01 April 2014

Between the Sheets

    “Yes, you can. But you’ll want a different room, one with two beds.”
    “No, the one we reserved is fine. We’ll only use one bed, anyway. Both nights.”
    “Not a problem,” she said. “But the price is the same either way.”
    “One bed is fine,” I said.
    Both Dave and I took out our credit cards. As the clerk looked on, we haggled over whose to use. I pushed mine her way.
    She processed the card. “He’s bigger than either of us,” she told Dave.
    We all laughed.
    Even though she drew us a map, we got lost in the warren of multi-room units. In the dark we had turned right too soon. The room was chilly when at last we found it. I cranked up the heat, unpacked the knapsack, hung our coats and dress shirts. Dave had signed up for a two-day workshop; at the last minute I’d opted to come along for the ride. We readied for bed.
    While brushing my teeth I heard his low insistent tone, “Bryn, come here. Bryn, come here.”
    I spun about.
    “What do you think this is?” He pointed to an insect crawling across newly turned down sheets. It looked like a large reddish-brown tick, only bigger, and with horizontal segments comprising its abdomen.
    “Is it a bed bug?”
    “Could be. I don’t know they look like,” I said.
    “I don’t think you can see them; all you find is bite marks in the morning.”
    “Let’s squish it and take it down to the front desk. Maybe she has access to the internet and can look up what a bed bug looks like.”
    Dave tore the clear wrap from a plastic cup. I scooped the creature into it, then replaced the covering to keep it from flying out.
    We dressed, donned jackets.
    “We’re back.” I said this as if it were good news.
    “I see that.” She said this as if she weren’t so sure.    “Do you know what a bed bug looks like? We found this critter crawling under the sheets.” I set the glass on the counter.
    “They look like a tick, that’s all I know,” she said.
    “Then this might be one.”
    She approached, hands up, palms forward, as if we were pointing a gun her way. She took a quick look. “Now, I can handle pretty near anything,” she said, “but when it comes to bugs I go all ‘girlie.’”
    She offered us another room. “This one has two beds. That’s all we have left.”
    When we moved, Dave and I straightway checked the sheets—again and again. Lifted mattress, bed covers, mattress pad. No sign of bugs. No bite marks come morning.
    A few days later I did an internet image search and learned our beastie was indeed a bed bug. I also learned (from the Utah Department of Health website) about these common misunderstandings regarding bed bugs:
•  You can’t see them. (You can.)
•  You can feel it when they bite. (You can’t.)
•  No bite marks means no bed bugs. (Not necessarily.)
•  They only infest filthy hovels. (Flesh and blood attract them, not dirt.)
•  They only affect other people. (Wishful thinking.)
•  They’re not all that big a problem, really. (Oh, really?)
    These misunderstandings echo ways we often dismiss pestilences we’d rather not notice/admit/own: A planet in crisis. Blood for oil. Power to the One Percent. Institutionalized injustice. Prejudice. Arrogance. Self-absorption. Shame-based living.
    We sleepwalk, learn not to see. O who will awaken us to the bite marks on our own flesh? We have made this one world bed for ourselves and now we must li(v)e in it. What do we want between these sheets?

01 March 2014

Is it Love that Brings You Here or Love that Brings You Life?

Even when they filled with tears, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was tall, dark-skinned, gorgeous. And singing in slow tempo, almost in lament, “There is no map for where we go . . . .” He was a soloist with our capital city’s gay men’s chorus, performing Naked Man, a song-cycle that voices the experience of growing up gay in a less than accepting society. I identified with his words. I’ve felt in me the aching loneliness in his voice, the yearning, the presumed being lost. Years now have passed but his voice still rings in my heart: “There is no map for where we go . . . .”

When I came out at age 35, I had no idea where I was or where I was going. I’d been so deep in the closet I believed I was the only gay man in Indiana. In 1995 I was that clueless. Felt that alone. Knew no role models, had met no gay men, found no Damron guide to gay life. Somehow I found Dave. (Or he found me, we’re not sure which.) Oh, happy day.

The 70-year-old poet Mrs. Stevens, a character in a May Sarton novel, reflects on her past loves: “I lived with their faces. I knew their every gesture by heart. I stalked them like wild animals. I studied them as if they were maps of the world — and in a way, I suppose they were.”

At this moment, my map of the world is lying on the davenport near the wood stove fast asleep. He laid down about 20 minutes ago still wearing shoes and eyeglasses, stocking cap and three sweatshirts. It’s wintery cold in the house and the couch sits near the heat. While my husband of 18 years naps I study his face.

He looks youthful, though time is making tracks, especially about the eyes. He’s sleeping with cap pulled down, blanket pulled up. Still, Dave’s is a face I know well. I tell myself that were I blindfolded in a room full of sexy men I could identify him by touch alone. OK, it's a favorite fantasy of mine.) Still, my fingers know the contours of his cheekbones, silkiness of skin, scratch of stubble beard, drop of droopy eyelid. I think I’d know him even in the dark.

Dave grounds me in ways I recognize, but can’t begin to fathom. My boss told me her husband nearly died last week in a work accident.

“You were that close to becoming a widow,” I said.

“Don’t even go there,” she said. “I know I’m a hothead and act like I have it all together, but I can’t open a jar of peanut butter without that man. He’s my rock. He keeps me anchored.”

I know what she means. As my map of the world, Dave offers a sense of direction, helps me stay the course, gives me the confidence I can make it from Point A to Point B. Heck, were it not for him, I sometimes wouldn’t know there is a Point B. He helps my world make sense—or better, helps me make sense of my world. Comedian George Burns was not joking after his beloved Gracie Allen died when he said, “My world is much less safe.”

Indeed, for each one of us, the world is a safer saner place when we are loved, known, accepted and embraced as we are. This the gift we offer one another. This the gift we give ourselves. There may be no map for where we go—few the footsteps and faint before us—we may stumble forward, grope in the dark, but as the soloist intoned, “we’re not lost, we’re here.”

01 February 2014

Growl, Grumble, Whimper, Whump

snow on trees, man looking upThe deep-throated snarl carries in the night air, from woods’ edge crosses the short span of yard to our listening ears. Two whimper-whines follow. Again the menacing growl, again the whines. This call and response repeats several times.

“What do you think it is?” my husband whispers.

“I’m not sure, but suddenly going out to the barn to feed the geese has lost its luster,” I say.

Dave was carrying in firewood when he called from the back door, “come listen to this.” I’d stepped into the snowy night without a jacket. Now I shiver from more than cold.

The guttural snarls are too throaty for a raccoon, too deep for a squirrel, and too close for comfort. Coyote, I bet. We regularly hear their yipping yowls in the woods around us. But on this dim overcast night, the ground glazed with snow, I conjure up images of timber wolf, tiger, puma, panther, zombie. . . .    

“Think some creature is getting killed?” Dave asks.

“Sounds like a youngster getting too close to an adult and being warned off,” I say. “Or maybe Mama is forcing the little ones to keep moving when they want to curl up and sleep.”

The sounds gradually grow softer and further away. We both feel relieved. (All the same, the geese don’t get fed until sunrise.)

This morning I find paw prints on the other side of our fence—prints made by padded feet far bigger and heavier than those of our cat. Yowza. I set off to see who else has been wandering the woods: deer, rabbits, squirrels, small birds. At the north edge of our property I watch two flights of Canada geese glide in for a landing in the neighbor’s cornfield. I honk a hello and wish them luck in finding grain underneath the snow.

I feel extra happy when snow blankets the ground—maybe because I am Minnesota born or maybe a bit batty. At any rate, today’s weather forecast has put me on top of the world. We’re to expect one to two feet of snow. Way it looks now, we’ll get that much before 2:30 this afternoon. A heavy wet snow. Sticks to tree trunks and limbs, looks like corn dog breading on the small short branches. Our beech tree, still covered with leaves, gains so much weight its lower limbs drag the ground.

I happen to be looking out the kitchen window when a hackberry tree, its bare branches bowed low, reaches a tipping point. Suddenly it shrugs off its coat of winter white. Bent branches straighten and the entire tree snaps to attention. Snow catapults into the air.

Other trees are less melodramatic: an upper limb dumps its load. This in turn hits against lower branches and knocks them clear. With a whump, an isolated avalanche lands beneath that particular tree.

Dave suggests a walk. Soon we are plodding through knee-deep snow, ploughing through drifts higher yet. Hard work, but oh, the splendor. Stunning sights at every turn. The sky come close, the world white, us among the clouds. Every dry weed dressed in ermine. Each standing tree a masterwork of line and form, saplings bowing at its feet. All through the woods, Nature’s already graceful limbs frosted fluffy soft, limned in ivory.

These trees are participants in beauty, simply by being what and where they are, I think to myself. Not that it’s a cake walk—witness the creaks and groans we hear, the one loud crack—but surely it’s worth it to be robed in such glory. Ah, that I, too, could be a participant in beauty.

As if in answer, branches overhead unload their excess weight and plaster me with snow.

01 January 2014

A Blow Job — And All Best Wishes for the New Year

The telephone rang—our son calling from Indianapolis to say a tornado had been sighted minutes away and was headed in our direction.

All day the wind had been blowing hot and cold, blustering its way across the Midwest. My husband Dave and I had been keeping a weather eye on the heavens. There’d been quite the cosmic argument up there and Somebody had overturned the barbecue grill, set gray-white-black briquettes scudding across the firmament. 

We dashed outside (it made sense at the time) to batten the hatches on the chicken coop. We were almost back to the house when the wind took a sudden turn. Heavy rain pummeled us. We nearly tumbled into the basement.

Turning the radio on, we listened to a litany of storm warnings and watches. Our governor had hurried to a homeland security bunker somewhere we learned and was now urging all citizens to take cover, stay alert. It seemed a bit overblown.

But maybe not. About this same time a tornado was tearing through a town the next state over. Dave and I would later look at a news magazine photograph of the devastation. Trees denuded. Landmarks leveled. More than a thousand homes blown away, damaged or destroyed. 

Suddenly our lights went out. Radio silence descended. We’d be among the lucky ones; no tornado would strike our little home and power would be restored after 24 hours. Some of our fellow citizens would sit in the dark for a week. 

Dave and I lit candles, then darted upstairs to grab crackers and spoons and fill two bowls with the chili we’d had bubbling in the crock pot all day. Before we ate I offered a simple prayer of thanks. “Amen,” we said together. I opened my eyes to see my husband sitting across from me in the flickering light. We smiled to each other. Then he said, “May we always have this much.”

His words caught at me, lodged in my heart. It was one of those moments that even as it unfolded I knew would stick with me for some time to come. One, Dave is a gorgeous man: bright eyes, energetic, a swimmer’s build, kissable lips, cute butt. Two, candlelight was casting a romantic glow on a scene already sharpened with the tang of danger. Three, there was the sentiment itself: gratitude for simple things, awareness of how much we are given, shared pleasure in each other’s company, a present blessing, and hope for the future. 

In Dave’s words I hear my wish for all of us in this new year: shelter from the storm, nourishment for the body, comfort in good company. May we always have this much. 

And may we nurture the capacity to be grateful for it. There is wisdom, not to mention mental health, in being thankful for small things. A basement. A bowl of chili. Crackers. Candles. We can spend more time feeling happy when we are happy with what we already have, when we look for reasons to be grateful rather than for excuses to growl.

May we nurture also awareness. May we recognize what is going on around and within ourselves, our present blessings. May we listen to the heart and live true to its leanings.

Too, may we surround ourselves with people and projects that add to our experience of life, not sap our energy. May we ourselves be joy-bringers. 

Nature is not sentimental; our circumstances can change in a moment and without warning. Our time is short: why spend it chasing after the wind? Rather, let’s choose mindfully to embrace life. In gratitude. And with all the energy we can muster. May we always have this much. 

This essay appeared in the January issue of The Community Letter

Photo credit: Dave Malkoff. tornado damage, Washington, Illinois, with modifications to original photo

01 December 2013

It's Christmas, Mary

Each time I walk into a church building I feel like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom. When will the boulder come careening my way? 

There's reason for this. Eighteen years ago, when I came out as a gay man, members of my church met in council and gave me an ultimatum. I was to repent of my homosexuality and attend a reparative therapy boot camp to set me straight. Otherwise, they would excommunicate me and turn my soul over to Satan. 

They meant well, I’m sure. But they engaged in a form of spiritual abuse.

I walked away shaken, sad, angry, resolute. Nowadays I smile to think I have it on official church stationary: I am going to hell. Nevertheless, this has not endeared me to the folks who this month celebrate the birth of one they tout as the ultimate example of love and goodwill. 

Once I was one of them. Growing up I believed my fellow church members and I had the inside track on salvation, VIP passes to heaven. We were the only ones who had our theology right. All other other religions, all other Protestant denominations, certainly all Catholics, could go to hell. Would go to hell. Were headed for eternal damnation unless they believed the same way we did. In this I bought my church's teaching hook, line and sinker. 

Surety of salvation helped me feel safe and certain, let me make sense of my world. When I was teased and bullied, I told myself I was suffering for my faith (not for being a sissy or an arrogant prick). I wasn't tempted to lust after girls; I was a good Christian. I was headed for heaven. I knew I therefore couldn't be Catholic, Communist or homosexual. I suppressed, repressed and denied any leanings towards liturgy, socially-engineered equality and Kevin Carlson's legs. I had no idea what went on in the Catholic church across town, but I could almost smell the sulphur the few times I passed their white clapboard building.

Soon after I turned 20, I made friends with a Catholic priest. This felt daring. He was 50, funny and a bit dangerous. (He openly admitted to being a Democrat.) Thirty-plus years later, he remains my link to organized religion. Not long ago he led a weekend retreat for about a dozen men. I was one of them. 

Sunday morning he celebrated mass with us, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He kept up a running commentary on various components of the service. We watched as he poured wine into a chalice, then added water. "The poor never drink their wine straight," he said. "They can't afford it. The church honors the poor each time mass is said." 

He prayed over the communion wafers, then passed them around the circle. "This is the bread. It represents the blessings of the week, the blessings of life." One man after another took a sip from the goblet, then wiped its rim with a soft white cloth. "Let us pray for each one as he receives the wine, for this is a bitter cup,” the priest said. I appreciated the timing of his comment. The man then reaching for the goblet had told us he is reeling from a bitter divorce, serious physical ailments and job loss.

In lieu of a formal homily (that’s Catholic for “sermon”), we split into small groups and discussed our relationship with the church. I said I had reached out my hand to organized religion only to have it cut it off. My priest friend nodded. “You gave them a hand," he said. “I’d give them the finger.”

In that spirit, perhaps even with his blessing, let me wish you a merry effin' Christmas.

Photo credit: rubenshito,

01 November 2013

Maybe we are all we're cracked up to be

In the beginning (so the story goes), God rolled herself into an enormous disco ball, then hurled herself out of heaven and down into the known universe. Crash, smack, boom! (Call it the Big Bang if you will.) God broke into a gazillion pieces. “Let the dance begin,” she said, and it did. Some of the mirror shards became stars, some people, plants, mountains, mosquitoes. Others became lakes and oceans, trees and turnips.

In a world made of mirrors I often see myself reflected in others. Just now I catch sight of myself in a college-aged Narcissus. Little wisp of a thing, a handful of good intentions held together by a smile. Wide-eyed innocence pasted together of rose petals and dahlia blossoms. I judge him beautiful, naive and gay; I guess him unaware on all three counts. 

He sets my gaydar off. To clanging. Something about his soft  gentle physical presence screams “Y-M-C-A.” Never mind the willowy girlfriend clinging to his arm. Wishful thinking. I see in him my former self—my repressed, sublimated, clueless, closeted youthful self. You have a long road ahead of you, young man.

My husband Dave and I are serving as volunteer staff at a conference for students from my alma mater, a conservative evangelical Christian college that gives new meaning to the word “conservative.” Last fall, after 166 years of outlawing the practice, the university amended its rules to allow students to engage in social dancing—on a limited basis. The school is equally forward-thinking on LGBT matters. In my eight years there as student and later as staff member, I found zero tolerance and acceptance of LGBT people. I doubt they’ve changed their stance.

Dave engages Narcissus in conversation. I keep my distance, listen in as Dave asks him where he’s from, the name of the town. “What's your major?" 

"Christian Education," Narcissus says. He plans to go into the ministry. 

Gay, gay, gay.

I listen to them talk about Dave's career path. Dave doesn't at first reveal that he is an ordained minister of many years standing; instead, he says he graduated with a social work major, though never worked as a social worker. Dave attended a nearby sister school—small, very Christian—then seminary. 

"Oh, you went straight on through." 

“No,” Dave says. “I went into military service, then did some other things before enrolling in seminary.” He served in the Air Force, he says, his choice to avoid being drafted into the Army. Couldn't see himself killing Vietnamese people. He signed on as a medic and was put into data automation for two years, then another two in drug rehab for troops returning from the front with addiction issues. 

"I've thought about going into the military," says the earnest young man. "My father and grandfather were military men." 

Child, they would eat you alive.

It comes out that Dave pastored, then used his listening skills and other social work training in his role as chaplain with hospice for 25 years. They talk briefly about the role of listening. 

Dave offers priceless advice. I hope Narcissus can hear it. "When I was in the pastorate, I learned people didn't care about my theology, or all the book learning I had from seminary. They wanted someone to listen to them, to hear where they were at, what they were struggling with.”

Do you hear him, eager-sincere-clueless youth? When people are hurting they want you to be real, to give of your true self; they don’t care what you know, how closely you subscribe to doctrine. They want you to be the mirror of the divine, reflect their own divinity back to themselves. Look in the mirror, dear. See who you are. Know that what you have to offer others begins there.


Photo credit: 

01 October 2013

Life is a Movie, Not a Snapshot

film reel with caption Your Life

“No! Stop! Tom! Don’t sit down! Tom!”

The yells of my fellow audience members roused me from my reverie. Wedged against a wall, I’d drifted off whilst our speaker wrassled his computer and fritzing audiovisual equipment. More than 20 of us amateur genealogists had crowded into a small classroom to learn how to digitize old family photos and other media.

 Tom, a graybeard of ample girth, had begun his presentation in a booming authoritative voice. “Now, if any of you inherited the cache of family movies as I did, you know that not everyone adopted the 32 mm standard at the same time. Film comes in various sizes. Same is true of other media.”

 I wondered if he was going to suggest we run old family films through a scanner one frame at a time. (He didn’t.) He moved onto other subjects but soon instructional technology failed him. First to go was the overhead projector, then the scanner, then his computer. During the down time I pondered an analogy I’d heard long ago, how life is much more like a movie than an individual photograph.

 Movies, of course, consist of a series of single still-frame shots presented one after another in such rapid succession that boundaries blur and we see the disparate frames as a unified whole. Wander into a film half-way through and hit the pause button or isolate a given frame, snip it out with scissors and project it onto a screen, and you’ll have trouble making sense of what you see.

 Who are these people? What is their relationship? Where are they? What are they doing?

 Hard telling.

 And yet we do tell every day. I do, anyway. “Damn fool!” I shout after the reckless motorist who passes me on a hill. With two words I sum up his driving ability, regard for others, value to society, dim prospects for long life here and hereafter. Or I ascribe undeserved power to troubling life circumstances: “This is it. This is who I am," I mutter. "Nothing will ever change.”

 Yet I err when I take life out of context—mine or someone else’s—when I focus on a single frame and say, “this moment is the entire story.” Life is a movie. There's always more to consider, see, puzzle over. Every moment is part of a larger story. Not until it's over sometimes do I make sense of the play, movie, song, book, life. Not always then.

 As I mulled these thoughts over I heard our presenter threaten to take his computer out to the sidewalk and drop it on end a few times. “It’s made me look like an ass,” he said. The scanner had stopped working the very moment he’d unveiled his pièce de résitance, an image his grandfather had captured on a Civil War-era glass plate negative. He’d meant to demonstrate how to scan such images. When he’d laid the rectangle of glass on the scanner bed he’d gotten no response from the machine. Gingerly, he removed the glass plate to his chair's seat cushion, then rattled scanner cables, pressed buttons, poked around. Next the computer quit on him. More invectives. At last he rebooted the demon and voilà, victory was his.

 Triumphant, he went to take his seat, begin anew. The room erupted in warning shouts.

 “Tom! Stop! No! Don’t sit down! Wait!”

 He froze midair, his ample buttocks three inches and a half-second from landing on the antique glass negative.

 A collective sigh of relief went up even as some wag broke the tension with a stage whisper, “that negative would have had one big crack on it.”

My crib notes from class: Watch the big picture. Don’t overlook the individual frame. Crack jokes.