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

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

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

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

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

I told you I’ve been sentimental lately.

About Fathers and Sons

167445_10151027019872755_1950056074_nI posted a blog yesterday that had a big response. I received several comments as well as several private messages about bullying and even about my specific subject, a person I’ll call Karl Johnson. Initially, I used his real name and I’ve since tried to go through and change the name to Karl.

I have one more memory of Karl that I’ll share and then, I promise, no more. Maybe it will make you like him a little more or have some compassion. Maybe you’ll just think I’m even brattier for sharing more ugliness about my little town.

Karl was an athlete, a good athlete. His father was also an athlete, and a coach. His father was at every game of Karl’s, City Rec through high school, either as a coach or cheering from the sidelines. Well, maybe cheering wasn’t the exact word. Karl’s dad was that dad who always yelled at his son from the bleachers that he was being an idiot when he screwed up. His constant verbal abuse was expected at every game, habitual. His wife, Karl’s mother, always sat meekly by his side. Was she embarrassed for her husband? Did he yell at her like that too? Was he even meaner behind closed doors? I wondered. Do I remember the exact names and phrases bellowed at those games? No, but I bet Karl does. I bet it’s affected him his entire life.

In our adult, 21st century vernacular, we understand how the bullied become the bullies. It can be and often is a natural progression. In it’s way, me trying to tell an unsavory story about Karl from 35 years ago could fall into that category.

I remember my junior high self sitting in the bleachers at basketball games reacting to Mr. Johnson’s predictable outbursts with a mix of pity and thrill. At least somewhere on earth, Karl Johnson was getting the treatment he deserved, what he doled out to others.

Did he deserve, at 11 or 13 or 16 to be called an idiot or a screw up or worse by his own father in front of hundreds of people? I don’t think so. Did Mr. Johmson’s outbursts make Karl a better player? A better student? Maybe.

Karl Johnson had much better grades than I did. He went to a much better college than I did. (No offense, OCC, I do love you, though.) I don’t doubt for a minute that Mr. Johnson loved his son and was proud of his son’s accomplishments.

My own Dad’s approach to fathering was different. Because it was a small town, I always felt a pressure to play sports. I was almost always the worst player on every team. One evening, after the last game of the the Little League season, I remember riding with my Dad to his work, the gas station he owned. It was closed, but he had to pick something up. And I remember sitting in the front seat, eating a Hershey bar and we were talking about the season that had ended. My Dad told me he was proud of me. And trust me, like I said, I was horrible. And then he turned to me and said, “I think next year will be your year.”

In most ways, that did not turn out to be true. When I signed up the next year, I was as bad as the summer before, but still, my Dad (and Mom, too) sat in the bleachers and cheered for me anyway, never missing a game, never failing to take me for a root beer sno-cone afterward. At 12, I thought I was lucky to have the parents I had. At 45, I know.

Anyway, that’s it. How self-absorbed to start talking about my bully and end up talking about me! I will keep my promise, though, nothing more about Karl Johnson. I do have compassion for him. Just like for the rest of us, his life wasn’t always easy.

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.

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.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a

Leonardo-DiCaprio-dans-TitanicIt was December 1997.  I remember it vividly for a couple of reasons.  My parents and I met my brother and my two nephews and niece at Simple Simon’s pizza in Independence.  I was visiting from LA for Christmas and it was to be my one chance to see the kids.  I had been close to them when they were smaller, but as they grew up, it seemed we had less in common.  They were roughly 15, 13, and 11, I believe.  The day before, my parents and I had gone to see Titanic.  I innocently asked the kids if they had seen the movie.  It was December 1997, and if you remember, it was the movie everyone was talking about.

“Leonardo DiCaprio is a fag,” my oldest nephew bellowed. “I hate that fag,” my other nephew agreed.  And that was the beginning of a 15 minute conversation among my two nephews and niece about the sexuality of the most beloved, yet apparently, polarizing heartthrob of 1997.  The boys talked about how they didn’t want to see the movie, because Leonardo was a faggot, a fag, gay.  My niece bragged, “I don’t care if he is a fag, I still love him.”  

I was actually 29 in 1997.  I was newly out to my parents.  My brother said nothing to them to stop them.  He wouldn’t have.  Just a few years before, back when I looked up to him and tried my best to build a relationship with him, his best friend would regularly call me Fag and Gay Ray to my face, in his presence, and he never asked this friend to stop. My parents also did nothing to stop the conversation.  I watched both of them, clearly pained to hear their grandchildren say cruel things about a community of which their youngest son was a member, but they both stared down at their pizza, hoping the conversation would stop.  Eventually, the three started talking about something else on their own.

I’m not sure why this day popped into my head today.  But it’s something I’ve thought about from time to time in the years since it happened.  I think about it whenever the movie comes on television.  I thought about it when Eric and I went to the Titanic exhibit in Las Vegas last summer.  I thought about it the only time I saw Leonardo DiCaprio in person.  (He was with his girlfriend at the time, the insanely gorgeous Bar Refaeli.  I thought to myself, he doesn’t look gay to me.)  I also thought about it when one of my nephews passed away a couple years ago.

I am a forgiving person, I really am.  I still love my nephews and niece, I only wish the best for their lives, but there was a shift after that day.  They were kids, I don’t really know if they were li’l homophobes or just talking the way every other teenager talked, especially in Kansas in 1997.

On that day, I sat there hoping that someone would speak up.  I hoped it would be my brother.  I also hoped it would be my parents, who struggled so much with my sexuality, especially in those early years.  If only one person had just said, “Stop, don’t use that word.  There is no reason to ever call someone that word.”  Of course, looking back, I know who that person should have been: it should have been me.  I should have told my family, “I wish you would not use that word.  I’m gay and words like fag and faggot hurt people’s feelings, specifically, my feelings.”  And if I had, maybe it would have been the beginning of a conversation or an education or a connection.  

By not saying anything, I backed away and I never gave these kids the chance to move forward.  I do not know if they grew up to not like gay people, we’ve never talked about it.

I’m a lucky guy, I know that. I have friends who have been my friends so long that they are family now. And I’m lucky that those friends are actively, vocally, passionately supportive of me and my community. And I’m lucky that I have the relationship that I do with my parents. But when I think about that day, it does still haunt me. If I’d been brave enough to say something, who knows what I might have gained in the long run.

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.