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 treat 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.

 

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.

What Price Joy?

Today is my birthday. As we do, I attempted to start celebrating my birthday weekend on Friday night, when Eric and I went to Marie Callender’s for a fancy dinner of buffalo chicken sliders and Happy Hour pepperoni pizza. A good time was had by all. 

We got home and took the dogs out for their evening walk and, long story short, Millie got stung by a bee. Actually, I’m pretty sure she got stung by a bee and then she ate it. All of this is information we have pieced together in retrospect. 

Before I go further, let me say, Millie is fine. As I type this, she is underneath the bed, chewing on her toenails. 

Anyway, it took us a few minutes to figure out what had happened. One minute on her walk she was fine, then she was chewing on something, then she seemed disoriented and couldn’t walk well. When we got inside the apartment, she threw up and then I was pretty sure she’d been stung by a bee. We called our vet, they were closing and they directed us to a 24 hour clinic. 

200 dollars and two hours later, we were at CVS, trolling the aisles, Millie happily wagging her tail as her fathers searched for Benadryl tablets.  

I guess it’s a little indelicate to talk about money, but I wasn’t super excited about spending that much money on my dog. Probably, we could have gone to CVS when it first happened and bought the Benadryl and probably she would have been fine.

As we were hurriedly leaving the apartment, a shaken Millie in my arms, unsure of what lay ahead, with as much victimized passive aggression as you can imagine, I muttered, “Happy Birthday.” And then Eric said, “What?” And I tersely said, “Nothing!”

I fretted all the way down Beverly as Eric drove and Millie burrowed her snout into a blanket and my hands trying to alleviate an itch that had developed from the bee sting. 

But like I said, she’s okay. They gave her a couple of shots, we had a fun little visit to CVS, and then we took her home. 

Update, Millie is no longer under the bed. She is now on top of the bed, inches from me, licking the sheets. 

Anyway, when we got home, Brokeback Mountain was on tv. That’s a fun movie. I felt like maybe I’d had enough sadness for one day, so I went in the other room and read a book. Ricky snuggled next to me. After a time, Millie and Eric came to bed too. 

And then this morning came, and I woke up next to Eric, Ricky between us, Millie sprawled at my feet, all of us in our assigned positions. I checked to make sure Millie was okay. She was. And, I don’t know, either you get it or you don’t, but I was so happy this morning. My little family, we had weathered another challenge, and we lived to tell, or bark, the tale (or tail). 

Update: Millie is now rooting around underneath the duvet cover, trying to settle in for the night. Actually, she just came out and rested her head on Eric’s legs. I took a picture that I’m going to use for this blog post. And now she’s licking sheets again. 

It’s crazy when you think about it, how something as mundane as a licky dog, or a morning cuddle, can bring you so much joy. I am 49 now, today, and I have gained some sense of what moments in life hold the most value.

Now she’s giving me a kiss. 

Good night, happy birthday.

Todd Stevens

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This weekend, I went to visit my parents in Kansas. I had not been to my childhood home since 2014. I spent some time poring over old cards and letters, old pictures too. I was awash, still am, really, in memories of different chapters of my life, junior high, church camp, high school, college.

The summer before my senior year in college, I interned at a church in upstate New York. I uncovered many letters from the kids and adults in the congregation, pictures too, of the friends I made there. Fond memories.

And then, somehow, nestled in the warm, I remembered someone I had not about thought about for a while: Todd Stevens.

Todd Stevens was a guy that had lived in Syracuse. (Don’t get too excited, this isn’t going to go where you think it’s going to go.) He was tall, athletic, handsome. (Seriously, not what you think.) He’d been a baseball player for the Syracuse minor league baseball team. He’d been married, but his wife left him and while I was interning, Todd Stevens came back to town, to go through the things in his storage unit and purge part of it and ship the rest back to his life in Kansas.

The minister I was working and staying with had told me all about Todd Stevens before he came to visit. “Todd Stevens is a great guy, terrific ball player, the whole church went crazy for him. He’s from Kansas too, you’re going to love him.”

We picked Todd Stevens up at the airport. Looking like a young Kevin Costner, he was as charismatic of a presence as the minister had promised. For a handful of days, the three of us, the minister, Todd Stevens and I tooled around Syracuse, golfing, going to baseball games, cooking steaks on the grill. The minister’s wife was out of town, so it was just our unlikely trio.

I did not feel I measured up to Todd Stevens. Short with glasses, paunchy stomach even though I was finally skinny after years of being the fat kid. Trying to act as masculine as possible while still bringing whatever it was that was unique and sensitive about me to my first ministry.  When Todd Stevens came to church on the Sunday during his visit, the old ladies and the young kids and the moms and the dads all reacted to him the way I wished they would have reacted to me, he was their golden boy.

“What have you been up to, Todd Stevens? We’ve missed you.” It couldn’t have been easy for him. The minister and I had been there at the storage unit, as Todd Stevens pored over his own memories, memories of a life with another person that was cut short not long after it began. Separating toasters from photo albums, baseball gear from blenders, Todd Stevens started to cry. I was a kid, 20 years old, Todd, just a few years older than me. At 25 or 26, his life was going in a completely different direction than what he had anticipated. A few years before he’d been a professional baseball player married to his college sweetheart. Now he was a divorced assistant manager at a sporting goods store in rural Kansas.

Somehow, Todd Stevens and I did form a bond in our few days together. So, I wasn’t surprised when on the night before his flight back to Kansas he came into my bedroom to ask for a favor. (Again, I’m not kidding, it’s not that kind of story.)

“You know Loyal and Bev have been so good to me, I don’t want to ask for anymore favors. I have three boxes that still need to be shipped back home but I’m out of money. Can you take the boxes to UPS this week after I leave? I’ll send you the money when I get home.”

“I can do that.” Like everyone else, I too had fallen for Todd Stevens.

“Oh man, that’s awesome. And just to say thanks, I’m going to send you some K-State hats and t-shirts! Cool. Also, do you want this blender?”

“Sure!”

The day after Todd Stevens left Syracuse I went to UPS to ship his three boxes. It cost me 30 dollars, which was kind of a lot of money for me then.

Days passed, then weeks with no check and package full of K-State memorabilia. I had Todd Stevens’ address and I sent him a letter, asking as delicately as possible, when he was planning on sending me my $30.

The summer ended and I sent him another letter, this time giving him my college address. “Don’t worry about the cap and shirt, just send the $30.”

I never got my $30 and I never heard from Todd Stevens again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the worst thing that ever happened me, not by a long shot, but for years, I did wonder what happened. Did he intend to pay me back and then lose track? Was he purposely deceitful? Was he a pathological liar, not completely in control of his grand promises? Did he suffer a fatal heart attack on the sidewalk outside the post office, clutching my check and Wildcat T-shirt in his hands as he fell to the asphalt?  (Active imagination.)

I do think about Todd Stevens from time to time. I’m not wounded, and I do think it’s funny. I know I sound like the paper boy in Better Off Dead, I want my 2 dollars, a never ending refrain. Also, I know now that the memory stuck with me, in part, because I did go crazy for Todd Stevens. I felt things about him I couldn’t articulate at the time, a crush calling itself admiration.

Wherever you are, Todd Stevens, I hope you are well. I hope your journey has offered you joy and love and peace. I hope you created a family, work a job you like, found purpose. I know what it feels like to think your life is set in one direction and have it veer in another.  I know what it feels like to break a promise.  This weekend, as I sifted through the memories of old friends and old crushes and even old conflicts, I was reminded of what a gift all of it is.  That decades later, I can close my eyes and see the three of us, you, Loyal and me, playing golf on a cool, green June New York evening, me vexed that I couldn’t drive or pitch or putt as well as not only you, but also a 60 year old man, all of it, it makes me smile. And then it almost makes me cry.  Life, it speeds by. How could there ever be a debt when you gave me something worth so much?

Guest Blogger, Matt Miller: Sharing Blessings! Why Do I Volunteer?

 

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I received an email from my cousin Matt this morning.  He had written a thoughtful piece about volunteering and asked if I might like to share it here.  I told him I would be more than happy to post it.  While we should always be cognizant of what we do in our daily lives to help others, sometimes we need reminders.  Thanks Matt for sharing your story of what volunteering means to you.

 

Sharing Blessings!  Why Do I Volunteer?

I have been blessed to be in a position to be able to volunteer in most of my son’s activities. Additionally my wife has also to volunteer as well. I say blessed because I know in today’s world that not everyone’s situation allows for the level of volunteering that we are able to. Both my wife and I have a calling to work with youth, having earned music education degrees but both being in vocations where we do not have direct youth interaction we have chosen to focus our “free” time in our son’s activities. This is not to say that we are perfect parents, I assure you that we will always have room for improvement. Nor are we alone in this endeavor, we have made friends with other outstanding volunteers in the organizations. We have discussed why we do this many times and the main theme that we bring up is to make a difference in a child’s life, our child and others.

With this goal in mind we have tackled Boy Scouts and competitive marching band parent organizations. We have looked at what skills and experiences that we have to offer and have been able to plug into positions for each group. I could not be more satisfied and proud of the impact that we have been able to make. I say this not to boast, but to share the gem situations that I have experienced.

In Scouts I have served as a committee member, but my focus has been on sitting and preparing the boys for Boards of Review that they have at the completion of each rank including Eagle rank, Scouting’s highest youth achievement. I have been able to sit on countless Tenderfoot, 1st Class, 2nd Class, and Life rank boards with our Troop of 60 or so boys. It is a privilege to see each boy develop though each rank in maturity and experience. As well I have sat as a troop representative on over 15 Eagle Board of Reviews, many of which I was able to provide some coaching and sample questions for each boy to prepare. The boys have done outstanding and have represented our Troop well. The Council representatives recognize that we run a well rounded program for our youth. The involvement has also allowed the boys to participate in many adventure actives such are canoeing, hiking, repelling, practicing firearms and archery, as well as skills through merit badges. A wonderful program!

Concurrently my son’s competitive marching band, the Renegade Regiment of the Union High School marching band program, is our other main activity. While Angela and I’s musical gifts were not in concert or marching band, we are both very familiar with the music aspect. There are as many as 30 main volunteers in leadership roles as well as countless other parents, grand parents or guardians that help the logistics, fundraising, dressing and feeding of the band students allowing the schools music directors and staff the ability to focus almost solely on the teaching of music and marching of the students. We have been chaperones on multiple trips as well as serving on the Union Band Parents Club board of directors, Angela as a Uniform Director (or Uniform Queen as we call her) and myself as Concessions Director and Treasurer. Angela and another Scout mom are co Uniform Directors for the last two marching seasons. Both myself and other director’s husband (the Scout Master from our Troop) make up the main uniform crew with our wives. We fit the over 300 band students in marching bibs, jackets and hats called shakos for marching and then Tuxes and dress blouses / pants for concerts. We travel with the students for each competition: fixing damaged items, replacing what can not be fixed, and having borrow items for lost of missing pieces. As part of the Concessions team, I serve as one of the running directors of our football stadium concessions stands and as the bookkeeper for our team. We staff our stands with parents and students as a fundraising element to pay for and directly apply to the individual student’s marching fees. The overall stand net profits go toward the general fund to help reduce the costs for all the band students.

Through our interactions we have met other like minded parents who have been able to prioritize volunteering as an important aspect of giving as a part of the Union Band Parents Club. This has not been lost on the students. They are very grateful, polite and for the most part well behaved. As the band competes at an elite level of competition, we have recently returned from the National competition in Indianapolis, IN (placed 16th in the nation!!!). We stayed at a boutique hotel in downtown Indianapolis, the Alexander. Our band students carried themselves with class. We received a complementary email from the marketing director of the hotel after our visit, advising that they have rarely had adult visiting groups be as polite and courteous as out students and that they would be happy to host our group in the future.

The students are very thankful for all that our parent group is able to provide for them. The reward is to hear the stories from the students. A parent of one student with a knee injury that happened during the season complimented on of the student leaders for his willingness to go out of his way to carry the injured students bags and some times the student herself to get from place to place. Another of our students was able to speak at a local Rotary Club in a Four Way Speech contest speaking to the power of words. These are the high points. We have the opportunity of seeing our students with adversity make the best of their situation. One student works and pays her own marching fee which is usually well over $2000 yearly. That student maturely describes the hardships she faces at home with a single parent who is disabled, an elderly grandparent and a younger sibling that she cares for all while going to school and participating in school activities. The does not complain about her circumstances, but is thankful for the opportunity to work her own way to pay for her involvement in the program. Another student had a out of state grand parent come to the nationals competition, the grand parent also brought the student’s birth parent who had not seen the student in over 10 years. The student was at odds on how to process seeing the absent parent, but communicated the blessing of being a part a group that had caring and willing volunteers to be role models. These are the moments that glisten the eyes and melt the heart.

Upon our return home from the nationals competition we learned as a band family that a member of another competing band lost a band member, parent and grand parent in a traffic accident while in route home after the finals of the competition. As parents and spectators we had shared the stands with the parents and volunteers of the other band though out the competition’s extended weekend. Our band students had been social and had interacted with many bands including this band. The Castle Marching band had made it to finals competition for the first time and one of the soloists was the young lady who’s life was tragically cut short on the ride home from a mountain top experience. Our band family’s hearts were broken with the news: directors, students and parents alike; our Band Family was feeling the loss of another Band Family. Many of our students were touched and responded by posting pictures of themselves wearing the colors of the mourning band to show support. Posting these pictures and support to #WeAreCastle and #SingForSophie in social media. They seemed to understand the idea of community that exists outside of his or her direct family and school. These are the moments that make my heart and soul sing. The title of the marching show this year was Shadow Land, in reference to our show I commented on how you have to be the light in order to create the shadows. This inspired one of band parent leaders to create the hastag #BeTheLightThatCastsABeatifulShadow.

This is the reason that I volunteer, not for personal gain or recognition. The empowerment of our future leaders, the young people of today through example and opportunity to use the skills and talents they have. Instilling compassion and a dedication to the support they received and the recognition of other’s hard work that comprised that support. Lastly for them to show the same levels of compassion and support to others.

As we face times of change and uncertainty in the future, I know that by volunteering I am positively contributing to today’s youth with results in better prepared future leaders with hearts for compassion and dedication to work for self and others. Again I say that I am blessed for my situation and recognize how grateful I am to be able to spend my time as I am able. The benefits and rewards while intangible are the greatest that one can receive. While you spend time being thankful during this season, be thankful for those who volunteered for you. Be the Light that casts a beautiful shadow.

Thanks and Blessings!

Matt Miller