Father to the Man

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Yesterday, on a picture of my grade school, Washington Elementary, that I had posted to Facebook, my friend Julie commented that she had a picture of me that had been taken years ago on the playground of that school.  I’d love to see it, I told her and a few minutes later, she posted the picture, this picture, in the comment section.  I had not known exactly what to expect and yet, I was not completely prepared for what I saw.  A t-shirt that clung to my chubby stomach and love handles, oversized glasses, Sears “husky” jeans, shaggy haircut and an extremely effeminate pose.

What was I thinking, I wondered.  Did I think I was Kelly Garrett or Kris Monroe?

I looked at this little guy and thought, well, I can’t let Eric see this.  In fact, I can’t let anyone see this.

Julie told me that written on the back of the photo was, “Ray Louis Barnhart Jr, 6th, 1980.” I would have been 11.

And while I was afraid for people to see this picture, I couldn’t stop looking at it myself.  I found myself awash in memories of those years.  Like the time I told Julie and another friend Jennifer that I wanted to lose 10 pounds in a weekend and Julie gave me a list of the foods I was allowed to eat.  The only item from the list I remember was pickles and now, to this day, I think of Julie every time I eat a pickle. Also, I remembered attempting a fast and shamefully breaking that fast with a cold roast beef sandwich and a sleeve of Thin Mints.

In my mind, I remember those grade school years as a time when I was anxious or depressed about any number of things: my weight, being called names, feeling like I didn’t have a lot of friends, feeling different, being unskilled at sports.

And yet, this picture is proof that I must have had some good days, happy days, gleeful days.  I’ve tried to remember what was going through my head on this day when I posed, and I do mean POSED, for this picture, but I just don’t know.

Our memories, they are sometimes so complicated when we take them out of envelopes in our chest of drawers and scan them to our computers and then zoom in on the details of afternoons from decades ago.

If this was a picture of a boy from the eighties that I did not know, that maybe I’d stumbled on it in a bin of old photos that antique stores and flea markets sometimes have with a sign that says, “25 cents or 5/$1.00”, if I had just randomly come upon a perfect stranger, I could have loved this kid without reservation.  I could have looked in those eyes and seen enough of myself to root for him and wonder how things turned out, hoping “it got better.”

At 11, I did not have the skills to take a dishonest picture.  As I got older, I learned to butch it up in photos, to affect a manlier pose.  My high school and college years, I have so many memories of modulating my walk or my speech in a way to come across as straight and masculine.  (Perhaps you knew me then and are thinking, well, you weren’t as successful as you thought.  And if that’s the case, that’s okay, too.)

Perhaps I have never taken a picture that reveals the me that is most me than this.  This guy loves chocolate cake.  He loves his hometown (orange and black t-shirt).  He loves playing with girls at recess.  His favorite part of the Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog is the Barbie section. He dances and sings to Shaun Cassidy’s “Hey Deanie” and Leif Garrett’s “Surfin’ USA” in his bedroom. He loves being silly.  He knows he is not like everyone else and he revels in his uniqueness.

It breaks my heart a little to think that my first thought when I saw this picture yesterday was shame, that I needed to hide this.  That I had to take a minute and step away to realize how great this young man is.

Over three hundred years ago, William Wordsworth wrote a poem called My Heart Leaps up about his love of rainbows and realizing he’s always loved rainbows even since he was a small child.  That who we are when we are young sets the stage for the person we will be our entire lives.

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is the father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

I could not escape this kid if I tried, and I did try, and sometimes, I still do try.  I mean, I went to Bible college in an attempt to make myself straight, that’s how desperately I wanted to be someone else.  It’s been a long road to self acceptance and it frustrates me that at almost 50, STILL, some days are better than others. But I have to be honest, this guy, this spirited young fellow, he is my hero.  When I really think about it, I realize he is everything I aspire to be.  So, despite some hesitation, I am sharing him with all of you.  I hope you love him as much as I do.

 

 

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A Little Bit Lost

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A few days ago, while waiting to catch my plane back to Los Angeles at Kansas City International Airport, I noticed a young man in a bright red polo shirt as I walked to the restroom.  He must have been around twenty, thick glasses not unlike mine.  Skinny and walking around in his stocking feet and carrying brand new sneakers.  It took me a minute to realize he had just come through his security screening.  He looked lost and I wondered if maybe this was his first plane trip.

With some confusion, he looked out the windows to the part of the terminal where family waits for and bids farewell to their loved ones.  Finally his eyes landed on something or someone and he immediately smiled and waved.  His mother and father were outside waving back, his mom jumping up and down a bit. So lucky to be so loved, I thought.

When I came out of the bathroom, the kid with the red polo was nowhere to be seen.  I hoped he’d finally put his shoes back on. I walked back to the chairs where Eric and I had been sitting, waiting for our flight.

This had been Eric’s first trip to Kansas.  And Missouri. And Oklahoma.  I had been excited to show my partner the world that raised me.  The discussion of moving to the midwest has come up occasionally this year as my parents and I and Eric navigate the place where they are in their lives.  While they are able to live alone, it just seems they have hit a stretch where they need a bit more help.  I know they have family and friends who help them in many ways, and I’m grateful, but so many times, a situation arises and I think, I should be the person to do this for you.  And in the last few months, by taking time off work to be with them in Kansas, I have been able to do some of that.

A not completely unrelated sidenote: they loved Eric in Kansas.  And Eric had a great time, too. Enchanted by the Nelson-Atkins, admiring of the Christmas lights on the Country Club Plaza, awestruck by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower.  He met friends of mine from several points in my life and it seemed to me, they all really loved him. On Sunday morning, we walked around the periphery of my now boarded up grade school.  The classrooms were so tiny in contrast to the rooms of my 40 year memory. I gazed into Miss Boner’s third grade class and could not stop thinking about how the idea of growing up and falling in love and building a life with another guy would have seemed so foreign and impossible to the 9-year-old me.  But here I was, showing my hometown to my love.  Like any other couple.

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My parents call Eric their family.  In seven years, their relationships have developed.  They know foods and hobbies the other likes, the things they don’t.  What makes them laugh. Monday morning, as Eric and I said our goodbyes to my parents before we drove our rental car back to Kansas City, all four of us, we took turns hugging goodbye.  As long as I can remember, my ritual has been one hug to Mom, then one to Dad, and then a followup to Mom. But this time, I hugged both my parents at least twice.  When Eric released my Mom from their hug, there were tears in each of their eyes.  “No crying,” I joked.  I looked at my Dad and we kind of laughed. Everyone in the family knows how much I cry.

My Dad, he cries too.  A few weeks ago, his voice broke when he told me that a young mother that he’d been a youth group leader for when she was a teenager is naming her son after him. Solomon Ray.  Wise King.

At MCI, as my plane took off and steered its way west, I couldn’t stop thinking of the boy in the red polo shirt.  The kind of lost, kind of sad look on his face.  I remembered my first night in my college dorm, anxious for my parents to leave and go home, then heart-ached the second they’d left and I was alone in a dingy, institutional dorm room, knowing no one. Afraid that I would not be able to make friends in a new place.

Every time I’ve gone a little too far from home, I’ve felt that ache.  New York, Los Angeles, summer camp.

The good news about being a little bit lost, is that whether you realize it or not, you’re also a little bit found.  The young man, off on his adventure, had a family cheering and bolstering him just beyond the glass.  And when his plane was in the air and the parents were driving back to St. Joseph or Harrisonville, or Fort Scott, they were still cheering and waving and loving the kid.

Clearly, I was that skinny four-eyed kid once upon a time.  And my Mom would shed many tears when we said goodbye at airports.  And my Dad would hold my Mom and the two of them would wave until one of was out of sight.  Even now, I can still see them waving, “We love you, Son. Call us when your plane lands, even if it’s late.”

Still, a little lost, but also, found.

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A Neverending Negotiation

 

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Today, Eric and I celebrated the 7th anniversary of the day we met. Pretty cool. I don’t think I post a lot about Eric on FB or IG, but today I posted a cute picture of my dog Millie and Eric around the time Eric entered our lives.

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The picture got over a hundred likes on FB, a big hit. Now, what I am going to say, it is not a judgement, merely an observation. I promise. But, whenever I make a reference to Eric, even the most innocuous one,  I sense a hesitation that comes from some people who I went to Bible college with. I can just feel them hovering over the blue thumbs up button thinking, I want to be supportive as a friend but I also don’t want to make a statement that would indicate that I don’t interpret the Bible conservatively.  I get it. It’s all good, really.  I truly believe that the evangelical Christian has a challenge today negotiating what they believe is scriptural truth against how they interact with the LGBTQ friends and family that they love.

Something happened to me when I was home in Kansas. I was visiting my friends who run a business in my hometown and they asked me if I knew a person. For the sake of the story, we’ll call him Jimmy Roberts. I said, “Yes, I know Jimmy Roberts, he is a very good friend of my parents.”  They proceeded to tell me that Jimmy had written a letter to the editor in the local paper expressing his dismay that the public library was one of the sponsors of a recent Southeast Kansas LGBTQ pride weekend.

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I wasn’t exactly shocked that someone would write a letter to the paper expressing disagreement with the festival, but it did strike me as somewhat extraordinary that this dissenter happened not only to be my parents’ friend but really their best friend.

I do not live in Independence and there is no one I know in this world who has done more for my parents in the last year than Jimmy and his wife.  They have checked on them regularly, taken them to doctors appointments, cooked them meals, spent an afternoon with them at the ER. You get the idea.

When my friends told me about this letter, I had to track it down.  Of course, I found it at the library, which was the impetus for Jimmy’s letter in the first place.  Jimmy did not feel that a government funded entity should support something LGBTQ because not everyone in the town agreed with that “viewpoint”.

I will be honest, when I read his letter, it bothered me.  First, that anyone would write those words, second, that this was a good friend of my parents and third, I wondered if perhaps my parents felt the same way about the LGBTQ community and the pride festival that Jimmy did.

I went home and asked my parents if they knew about the letter.  They had not heard about it or read it.  My Mom asked me to send her a copy so she could read it and I did.  We did not talk about it.

A couple of hours later, Jimmy and his wife, came to my parents’ house to visit them.  They knocked on the door of the back room where I was sitting watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (gay) on Netflix (also kinda gay).  My dog Ricky barked and they let themselves in.  Jimmy’s wife, who Ricky had been quite taken by on their last visit, bent down to pet him.  As he barked, I tersely said, “He’s really worked up tonight, my parents are in the living room.”

Jimmy and his wife went into the other room and for the next 45 minutes I could hear them talking to my parents, about what I did not know.  Although I was pretty sure I knew what they weren’t talking about.  I will say this, but I have a fantasy, all of us LGBTQ offspring do, I sat there in my parents’ den wishing that they somehow could have said to their friend, in a loving but firm way, “Hey, that letter, that’s not so cool.  Especially since you know our son is gay.”

I wrestled if whether or not I could say something.  And if I could say something, what would it be and what should it be? I decided against it and then I thought about the pictures I’d seen, posted on Facebook, of the SEK Pride festival. It had been held weeks before I came to town.  These twentysomethings, just kids, many dressed in various forms of drag.  (There was a lot of glitter.)  For one night, they were free and celebrated and fierce and loved. And I just wished there was a way that these kids, my tribe, could have a better time living in my hometown than I did. But how could I say anything in a way that would make Jimmy see how utterly special and desperately needed something like a smalltown pride festival is?

In the end, wise or foolish, as Jimmy and his wife were leaving, as Ricky was both barking at him AND allowing him to pet him, I told Jimmy that I had read the letter.

He gave a nervous laugh.

I told him how when I was growing up here in this town, when everything I knew, like my church and my school, were telling me something was wrong with me, I was grateful for that library.

He reiterated his point, that a government funded entity should not support a viewpoint that not everyone believes in.

It was a very awkward 5 minute conversation. My mother and his wife quietly bearing witness to it.

He told me that he didn’t think he’d ever treated me differently than anyone else and I agreed with him. He and his wife have always been kind to my face. But, when he was the minister of my parents’ church, on every occasion I was in town visiting the congregation where I grew up, on every occasion, he brought up the “sin” of homosexuality from the pulpit. At first, I thought it was a coincidence, but eventually, I started tracking it, and well, every time I was in the church, homosexuality was addressed.

I’d like to say that our conversation that night was cordial. I was impassioned and nervous and scattered and loud. At one point, Jimmy started to suggest a book or a video I should read or watch, and I shut him down. (I guess he thought gay people had never had a Christian offer a book to fix them before.) I said, “No, I’ve read exactly what you have to say on the topic and it is heard and it is noted.” (Dramatic? Me?)

They left soon after and his wife meekly offered, “Thanks for taking care of our dog the other day.”

“You’re welcome,” I muttered. I had been happy to help them with their dog earlier in the week. I had been happy to lend a hand to thank them for all they have done for my parents. And then I’d snarled like a pit bull at them.

After Jimmy and his wife left, I told my Mom that she probably didn’t appreciate me confronting him. She said she understood where I was coming from. I told her that I felt like I had to say something to stand up for all the kids growing up in Independence who feel like something is wrong with them. I told her about my friends’ friend, not being accepted by his parents. And I started to cry. “Are you okay?” my Mom asked? “Yes, I’m fine.” “I know you didn’t have an easy time of it growing up here.” I could tell she wanted to hug me and a part of me wanted to hug her too, but instead I went in the other room.

After a few days, because that is what we do, my parents and I, we moved on.  The letter was never discussed.  I did not see Jimmy and his wife again and I don’t really know what I will say the next time I do.

If you are reading this and feel compelled to leave a comment, please do not bash Jimmy.   My parents read all comments.  Goodness knows, Jimmy will probably read this too.  Our conversation did not go the way I hoped it would and I must admit, I bear the responsibility for that.  After he left and I was still emotional, still seething, it hit me that the decades of rejection I’d always felt from my little town had welled up and he had been the somewhat unlikely victim of my eruption.

If the evangelical Christian has a neverending negotiation with how to show their love to their LGBTQ friends and family, I suppose we LGBTQ friends and family have an eternal negotiation as well, of how much to feel safe in that love, how much can we share, how much we should expect to be accepted.

My Mom probably doesn’t know this but of all the beautiful things she has written to me in my 49 years, and I have a cornucopia to draw from, it was three little words that touched me the most.  Three words I will carry with me until I take my last breath.  In Christmas 2010, after just meeting Eric for the first time we went to a restaurant and the waiter took a picture of my parents, Eric and myself.  I posted it to Facebook and my Mom was the first to comment beside it, for all the world to see.  “Nice looking family,” she wrote.

And we are.

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S-Brick

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When I was in high school, very briefly, I was on the debate team.  Turns out I was a poor debater.  One of the most memorable debate experiences did not happen in the debate arena but rather at a Super 8 in rural Kansas.  Debate trips in the mid 80s, if I recall correctly, were generally two-day events and high schools would travel to another town and the teams would be holed up in some inexpensive motel.  Boys and girls, obviously, were housed in different rooms, but there was a lot of time for socializing.  You would hear stories of some debate teams sneaking alcohol into their rooms or young couples pairing off for extended, unchaperoned make out sessions.

There was a girl who was my friend, I’ll call her Allison. I had a crush on her too, but more than anything, we were friends.  After dining at a local McDonald’s, a group of us were hanging out in one of the rooms, boys and the couple of girls that were in debate.  Allison was sitting on her bed.  At one point, I thought it would be funny, maybe even romantic, if I jumped on her and pinned her down.

In my mind, I imagined a comical, whimsical experience for everyone, like something John Belushi would do in Animal House or Tom Hanks in Bachelor Party. I thought Allison would find it hilarious and charming.

So I pounced, awkwardly.

Allison did not find it funny.  She hit me and called me a “shit brick.”  In front of every other person, our friends, she called me out for my actions and ashamed, I left the room.  The next day, my debate teacher talked to me about it.  I apologized, of course.  I do not remember whether or not I received a punishment.  From the moment Allison reacted, I had felt regret and shame.  I had never meant to scare her or harass her or humiliate her.

For weeks or maybe months, we were not friends and then somewhere along the way, we became friends again.  Ultimately, I believe, we became better friends than before the “s-brick” incident.  And now, in my adulthood, I certainly hope that is the case, that Allison and I are “good”. But, you know, we men, even us gay men, we have this way of crossing lines with women and thinking it’s funny or romantic or cool, and the women end up feeling the opposite of those things.  Sometimes they speak up and sometime they don’t.

I don’t think Allison remembers me as another Harvey Weinstein or Casey Affleck or Bill Cosby. I hope not.

I thought a lot about Allison yesterday when so many of my dear friends and relatives posted “ME TOO” on their Facebook and Twitter profiles.  Proclaiming, perhaps some for the first time, that they had been victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment.  It broke my heart to think of the millions and millions of stories that suddenly were attached to these two words.  Me too.  The pain, the self-doubt, the shame, the tears, the anger.  And I also hope that, for those sharing their experiences, it came with a freedom and an empowerment and a sense of community.

Of course, every woman has been sexually harassed.  I suspect every human has been sexually harassed at some point.

So, yes, I thought about Allison, but I also wondered about what other things I have done or said that would fall under the category of sexual harassment.  Have I told a sexually adventurous friend that she (or he, for that matter) is a “slut” before? Or dressed like a “ho”? I am 99% sure I have.  Have I snickered at sex workers when I see them on Santa Monica Boulevard or in fancy restaurants with old moneyed geezers?  Absolutely.

It’s easy to think that I don’t have anything in common with Harvey Weinstein.  What an easy villain and target he is.  While I don’t think I’ve ever done anything approaching his machinations, I have to acknowledge my own culpability.  I just don’t always treat women the way they deserve to be treated.

Thank God that Allison confronted me immediately.  While to me, it was a sophomoric antic, to her, especially if she had stifled it or laughed it off, it could have burrowed in her forever and done irreparable damage.

I believe, or hope anyway, that people think of me as a man who loves women.  My earliest, fondest memories were always in the kitchen with my Mom and Grandma and aunts.  In first grade, I was actually grounded for a week by my first grade teacher, Miss Bartlesmeyer, for only playing with girls at recess.  My entire life my best friends have been women.

Also on FB yesterday, I saw a couple of my male friends make posts along the lines of “if something I did ever made my female friends feel uncomfortable, I apologize.” I think this is a really important step for all of us going forward, to think about the effects of our jokes and actions. As much as I believe all women have been sexually harassed, I believe all men have said or done something to a woman that crossed a line into making them feel uncomfortable, or worse.

I have to be honest about the state of this world and my country right now, it feels bleak. Our president is a documented sexual predator who thrives off of the division that was here before he was elected and he has only increased the ugly polarity in the 10 months he had been in office.

This whole Me Too movement is one of the few things that has given me hope for our country. As heartbreaking as it is to have a FB feed inundated with these stories, it must be acknowledged that it’s a movement that has crossed party lines. Every woman, Democrat, Republican, Green, Independent, has found their common ground over this.

I don’t think Trump wants our country to come together. He glories in the vitriol that has become commonplace. But, our president is not America.

We are.  And with two little, but powerful words, in a movement created by a woman, about women but for all of us, we are telling the president and all the men like him just how united we really are.  Me too.

 

Makua Kane

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My Mother has a hutch.  As with most hutches, especially in the midwest, hers is filled with old plates and bowls and glasses and mugs and pictures and greeting cards and tchotchkes, all holding some kind of sentimental value.  When I was visiting in July, I found a pair of ceramic mugs with the Hawaiian phrases Makua Kane (Dad) and Makua Wahine (Mom) on them.  I have no recollection of buying them, but it is assumed that these were gifts I gave to them when we went to Hawaii as a family in 1980.  Which means, those mugs have been collecting dust in that hutch for 37 years. Or, I guess I should say, had been collecting dust, because I asked my Mom if I could have them back.  “Sure,” she said and added, not for the first time, “All of this will be your headache someday anyway.” On that visit, one of our goals, the three of us, was to declutter some of their house.  We had mixed results.

Anyway, I brought my two Hawaiian mugs home to LA.  I showed Eric, we both have a thing for old stuff and tiki stuff and sentimental stuff so it was a perfect fit for our home.

A few weeks later, on the morning my Dad began his chemotherapy and radiation, I saw the Makua Kane mug hanging from one of the nails in the converted ice box (old building) that stores our plates and mugs and bowls.  I selected the Dad mug and began my daily coffee ritual.  One packet of raw sugar, a little half and half, poured cold, then the coffee.  I sat on the couch with my coffee and I thought about my Dad and Mom, in Bartlesville, kicking things off.  They were on my mind, in my heart, and in its way, this time was a sort of prayer.

The next morning, I did the same thing.  Same mug, same ritual.  My Dad’s early response to his treatment was exceptional.  For several days, he felt few side effects.  On one day, I skipped my mug ritual, and on that day, he hit a rough patch.  Certainly, I know the rough patch was not because of me, but still, I did not want to take any chances.  Except for that one day, every morning since August 14, I drank my morning coffee from a hotel souvenir I gave my Dad 37 years ago.

When I drove back to Kansas, to help in his final weeks of radiation, I brought the mug with me.  Too cumbersome to fit in the car’s coffee holder, I balanced it in my lap.  The next morning, I brought a coffee up from the hotel lobby and poured into my mug that I’d cleaned out with the hotel’s Pantene shampoo sample.

In Kansas, my parents did not ask me why I had brought this mug home.  No mention was made, but knowingly, as I packed to leave on Monday to return to Los Angeles, they both said, “Don’t forget your mug.” And then later, “You do have your mug, don’t you?”

On Tuesday morning, me just leaving Albuquerque where the dog and I had stopped for the night, my Dad took his last radiation treatment.  I drank hotel coffee out of my special mug.

On Wednesday, it occurred to me that I needn’t drink out of the mug, the whimsical deal that I had brokered in my mind, was just to get my Dad through his radiation.  I could drink out of my favorite dog mug now.

Of course, I didn’t drink out of my favorite dog mug, which is a very cute mug. (Fishs Eddy.)  I opened my packet of raw sugar, poured my cold cream then added the coffee.  And I sat on my couch and thought about my parents and all they’ve been through and how well my Dad navigated it all.  There were rough patches, of course.  Quiet moments and painful moments and worried moments. It will be weeks before we know the effectiveness of the treatments.

Until then, we wait, doing the things that keep our mind busy.  My Dad is golfing today, my Mom listening to her books on tape.  I go back to work tomorrow.  But every morning, until I see a reason to veer from the habit, I will pour my daily cup of hope and drink from it.

 

Notes from Kansas, Part 2

I am once again back in Kansas, visiting my parents. My days are mostly filled with trips to Bartlesville for my Dad’s radiation, several trips to grocery stores and bakeries throughout southeast Kansas and northeast Oklahoma, and driving around Independence, with my dog, looking at old houses and buildings. My Dad is doing well, all things considered.  

I get a little bored, our entire day revolves around a 10 minute radiation session. That’s not a complaint, it’s kind of beautiful really. Ten very important and hope filled minutes. 

I like the downtime. I like taking my dog Ricky out with me for a walk or a drive. I take him to Riverside Park and we walk around the fountain. Tonight, after two days of rain, the sun had returned, with a few lingering dramatic clouds. The trees a little greener, the sky bluer, I wondered if maybe this was the most beautiful spot on earth. Had I really travelled the world in search of paradise when all this time it was yards away from me?

I’ve said it before, but I can’t believe that after dreaming, moaning, bragging during my entire childhood that I would someday leave this hick town, that I am back, in awe of its beauty. Also, charmed by peeling paint on old Victorians, haunted by houses in varying states of decay. 

When I am in New York City, another place I once called home, I walk and walk and walk every day that I am there. I try to walk down every street and avenue. I ask myself when I was last on this block? Have I ever been on this block? I’ll see a structure, something noteworthy like a 100 year old church or a miniature park or a just a bakery and wonder, did I know about this and forget or never notice it before? 

And here, in my most hometown of hometowns, I find myself doing the same thing. I drive down streets just for the sake of taking it in, recovering old memories, like the SCF lock-ins at the Nazarene church or the carnivals that blanketed the Washington school playground or that library that I spent so much time in growing up, reading about people who lived in faraway places. 

Also, though, I discover new things, like an apartment building or a miniature park or a bottling plant and wonder, did I know about this and forget or is this completely new to me? 


And while I drive, and sometimes stop and take pictures, I wonder, why am I doing this? Is this going to make me smarter? More successful? What am I gaining here? 

To be honest, I don’t know. The other day, a friend, in all kindness, commented, “Your sincere wistfulness at the past is a lovely memory of the midwest.” I had to laugh as I wondered, am I the Miss Havisham of bloggers, weeping for a time that only lives in my memory which means maybe it never existed anyway? Am I the sentimental guy buying Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel slide machine? 

From that Mad Men episode: “This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It let’s us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.”

If you’re still with me, I reckon it’s because you have a place that holds that kind of weight for you too. I know I can’t say it better than Matthew Weiner, or Jon Hamm, but this week, these drives, these discoveries, these memories, they have fortified me. 

Maybe just as all children, whether they are close to their parents or not, must eventually make peace with the people who raised them, we must all make peace with the places that raised us too. Am I the only one who sometimes blames a weakness or failure in myself on the town that raised me? That thinks, I would have had so much opportunity if I’d just been raised in New Jersey?!?! (If I am the only one, don’t tell me, let me wallow in my delusions.) 

But this place, it’s pretty special. And not just because of Miss Able and William Inge and that first lighted baseball game. Much of what I am today is because of her. And just as we carry the people we love with us in our hearts, even when separated by miles and states, we carry with us, any place that we have ever called home. And Independence, I know this now, will always be my home.


How to Take Ambien. 

Tip #1. Don’t do Ambien every night. Once every week or two is ideal, that way, when you fall into this wizened, actualized state I am currently in, it will feel like a gift, but also, an earned gift. 

Tip #2. Drink some water, hydrate yourself.

Tip #3. Do a non dangerous household chore. No ladders. I walked my dogs and then cleaned out my freezer. It’s so orderly I could get a job as a Schwan’s ice cream man. Ambien helps us take pride in our work, even as it deters our ability to edit grammar and spelling.

Tip #4. Acknowledge what you are feeling. Today, I am sad, today, I am worried, today, I am grateful, today, I want to get in my car and drive to Kansas. 

Last week, I told my parents and Eric that I felt I needed to move closer to home, to be there for my parents. Eric and I talked about moving to Kansas City, a town steeped with the kind of history that Eric and I both love. I would not say his response was ebullient, but he said he would definitely think about it, definitely consider it. 

My parents, they simply assured me that I wouldn’t like living in Kansas OR Kansas City again. They remember the speed with which I fled my hometown. At 20, I thought there was nothing that was not only interesting to me but also representative of me. But now, nearing 50, all I dream about are home cooked meals and walks in the park and sitting by a fountain and contemplating life as the water rises into the sky and falls into the pool. Driving to doctors appointments with my parents, they are a sacred ritual, like going to church. The  reward a sticky bun from Laurel Street Bakery or a chocolate long john from Daylight Donuts. And at night, I read a library book.  Books about faraway places that at 16, I read and thought, I hope to live there someday. And now, I read and think, I’m so happy I lived there. I once said in a piece that the local library was my window to the world out there, the world beyond Kansas. All true, and now I find myself luxuriating in the memory of being that chubby teenager, behind that window, warm, wistful, emotional, dreaming. 

These big medical stories that come up in our lives, they suck. Definitely they suck, but with the grim prognoses, there comes a permission to tell those we love just how much we love them. We get to spend more time with them. We try harder to make them laugh a little. We hold each other’s hands. We hug.  These last few months, this is the closest I have ever felt to either of my parents.  My Mom probably wishes I listened better when she explains the plot lines to her Mary Higgins Clark books on tape. Some days, my Dad’s voice is stronger and clearer than others. And some days the strain of trying to get people to understand his speech probably weighs on him more, but these conversations, even still, are for me, and I suspect for them too, touchstones of our days.

In just a few days, ETD still to be determined, I will be driving back to Kansas. This time, Ricky will be my co-pilot as we cross half of the country. Millie will stay here in LA with her other Dad. I am truly excited about Roadtripping with Ricky, I just hope he doesn’t get mistaken for Guy Fieri at all the diners, drive in and dives we plan to stop at along Route 66. 

Driving long distances, I don’t know, it’s kind of like those “what did you do on earth scenes” Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep bear witness to in Defending Your Life. You hear a song or see a sign or listen to a podcast or drive by a car, and you are flooded by the big and small memories from your entire life. The things you did right, the things you did wrong. 

Tip #5. When you become very tired. Turn off the lights, climb into bed and close your eyes. You will still hold the burdens of your day, examine them, polish them. But you will find grace in knowing all decisions do not have to be made tonight. Or tomorrow night. Think about the things that excite you.

Tip #6. In the darkness, with eyes closed, plant a smile on your face. Dream happy dreams.