Thursday, November 21, 2013

Never Been to Spain

I am applying for my first passport. I'm 34 years old.

I've never been outside of the United States.


"He had never even been to Canada! How is that possible? Even drunk, on a dare, you make it to Canada!" - Lewis Black, discussing that George W. Bush had never been outside of the country prior to being elected president.


This is not something I'm proud of. If I'm with a group of people, in fact, and the discussion turns to international travel, I either get quiet, or try to change the subject the next available opportunity. I'm ashamed of this, actually.

It's not that I've never had the desire, I've just never gotten around to it.


The discussion turned to international travel on our second date. We were a couple drinks in, at a bar waiting to watch my friend's band play.

She had been to London, Mexico, Dublin, Nicaragua. She tended to eschew the typical tourist locations, favoring a more authentic experience.

"What about you? Where have you been," she asked.

"Well, that's my dirty secret," I said. "I've never been out of the country."

I was afraid this would make me appear much less appealing, and kill my chances with her.

"Well, we can work on that," she said with a smile.


My family did not go on vacations when I was growing up; we rarely went outside twenty miles of our rural town in southern Illinois. My first trips outside of Carmi were church trips: An hour or two away to perform our Christmas show at another church. When I joined the youth group later, we would take summer trips to North Carolina, or Gulf Shores, Alabama, or to Kansas City, Kansas.

I remember being awkward on these trips for a variety reasons. One was, my family rarely went out to eat, not even to fast food places like the McDonalds or Dairy Queen in our town. So the first time the youth group went out of the city, and I sat down at a Cracker Barrel somewhere near Springfield, I stared at the menu and wasnt sure what to do.


Ironically, maybe, my favorite TV shows growing up were all about travel: Quantum Leap, Sliders, Star Trek: TNG.

Time travel, parallel world travel, space travel. Not realistic travel, but travel nonetheless.

These shows weren't enjoyable to me strictly for the content of their episodes. They unlocked my imagination in powerful ways. I fantasized about traveling to the past, to different versions to our world, through the stars to other worlds.


It occurred to me only some months ago that maybe the reason I enjoyed these shows so much - especially Quantum Leap - is that their heroes were people who were otherwise brilliant, but often awkwardly interacting with their surroundings because they were the proverbial fish out of water that didn't quite have a grasp of what was going on.

I often felt like the funny, smart, friendly person I felt like I was in private was frequently locked away in public, in situations where I apparently didn't understand the social rules. 


Let me be straight with you: This experience does not exist entirely in the past; I still sometimes feel this way. But I do feel like I'm now more akin to Sam Beckett from the latter seasons of Leap: I've gotten better at faking it.


The realization came to me some years ago that for someone who apparently loves the idea of traveling so much, and seeing strange new alien worlds, its unfortunate that I havent taken any opportunity to explore the amazing destinations of our own world.


Betsy and I had been planning for the last several months to go to Mexico, either sometime this fall, or in the spring of 2014. Then a couple of months ago, the airfares to Dublin, Ireland dipped low for trips in the spring. Travel sites started sending out e-mails. Betsy forwarded one to me in the afternoon, and we exchanged a few not-serious, wouldnt this be nice e-mails about it. But we got home from work that night, started drinking, started talking about it, and before we knew it, we had figured out a way we could make it work.

Before we booked the tickets, Betsy asked if I was sure about not going to Mexico, because I had seemed so excited about it. I told her, frankly, I had just been excited about getting out of the country, finally. Mexico would be nice, sure, but that it was kind of an easy destination. If we could go overseas for a comparable price, I would much prefer to do that.


I do have my fears about traveling outside of the country, being a fish out of water being awkward and potentially embarrassing myself somehow. But I cant imagine going another year and not getting outside of the states.


Im applying for my first passport. Im 34 years old.

I plan to get good use out of it. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Old Trailer

That old trailer was manufactured in 1959. When my old man bought the lot it sat on in 1975, it wasn't his intention for his family of four to live in it. The family was to live in the house on the corner lot next do it. He bought the lot with the trailer because he could afford it, and he liked the idea of no one living immediately next to the Frymire clan, at the corner of 8th Street and Sycamore. The trailer would be used for storage.

Dad didn't do his due diligence, however, and the foundation of the house was rotted, and inhabitable. (He also never took his wife by to look at the place before buying either lot.) The family moved in the trailer, and the old house was eventually torn down. For the next 22 years, though, remnants of the house's foundation remained. Rows of concrete about two feet high and a substantial number of bricks left from the house made for a veritable personal playground for my sisters and me, and my friends. We would play catch and tag and frisbee in the yard of that corner lot. As a grade schooler, I would imagine the fortress I would build on that lot once I had the means, a fortress that would have several floors, with an elevator large enough to carry my car - something of a mix between the Batmobile and Kitt from Knight Rider - up floor to floor. The inside looked somewhat like the batcave from the 1960s version of Batman in my mind.

For a few years, between 1983 and when my sister, Susan, went off to college in 1987, six of us lived in that trailer. You can imagine the shape it was in, being so old. Neither the "front" nor "back" door (both were on the same side, of course) locked properly, but we did the best we could with padlocks. It was never burglarized, but could have easily been. Whenever there was a thunderstorm, wind would sweep around the metal of the structure with a sound that terrified me. But the sound the rain made on the tin roof was beautiful. When the weather got really bad, and there was the threat of a tornado, sometimes Dad would have us go to Wal-Mart, sometimes to the concrete structure of the grain elevator where he worked.

By the time Dad passed away in 2002, the degradation of the structure was severe. Mom soon after moved into a house that Susan and her husband, Mark, bought for her. Susan took ownership of the lots and within a couple of years, the trailer was demolished, all remnants of the garage was removed (which Dad and Mark had torn down in the 90s when the old man feared the next good snow would cave the roof in), all the of concrete from the corner lot was taken away, all the trees were cut down, and all their stumps were removed. Susan still owns the property to this day. My other brother-in-law, Matt, regularly mows it and keeps it maintained.

Even though the lot is just a few blocks from the house Mom moved to, now the house where my oldest sister, Kim, lives since Mom passed in 2008, I had not been to the property in years when I decided to walk down and visit it on Christmas Day, 2009. I walked over to the lot around nine o'clock at night.

I can't tell you what compelled me to do so, at that hour, but I can tell you that growing up, I loved taking walks around town at night, especially down Main Street, and try to imagine what the city looked like in older times, decades earlier; what it would be like to time travel and walk down the mostly empty sidewalks of downtown at night during its different eras.

I guess you could say my walking down to visit the lot that night was an attempt at time travel.

As I approached the lot, I tried to determine where the sidewalk had been, the one that lead from the curb up to the concrete steps and the front door. With all the trees and stumps gone, with the driveway that divided the two lots overgrown and gone, it wasn't easy. I made my best guess, and walked up the sidewalk that was no longer there. I stepped in the area where the trailer had been. Moving around in different memories, unstuck in time.

I was vaguely aware of the front door of the house across the street opening. The red brick house directly across the street had been, and as far as I know, still a rental home, all my years growing up. A number of families came and went from there. It's current resident, probably a guy my age, but one I hadn't grown up going to school with, was watching me.

"Hey, can I ask what you're doing?"

Now, on one hand, I can see this from this guy's point of view. Nine o'clock at night, middle of winter, here is this odd guy in a big winter coat and hat pacing without clear purpose in an empty lot, in a not-all-that-great neighborhood.

It would have been very easy for me to turn to him and say, "Hey, my name's Dennis. Yeah, this probably looks weird, huh? I grew up in a trailer that used to be on this lot. My sister still owns the property; she knows I'm here. I'm just taking a way down memory lane, as lame as that sounds. Sorry, I didn't mean alarm anyone."

But on the other hand, now, fuck this guy. I grew up here. He was probably just another renter who had been there maybe a few months, and would probably be gone in a few more. What the fuck business is this of his?

And that's the hand I went with. I wasn't confrontational. I didn't even look at him. I just held my arm out, pointed to the ground in front of me, and said in a way that indicated this was the only explanation I intended to give on the matter, "I lived here." I was aware that I was adopting the stand-offish, stoic tone my old man often had. I was channeling him. As I've aged, I've been aware of adopting certain mannerisms and phrases of his, but I've never felt more like I was becoming him than in that moment.

"Okay," he said. "If you don't leave, I'm going to call the police." He wasn't angry or confrontational himself, just a guy concerned about the strange person stalking around the empty lot in his neighborhood.

I ignored him, kept pacing.

He went back inside.

I walked around a little more, still lost in my own world, but I knew the guy was right, I was in the wrong, and I should leave. Even if I did have permission from my family to be here, I was scaring at least one person in the neighborhood, and if the police came, the officer would probably tell me to get some damn common sense, do you know what time it is, I don't care if you have permission, get the hell out of here. So I walked north, up through where the concrete and bricks that had been my childhood fortress, and I turned and headed down Sycamore.

As I came to edge of the lot, I heard the guy come back out on the porch. "Hey, I just want to let you know, I called the police." My back to him, I just held up a hand acknowledging that I heard him, and kept walking. About three blocks later, sure enough, a Carmi police car drove past, headed to answer the man's call.

My attempt to time travel back to the home of my youth that night thwarted.

I haven't tried again since.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Happiness, Revisited

The shaving habits of the chrome-domed Frymire:

I've been shaving my head regularly since 2002. I've let it grow out for the occasional show, and it looks awkward as hell. It looks like this:

For the most part, however, I've been bald for eleven years. 

I shave two to three times a week. On one hand, it's inconvenient because it adds about fifteen minutes to my morning routine. On the other hand, there's something very therapeutic about it. The feel of the shaving gel on my scalp, the feel of the razor scraping against my skin, sweeping away the stubble and foam in neat rows. 

After getting some particularly bad news a few years ago, I found myself in the bathroom, showering so the steam could open my pores (a necessity due to my sensitive skin), and standing in front of the mirror running a razor over my head before I was fully conscious of what I was doing. 

I buy the best brand named razors and shaving gel, because I don't fuck around with my best asset, appearance-wise. 

A few months ago, I finally bought a tablet, an iPad mini. Now a part of my shaving routine is watching something on Netflix. I recently watched almost the entirety of the third season of "Louie" while shaving.  


There are various Ted Talk series on Netflix. This morning, I stumbled upon one from the "Life Hack" series of Ted Talks. This one is one the science of choosing to be happy instead of trying to let your work or career determine it instead of the other way around. I found it to be a great compliment to what I found myself reflecting upon yesterday.

The secret of happiness for better work

I recommend taking the time to watch it in its entirety. Mr. Achor is a funny and engaging speaker, and I found myself laughing out loud several times through this (sometimes a less-than-smart thing while shaving. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Happiness Pie

Last night, I was pondering out loud what to write today. Betsy suggested I write something light-hearted, pointing out my recent posts had been somewhat heavy. 

"When you write, you tend to spread your sad around," she said. 


I've blogged off and on the last few years. I've long ago recognized that while my Facebook updates tend to be light-hearted, and clever (hopefully), and happy, my blog posts tend to be more contemplative, and yes, sad. 

The same goes for my live storytelling as well. Some of my tales are light, happy fare, but most gravitate towards the darker parts of my life. 


I spend a substantial time scanning my news feed on Facebook most days. There are plenty of happy posts and pictures to go around, but if I had to put a name to the overall trend I sense, it would be "Making the best of a bad situation." Even in the clever and witty updates, there's an underlying sense of dread, anger and sadness. 

There are posts about the national and world scene, about injustices carried out by the better off, murders at the hands of those sworn to serve and protect us, flailing legislation from old white men threatened by the inevitable equality of women and minorities. 

On the more intimate level, there are passive-aggressive missives against the bit players in our lives; the guy on the train who wouldn't surrender his seat to the eight-month pregnant woman, or the BMW that almost mowed us down in the intersection. Posts about the bosses and co-workers who use their stations to belittle us and make us feel less than. 

And, of course, posts suggesting hurt brought on by the ones closest to us. Posts about lost and unrequited love. 

All the while we post profile pictures of us looking our best, cover photos of the exciting places we've been or the incredible things we're doing, and Instagram photos of the delicious food we're eating. 


Late in the movie Cool Hand Luke, Luke (Paul Newman) escapes from prison. Months later, he sends his buddy on the chain gang a photograph of him on the outside. He's wearing a black tux, the tie undone, drink in hand, surrounded by beautiful women in cocktail dresses. 

"Living the good life," or something like that, the short note attached says. 

When Luke is recaptured, the first thing his buddies ask him about is that photo. When they won't shut up about it, he confesses: The photograph was a phony. The outside had been a couple of horrible bosses, a crummy life. But he spent a month's pay on having that picture staged so he could fool the guys into thinking his life on the outside was otherwise. 

Sometimes, I think that's the best metaphor possible for how we use social media. 


In 1996, the sketch group The Kids in the Hall released a movie called Brain Candy, which is either brilliant or claw-your-eyes-out horrible, depending on your sensibilities. The premise of the movie is a scientist who creates a pill that, immediately upon swallowing, locates your happiest memory, re-creates the elation you felt in that moment, and locks it in permanently so that's how you always feel. 

The best sequence in the movie may be its opening, which introduces a number of characters who reflect on the infinite sadness of life. Some memorable quotes I can remember form that sequence without have  to look it up on YouTube. 

"Life is short, life is shit, and soon it will be over."

"(translated from German) The nipples of Mother Hope have run dry."

Most succinct: "Fuck Happy."

The guy who says this last one later gets on the drug and releases a joyous song called Happiness Pie

Of course, there wind up being disastrous side effects to the drug, and you can guess how the story goes. 

The moral: There is no such thing as permanent happiness. 


[Insert a Tyler Durden quote of your own choice here.]


As a rule, artists tend to be the saddest, most contemplative people I know. On the flip side of that, they also seem to be the people who are able to express the good, and happiness and joy in life most beautifully. 


Things that make me happy:

Going to a job every day that's a little off the beaten path, not sitting at a small desk in a cubicle. 

The fellowship of funny, talented bad asses, both in-person and online. 

Living in a city where my cultural and entertainment choices are virtually unlimited. 

Coming home at the end of the day to a beautiful, thoughtful fiancé waiting for me with a smile and a kiss.

Falling asleep with her, and rolling over in the morning to see her lying next to me. 


We're all doing our best, but underneath, there's some sadness and anger in all of us. 


I can't start to trust a person until I see a little of their sadness show through. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thoughts On Touch

This I believe: We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth. 

- Virginia Satir


Carl McVey was coroner of my hometown for over thirty years. He was the pillar of the community, maybe more so than any other person from Carmi in my era.

He came to speak to my junior year journalism class once, and he told us the toughest part of his job was having the unfortunate duty of going to someone's home to inform them of the unexpected death of a loved one. One of the students asked him, what can you possibly say to someone in a situation like that to comfort them. 

His response was "in times when all words fail, I'm a huge believer in the power of touch." 

I'm paraphrasing, of course. It's been over 18 years. But that sentiment has stuck with me since.


The first time I really experienced the power of touch, however, was when it was absent.

When my wife and I separated in 2006, she left Chicago just two months after we arrived. The only people I knew in the city were through improv, who were great to joke and drink with, but not much for emotional support and all that. After only a couple of weeks of being alone, night after night in a one-bedroom apartment that now only had a futon and a couch, the muscles of my body physically ached. When I slept at night, I clutched a pillow tight to relieve the soreness. This was reflex; I didn't really think about what I was doing, but I knew why it was happening.

The first woman I held after my separation was a one-night stand set up by a mutual friend. The friend knows me well, fortunately, knows that one-nights aren't really my thing, and knew sex was was a distant second to my simple need for touch, and communicated that to my date. 

At one point during our encounter, I squeezed her so tight, she stopped and said, "It's been a while since you've been held, hasn't it?"

"Is it that obvious?" I asked.

The look on her face was all the answer I needed, but she still said, "Um . . . yeah."

The sex was almost an afterthought.


I've always been particular about how I am touched. I like solid, firm touch. In some situations, I enjoy light, feathery touch, but not often. A point of contention in one of my past relationships is no matter how often I explained this, she would give me light touches repeatedly, as if she did it enough, I would eventually like it.


Betsy's and my bed time routine: She lies with her head on my shoulder and my arm around her until she senses I'm nodding off, because I always nod off first. She'll then kiss me good night and roll over to her side of the bed, most nights listening to a podcast on her iPod. (Stuff You Should Know, with hosts Josh and Chuck, is her favorite. "Go listen to your mens," I'll say. And yes, I say 'mens' with an 's', but I'm not sure why.)

We may touch briefly if we wake up throughout the night, maybe even hold hands a short while, but most of the night, we're on our own sides of the bed.

One of the many reasons Betsy and I work is we're similar in how we like to be touched.


I don't give Betsy as regular massages as I should, considering what I do, but I'll usually rub her back for a minute or two while she sits in bed and writes in her journal. She offers to return the favor, but I know I would start getting particular about hitting this point and that, so I usually decline.


work in a profession that is complicated because people often have a difficult time delineating between caring touch, therapeutic touch and sexual touch. This is particularly the case in America, where massage establishments are often a front for prostitution. This often results in even otherwise intelligent people feeling they have license to degrade me and my profession. 

Even employers I've had. 

Even friends of mine. 

I used to call friends out on this, but I don't anymore. Partly because it's a headache, partly because it occurred to me some time ago that those most egregious in this regard have non-existent or unsatisfactory sex lives, and their words are merely a display and a by-product of this. 

When I taught at a massage school, I had a Hungarian student that was baffled by this aspect of American culture. In my country, there is no such nonsense, she said.   


Being a male therapist, my appointment book is almost always the last to be filled compared to my female colleagues. I have to be hyper-aware how my touch is conveyed when I work with female clients. It's known at one clinic where I work that if a female client makes an accusation of inappropriate touch against a male therapist, the clinic will likely have to take the side of the client, for liability reasons.  


It just recently occurred to me that the last time I felt my healthiest was four years ago, when I was in massage school, and getting massages regularly. As much as I preach the need for massage, I am not good at taking care of myself. This is common among therapists, and I'm resolving to change that in myself. 


It is my belief the world would be infinitely more peaceful if everyone gave and received a daily back rub, if even just for five minutes.


Touch has a memory. 

- John Keats

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Show Must Go On

I was sitting at my desk in customer service when Nancy called my cell. She had been calling with regular updates on Mom. I stepped into a storage room a few feet away and took the call.

Earlier that morning, Mom had another stroke, this one massive, and she wasn't going to wake up again. It was just a matter of time before "the body catches up with the soul", as she said one doctor put it. Everybody should get there as soon as possible to say goodbye.

I  left work immediately to go make arrangements to get to the hospital in southern Indiana.

It was the beginning of March. Just a month shy of the sixth anniversary of Dad's passing.

My first call on the Brown Line train to Lakeview was not to an airline or to Amtrak. It was to the director of the show I was in. It was a Friday. I had a show that night.

I told the director the situation. I needed to leave town right away to go be with my family. He asked me to give him a few minutes while he made a call to the artistic director of the company. He called back just a few minutes later. Unfortunately, he said, they had to ask me to stay that night and do the performance, and they could find a replacement for me for Saturday.

I said okay.

That night on stage, I had simulated sex with two drag queens, bared my ass wearing a hospital gown, and was told I had herpes in a scene that may have garnered a snicker or two out of the twenty audience members in attendance.


In the five years since, I've told myself at various times I agreed to stay that night as a coping mechanism, or more accurate, an out. That I hoped Mom would pass away before I got there, because I had stood at Dad's bedside and watched him pass, and I didn't want to go through that again.

That's what I've said at times, but I don't think it's the truth. I think the more pathetic truth is my sense of theater professionalism was so strong, I thought it was my job to stay in town and do a show despite my family's tragic circumstances.

My pay for this "job" I stayed for was more or less the standard for a small, storefront theater production in Chicago: A $75 stipend for a six week rehearsal process and a four week run.


My mom passed, we put her in the ground, I came back to Chicago, and the show went on. At the conclusion of the run, I was the only non-company member to help with strike. A few months later, they asked me to join the company, which I did.


The situation with my mom's passing wound up being moot, in a way: She held on for several days longer than the doctors thought, and my sisters and I were sleeping at her bedside when she passed. But years later, it's hard to wrap my head around how I handled the situation. If, God forbid, something tragic happened now while I was in a show, there would be no discussion with anyone about whether or not I could leave town, I would just leave.

My sense of what theater professionalism means, at least in regards to non-paying storefront, has changed. Yes, of course, treat the work and your colleagues with respect and dignity. But real life comes first. 

I am no longer with that company. For the last few shows I was with them, I did not show up for strike because they were always on Sunday, which I worked, and I couldn't justify sacrificing a day's pay for such, particularly at a time when money was tight. There were other factors in why the company and I needed to part ways, but I sensed this was a point of resentment towards me from some. 


A show I was in closed yesterday. Set strike followed immediately after, and the entire cast and crew chipped in to help. I stayed for about a half hour, and then I took my leave. My reason was simply no more than this: Betsy had been out of town all weekend, I work seven days a week, and our time spent together is usually a stolen hour or two at the end of the day. So I wanted to get home before she did and have dinner waiting for her. I loved this show I just finished. The group of people I worked with were amazing to play with, and I felt a twinge of guilt as I left them still working. 


One of the things I love about Betsy is that she is not involved at all in the theater scene. A couple of her best friends, as well as me, are heavily entrenched in it, so she knows how it goes. She's supportive of what I do, but simply being with her - living with her, being engaged to her - I see the storefront actor lifestyle through her eyes, and I find myself becoming more and more discretionary in how much time I give.

I know this tends to be the natural progression, the way things go. Maybe it has a lot to do with working on one show or another since last March, while also working seven days a week much of that time. And most of the performances of these shows were for audiences of ten or fifteen people at a time. 

The reality of the Chicago storefront theater scene is that it's not only a question of how much talent you have, but how much time and willingness do you have to give that talent away for practically free. 

Right now, I'm not sure how much more of that I have. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

To Remind the Species of the Species

I boarded the Red line train at Fullerton, and the man was curled up in the fetal position in the opposite doorway.

He was disheveled, dirty clothes, maybe late-30s to early-40. 

Everyone else on the train had given the man distance. He appeared to be sleeping at first glance, but shortly after the train pulled out of the station, he stood up, steps unsteady, and tried to engage with others on the train, who either ignored him, or moved away. As the train pulled out of Belmont, the next stop, he got a little more aggressive in trying to get attention. He put his fist in the face of a young 20-something in corporate clothes who was trying to escape the situation with earbuds in, eyes buried in his smartphone. 

The man wasn't trying to be threatening with his fist; it looked like he just wanted a fist bump. He wanted acknowledgment. 

The 20-something pulled away as far as he could in his seat. "No! Don't touch me. Get away." The man moved away. Something similar played out with two or three other passengers. He was getting even more aggressive. I started to look for the Call Operator button. I made eye contact with a guy at the other end of the car, and he indicated that the button was on his end, and he had already pushed it. 

The man had now backed up into one end of the car. A couple of women and another guy sat in their seats, keeping their faces in their phones or books, trying to ignore him. 

I decided to engage him to get his attention. I wasn't going to confront him, just try to chat. I had in mind something a friend had done in a similar situation, a couple of years ago. He diffused what could have been a volatile situation by nonchalantly asking the disruptive person for the time. 

I noticed what looked like a standard white iPhone earbud cord running from the man's front jean pocket, up and tucked into his tee shirt. As I approached, I indicated the cord and said, "Hey, what are you listening to?"

He looked at me, wild-eyed. "Huh?" or something like that. 

I pointed towards the cord again. "Your music. What are you listening to?"

I don't know if he understood me, but he seemed overwhelmed, not sure what to do now that he had someone's undivided, interested attention. Tears welled up in his eyes. He plopped down in the nearest empty seat. He began crying, and talking unintelligibly through his tears. 

I sat in the adjacent seat. "Yeah, man, I know it," I said even though I couldn't make out a word. We were pulling into Addison now, and the man who had pushed the button on the other end of the car was now waiting to flag down security once the doors opened. 

"We're going to get you some help," I said to the man, but I don't think he understood. 

The doors opened and security came. The officer was friendly and got the man off the train and onto the platform with no struggle. As the officer tried to talk to the man on the platform, tried to figure out his situation, the man who pushed the Operator button kept interjecting. 

"He was threatening people. Getting right up in their faces." He repeated it a couple of times over the next couple of minutes.

I didn't say anything, but I wanted to say, "Okay, jackass, we get it. He was being threatening. But he's obviously not in his right mind, and he wasn't intentionally trying to hurt or intimidate anyone. And you're a big guy, just like me. I doubt you ever actually felt threatened. Back off."

(Okay, maybe my actually thoughts in the moment were no more than, "Okay, we get it, asshole. Shut up." But you get the idea.)

The doors closed, and the train made it's way out of the station. One woman on that end of the car looked up from her book. "You handled that really well. Impressive." I thanked her, but I think some of my annoyance at her came through. I was annoyed because - and I admit I could be wrong - she seemed to lack any sympathy for the man just escorted off the train. "Thanks for calming down the rabid dog," she seemed to be saying. I know that may be an unfair judgement, and I know women have to put up a harder exterior in situations like this, but that was my perception in the moment. 

I pulled out my phone and gave my attention to the screen. I didn't want to carry on a conversation about it.


Back in August, Antoinette Tuff, a front office worker in a school near Atlanta, Georgia stopped a school shooting when she engaged the gunman in conversation. She told him stories of her own struggles, and encouraged him that he could overcome his own. She was the go-between for the entire conversation between the gunman and the cops outside the school. She prevented what could have been yet another mass shooting in a school by seeing the man with the gun as a human being who needed help instead of a monster, as terrifying as the situation was. 


A quote that's been thrown around on social media so much now, it's sentiment has been diluted, almost white noise in our news feeds: 

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."


When we live in a city, we get used to seeing unstable individuals on an almost daily basis. If we see them coming on the street, we try and avoid them. If they approach us, we deny eye contact, and walk by. If we're stuck with them on a train car, or a bus, more times than not, we busy ourselves and avert our eyes as to not be engaged. 


Whenever an unstable person who has created a scene leaves the train or bus, whether escorted off or by their own accord, there's always that moment when passengers finally look up and look around, and make eye contact with the other passengers. 

Relief. Maybe an eye roll. A small, shared laugh.

The threat is over.

But sometimes I wonder if we're misplacing where the threat actually is. Maybe it's not our physical safety that feel's threatened. I could be wrong, but maybe sometimes we feel threatened because the unstable person is a reminder that most of us are just a few bad breaks in life away from being the same as them. 


One of my favorite plays in college was The Boys Next Door, by Tom Griffin, about four men with mental disabilities that live in a group home. In one scene late in the play, Lucian, the character with the most profound disabilities, has to speak in front of a state panel to prove his mental state. As Lucien stands to speak, he gets nervous, he starts muttering, retreats into himself. And then the lights shift, and all evidence of his mental disability begins to slip away, and Lucien gives a frank, eloquent, and heart-breaking description of what it is like to live trapped inside his mind. The last words of the monologue have stuck with me over 15 years.

"I am here to remind the species of the species. I am Lucien Percival Smith. And without me, without my shattered crippled brain, you will never again be frightened by what you might have become. Or indeed, by that your future might make you."

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

How Brave Would I Be As a Gay Person?

"At the end of the day, what this bill is about is love, it's about family, it's about commitment," said sponsoring Rep. Greg Harris, clutching an American flag he said was sent by a supportive soldier stationed in Afghanistan. 

Source: Chicago Tribune


There is now marriage equality in Illinois. 


A few weeks ago, I had a dream I had a one-night stand with a guy. More accurately, I dreamed I had had a one-night stand with a guy. 

In the dream, I just wrote about it. I blogged it. I posted it online for all to see.

And then I freaked out.

Now, I've never slept with a guy. But I've made out with enough guys on stage (both of us buck-naked in one case) to know either I don't have any gay feelings, or I just haven't encountered the right guy.

What I freaked out about was, it only occurred to me after I posted the blog, after I was away from any means to take it down, that people in my life that don't approve of the gay lifestyle would read it and perhaps shun me. I was trying to get somewhere to take the blog down before the wrong people read it.

When I woke up, it didn't bug me a bit that I had a dream where I had slept with a guy. I've had those dreams on occasion before. What bugged me was how worried I was what some people would think about it.


I come from a very conservative part of southern Illinois, and a very conservative family. Last year, two of my sisters and I had a couple of heated online conversations about gay rights. One childhood friend messaged me to tell me that in recent years, his mom had become lesbian and had a long-term partner, but still, he believed homosexuality was a sin, as if having a gay family member somehow gave him a little more insight on the matter and the right to judge it. At about the same time, one of my childhood Sunday school teachers un-friended me after I posted something pro-gay rights. It's with less frequency these days, but I do see the "I believe in traditional marriage"-type posts in my Facebook newsfeed, mostly from those in my hometown area. 


The take away from my dream a few weeks ago, the fear I felt in that dream, was this: If I had turned out gay, I'm not sure when I eventually would have gotten the courage to come out to my family, and to the people I grew up around. I'm very bold in my beliefs as a straight ally, but perhaps I wouldn't have been as brave if I had to deal with the personal rejection of not just my beliefs, but me as a person. 

All that is to say, I am now in even more awe of my gay friends who live their lives openly and proudly. 

Cheers and congrats on the right to marry. It's about time. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Slaughterhouse-2013, or The Sexual Hunger Games

I cop to the style of this entry somewhat aping Kurt Vonnegut, in particular, Slaughterhouse-Five, which I've been re-reading sections of lately. 

About a year and a half ago, I was back in my hometown Wal-Mart. I was in the book section looking for a particular book, which I was able to find the paperback version of but not the hardback, which was disappointing because I always prefer the hardback version. I decided to buy the paperback version anyway because I wanted to start reading this book, like, yesterday.

My 11-year-old nephew, James, walked up to me, and as we wandered the book section, we ran into Susan, his mom. We just happened to stop right in front of a display of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy.

The 50 Shades of Grey novels are about a recent college graduate who is sexually awakened thanks to her BDSM-loving boss. BDSM stands for bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism. I haven't read a single passage from the book, but I hear the prose is horrible, and for those involved in actual BDSM, it's depiction of certain acts are mild and tame.

I asked Susan if she had heard of the series, and her knowing look said she had and she knew what they were about. Then James announced that one of his classmates at school was reading "that book". He was pointing to the first in the trilogy. Susan and I looked at each other. We asked if he was sure, and he said yes. We made some comments about how inappropriate it was for a someone so young to be reading such a book. It wasn't inappropriate because the writing was bad. It was inappropriate because of sex. 

Then I showed Susan the book I was buying, which is also the first in a trilogy. She had read it, the entire trilogy, and had seen the movie based on the first book, and had tried to get James to read the book, but he wasn't so into it.

The book I was buying was called The Hunger Games. It's about a group of randomly-selected teenagers from the oppressed class in a dystopian future who are forced to brutally kill each other for the viewing enjoyment of the ruling class.


I know I'm not making any new or original observations here, but what's been on my mind a lot the last few days is our culture's weird relationship with depictions of violence and sex. We gladly accept several forms of the former in our storytelling - movies, TV, books. Sex, not so much. We're squeamish about it. Depictions of sex lead to awkward conversations parents don't want to have with their kids. Violence is a lot easier to understand and explain away, for some reason. 


Imagine this: The Sexual Hunger Games. It's a trilogy of books about randomly-selected teens from the oppressed class in a dystopian future who are forced to engage in sexual acts with each other for the viewing enjoyment of the ruling class.

Imagine that. Imagine those book, movies getting made, and how the public would receive them. 


A couple of years ago, I bought my then 14-year-old niece a illustrated book with various bon mots of humorous wisdom for teenagers. I only flipped through the first view pages, honestly, but it seemed sensible, and that she would enjoy it. A couple of hours after I gave it to her, her mom picked up and began flipping through it, and then threw the book in my lap, admonishing me that the book was inappropriate for Sarah, and I should be more careful selecting the things I buy for her kids. Turns out later in the book, there are a couple of sexually-suggestive items. I read them. They were fairly mild, but I agreed they seemed out of place and inappropriate for such a book. At a loss of what else to do with it, I threw it in the trash.


Sarah's favorite TV show, by the way, is M*A*S*HM*A*S*H was a 1970s-80s television situational comedy about a mobile hospital unit facing the daily horrors of the Korean War.  

It's an odd TV show for a present-day teenager to identify as her favorite, but she grew up watching it with her mom and dad, who own the entire series on DVD. 


He has dropped out since, but a few months ago, Charles Hunnam was announced to play Mr. Grey in the upcoming movie based on 50 Shades of Grey. This displeased me because the thought of Hunnam as BDSM-loving douchebag, Christian Grey was at odds with my image of him as murderous motorcycle gang member, Jax Teller, on one of my favorite TV programs, Sons of Anarchy

Sons of Anarchy is a show that surprises me most when at least one person is not killed in any given episode. 


There have been some fantastic, innovative movies in 2013. The only one I have bought advance tickets for? The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Sunday, November 3, 2013

They Don't All Have to Like You

A communication principle I learned years ago in a college class, one that I can't locate the name of now, at least in a five minute Google search, goes something like this: If you like a person - and I don't mean 'like' as have a romantic interest in, but simply like someone - you default to expecting that person to like you back. And vice versa: If you dislike someone, you tend to assume that person doesn't like you either. When you like someone, and you realize the sentiment is not reciprocated, this creates distress. The same when someone likes you and you dislike him; it's difficult to wrap your mind around. I know that sounds like simple common sense, but there's actually a name for that. 

Recently, I've had a couple of instances where I realized people who I held in high regard did not think the same of me in return, when I thought they had. In both cases, I found myself embarrassed. In one case, I still had to be around the individual for a period of time, and I wasn't sure how to conduct myself around the person. I had been friendly and chatty before; I ended up avoiding interaction with the person unless it was necessary. 


When I was in middle school, and a little into high school, I had a crush on a girl in my class who I won't name because honestly we're Facebook friends, and I don't think she reads my updates often, but some of her other friends might, and I don't want to make it awkward. Anyway, this girl was probably my first great adolescent crush (my first crush ever being on the young, pretty bank teller that always gave me a sucker and a balloon with the bank logo on it every time Mom and I went to deposit dad's paychecks when I was a toddler.) My first real heartbreak was in the 7th grade when I watched another guy in my class dancing with her, and then a while later, I overheard the news that she had agreed to "go out" with him. (I used to be Facebook friends with this guy, too, but he deleted me sometime back, probably because I'm a liberal, Obama-supporting, gay-loving kind of guy, and, well, one of the last posts I remember reading from him was an emphatic declaration that toleration for all the funny-looking brown-skinned people must cease.) 

A couple of years later, she ended up dating one of my best friends. He dragged me with them to the movies one night - Speed, starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. I had already taken my seat when they came into the theater, and my friend guided her down the aisle towards me, and she turned to him and said, with no attempt to hide the disgust in her voice, "I'm not sitting next to him." (I was probably the biggest dork in my class, or at least way up there in the running. If I was a girl, I wouldn't have sat next me either.)

It wasn't just that interaction, but a few others after as well that made me self-reflect and realize that I had never known this girl well at all, never had an honest idea of who she was.* I had just fallen for her based on her looks, and I made up a personality for her in my fantasies of what 'going out' with her would be like. I was a freshman in high school, and this was a huge revelation for me, that sometimes we want to like someone so much, we take what little we know about the person, and make up the rest from there.


Here's the thing about the couple of people who I recently realize didn't care much for me: I had not fully learned the lesson from so many years ago in high school. I don't really know either one of these people all that well. I based my opinion of them on a few interactions. Which is not to say they are not good people - as much as learning to the contrary may sting, liking me is not a criterion for whether I consider you a good person - but it is to say, I don't really know them at all, so why should I worry what they think of me?

And the other lesson attached to that is, I have plenty of people in my life who show me often the high regard they do hold me in, and I should focus much more on those people than the others. 

A well-needed lesson I sometimes still need to learn. 


*A final note about that crush from middle school. She's a very lovely person with a beautiful family, still living in my hometown area. The last time I saw her was at the fall festival some years back. We chatted for a while, and she was even kind enough to stick around and watch me compete in the singing competition.