01 August 2015

Close Encounters of the Weird Kind

    If he volunteers to climb into our shopping cart, we'll gladly take him for a ride.

    My husband Dave and I are shopping the pasta section at a small local grocery store when a gorgeous man rounds the corner. I pretend to keep looking at the lasagna noodles. A woman pushes a cart beside him, I note, but I keep my concentration trained on him.

    Short of stature with a thin trim build, hiss close-cropped hair looks the color of wet sand. His rugged face has aged prematurely. His fine lips are set in a serious mien.

    He works out regularly—one glimpse of his biceps tells me that. The muscles of each arm twine like cables anchored in a camouflage tank top.

    And if he wears baggy jeans—well, one must make allowances.

    He looks our way. Dave makes eye contact, smiles and nods. I lose myself in choosing between rotini and penne. 

    Perhaps it puts Mr. Camo off to see two men flagrantly grocery shopping together. Or maybe our presence stretches to the breaking point his hetero-centric vision of his hometown. I suspect he feels threatened, his masculinity called into question.

    Maybe he senses we're scoping him out and that’s what pushes him over the edge. Whatever the reason, when his female companion bends over for two cans of tuna fish from the bottom shelf, he gives her a resounding swat on the butt.

    “Ow! What’s that about?” She stands upright, rubbing her posterior.

    I don’t hear his answer, yet I doubt he verbalized his real motives. Maybe he isn’t aware of them himself.

    I see a man who, in the presence of a male couple, feels motivated to assert his own masculinity. I watch him respond with violence. I see him direct his blow at the person nearest him.

    He makes a show of exerting power over a woman. He reminds me of a dog marking its territory. He might as well hike his leg and pee on her.
    I may be way off base, of course. I can’t see into his mind, and I don’t quiz him on his reaction. Nevertheless I suspect his companion’s butt hurts because of something he carries inside.

    In  Essays, Emerson tells of two small boys playing near a darkened entry. They are frightened by the big shadowy figures they see moving against the wall. Watching them, an old man says, “My children, you will never see anything worse than yourselves.”

    This is what I want to say to Mr. Camo (this, and “My gosh, you’re hot”): “Do we unsettle you, studmufffin? Let me tell you, as you walk through this grocery store, you will see nothing scarier than yourself.

    “You see two men who are attracted to each other, and maybe to you. You think you’re reacting to us. But we human beings see everything through the filter of our own perceptions. What you see in us is really some aspect of yourself.

    If you are repelled, it isn’t us who repels you, but some part of yourself you’re uncomfortable with. Could it be you don’t like being seen as an object because you tend to objectify those around you?

    “It works the other way, too, Cupcake. What you admire in others is really some quality in yourself. You think the woman you’re with is sexy? You like her curves, winning smile, warm personality? Those are reflections of yourself—perhaps your appreciation for beauty, the smile you carry inside, an ability to touch your feminine side.

    “Our eyes act as a reverse-action magnifying glass for looking within. We see magnified in others the very qualities we carry in ourselves. ‘You spot it, you got it,’ they say in 12-step circles.

    “We go though life thinking the world is as we see it. Not so, Sweet Cheeks. We are as we see the world.

01 July 2015

My “Dear John” Letter to a Ghost

W.H. Auden captures my predicament:

        Go, go, go said the bird: human kind
        Cannot bear very much reality.
        Time past and time future
        What might have been 

               and what has been.
        Point to one end, which 
               is always present

 What I ask via FaceBook: “Are you the John Doe (not his real name) who worked one summer at Camp Reveal in Evansville, Indiana? I’m chasing ghosts and wonder if you are that John Doe.”

    What I actually mean: OMG, after all these years of wondering whatever happened to you and if you did indeed go to Mongolia as a missionary and if you came out as a gay man and whatever did you do with all that talent and imagination and spiritual fervor…

    …and having looked for you online after there was an online, and online in the pre-Facebook era and not having located you, today I log onto Facebook and there you might be, with that gorgeous gentle smile, your head cocked slightly to the side, and in your pictures file additional mugshots of you in a knit beret making faces and acting silly…

    …back with a rush come my feelings for you or the memories of my feelings for you, back in the day when I was sure because I was a committed Christian that what I was feeling for you was a knitting of spirit brought on by the Holy Ghost and a sense of Christian brotherhood…

    …and oh, how I wanted to be with you every free moment of the day and those not-so-free moments, too, all that summer long…

    …and how jealous I was of our fellow camp counselor, he of the maize-colored curly locks with whom you held private Bible studies and prayed early morning prayers and whose place I wanted to take and whose heart I wanted to run through with a stake to make it happen…

    ...and are you the selfsame John Doe who taught me about unrequited love and longing, long long after the fact?

    (Insert long radio silence here.)

    He never answers my que(e)ry. Perhaps for the best. I peruse his “likes” and see the National Rifle Association is the most liberal of the organizations and causes he supports. Not much chance of us re-connecting even if he is John Doe of blessed memory.

    But in some part of my psyche I am still 18 years old and he is 21. I am gangly, nerdy, scatter-brained; he is earnest, creative, focused. I am smitten; he is oblivious. We work together the entire summer. When the camp closes, I ask John D. for a ride home. To his home. It means my folks can pick me up after a drive of one hour instead of five. It also means I’ll have to stay at his house overnight.

    Not that I read anything into this. I am so highly closeted as to be clueless about my sexual orientation. Really. All innocence, I gush to him during the long drive to his house.

    That evening we walk a rolling country lane. John leads me across a bean field and through rows of head-high corn.

    "I used to run down these rows pretending I was an Indian and the cowboys were after me,” he says.

    "When you were a kid?"

    He laughs. "Last summer. We only moved here a year ago."

    He is this free—free to be himself, express himself, and talk about it without shame. I burn with adoration and jealousy. I want him. I want to be with him, be him.

    That night we sleep in separate rooms.

    My parents pick me up after breakfast. John hugs me good bye.

    Not for years will I understand the ache in my heart, what it means, why it remains, why the memory of him brings sorrowful joy. I loved him more than I knew.

+ + +

Illustration is modified. Original from Punch, 24 July 1841

01 June 2015

Mindfulness is a booger some days

    I stand at our bathroom stool, getting ready to take a piss. Sunbeams filter through the woodland canopy. They light up the greenery behind the vintage wire fence north of the house. Two white butterflies dance amongst the green and gold, then flutter into the verdant depths. All I need to know about the world is right here, right under my nose.

    And what does that mean?

    It’s one of those sudden insights best accepted at face value, not poked and prodded too much. In this world a glimmer of truth is a delicate creature, not a pickled frog to be dissected in ninth grade biology class.

    Yet I start picking at this vision as if it’s a booger I can’t quite let alone. Perhaps I’ll always be a callow freshman in the school of life, hopeless when it comes to understanding the deeper mysteries of being.

    Those are cabbage butterflies, I remind myself, bad news for our six spindly cabbage plants. And those green bushes they used as a dance floor, that’s an invasive species we’re to eradicate from our property. So said the district forester who was here yesterday to measure the health of our 15-acre woods. And the white ash trees out this back window? He pronounced their death sentence, also. They’ll soon fall prey to an pestilential insect invasion, now about three miles from our house. We’re to girdle the trees—kill them now, before the emerald ash borer does—and harvest the wood. 

    The sun shines bright overhead even as distant thunder growls like my grandfather used to. Nothing is what it appears. I’m taking a piss in thinking I know anything.

    Still, I keep trying to learn. I’m on my way out to the chicken coop when I stop by the far gate. Ahead of me, an ash tree wraps a large rust-orange metal drum in leafy embrace. The limbs have grown around the old gas tank. It gets more support from the tree nowadays than from its original metal legs, one of which has rusted away at the ankle. A knee-high log stands on end near the base of the tree. A red-bellied woodpecker perches on it. This is the chopping block on which I have executed many a rooster using a sharpened axe. The bird drives his strong sharp beak into the wood, seeking life where others have met their death. His skull and the membrane around his brain are thickened to cushion the shock of ramming his bill into hard wood. When he locates a beetle or ant he shoots out a sticky barbed tongue, impales the insect, then devours it. How might I might follow your example, ingenious and wise one, you who find life in a place of death, who uses your thick skull to nourish yourself.

    As if to belie my assessment of him, the woodpecker hops onto the metal leg of the gas drum. He hammers at rusty iron. Foolish fellow, there are no bugs inside that metal tank.

    Or maybe not so foolish. My bird book informs me woodpeckers drum on trees, poles, even telephone transformers, as a mating call and to warn away other red-bellies from the area. This one was playing love songs on a kettledrum. Quite the way to make a statement, and one other than what I was trying to read into the encounter.

    Not a bad lot in life, to keep my eyes and ears open, try to read the signs, listen to the voice of the world, laugh at my misinterpretations, lose myself in wonder and joy.

    En route to the coop this week I stop short when find a spotted fawn blinking big brown eyes at me. I hold my breath. Ever the world shows it soft self again and again, even to cabbage heads.

01 May 2015

Nothing runs like a dear

Stag-Man by Patrik Törnroos, used by permission
Astride the green ogre, Dave appears less than his usual confident self. Omigosh, he is human. Suddenly, I can't wait to get him in bed.

My husband stands out in any crowd. He has all the style and class I never got. My earliest image of him: swimmer's build, tight jeans, cowboy boots, purple jacket, Crocodile Dundee hat. At last year’s Pride parade, divas on floats and sexy men in skanky underwear waved and called out to him, “Love your hat.” He was wearing a straw cowboy hat, hand-shaped to look extra-cool, decorated with black and white polka-dotted feathers from our guineas, and set off with a dangly piece of shiny blue jewelry.

People warm to Dave easily. And no wonder. He’s friendly and good-natured. He was born with a droopy eyelid—it makes him look like he's thoughtfully considering everything you say. He probably is. He's a great listener. He exudes confidence, competence, wisdom and compassion. Dave served as hospice chaplain for 25 years. These traits served him and his patients well. He's the sort you’d trust with dark secrets. With your life.

Say you and he find yourselves in dire straits—you’ve climbed a fire tower to get away from a 60-foot alligator. From here you can see the huge forest fire headed your way from the east and a tornado coming in from the west. Now you notice termites have weakened the tower structure. It sways from side to side. The staircase below crumbles to dust. Deep breath. Dave assesses the situation, calmly explains your options, makes a decision for himself and supports you in crafting your own plan of action. Offers to lend you an extra jet pack and parachute. Betcha.

Do you get the idea I think Dave can do anything? You're right. But here, outside the John Deere farm implement dealership, I’m seeing his vulnerable side.

We've push-mowed our two-acre lawn for 15 years. A twisted ankle last year made us rethink that plan. Back in February we bought an old John Deere 318 garden tractor. It ran fine for two weeks this spring, then not at all. We purchased a utility trailer, manhandled the behemoth onto it, and drug it into that bastion of butch, our local John Deere dealership.

The mower’s been repaired and we’re back now to pick it up. A few minutes ago a manly man in a green farm cap drove it up onto the wagon, grunted, then sauntered back to his man-cave.

Fine, except when he parked it, he rammed the mower into our trailer’s flimsy front rail. The thin wooden board looks ready to snap. Dave puts the tractor in neutral and tries to roll it backwards, but to no avail. The mower won’t budge. We push, pull, push some more. No dice. Dave climbs up on it and starts the thing. Still no luck.

“The brake pedal is stuck in the down position,” he says. “I can’t get it to let up.” (Later we’ll learn the way up is down. To release the brake pedal you have to press it all the way down.)

I suggest Dave go back into the shop and tell ’em we're new at owning a Deere, ask how to unlock the brakes. I myself don’t volunteer; I don't want to look stupid. But I’m sure he can pull it off without looking the fool. He grew up on a farm. Those men in there are his peers.

Dave gives me a pointed look. “We'll wait until we get home and read the manual,” he says.                       

 Suddenly, I see him in a new light and my heart melts. He’s vincible. He’s not as omnipotent as I think. Someday I’ll lose him. All I ever touch is fragile. My hold is tentative, even on those I love most. Time, and with it life itself, darts away, runs like a deer.

01 April 2015

“All I ever had, Doc, was courage and dignity”

    It is 1988. Out west, my wife and I will welcome the arrival our first child soon. Down south, Norman Sanger is dying. Ten years from now, I’ll read about him in a book. His story will inspire me.

    Norman was born a hemophiliac without the blood factor needed to cause clotting. By age nine, he had been hospitalized more times than most people are in a lifetime.

    His story briefly is recounted in Abraham Verghese’s 1994 memoir My Own Country. I first read it shortly after I came out. Recently my husband Dave and I read it aloud together. We’re going to serve as panelists at a presentation featuring the book.

    Verghese writes from the perspective of an outsider. Born in Africa to parents from India, he obtained his medical degree then came to the United States, where he specialized in infectious diseases. About the same time, HIV/AIDS began to show itself across the nation. Verghese writes about his five years practicing medicine in Johnson City, Tennessee.

    He introduces us to the patients he serves. He describes the community's reaction to them, to him and to the spread of the pandemic. Norman is one of his patients.

    Repeated intra-joint bleeding from hemophilia has left Norman with a limp, deformed his body and stunted his growth. Growing up, he had to sit on the sidelines and watch as other boys his age played contact sports.

    Now an adult, he learns he has contracted HIV through a blood infusion.

    “All I ever had, Doc, was courage and dignity,” he tells Verghese. “That was my thing. Am I going to lose it to this disease?”

    Verghese can’t promise him he won’t.

    Ah, Norman. I hear these traits in your words. Courage and dignity shine in your willingness to ask the question. You face a grim reality. Often, those with almost nothing are called upon to relinquish even the little they have. Your story lodges in my heart.

    “It is in the small things we see it,” writes the poet Anne Sexton. (She herself suffered mental illness and died in 1974 at her own hand.) She titles her poem “Courage.” She might have been writing of you, Norman. Sexton says courage shows up in the young child’s early actions: first step, first time riding a bike, first spanking. Such events loom large in the child’s world and elicit an outsized response.

        When they called you crybaby
        Or poor or fatty or crazy
        And made you into an alien,
        You drank their acid
        And concealed it.

    We LGBT adults can relate who as children grew up aliens in our own homes, schools, churches, communities. For Sexton, courage lies in taking life one step at a time, meeting what comes, doing what you can, even if that involves drinking poison.

    Norman, you knew hardship and alienation all your life. You dove down deep into your own inner resources. You drew on courage and dignity to make it through. You wore them as shield and buckler. Now even these may desert you: “Will I lose them, doc?”

    Jonathan Larson echoes your plaintive cry in the Broadway musical _Rent._ In an HIV support group meeting one person after another stands and sings, "Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care?”

    I don’t know what your final days were like, Norman. I don’t know what mine will be. I can only hope I have the courage to face death with as much dignity as I hear in your words.

    Here’s Sexton again. She predicts you’ll show your courage in determination, fierce love, resistance, hanging on as long as you can, 

        And at the last moment
        When death opens the back door
        You’ll put on your carpet slippers
        And stride out.

    You’ve been dead 30 years, Norman, but your courage and dignity live on. You’ve left some some mighty big slippers to fill.

01 March 2015

Proof positive

The Goodwill store is crazy busy—half-off sale today, storewide. The checkout lines stretch from here to next Sunday. My husband Dave saunters over. I signal I’m ready to go.

Dave gestures behind him. “See that man way over there, next to the guy in the red coat?”

I scan the crowd.

“He’s in the far checkout lane, towards the back.”

“White shirt and bow tie? College age?”

“That’s him. I was walking past and he stopped me. Said, ‘You spoke in my social work class last semester. I want to thank you. You changed my life.’

“Really?” I take another look. “How cool. Great. I’m glad he said something to you.”

“That’s for you, too. For both of us. We both would have spoken to that class.”

Dave’s right. We’re often asked to address social work and psychology classes at area colleges and universities. We go as the featured couple or as co-participants in panel discussions. We tell our coming out stories. We talk about what it is for us to be gay in this time and place. We answer questions. Any more, students are generally receptive.

“I wonder which class it was,” I say. “I don’t recognize him. I wonder what he heard that made such an impact. I think you should go over and ask him to elaborate.”

To my surprise, Dave agrees. He’s bolder than I and more socially adept. I tag along. He taps the young man on the shoulder. “We were wondering: could you say a little more about your story?”

Joe College obliges, and as he starts talking I’m able to place him: The Man With the Crotch. Drop-dead gorgeous, dark eyes, Adonis face, olive shirt unzipped to offer a tantalizing glimpse of his chest, tight red jeans, stylish leather shoes. Devastatingly handsome. I wanted to spend the entire period looking—no, gawking—at him. I restrained myself. Whenever I addressed the class I avoided looking his way for fear I’d babble. Not easy to do. He sat directly in front of me, legs spread wide. When I wasn’t talking, I looked down.

After class, Dave and I compared notes.

“He’s so cute.” (We both knew who I was talking about.)

“Adorable. I just wanted to stare at him.”

“Me, too. In fact, I did stare. At his crotch.”

“Do you think he’s gay?”

We thought we’d never really know, but here we are, getting it straight from the source.

Not that it’s been easy for him. He grew up in foster care, was told to hide his sexual orientation—“otherwise you’ll never be adopted.”

Indeed, his family of origin severed all ties with him when they learned he’s gay, booted him back into the foster care system. Eventually the couple he calls his grandparents adopted him.

“And they’re fine with my being gay. They love me, as do my amazing friends.” He turns and points to a motley crew of students behind him. They look our way and grin. They’re a diverse lot—race, gender, body type. All friendly.

Good. He surrounds himself with supportive people.

He says what meant so much to him when we spoke in class was the obvious love Dave and I share. “I was right there with you, crying when you cried, listening to every word, seeing two men who really love each other. You guys changed my life.”

My mind flashes to Bob and Bruce, Larry and Larry. Early in our coming out Dave and I saw separately in these two couples proof positive that long-term gay relationships do exist and can be richly rewarding. Knowing this gave us something to shoot for, confidence we could.

I hope that’s where Joe College is now—buoyed by hope, poised to call into being then will into reality a love-filled life.

“Can I hug you guys?” he asks.


01 February 2015

Sootprints in fnow

Kevin Payravi, Wikimedia Commons

    We live so much of our lives without telling anyone. But not when we walk through a snowy landscape.

Several inches of new snow fell last night and I’m taking advantage of the afternoon light to traipse amongst the trees. I can see by the deer's cloven hoof prints the place it leaped the fence. There’s the rabbit’s dash-dash-dot and the raccoon's little paw print. Here a mouse scrimshandered a thin line atop the snow, then tunneled down under. (Such a little creature to face the great winter.) The squirrel's bounding trail of double dots connects one tree to another, then explodes in a mess of dirt and torn-up earth where it retrieved a buried nut from the frozen ground. Great galumphing footprints behind me testify to my own passage through this little piece of the world.

Traces of my presence—and yours—are not always so visible as footprints in snow, though they may linger after we’ve passed.

Recently my husband Dave and I watched the 1970 film "The Boys in the Band.” We'd heard of it but never seen it on stage or screen. The show opened Off-Broadway in 1968. Says playwright Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame, “ certainly started a new era in American drama, and was an immense contribution in American literature because it’s so unapologetically gay.”

The action centers around nine men at a birthday party. It's funny, sad and suspenseful all at the same time. The friends trade vicious cut-downs almost as a matter of course. This put me off on a first viewing. Why must they be so negative towards themselves and each other? I've watched it four more times, however, and come to appreciate its humor, heart and snapshot of pre-Stonewall gay life.

In one scene the embittered Michael confronts his college roommate about the latter's reaction to a mutual friend’s coming out.

 “You couldn’t take it, so you destroyed the friendship and your friend along with it,” Michael says. "To this day he remembers the treatment and scars he got from you."

This line sticks with me. Even today, the coming out process for many LGBT people is fraught with peril and littered with former friendships. This was true of my experience. My life has been shaped by a society that had no place—no word, even—for someone like me. I carry the scars of my late parents' eventual and lukewarm tolerance of me. They were unable to fully embrace me as their son once they learned I am gay.

Yet others trail healing in their wake. When I came out at 35 my grandmother was 90 years old and the one person in my family of origin who accepted me without reservation. My mind goes to this scene:  Dave and I sit with Grandma in the church she's attended for nearly 60 years. The pews and paneling are of ash; the aisles carpeted in red with tiny flecks of black. Frosted glass windows discourage daydreaming. Today is Communion Sunday. Grandma learns Dave and I will not be offered the sacrament. Incensed, this little white-haired lady puts away her usual smile and marches up the center aisle, leading Dave and me out of the building.

This memory of my grandmother’s show of support nurtures and sustains me years after her death. As she well knew, people do not remember what you do or say, so much as they remember how you make them feel. Grandma made me feel like a million bucks. No, she made me feel loved.

Love. Such a little thing to arm ourselves with as we face the great cold. And best shared with another—person, animal, plant, planet. For no matter how many our footsteps upon the earth, our trail is soon ended. A few generations pass; the snow melts and all trace of us is gone.