Make a Wish

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Yesterday morning, I went to the mall with my Mother.  I am in California and she is in Kansas, and yet, unbeknownst to her even, we found ourselves walking the corridors of Metcalf South Shopping Center, in Overland Park, Kansas, circa 1973.  I don’t even know what spurred the memory, as I swam my morning laps, but that recollection stayed with me for the rest of the day.

It was an autumn morning, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the date was September 28.  My mom brought me to the mall, we walked around, she bought me a popcorn jack-o-lantern at Topsy’s Popcorn.  I think there might have been some toy that came with it.  We got in the car and we drove home, me elated by my new acquisition.

I think of this day from time to time.  I don’t know why, other than it’s just a pure, happy memory.  My Mom was the center of my world when I was 5.  She was the prettiest, the smartest, the best singer, the best dresser, the funniest.  I loved my Dad, I loved my brothers, I loved my grandparents and my aunts and uncles and my cousins and my dog Pee-Wee, I loved God and Jesus and church, too, but my Mother, she was my favorite.  My Mommy.

I tried to unearth more details from this 43-year-old outing.  Did we make other purchases? Were we preparing for some special occasion?  Was it definitely 1973?  Am I sure that it was even a popcorn ball and not some other candy or toy that brought me delight on that day?  Did I beg for this treat or was it her idea?  Was it something we could easily afford or a small extravagance? And while I arrived at no answers, I luxuriated in the speculations, the recreation of the scene.

Because I am a bit of a history buff, I decided to google Metcalf South Mall.  When my Dad had his surgery in 2012 and we were based in Kansas City for three weeks, I once drove by the mall and could see it was not the mall of my memories.  The intervening years had not been kind.  According to Wikipedia,  Metcalf South closed its doors for good in 2014.  Sad, I know.

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Metcalf South Shopping Center opened in 1967.  If some of its nostalgic Pinterest fans can be believed it was “the place to be in Overland Park” in the 1970s.  All that I can remember from those years affirms that observation.

Because we lived in nearby Merriam, we went to this mall often, at least once a month, probably more.  I’d forgotten the centerpiece of the structure, a three-story fountain.   In scrolling through internet images last night, the memories flooded back, of all the times my Mom or Dad would give me a penny so I could add my hopes into the collection and make a wish.

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Last week, I wrote a piece about my parents where I alluded to some health challenges.  What I didn’t say was that my Mom was diagnosed with macular degeneration three weeks ago.  While she had told a handful of people, I did not want to say anything on a larger scale before she wanted to share the information herself.  On Monday, before she met with a specialist in Wichita, she posted on her Facebook page about her diagnosis and asked for prayers.

The doctor gave my Mom a shot in each eye that we hope will improve her sight and/or slow down the degenerative process.  As she faces some uncertainty about what the future holds, her spirits are good and she remains hopeful.  On Monday night, after they had returned home from Wichita, my Mother told me how, as they sat in the waiting room, my Dad comforted her by reading to her all the loving comments friends and family had written in response to her Facebook post.  And even though I was in California, and they were in Kansas, I could see it.

I don’t know what I wished for when I stood in front of that grand fountain back in the 70s. What we dream about when we are young isn’t always what we dream about when we get older.  And yet, here I am, on my way to old myself, and my wish is as pure and simple as if I was still a five-year old.

Yesterday was a bit of a gift. For a couple hours anyway, I was 5 and I was at the place to be in Overland Park with my favorite person.  And because memory can be kneaded and stretched in any way we want, I created a new one, or maybe just added onto the old one. I saw a little boy walking hand in hand with his young mother.  When they came to the sparkling fountain with millions of coins lining the pool’s floor, he asked his Mom if he could make a wish. She dug in her purse and found a penny, maybe it was even a wheat penny.  She placed the coin in his small hands and he closed his eyes and somehow he, miraculously, made a wish for something decades into his future, something his little mind could not possibly imagine in that moment.  He didn’t say it aloud, not even to her, but as he sent the currency into the air waiting for it to fall to its splash, he hoped.  The little boy hoped his wish would come true.

 

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Secrets of the Closet

The author, age 23.

The author, age 23.

The gay press has been floating around a story about a pastor in Michigan, Matthew Makela, who recently resigned from his position at St. John’s Lutheran Church because it was exposed (mild pun intended) that he had an active Grindr profile. He is a 39 year old husband and a father of 5 children. It has also come to light that one of the young men in his congregation was told by the pastor he “might as well kill himself since he was gay”. The young man told a local news channel that he had considered taking his own life over the reception he received from his pastor.

Obviously, it’s a sad story and I have compassion for the young man who came forward with his experience. I can imagine being a high schooler, afraid that no one would accept me if I shared the secret of my sexuality because I was one. Not that I ever told anyone at that age, I was too afraid. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s, 22 to be exact, before I told anyone that I thought I was gay.

In one interview, the young man, Tyler Kish, said that he has found compassion for Makela because he realized that “everything he told me, he was, kind of, telling himself too.” And I don’t doubt that that is true. If I can relate to Tyler Kish, it must be acknowledged that I can relate to Matthew Makela as well.

That I was quoting Demi Moore at all, it should have been apparent to anyone who knew me that I was gay. I was a youth minister in a small town in Missouri, just out of Bible college. My only friends were the kids in my youth group, every other 22 year old in town was long gone, ready to build their lives in larger towns and cities like Springfield and Kansas City. St. Elmo’s Fire was one of my favorite movies and to anyone who would listen I would affect Demi Moore’s husky lament, “I never thought I’d feel so old at 22.” It was the refrain for that year in my life and I am sure that weariness is one of the things that got me on a Greyhound to New York not long after turning 23.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know I went to Bible college to try to not be gay. You also might know that I had lived in New York a few months before I really began my journey out of the closet.

Allegedly, Matthew Makela has been living somewhat of a double life. He was a pastor with a wife and children, but also maintained a rather provocative Grindr profile. There are pictures and screenshots of conversations that are now public knowledge. I’m sure more about Makela’s secret life will be revealed in time.

I’ll say this up front because if you are reading this, it’s a valid question, but I never had sex with a guy when I was a youth minister. I never so much as kissed a guy. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my secrets.

I don’t remember now how I acquired a list of gay bars in Kansas City, I think I must have found one of those gay travel books in a bookstore and written the places down on a piece of paper. I remember the first night I drove to Kansas City to do a bar crawl. I went to about 5 or 6 places, all in the downtown area. This was the early 1990s and I was confused that most of the places had no signage to tell me I was in the right place. I don’t remember every detail of that night, but most of the places I visited were dark and run down and the customers were old. I’d enter, do a tour of the joint, and leave immediately. There was one place where I stayed about an hour. It was large and there was a dance floor and the crowd was pretty cute. I didn’t order a beer or anything, I was a Christian after all, so I just kind of stood there looking around. A tall, handsome, slightly effeminate man smiled at me, I smiled back. We started a conversation, I told him it was my first time in a gay bar, that I was a youth minister. I probably told him that I wasn’t even sure I was gay. He told me he was an antique dealer and lived in Iowa. The dance mix of Amy Grant’s Baby, Baby came on and I asked him if he wanted to dance, we did. While we danced, I wondered if this guy and I might share a kiss or more. I also wondered if Amy Grant knew her song was playing in a gay bar. And if so, what would she think? I don’t remember the details but the antique dealer let me know he wasn’t interested in me. As he went off to pursue someone else, I hung out for a while, then feeling slightly rebuffed, decided to leave and go home. I remember rolling down the windows on that late night 90 minute drive to my little town, the wind tunneling through my car. I was elated and scared and titillated and ashamed and hopeful and fearful as I steered my way home. I think I had a couple more of those KC gay bar crawl nights before I eventually left the midwest, but that first night is the one that sticks in my memory.

You might remember those 900 numbers were big in the early 90s. Somehow I had found a couple 900 numbers that were geared for men looking to meet other men, by telephone. I only did it a couple of times because each time, though it was advertised as something like $2 a minute, the charge on my phone bill was $150. Twice, after dialing 900 numbers, and furtively talking to a flirty stranger for a couple of minutes, I received my bill and was shocked and scared to find $150 charges. I only made $250 a week and I didn’t know how I would pay off a $300 phone bill, but I did pay it in increments. I was afraid that someone, somehow, might find out the secret of my phone bill, but if they did, they never said anything.

That I received the International Male and Undergear catalogs should have been a pretty obvious clue what was going on, too. One of the church members was the town postmaster. It was a small town. Did he notice my catalogs? During my time there, I always wondered if he might share my secret to the church board or worse, his children that were in my youth group. Looking back, I’m sure small town postmasters know quite a bit about people’s secrets.

At one point, I decided to put a personal ad in the Springfield newspaper. It was very simple: “22, masculine, brown hair, brown eyes, GL, bicurious looking for similar.” (Well, I DID have brown hair and brown eyes.) I remember driving to pick up my responses at the paper’s office. I received a large manila envelope filled with about 25 letters from various men in the area. That night, I sat down on my living room floor and sorted the letters from definite no’s to maybe’s to yes’s. I ranked them all and called the first few ones that appealed to me most. One guy was a bagger at a Dillon’s grocery store and for some reason that sounded hot. We talked on the phone a few times and he was in the closet too so we had something in common. I don’t know why, but I pictured him looking like Ralph Macchio. In the end, we never met. One guy was ranked 5th or 6th on my list but we ended up talking on the phone on a Friday night. He convinced me to drive to a town an hour away so we could meet in a Wal-mart parking lot. (That sounds safe.) Before we met, he told me he’d been living in Texas and had started the process of coming out and he encouraged me to do so myself. We told each other what kind of cars we were driving and when we met, he was not what I hoped. Too chubby, too pimply. I didn’t even get out of my car. I think he was disappointed that I didn’t want to get to know him so he coldly told me, “You’re gay. You can act like you aren’t, but you are.”

I also corresponded with a guy, a couple of years older than me who had grown up in Stockton and now lived in Springfield. He had been a ballet dancer, had trained in Russia. He might have been getting his master’s degree, I can’t remember for sure. We went on a date to a Mexican restaurant and then to see a touring production of A Chorus Line. It was not a perfect date, but that was the night I decided that somehow, some way, I was going to go to New York. And a few months later, that’s exactly what I did.

When I was a youth minister, I wondered how the long term burden of holding in my secret might affect the rest of my life. I mean, I really thought I was in it for the long haul, a lifetime of ministry, but I wondered if I might marry a woman, have kids and still have this secret life. I imagined a scenario not unlike Matthew Makela’s where one day, my secret would be exposed, and I would embarrass myself and all who loved me. And I don’t know Makela, but I can’t imagine his beginnings were all that different from mine. One day you’re a confused kid turning to Christ to make sense of your biggest burden and you blink and 20 years later, you’re on Grindr, looking for a man to man massage.

I look back on things I said as a youth minister from the pulpit and in classes and counselling situations and I wonder about how judgemental I was. In my gauzy recollection, I THINK I was a pretty compassionate pastor, but I’m sure I had my moments.

I know this, I’m grateful for that tubby guy in the Wal-mart parking lot who told me I need to wise up and accept the fact that I was gay. I didn’t take his advice immediately but he was one of the many who pushed me out of the closet into the life I lead now.

Like Tyler Kish, I have compassion for Matthew Makela. I remember how damaging the closet was for me at 22 and I can only imagine what it must feel like at 39.

The fact is, no matter who you are, no matter what your burden, there is something of Makela in all of us. We’re just trying to figure it all out. Like my friend Vanessa said about Don Draper recently, we make decisions sometimes that take us in the wrong direction from happiness.  I don’t think Matthew Makela will ever see this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have something to say to him.  First of all, you’re gay, you can act like you aren’t but you are.  But also, more importantly, you will get through this.  There are hundreds, thousands of men and women who have had similar experiences, similar journeys, we have survived, and so will you.  Peace be with you.

Guest Blogger, Gretchen Meinhardt

10268534_10152910983861554_5398660021533019161_nI don’t wade into political topics all that often. I’ll just say it’s not my particular area of expertise and leave it at that. But I do want to share the story of a family. I’ve known Gretchen Meinhardt since we were in college. A few months ago, I shared a piece she wrote for CNN. Today, I am sharing a copy of the letters she has sent to her legislators chronicling her experience with the Affordable Care Act for her family. Primarily, I share this so that a solution might be found where all children, and adults for that matter, receive the best healthcare possible, regardless of where they fall on an income scale. I don’t really know who might read this, but maybe Gretchen might also connect with other parents who are in a similar situation. I have included her email, for this purpose. If you have a similar story, please feel free to share it.

Guest Blogger: Gretchen Meinhardt

Perhaps the Affordable Care Act has helped some people, but it has been devastating for families like mine who struggle to care for a child with disabilities. When we adopted our newborn son Raef in 2001, we had no idea what we were in for, not only as new parents, but also as caregivers for a baby with significant, lifelong healthcare needs. Our joy as new parents soon turned to fear as he began having seizures – 200 to 300 a day – that were impossible to control. At only 8 months old, he had radical brain surgery (a right hemispherectomy), which was scary, but such a blessing because he has been seizure-free for 13 years now. The seizures and surgery left him partially blind and with limited use of the left side of his body (cerebral palsy), but he is an active eighth grader, with a delightful sense of humor and zest for life. The seizures and subsequent disabilities are not Raef’s only challenge, however. He also has Neurofibromatosis Type 1 (NF1), a genetic condition which causes tumors to grow on the nerves. At just 2 years old, he endured 14 months of chemotherapy to treat a tumor on his optic nerve. That tumor has remained stable, but Raef faces ongoing NF-related challenges, including learning disabilities, ADHD, sleep issues, and fine motor difficulties. In spite of all of these challenges, we wouldn’t trade Raef – or his younger sister Gwyn, his biological sibling whom we also adopted – for the world. We love them with all our hearts and delight in being their parents. The thing that breaks my heart and keeps me awake at night is that now, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, we may not be able to afford the medical care our son needs. For many years before the ACA, we were blessed to have excellent health insurance through my husband’s work as a safety manager with a large international company. However, when the country was preparing for the implementation of the ACA, that company chose to reorganize in order to afford the increased health care costs and requirements resulting from the ACA. My husband was among the “middle management” that was laid off to pay for these increased costs. And there went our health insurance, right along with his job, because we could not even afford the COBRA premiums. Since he was laid off more than a year ago, he has been actively searching and interviewing for jobs. But like many in his position, he has struggled. Although he is working temporary contract jobs in safety management, he has been unable to find a full-time position, with benefits, in his field. In addition, I work as an adjunct college instructor, and while it is relatively easy to find part-time positions, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find full-time college teaching positions that offer benefits. So far we have managed to piece together health coverage for our family, but only because my husband is a veteran and can get VA healthcare, and because we reluctantly put our children on state health insurance (Medicaid) until we could find employment with benefits. However, it was next to impossible to get state coverage for the children, even though we qualified based on income after my husband lost his job. Now we live under the constant threat that we will lose the children’s Medicaid coverage before we are able to find permanent, affordable health coverage. During Medicaid’s latest notice they would be dropping coverage (which we are appealing), I once again priced health coverage through the ACA marketplace. If we go through the marketplace for health insurance, the medical costs in 2015 for my children and me will be between $16,000 and $30,000. This includes premiums, prescriptions, and out-of-pocket medical costs. (We always meet the out-of-pocket maximum with our son by about Valentine’s Day.) It’s hardly “affordable,” but with a child like Raef, health coverage is hardly optional. As the New Year and a new session of Congress approach, I ask that you take a serious look at the ACA and consider whether it is truly ensuring “affordable” health care for Americans. If you would like to know more about my family’s experience, please feel free to contact me. I am happy to help in any way, even if it takes meeting with legislators or testifying before Congress. Thank you for your careful consideration of this important issue.

Best regards,
Gretchen Meinhardt
Kansas City, Missouri
cliffmein@hotmail.com

Either Way, I’ll Be Okay

800px-Kauffman_Stadium_at_night,_2009I’ve been writing this post in my head for the last few weeks. I didn’t want to talk about it, because I didn’t want to jinx anything, but I have been caught up in Royal Fever like many of my friends and relatives who hail from Kansas and Missouri. Even now, I think I might have jinxed the team by watching the game, but I watched Tuesday night’s landslide game, so, well, one can see the trouble one gets into by overthinking stuff like this. In the end, the San Francisco Giants won the seventh game and the series. My Facebook feed is full of people expressing their pride and love and support for the 2014 American League Champions, the Kansas City Royals.

I really wanted the Royals to win. I don’t want to misrepresent myself, it’s not like I watched every game or even followed their trajectory for the majority of the season. Mostly, my Royals reports came only from my Dad. And I have to be honest, I really wanted my Dad to see his team win the World Series.

We were always a Royals household. Summer evening drives were accentuated by the sound of Royals baseball from the AM radio. When I was 6 or 7, we went to a Royals game and as we were leaving, a uniformed gentleman, singled me out and gave me a baseball that he told me was the one John Mayberry hit a home run with that night. The next day, we drove to a car dealership where Mr. Mayberry was signing autographs and he signed my baseball. It probably goes without saying, but when I think about baseball, I think about the Royals.

Two summers ago, I had a unique perspective. For the weeks that my Dad was at Kansas University Medical Center, most of that time was in a room on the 9th floor that overlooked most of the city, including Kauffman Stadium. My Dad wasn’t in such great shape in those days, but when there was a game, the tv was on. His bed faced west and the view of his room faced east. I would sit on a chair near the window, watching the game, watching my Dad and also look east to the dusky panorama that featured the stadium. Memories of those days are complicated, it felt so bleak, and there was something both comforting and vexing about the sights and sounds of Major League Baseball, the crack of the bats, the roar of the bleachers, the green, green field. While our lives as we knew it came to a complete halt, outside our window, life went on.

If you know the story, you know that my Dad did go home, he did get better. In fact, one of the things he credits for his return to health is the weeks watching the Royals play. There was something about watching their games that put him back into his own.

So if the Royals are even just one of the reasons my Dad is still with us, to me, it’s much bigger than winning a World Series. Last night, one of my high school friends posted a quote from one of my favorite movies, Field of Dreams, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.” Sometimes people are surprised when I tell them this is one of my favorite movies, but it is. Besides being a love letter to baseball, it’s a love letter to a part of the country I cherish and most importantly, a love letter to dads.

On Tuesday, I called my Dad as I was driving to work. Game 6 was minutes away from starting. I asked him how he was doing and he told me, “Either way, I’ll be okay.” I laughed. We laughed. And last night, minutes after the game, I called him again. He was proud of his team, rightfully so, and was already looking forward to next season, hoping they could “keep this up.” While some might mourn the loss, my Dad was already looking to the future with optimism. That optimism has, for a lifetime now, served my Father well, so with any luck, it just might carry the Royals to a 2015 World Series victory. But either way, we’ll be okay.

How the Nelson-Atkins got me through last Summer

John Singer Sargent , American , 1856-1925 , b. Italy  Mrs. Cecil Wade, 1886

John Singer Sargent , American , 1856-1925 , b. Italy
Mrs. Cecil Wade, 1886

Wayne Thiebaud , American , b. 1920  Apartment Hill, 1980

Wayne Thiebaud , American , b. 1920
Apartment Hill, 1980

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Last July, I spent nearly three weeks in Kansas City. My Dad had major surgery and my Mom stayed with him in the hospital room and I stayed nearby at a Ronald McDonald House type place. It was for the three of us a sad time, a scary time, an unstable time. One benefit of the experience is that I was able to reconnect with old friends who now live in Kansas City. I got to spend a lot of time with my cousins who shuffled their schedules to visit my Dad regularly. But to be honest, I spent a lot of time feeling lost. My Dad was sick and we worried how long it would take for him to get better or if he even would get better. And at night, I would lie on this little twin bed in this old Victorian house and miss my life in LA, my friends, Eric, the dogs, happy hour at Marie Callender’s. I would drive around in oppressive Kansas-in-July heat and think, all this would be a little easier to deal with if the temperature would just drop 15 degress. A few times, I escaped to to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. I’d walk the rooms and remember works that I’d seen before and works that I must have seen before but that were new to me now. A few paintings, like Paul Raphael Meltsner’s Paul, Marcella and Van Gogh (No.2), Fairfield Porter’s Wheat and Keith Jacobshagen’s Crow Call (Near the River) made me quite emotional. It was as if the sadness I walked around with was released by experiencing these beautiful works of art. Especially Crow Call that reminded me of so many Kansas skies that I grew up with, skies that I still miss occasionally. It’s sad and hopeful and bright and dark and it’s the duality of it that spoke to me. It eased my pain, made me feel like a boy again. For as long as I live, whenever I see these pieces, I will be transported to the summer of 2012, when a few paintings helped me get through a very tough time. That’s Art’s job, but it’s also it’s gift.

A Few Words With Amy Grant

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A Few Words With Amy Grant

From the moment I heard Lorrie Mullins sing “My Father’s Eyes” at Hidden Haven Church Camp, I loved Amy Grant. My first concert was Amy Grant’s “Age to Age” tour in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My fourth (second and third were The Imperials and Michael W. Smith/Petra, respectively) concert was Amy Grant’s “Unguarded” tour at Sandstone in Kansas City, where I made my best friend Missy mad by making out with a girl from Topeka that I met. One of my signature songs that I used to always sing at churches was “Arms of Love.” Amy Grant was a VERY big part of my youth, and I still love her as an adult. If it had been up to me, Three Wishes would still be on television. This interview (linked above) has been touted as Amy’s first interview with the gay press. It’s an interesting read, whether you are gay or Christian or a gay Christian, or even if you are the kind of person who says there is no such thing as a gay Christian. I’m not going to dissect the interview here, I just wanted to share it.