) Fame.

I remember when I saw Fame for the first time.  It was the summer between my 6th and 7th grade year, in the living room of my childhood home (imagine that!) and I watched it on HBO with my cousins Tracey and Stacey who were visiting from Colorado.  I already loved anything theatrical (I was just coming off of that Charlie Brown high from 5th grade) and something about the movie: the songs, the dancing, the acting, hooked into something inside of me, something at my core.  I remember how nervous the Montgomery character made me.  Gosh, I thought, I wouldn’t want to end up like that guy!

And even though I was a land-locked Kansas boy, I dreamed that one day, I would attend the High School for the Performing Arts.  Alas, that did not happen, but I did make my way to New York eventually, and from the minute I stepped off that Greyhound bus, I did feel like I’d entered a city that pulsated like the choreographed, gritty, magical, mercurial 1980 New York that Alan Parker gave me (ME!) in that movie.  And if you’ve been reading this blog, even just a little, you could understand how this movie might have resonated with me through the last 35 years, through every phase of my life.

Which brings me back to tonight, those few minutes ago, when this documentary came on my television.  And I loved watching these young actors, kids at the time, talk about the characters they were playing.  I always think of those actors, Irene Cara, Maureen Teefy, Paul McCrane, Barry Miller and the rest, in this revered way, the way a freshman looks up to the seniors at his high school, but I was struck by the fact that these actors were probably 16 to 20 at the time, just babies.  The documentary showed behind the scenes of filming many musical scenes, including Hot Lunch Jam, I Sing the Body Electric and of course, Fame, where the entire cast is dancing in the street, on car roof tops and such.  Perhaps it was the whiskey, perhaps it was something purer, but I felt the need to rise up and dance along with these teenagers, my idols, as they danced through the streets of Manhattan.

Where am I going with all this?  Well, I’m not completely sure.  I will say that one thing I love about art, be it paintings or music or movies, is it’s propensity to incite time travel.  As I watched this documentary, I was every age I’ve ever been since I first saw the movie.  I was 12 and 17 and 24 and 34 and 39 and 45.  And then I thought how wonderful it is that a movie or anything, really, could make this 45-year-old get up off his couch on a Tuesday night at 10 pm and dance without abandon.  It makes one think that they could live forever.

Free to Be You and Me (for Mrs. Tideman)

8257387187_038ba4cf63_zToday is Marlo Thomas’ birthday!  Happy Birthday, Marlo!  When I think about Marlo, I think about her iconic 1970’s tv special, Free to Be You and Me.  And when I think about that, I remember my 5th and 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Tideman, who introduced that tv show and soundtrack to me and the rest of the 4th and 5th graders in her combined class that she taught back at Washington Elementary.

I don’t remember ever having a creative awakening before Mrs. Tideman’s class.  I’d had good teachers, I’d had bad teachers.  I remember doing fairly well in spelling and math and less well in history and science.  But Mrs. Tideman is the first teacher that expanded the concept of education into things like writing poems.  We had to write a poem every few weeks, and I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m bragging (glory days and all) but I was a pretty good poem writer.  I had a knack for making things rhyme, it came to me fast, in quite little time.  And though my penmanship could have been neater, I even mastered the concept of meter.

At one point during my 5th grade year, Mrs. Tideman announced that we were going to put on a play.  It was called, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”  There would be auditions and rehearsals and two performances in the school gymnasium.  She gave those of us who wanted to audition, copies of the script.  I auditioned for Linus, Snoopy and Charlie Brown.  And while I still contend that I could have played Snoopy, I was actually born to play Charlie Brown.  I was Charlie Brown, and at ten, I always felt that the world was against me.  Plus I was horrible at sports.  So, there is some irony in that the first time I felt like the world was rooting for me, was when I played Charlie Brown.  It was a life changing experience. 

The next year, when by some miracle, she was now my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Tideman brought in the cast album (or maybe the soundtrack) to the musical, “Oliver!”  She announced that this was the play she’d hoped to do that year, but she had to have an operation.  She told us that she loved teaching kids, but she’d always dreamed of having her own child and she’d been unable to get pregnant.  She then explained that she was going to have an operation to increase her chances of getting pregnant.  And then she told us she was going to be gone for several weeks.  And then we listened to “Oliver!” and it seemed even more of a dirge of a musical than even Charles Dickens could have imagined.  And the weeks that she was away were unendurable.  And when she came back, we were all so happy, but also scared because for awhile, she seemed quite vulnerable, not like the old Mrs. Tideman.

As an adult, I think about how she and the administration would have wrestled with just how much to tell her students.  I’m sure there are things they kept from us, as protection.  (There is also the possibility I might be remembering it slightly differently than how it really happened.)  But the experience was one of my first lessons in the frailty of life and how adult life (like childhood life, but with more at stake) did not always turn out the way you thought it would.  I’m grateful that she opened my eyes to my own creative possibilities, but more than that, she opened my eyes to the way life works, like what a mother will do for her unborn, unconceived child.

The good news is that after we graduated 6th grade, Mrs. Tideman became a mother.  If I recall, her daughter’s name was Katie and she’d been named long before she was born.  Katie would be about 35 now.  (Dang, I’m old!)  I have no idea where Mrs. Tideman is today, she moved away and even with several internet searches, I’ve never been able to find her.  I’ve even tried to find Katie.  And for the record: I’m no amateur at google sleuthing.

Getting back to Free to Be You and Me, I’m posting the opening credits here as my little tribute to Mrs. Tideman, a teacher who took my hand and asked me to come along, and lend my voice to her song. Free to be you and me, indeed!

These Are the People

tenneseeI’m reading Costly Performances right now, an account of the last few years of playwright Tennessee Williams’ life, written by his friend, Bruce Smith.  It is a funny, sad, informative, salacious read.  Last night, I read a passage about the opening of his last Broadway premiere, Clothes for Summer Hotel.  It did not look likely that the reviews or following box office would be good, but after the show, as they stepped into the alley, Tennessee and Bruce were met by a group of fans.  One man, in particular, held out a stack of books and said, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Williams, would you be kind enough to autograph these for me?”  Bruce Smith, who was there, thought that the fan was imposing too much by asking Williams to stand there in the rain and sign 12 books.  Williams graciously signed each one and then moved on to every person standing in this line, people who probably not had even been inside the show for financial or booking reasons.

When Smith asked him about his graciousness in what was a trying time.  (His play did open to poor reviews and the show only lasted a few days on Broadway.  Furthermore, the opening date had been decided to coincide with his 69th birthday, so they were en route to a less than festive birthday party/opening night party.)  Tennessee only said, “These are my people, I know these are my readers, people whom I’ve communicated in some quite human and genuine manner.  That man who wanted me to sign all those books, I know he’ll have to sell them, probabbly to pay his rent.  These are the people I relate to and for.  They’re all so far removed from the group inside the theatre.  And to think that some one critic in there is going to decide against their being able to see one last big play of mine.  I could feel it as we sat there during the performance of the play.  They’re warming for the kill, baby, they’re warming for the kill.”

I can’t stop thinking about the image of Tennessee standing in the rain, signing autographs and making connections to people like, well, people like me.  Around that time, I was a 12 year old boy who spent every Saturday at my local library.  About 12 was when I discovered, and discovered would be the word, the play section in the upstairs aisles at the Independence Public Library.  I would sit for hours and read plays and leaf through the pictures in “The Best Plays” series.  It was my window into a world that I dreamed I’d be a part of.  It was the beginning of a life-long love affair.  So, when I read this, it affirms what I always believed when I read Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, or saw Jessica Lange do A Streetcar Named Desire or watched Night of the Iguana and Summer and Smoke and Suddenly, Last Summer on TCM.  I know what Tom was trying to leave behind when he told Laura to blow out her candles because all of these characters and stories had been written for me and about me and to me, like a love letter.

“I Went to the Stork Club!”

One of my favorite William Inge characters is Irma Kronkite in Picnic.  She’s a school teacher who lives with her mother and every summer, she leaves Independence to go to New York where she studies at Columbia in hopes of completing her Master’s degree.  In every one of the few scenes that she’s in, she talks about the things she did in New York, at one point, excitedly sharing that she went to the Stork Club with a fellow (male) student.  “It was nothing serious,” she tells her friends.  “He was just a good sport, that’s all.”  I love her because I get the sense that her reality is those precious weeks in New York and during her long months in Kansas, she is merely marking the days until her return to the place where she is the happiest, where her life is the richest.

Eric and I have started planning our yearly New York trip and I must say, I kind of feel like Irma.  In the next weeks, I’ll scour the internet for hotel and flight deals.  I’ll make notes about exhibits or shows I’ve read about in New York magazine.  I’ll find popovers with strawberry butter, John’s pepperoni pizza and La Bella Ferrara’s cannoli making guest appearances in my dreams. I’ll remind Michele that we’re going back to Eataly, now that we’ve figured out how best to navigate it.   I’ll Google Earth Manhattan neighborhoods, make a list of streets that I haven’t been to in years, promise myself that this time, for sure, I’ll finally make it to the Cloisters.

I’ve talked about my years living in New York and it’s the only city that I know I’ll always feel like both a local and a visitor, it’s ever-changing and ever-constant.  The New York that Irma Kronkite visited was probably a little different from my New York, or Alicia Keys’ New York, but I’m sure if she heard Alicia sing: “these streets will make you feel brand new,
big lights will inspire you” she’d think, oh yes, that’s where I belong. And she wouldn’t be alone.

No Surrender

bruce-springsteenOn Glee tonight, the students, alumni and faculty of McKinley High will remember their classmate, Finn Hudson.  He was played memorably by Cory Monteith and his death a few months ago was heartbreaking.  I listened today to the songs that will be part of the play list.  One of the songs, called No Surrender, struck a chord, even though I did not think I’d heard it before.  I was surprised to find out that not only is it a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song, that song is on the Born in the U.S.A. album, an album that I listened to more than enough that you’d think I wouldn’t forget a single song.  But then again, old people forget things.

So I just watched a YouTube video of the Boss singing the song in concert in 1984.  He opens talking about the song and at one point says, “What keeps people human is their ability to keep people dreaming about things.”  And of course, watching the video, takes me back to the days and nights driving down Penn blasting Dancing in the Dark and Born in the U.S.A. and Glory Days, singing at the top of my lungs.   I know how much my dreams meant to me then and I know how much they mean to me now.

So, with all due respect to the cast of Glee, here is the original. It’s a beautiful, haunting elegy and when I watch him sing it, for a moment anyway, I’m 16 again.

Vintage Independence

Unknown-1I have to be honest, when I found that vintage postcard of Monkey Island that I used in yesterday’s blog, The Least I Could Do, I was pretty proud of myself.  And then I wondered if I could unearth any more vintage postcards starring my hometown.  I found a few, all of them very cool.  So I decided to make a little album and share them with you.  And if you have an old Independence postcard that would fit nicely into this album, by all means, send it to me and I’ll add it to the rest.