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.


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Jeff

LONESTAR: Set against the sprawling backdrop of big Texas oil, Robert/Bob Allen (newcomer James Wolk) is a charismatic and brilliant schemer who has entangled himself in a deep, complex web from which he can’t break free in LONESTAR premiering this fall on FOX. ©2010 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Bill Matlock/FOX

I’ve stumbled into a conundrum at work and I don’t know the best way to get out of it.  Or even if I need to get out of it.  Or even if I want to get out of it.

As you might know, I am back at Barneys.  There is a new parking system, one that was developed in the year that I was elsewhere.  We now park our cars tandem style with an attendant who directs us.  It’s a pretty thankless job because no one really wants to park in front of or behind another person.  The parking attendants are all saints, every one of them.

On one of my first days back, one of the attendants, asked me my name and I told it to him.  He wrote my name and where in the store that I worked and placed it on my windshield in case he or another attendant needed to locate me to move the car for the person in front of me.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a revelation from my friend.  I don’t know his name and obviously, I should know his name.  He is my co-worker and not just any co-worker, one who always greets my kindly even though his job is, like I said, completely thankless.  Actually, it’s worse than thankless because most of us grumble that we don’t want to park tandem style to him as if all of these parking arrangements had been his idea in the first place.  That being said, it feels too far along in our working relationship for me to, out of the blue, ask him his name.

Anyway, here is the conundrum: he thinks my name is Jeff.  On the slip he puts on my windshield, he now writes Jeff and that I work in the restaurant.  As I park in the morning and say hello on my way to the elevator, he says, “Thanks, Jeff, have a great day!”

And I’m really torn.  On one hand, he should probably know my name.  If they need me to move my car and he calls the restaurant looking for Jeff, it might be a while before the deductions are made that I am indeed Jeff.

And I don’t want to say, “Hey, I’m actually not Jeff, I’m Ray.”  I’ve never been good at delivering those messages without sounding like at the bare minimum, passive aggressive, and at worst, well, let’s just say “jerk”.  Did I mention he’s probably the nicest guy who works in the whole store?

Every day, when he says, “Have a great day, Jeff,” I wonder when and if I’m going to break the news to him.

But I don’t think it will be any time soon, because, between you and me, I get a certain thrill when he calls me Jeff.  When he calls me Jeff, I am not Ray. Ray is fine, not horrible, but Jeff seems so rife with possibility.

I really want to be Jeff.  Even though, obviously, others think Jeff looks like me, I see Jeff SIMILAR to me, but better.  Brown eyes, brown hair, yes.  But Jeff weighs 15 pounds less than Ray, he’s also an inch taller.  Also, he’s 36.  He looks like James Wolk from Mad Men and he has a killer smile and when Jeff walks by (or just parks his car) people always comment to themselves, “Man, I love that Jeff.”

Like Ray, Jeff is gay, has a significant other and dogs at home, but Jeff played high school football.  (He wasn’t so great, but everyone loved him.) Ray and Jeff both drive the same car, obviously, but Jeff keeps his Jetta a little neater than Ray.  There aren’t about 25 parking passes from the pool at Park La Brea strewn about Jeff’s Jetta.  Also, Jeff washes his car every other Sunday morning, whether it’s his day off or not.

Jeff is midwestern like Ray.  He’s super excited because his memoir about growing up in the midwest is getting ready to come out soon.  (Simon and Schuster, if you can believe it.) He wonders if, when the book comes out, he’ll be able to stop working a day job.  Either way, it’s all good.  Everything always works out for Jeff.  He’s super grateful to have corporate health insurance again.

Jeff is mostly perfect.  His one flaw, if you can even call it that, is that he’s always posting motivational sayings on his Instagram.  “We get it, you’re totally glass half full, Jeff,” his friends say, kidding, but they still adore him.  Can’t stay mad at Jeff!

I could go on, but you get the point.

You see, it’s been kind of a big summer for Ray.  There were some sad things that happened, some great things too.  I took a risk leaving a job that I hated to go back to Barneys and, while no job is perfect, I am truly glad to be back and to have corporate insurance again.  I didn’t blog as much as I hoped to and now I’m kicking myself a little because I’m feeling a little rusty now.  I went to New York in August and ached before I went and ached after.  Will I ever love a city more than I love New York?

And you know, here I am, trying to wrap up a simple blog about social etiquette that has morphed into a confession of being at a point where I’d just like to have a little bit more.  Be a little bit more.  Perhaps you can relate.

Don’t we all just want our life to be a little more awesome?

Unless you’re Jeff.

Well, maybe even if you’re Jeff.

 

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.

Happy Endings

betty-draper-coca-cola-mad-men.pngI’ve fallen into a pattern. In the last few months, I sit down to write a blog, write a few paragraphs, sometimes several paragraphs, and hit a wall. I go back and read what I’ve written and shake my head. Whatever it is I am trying to say, I can’t say it. So I save the draft and tell myself I will revisit it and then, of course, I don’t.

I started a blog on Sunday, before the Mad Men finale aired. I wanted it to serve as a prediction of sorts of how I thought the series would end. I had a title, Happy Endings, but again, whatever it was I tried to say, it did not come together.

The last few days, I have been sick and also I have been embroiled in the Mad Men marathon AMC hosted in the days leading up to the finale. I DVR’d every episode and had finished about 45 of the 92 before the finale aired. There was something about my feeling under the weather and my compulsion to binge re-watch these episodes that sent me into a bit of a downward spiral. In the last few days I have been rendered unable to talk about anything other than the lives of Don and Betty and Peggy and Joan and Pete and Trudy and Sal and Lois and Meredith and Miss Blankenship and well, you get the idea. And I’m not sure, but until this morning, I thought I’d lost my sense of smell forever.

My friend Linda texted me on Sunday with commiseration about Mad Men‘s end. She added that we needed to get together because it’s been awhile since we’ve hung out. (She lives 1.5 miles away from me.) I said, “Yes, let’s hang out soon.” But all I could think was I can’t make plans with people until I’m finished watching these 92 episodes of Mad Men. You know, priorities.

I could talk about the ending of the show, what satisfied me, what disappointed me, what confused me. But, you know, there is that chance that you haven’t seen it yet. Also, you’re not reading this to get my review. But I will tell you what I was thinking about when I woke up this morning, after I’d had a night or two to sleep on it.

On Sunday, between Facebook messages and texts, I had several conversations about how the series would and should end. I enjoyed hearing the theories, the hopes, the emphatic declarations of love or hate for Don or Betty or Joan. (Although, seriously, who could hate Joan?) I was in a Mad Mania and I loved it. Two of the people I communicated with on Sunday were friends from high school.

I’ll call them Bob and Emily. Now, I think it’s already been established, but it took a very, very long time for me to ever feel like I was more than just a Nick Carraway in someone else’s story. I’ve always felt like one of the Watchers sitting around watching the Do-ers do. I had been friends with Bob and Emily independently for several years when they got together sometime during high school. In true Nick Carraway fashion, I probably had a crush on both of them. Okay, not probably, I did have a crush on both of them. They both were emblems of everything I ached to be: good looking, intelligent, slim, funny, popular. Of course, there was something else about them that made them special, and it’s the kind of thing I never identified until I was in my 20’s, but, simply put, they always seemed to be in cahoots. Like there were a million things that made only them laugh and they could try to explain it to you, but it wouldn’t make sense. It was just between them. And while other high school couples might have been more glamorous or photogenic or romantic, Bob and Emily were what my high school picture of love should be. I’d go to sleep dreaming that my Bob or my Emily would come into my life. And we would be that couple. In cahoots.

Of course, Bob and Emily broke up when we were all in college. They each moved on, as far as I know. But for me, the Nick to their Jay and Daisy, and because I’ve spent little time with either of them in the 30 years since high school, I always see them together, whether they should be or not. Like Don and Betty, forever intertwined. I didn’t say that to either of them. These are not characters in a tv show or a novel or a movie, these are people.

In watching the early seasons of Mad Men these last few days, I was reminded of something that I had forgotten. We rooted for Don and Betty for a long time. For nearly three seasons, we all hoped that they could work out their differences. It broke my heart Saturday night to watch that scene where Don weeps about his childhood after Betty shows him the box. She rests her hand on his shoulder for comfort but you see in her eyes, it’s too late. She can’t love him anymore. And I sat there on my couch, weeping, because their love was real and it was never coming back. And, okay, small spoiler, but in the last episode, when Don called Betty and in the midst of their conversation, he called her Birdie, I lost it. It was the end and I, I don’t know, it just made me so sad.

Of course, I wasn’t just sad for Don and Betty. I was sad the show was ending. I was sad for Sally. Sad for myself because it had been a week and I was still sick. (Do I have lung cancer?) I was sad that couples that I thought should always stay together were not together anymore. Also, at that point, I was sad and worried that we were 20 minutes into the last flipping episode and Don was still in California.

I texted Linda later to tell her that she and a handful of my other good friends all came into my life the same summer that Mad Men did. We all met in a class. So much has happened to me since the summer of 2007. Most significantly, of course, I met Eric, who is a little bit Don, a little bit Peggy, a little bit Roger, a little bit Betty, a generous dollop of Joan and even a dash of Sal. And our relationship is as complex, imperfect, and on some days, jet-set, as any that Matthew Weiner has ever created.

Okay, this is the point where Don would make Peggy stay late, even though it’s her birthday, and they would drink and smoke and fight until they got the pitch for the meeting, until it all came together. You see, whatever it is I am trying to say here, it’s not exactly cohesive at the moment. It wasn’t cohesive yesterday when I worked on it either. Maybe I need a mouse (or a rat) to dart through my office for this to come together.

But just maybe I learned something from Mad Men. Maybe a neat ending is not always necessary, maybe sometimes it’s not even possible. Maybe, like in a phone call, I could just close by saying I’m really going to miss Mad Men. And you’re on the other end of the line saying, “I already knew that. Me too.”