There’s almost always a panhandler at the parking lot entrance to the office supply store across town. It’s rarely the same person, so I think the people who station themselves there must stake claim with a first-come, first-serve approach. Sometimes there’s one person. Occasionally there are two people together. Sometimes the person has a backpack and a tent or a scruffy pet. I’ve seen folks in their early 20s. I’ve seen folks who are probably in mid-life. They’re out there in blazing heat and bitter cold. The dog-eared, cardboard sign, a flap from a box with a Sharpie scrawled message to passersby,  is ubiquitous.

“Homeless. Anything helps.”

“3 kids, please help.”

“Trying to get home.”

“Please help. God bless.”

I stopped by the office supply store yesterday toward the end of my work day.  I had eleventy million things on my mind that I needed to do. Running plans for how my evening would go and when I would put together the tee shirt bags I wanted to create, I got back in the car and pulled up to the light at the entrance/exit of the parking lot.

As you might expect, there was a panhandler on the corner. If I happen to be carrying cash, I share a dollar or two, or a bottle of water in the summer, or a cup of coffee in the winter. Whatever their reason for being out there, heat stroke and frostbite probably don’t figure prominently into their plans. Yesterday, I was so caught up in the planning for the supplies I had just purchased, I forgot to pick up a bottle of water for the man on the corner.

The panhandler was standing by the first car in the stop light queue when I pulled up. He was maybe mid-20s, bearded, wearing a dark tee shirt with some kind of graphic on the front which was obscured by the worn cardboard sign he was holding. I sat at the red light long enough to notice the little pile of his backpack and his sneakers kicked off in the dust on such a beautiful afternoon. I looked at him again—mid-20s, bearded, barefoot with his pant legs rolled up to mid-calf. His feet were a couple of shades lighter than his legs and they looked soft and unsuspecting standing there on the curb of the midway.

He started to walk toward my car, keeping about 3 feet to the side. As he got closer, I rolled my window down and before I could speak to him, he spoke to me, stopping near my door.

“You look mad. Are you mad?” he said gently.

“Who? Me?” I asked.

“Yeah, you. You look mad.”

“Oh. I was just thinking about something.”

My eye swept up and down. There was something about him being barefoot that riveted me. He wasn’t that old…maybe 23 or 24. He could have been an NIU student. Maybe he WAS an NIU student. I wondered who he had been before he panhandled, barefoot in the Office Max parking lot. The questions were quick and blurry. Where had he gone to high school? Did he have a prom date? Did he ever play baseball and go out for pizza with his team when they won? Who dropped him off for his first day of kindergarten?  Did anyone touch his tiny baby feet and speak softly to him? He had feet, he had been a baby, someone brought him onto the planet.  Who was this man before he came to this parking lot?

The red light changed to green. The car ahead of me pulled forward.

“Hey! Don’t be mad, okay? It’s a beautiful day!”

I looked into his face. He broke into a smile, disarming, uneven teeth appearing through his beard. He didn’t come any closer to my window. He wasn’t asking me for anything—he just wanted to talk. I couldn’t stop my own smile in return. His eyes crinkled at the edges and he flapped his sign at me.

“Have a blessed day!” he called, still smiling.

I waved to him, also still smiling, and he shrunk in my side view mirror as I drove away.

Don’t be mad, okay?

I pondered that, struck by his words. I hadn’t been mad. I was simply pre-occupied with something I wanted to get finished for work.  Today. I wanted it done today. It reminded me that an old boss, my favorite boss, used to tease me about how she could always tell if I was thinking seriously about something because it looked like I wanted to kill everyone around me. It took her three years to realize that expression meant only that I was thinking hard, and not that I was homicidal.

I have said for many years that the Universe gives me EXACTLY whom I need at EXACTLY the time I need them. It’s all a matter of listening to the messages.

When I got home, I put the project materials away until morning and took the dogs out to the back yard. I dragged my miniature dirt digging toys out of the garage and made container gardens for my driveway. When I finished that, I sat in my favorite Adirondack chair with a book and a soft drink and listened to the cardinals call up and down the street. I let the project slide from my thoughts and took some time to absorb one of the last evenings of spring.

I got a gift from a strange man who was asking for spare change and I had given him nothing.

It’s a beautiful day. Indeed, it was. If you watch, the Universe brings you EXACTLY who you need EXACTLY when you need them. If you’re really fortunate, as I was yesterday, the Universe will bring you a barefoot panhandler with a charming smile, who will remind you to slow down and just BE. When that happens, don’t be mad, okay?

barefoot

 

 

A yahrzeit candle burns on my counter today, a gesture borrowed from my fabulous former spouse’s traditions and one to which I have gotten quite attached. Today is the 45th anniversary of the mother’s crossing. As I’ve aged, the tumult of this day has diminished and now it more likely and more often leaves me reflective, cresting gently over waves of questions for which I have no answers.

What little memory I retain of her is captured in Urban Tidepool. It is comparatively short, bittersweet, and shadowed by tremendous loss about which it almost never felt appropriate to speak. As a young person, I became acutely aware of how answering any question about her could bring a conversation to a standstill. Some families don’t discuss death easily. Some families and other folks struggle even harder to discuss the loss of a parent with a young child, to help it make sense (don’t worry, it doesn’t), to offer some kind of comfort. Kids pick up those cues sometimes easier than adults think they do, especially the sensitive kids. We understand that it makes conversation easier if we simply don’t speak of those topics, so adults don’t find themselves scrambling for what to say and fearful that they’re about to put their foot in their mouth. Not wanting to create that awkwardness, wanting to protect remaining parents and other people around us, we learn quickly not to bring it up.

Traveling that path myself in the years following, I found the sudden stall of a discussion painful. I found the expression—THAT LOOK—on some grown up’s face unbearable. It does not occur to a seven year old brain that you, yourself, have not caused that stall or that look. Both the stall and the look are byproducts of the fact that we simply don’t discuss death easily.

I am glad to see that some schools have moved away from the practice of “Make this card for your mother for Mother’s Day”. For the first couple of years after her death, my teachers would dutifully do the art class on the Friday before Mother’s Day and deliver that directive.  I would sit there, clutching my crayons like prayer beads, staring at blank construction paper.

“Draw a picture of you and your mom doing something you like to do together.”

My wheels would turn.  Was that based on how the mother could move around before she got sick and the doctors taped her insides to her outsides and she couldn’t really do much? Sometimes it was hard to hug her. If I hugged too tight or at the wrong angle, I encountered a rubbery bag attached to her stomach at just about the level of my head and we all knew right from the moment her insides got taped to her outsides that we had to be super careful how we touched her so we didn’t hurt her or tear the rubbery belly-wanna-be off. Should I draw a picture of trying to hug her? How would I draw a picture of that THING, whatever it was?

Eventually, each teacher realized that I was sitting there like a deer in headlights and offered this suggestion, in an effort to be helpful. “Make a card for someone you think of like a mother”. Usually there were a couple of sidelong glances from other kids sitting nearby—I was the only freak who didn’t have a mother.

That early, I was a pretty decent rule follower even though I was a terrible artist, so I complied, and drew something with a vaguely female stick figure and a shorter, gender non-specific kid, and put some check mark birds in the sky and a big sun, and a flower or two.  I don’t remember that I ever identified who the “someone you think of like a mother” was.  Other kids took their check mark birds and stick people home and taped to them to the front of their stick-figure refrigerators. Mine went in the trash as soon as I was out of line of vision of the teacher.  You cannot patch the bleeding mother wound by making a card for someone else on Mother’s Day and it was torment to be expected to do so.

One of the most difficult things as I aged is that I have almost no independent memory of what she looked like. I can bring up images of her face, yes, but they’re images that I also have on film in an old box somewhere.  It’s not the same as being able to remember her face on my own.

Several years ago, I watched a great Mitch Albom movie called For One More Day. If you haven’t seen it, the premise is that a man has a car accident while on his way to kill himself and in the space where he exists while waiting for the paramedics, he lives an entire day with his mother who had died years prior. I loved it. When the movie ended and I was getting ready for bed, I observed, “Wouldn’t it be weird if that happened? I mean, it’s been so long, I’m not sure I’d recognize her if I got to see her again.”

My dream that night started out in one of my favorite locations—I was in a library. There was a man there with me. I knew the man just well enough to feel comfortable with him and chat.  He asked me if I would go somewhere with him and it was easy to agree, feeling that comfortable. We traveled. It was not a linear travel where we progressed from the library to our next location, but more of a whirring, things-got-blurry and then we’re at our destination kind of travel that dreams are good for.

Our destination was the house I grew up in, where I have not lived for 35 years. It looked exactly as it did when I was a kid, and not as it does now, having driven by it a few summers ago. My travel companion and I stepped inside without knocking. No need to knock. We were going home. We crossed the enclosed porch and stepped into the living room, through the heavy, varnished oak interior door that still had Venetian blinds with maroon webbing covering the single window. Up one step. At that point, my travel companion nudged me to go further and he was going to stay in the doorway.

I took another step into the room. Straight ahead of me, past the furniture that wouldn’t have been there anymore, stood both parents on the opposite side of the dining room table. I noticed it was the old dining room table, the one we had in the house when the mother was still alive, not the one we replaced it with when I was in the sixth grade.  The father stood in front of the picture window that overlooked the concrete pad that passed for a backyard in our neighborhood. The mother stepped away from him and came right up to the edge of the table on her side.

Ignoring my travel companion, I approached the table from my side of the room, keeping it squarely between the mother and me. At the time of this dream, she would have been gone probably 37 or 38 years. The father would have been gone 27 or 28 years. She stood for a moment, then leaned down and rested on her elbows on the tabletop, never breaking eye contact with me.

I had forgotten that movement. She used it when her back hurt, leaning over to take the weight off her spine. I hadn’t thought about the simple position and the tilt of her head and the way her one hip raised when she bent down because of her scoliosis for probably three decades.

Neither one of us moved. Neither one of us spoke. Our eyes locked and I could see every line of her face. I saw and remembered a little mole. She didn’t have to say anything. Just staring at her face, seeing her eyes…she had beautiful eyes…I felt a rush of warmth like I have never experienced. So loved. So known. So THERE.

When I woke, I thought I might lose the dream, as some of them do have a tendency to get fuzzy and fade away the next day. That hasn’t been the case. I’ve retained this dream in detail for years. I retain the image in detail and I fear less that I wouldn’t know her if I, like Mitch Albom’s character Chick Benetto, got a chance to spend another day with her.

There are still questions, as I said. I would have liked to get to know her as a person. Parents aren’t really people when a kid is 7. I would have liked for her to get to know me as a person. I would have liked to create memories, not live through a lifetime with only memories.

I wonder if we’d have been able to hang out after dinner sometimes and have coffee. But not that nasty instant stuff. Yuck.

I wonder if I could have stopped by and visited with my dogs.

I wonder if she would have liked if I cooked for her and brought her stuff from my garden.

I wonder if she would have emailed.

I wonder if I could have told her about my job and the amazing kids I work with and the incredible staff people I’m surrounded by and if she would have known how lucky I feel that this has been my path without her.

I wonder if she noticed when I threw those drawings away in the early days.

Sometimes I wonder if she would know me after all of these years—the days of being a skinny 7 year old with perfect vision are almost a half century behind me. At those moments, I take out the dream and I revisit our old house in South Philly and I look into her eyes and at every line on her face. I crest even more gently over this question because now, down to the bottoms of my socks, I do know the answer to that.

 

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool:

Now she sat up, drawn and bony, but alert. She looked at me with an expression I didn’t understand. “Do you want a Lifesaver? They’re in the drawer there.”

I found tangerine Lifesavers in the nightstand drawer and unstuck one from its litter mates. It hadn’t even fully dissolved and suddenly it was time to go. I wanted to hug her, wanted her to hug me. There were bars in the way, and beyond the bars, tubes and wires connected to big, beeping machines.

My “Bye, Mommy,” was soft, carried on a wave of tangerine Lifesaver.

“Bye, baby. I love you,” again with the expression I didn’t understand.

We returned to the routine of news over the phone or what the father brought home after a visit. Chick and his family left for Virginia. I missed the mother so much there weren’t words for it. I could probably count on one hand the number of nights I hadn’t slept with her in the past couple years. The bed was big and there was no one on the sheepskin mat to call me Grasshopper at the end of Kung Fu or hold my hand while we watched Twilight Zone.

My cousin David and I scraped up enough coins, literally overturning couch cushions to find them, to buy a packet of flower seeds at the corner store. We scratched at the compacted dirt in what passed for a garden in front of our house—an ugly dirt square surrounded by an uglier hedge—gouging out the shape of the letters in her name. When she finally came home, there would be flowers blooming in the shape of her name. Anne. It was my name too, but everyone called me Nancy. We dumped hundreds of tiny seeds into tracks we made with a table spoon and pushed spoonfuls of dirt on top of them. We didn’t know to water them.

… Who knows what was said for the service or even the eulogy? I huddled against Pat and focused on not crying. (Just don’t cry. Just don’t cry.) Bye, Mommy. (“Do you want a Lifesaver? They’re in that drawer.”) I stared at the casket, set in the center aisle, and the singularly absurd thought struck me that I’d never see her again. We had said good bye.

A few rogue tears escaped. Nauseated and fighting tunnel vision, I followed the casket back out of the church when it was over, Pat holding my hand again. On the periphery, my classmates stood like fun-house mirror shapes, still staring. (Just don’t cry. Just don’t cry.) I couldn’t look back. How could they not stare? How could they comprehend this? How could any of us? (“Bye, baby. I love you.”)

Bye, Mommy.

 mom-holding-kids-hand-1024x656

Hello, Lavender Classes of 2018!

Greetings, faculty, parents, family and friends!

I wanted to start off saying thank you for inviting me, but “inviting me” seems so formal. As the first person in DuPage County who was hired specifically to be gay, I am not known for standing on formality. This feels less like an invitation to witness and more like being included in one of the most important milestones you’ll experience.  So forget that part about inviting me. Thank you for including me.

I am now in my 20th year of running Youth Outlook, the only organization in the western burbs that works solely with LGBT youth.  That’s a long time, especially when I stop to consider that when I started working here, most of the drop-in center youth …and ummm…most of you…hadn’t quite arrived just yet.

As I got started in my new job here, we were looking forward to a new show called Will and Grace that actually had openly gay characters. Kids were wearing bellbottom jeans and some cell phones still flipped. Can you believe it? Have you ever seen one of the early cell phones? They’re about as big as your head. You were supposed to be able to plug them into your car but I’ve always driven very small cars. After I burned out my engine a couple of times trying to charge my phone, I just strapped big wheels to the phone itself and used it like a skateboard to get around Syracuse.  I was driving a hatchback at the time—I really couldn’t tell the difference in the ride.

I guessed when I sat down to write that you’re the first graduating class born mostly, if not entirely, in this century.  That’s kind of a fun fact to own. I did a little digging around based on that. The number one song in the country in the year 2000 was Breathe by Faith Hill. Looking back over what has happened since you arrived, that may not be simply a song title. It may be a good suggestion for how we conduct ourselves through the rollercoaster ride that has been LGBT issues for these last two decades.

There are some interesting tidbits to LGBT history and what topics folks of different generations will recall or feel affected by. Sometimes at work, I share about how there were no role models for me as a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s. My view of life was limited at that time to my neighborhood in South Philadelphia and more specifically to the Irish Catholic parish that I belonged to.  We did not speak of LGBT people except in whispers and then in very derogatory terms. My only example of a lesbian was the woman who lived down the street from me, who wore men’s work boots and her wallet on a chain that led to her pocket and just looked constantly angry. I was a little afraid of her. I crossed the street if I saw her coming my way.

Back then, I had no idea I was going to grow up to become a professional lesbian. Really, it only worked out like this because I got bored being an amateur lesbian.  But that’s a story for another time.

I digress.

So I had my little view of the world, but what I didn’t know and couldn’t see yet where the steps being taken in other places that would advance our lives. I didn’t know when I was 11 years old that in New York, Renee Richards (having undergone gender affirmation surgery) challenged the decision to ban her from the women’s US tennis open because of a “woman-born-woman” rule, and the Supreme Court ruled in her favor.

Kids of the 60s may remember the events at the Stonewall Inn when our journey to claim our rights as equals got its feet under it. We haven’t always done such a great job of explaining our history to young LGBT folk so I thought I’d bring you some a little bit.

Kids of the 70s may remember Renee Richards, and openly gay city Supervisor of San Francisco Harvey Milk, and the first openly gay TV character, when Billy Crystal played Jodie Dallas on the sitcom Soap. In 1973, 9 months before the mental health world voted to remove homosexuality from the diagnostic manual as a mental illness, Jeanne Manford co-founded the first PFLAG meeting to let the world know she was proud of her gay son after walking with him the year before in a parade that would ultimately become what we know as the Pride Parade, a memorial to the events of the Stonewall riots. In 1979, more than 75,000 people marched in the first LGBT march on Washington in our history.

Kids of the 80s will recall the horror of HIV and the panic that struck the gay men’s community, and the support that poured into from the lesbian community to take care of our brothers. They will remember the emergence of the bisexual and transgender identities in a new and more assertive manner—people who had been key members of the LGBT movement from the beginning who were rightly insistent that their existence stop being written out of our culture. Our reflection on the night of June 28, 1969 had become a movement, a demand for our recognition as a community and a culture, one in which we refused to be defined by the limitations of a public health crisis.

We haven’t always done such a great job of explaining the early days of the HIV epidemic to young folks, either. Survivors of that time period…particularly gay men…talk about the terror of who might be diagnosed next, misinformation and myths about how the disease was spread, and the catastrophic loss of the deaths of their entire social circles. We have options available medically today that could not have been imagined back then.

Kids of the 90s grew up in the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, a decision that was meant to keep military folks safe and closeted, and it was suggested to us that safe and closeted was an improvement over a dishonorable discharge. While working in a Vietnam Veteran’s mental health clinic, I came to understand that what was said to military personnel while they were serving was a bit different from what I was reading in the news.  During that time, I met gay vets who described being called into private meetings where their commanding officer would say to them, “Now I can’t ask you if you’re gay, but if I DID ask, how would you answer?”

And then…then it happened. Then we had Ellen.

What we see today is not how things got started. Ellen’s decision to come out publicly in 1997 was unprecedented. Her show was canceled. The actor who played opposite her couldn’t get work for a year after playing her role. Oprah, who played her therapist in that episode, got hundreds of messages telling her to go back to Africa.

When I moved to IL in 1998, I had been out for several years, sported a crew cut and had little round glasses that made me look more like Harry Potter than Daniel Radcliffe on his best day. I had a rainbow in the back window of my car, which a friend quickly recommended I remove. I was settling into my gender neutrality, and I was accustomed to a different atmosphere after living for twelve years in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement, and around Syracuse, hovering in or near academic circles of radical feminism.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from IL. I wanted to have fun with this job, creating safe space for young LGBT people in the western suburbs. I hoped for Chicago overflow, similar to NY overflow, to which I attributed much of the free thinking I encountered in Syracuse. That’s not what I found.

This area was soooo different from what I was used to. The western burbs were devoid of rainbow anything. I had never lived anywhere that LGBT people were so invisible. School representatives often refused to speak to me, or hung up on me, or argued with me about the very existence of LGBT youth. Over and over, I was told that high school students were too young to know if they were LGBT. Or if there WERE LGBT students in a school, the counselors got them help, making it immediately clear that having an LGBT identity equated needing help. Sometimes I countered that comment with my own question—Get them help? How about if they just want to make friends?

There was exactly one GSA operating in DuPage County. There were none in any of the other counties Youth Outlook serves.  Students were regularly told that they couldn’t take a same gender date to prom. When a faculty member at another DuPage County high school organized the first ever gay prom, the subsequent public outcry called for her termination.  The demand that LGBT students stay safe and closeted, very much like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, was so loud, it often drowned out the rumblings of support from faculty allies.

And then you arrived to join us. You arrived to join us at a time when our movement was gaining traction and we were pushing back against those recommendations that we stay safe and closeted and obedient.  You arrived to the rebellion.

You may not be aware of this yet, or maybe you are, I can’t say for sure…but I wonder….has anyone told you that you are warriors yet?  You are warriors in this social rebellion.

Since you joined us, we have seen the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. We have seen the end of the Defense of Marriage Act. In 2000, Vermont become the first state to legalize civil unions between same gender couples and in 2015, probably just as many of you were starting to learn to drive, we saw the outcome of the Obergefell lawsuit, allowing same sex marriage.

As you head out on your next adventures, remember that. Take it with you tonight that you have a long, beautiful cultural history as part of the LGBT and allied community. You belong to a movement where you…where we…have always been recognized as an important part of the effort, where we are warriors working for social change, sharing our knowledge and our sense of belonging with the next generation down, and the next, and the next.

To summarize:

Remember your history.

Remember that you are a key part of the movement that helps shape our shared future.

Remember that you are a warrior.

Even though you are a warrior, remember to be kind. We all need each other to be kind.

Remember you have a tribe.

Remember to be someone else’s tribe. We need that too.

Remember Faith Hill’s suggestion and BREATHE when things feel like a rollercoaster.

And whatever you do, never, ever leave home without your cell phone charger.

Congratulations, Lavender Classes of 2018, and welcome to the rebellion!

caps in the air

Of Superhero Capes and Chemo

Posted: April 9, 2018 in Uncategorized

From the archives, in honor of Lorrie’s birthday and her battle.

Urban Tidepool

I met one of my favorite people when she was just finishing up chemo for breast cancer. She was interested in volunteering at the agency where I work, and we met to talk about the jobs that volunteers were doing and the time commitment that might be involved.

I’ve mentioned this before in other blog posts. Some people throw light. It’s a warm, peaceful feeling to be in the presence of that light. My new friend Lorrie threw light like that. She led with it. I noticed it the first time we sat together over coffee, talking about LGBT kids. She was magnetic.

When she asked if it would make a difference to the kids that she came to a drop-in center wearing a headscarf, I told her I thought the kids would place more value on the fact that she was showing up to be supportive of them—they were…

View original post 936 more words

When last we parted company, starfish supporters, we were chatting about my dubious status as an athletic carbon-based wonder and my adventures in the marine world that left me with seaweed down my Tweedle Dum pants and arguing with the control panel of a nervy lap pool that had just blown my board shorts off. My aquatic prowess  is impressive. I move like a manatee with a hangover. The fact that I also move like that on land is worthy of its own post sometime later. In the meantime, there was another topic that occurred to me to explore with y’all.

Today’s post won’t apply to all readers.  Please take what you wish and leave the rest here.

This whole aging process is a kick, turning into an adventure in and of itself, wondering what my body will (or won’t) do next. I’m fascinated by the fact that no one really tells us what to expect as we move up in age. I think we’re supposed to absorb that information by observing folks around us who lead the way.

I became suspicious that aging was sneaking up on me one morning when I peeked in the mirror and noticed that the lines I’d seen on my sister’s neck  had mysteriously crept into my house overnight and attached themselves to MY neck. Alarmed, I called her to ask if hers were missing and did she want these back. Always the colorful character, she responded with, “Up yours!” and hung up on me.

The day I glanced down at the steering wheel and saw my father’s hands instead of my own almost caused a five car pile-up.  At first, I thought I was stuck in A Tale from the Crypt, but then realized A) I probably read way too much Stephen King and B) it was just my new friend, the aging process, making itself known in another way.

Now, gardening season is almost upon us. There’s nothing I like better than gardening season. I’m ready. Tiny green things? Put me in, Coach!  Oh wait. I’m going to need a nap first. Until August.  That should do it. It will also make for the shortest gardening season in history. But true to my South Philly roots, if I have to participate in this whole aging thing, I plan to channel the old Italian man who lived down the street from me as a kid. It will require growing roses and then yelling Italian swear words at anyone who gets close to them. “Youse bleeping kids! Get away from my bleeping roses! Bleeping move! Now, bleep it! BLEEEEEEP!”

This messes with your hearing, for sure. People I used to speak to regularly now mumble. To get even with them, I’ve just stopped speaking to them. That’ll learn ‘em. My sister used to accuse ME of mumbling. Now I know what she meant.  Now that we really can’t hear each other, we talk much more often! No, I have no idea about what. Was that a requirement?

It messes with your sleep too. I have all the energy in the world at 3 am and then look and feel like something the dogs dragged in out of the rain at 3 pm. I noticed that as my sleep changed, everything got on my nerves. On my last nerve. In fact, my last nerve was writing advance directives, it was so bad.

A couple of years ago during a conversation with one of the Youth Outlook staff, I found myself thinking, “Go ahead. Keep talking to me and I’ll rip your lips off your face.” I didn’t SAY it. Just the fact that I was thinking it, though, struck me as odd. Who talks that way to that staff person? She’s one the kindest people on the planet. Wow, that sleep disturbance thing can wreck your whole decade. I mean, day. Day. Yeah. Day!

I did eventually mention these odd occurrences to my doc. She laughed. I was not in a laughing mood, given that last nerve writing its advance directives mess. When she stopped laughing…and I do wonder about so many of my health providers having to stop what they’re doing because they’re laughing too hard to continue…she announced, “Oh honey, you don’t have to put up with THAT. I can help you.” That was when I started taking a sleep aid which has created a subplot of adventures all by itself. In the truest sense, yes, it does help me sleep. It’s what I do WHILE I’m sleeping that is of some concern.

Last summer, I went to bed one night and awoke about two hours later. Or at least I thought I was awake. Apparently I also thought it was a good idea to go on Facebook. I don’t know exactly what I was trying to do but I ended up going on to the page of a new acquaintance, capturing one of her photos, reposting it on my page and giving it a status update of “Feeling Fabulous!” Mind you, we were not Facebook friends at the time and I have never in my life used the words “Feeling Fabulous!” as a complete sentence.  The next morning, my phone blew up with texts from friends all over the country. “Who is that?” “Why have you been holding out on us?”  “Who’s the chick?”  I had no idea what they were talking about. Who is who? Holding out on what? What chick?  Because knowing  the photos I normally post on Facebook, we were probably talking about an actual chick. Yellow. Fuzzy. Cheep cheep. You get the picture.

When I went on Facebook to find out what people were talking about, my hair caught fire. Aaaaagggghhhhhh!!! No! No! No! Abort! Abort! I couldn’t message the acquaintance fast enough and fall over myself trying to explain that I was asleep when I did it. Thankfully, the new acquaintance had a good sense of humor and no harm, no foul. The phone needed to sleep in the kitchen after that.

I can’t say the same for that morning at the conference. Last fall, a group of Youth Outlook folks went to a training that was to last two days. Halfway through the first day, the facilitators informed us that there would be a meeting for all executive directors at 7:30 am on Day 2. Oh no. No no no. That’s not do-able. My job is mostly afternoons and evenings and has been for twenty years. I don’t do 7:30 am meetings. No coherently, anyway. I looked around the room and all of the other EDs were nodding yes, of course they’d be there. It seemed a normal request for them.

Not wanting to be the odd man out and very much wanting to do what I could to support my team in this training, I decided I’d have to take the hit and go to the morning meeting. I’d have to time when to ingest my sleep aid so that it would be cleared out and I would be coherent. Coherent is so encouraged in these jobs. Go figure.

So I did. I timed it, got in bed early enough for it to wear off before I needed to get to that meeting. The next morning, I woke up early, knowing I need at least one hour with my feet on the floor before I feel fully alert. I showered, made some in-room coffee, and got dressed. I even managed to dress myself like an executive director. I was on target to get to that meeting on time. The last stop was to pop into the bathroom and brush my teeth before exiting the room. And I promptly brushed my teeth with the estrogen cream in my shower kit.

I guarantee you, it does not taste like mint.

I did still get to the meeting on time, but the entire time I sat there, I wanted to turn to the man from Ohio sitting next to me and drag my tongue up his sleeve to get the estrogen cream taste out of my mouth.

I’ll have you know that at NO time did my doc call that day and tell me, “Oh honey, you don’t have to put up with THAT!”

Unruly neck lines. Tales from the Crypt hands on the steering wheel. Sleep Facebooking. Estrogen toothpaste. There is a LOT to put up with as we age and so few of us see it coming.

What did I come in this room for? BLEEEP!

Probably the most unfortunate thing of all is what my new friend, the aging process, has done to my hair. No, I don’t mean just that it has gone grey. I can live with that. My brother, The Major, had gone entirely white in his late 40s and he looked like a testy Santa Claus. (And he never had the chance to brush his teeth with estrogen cream, dammit!) It’s the OTHER things that this has done to my hair that I hadn’t counted on. For instance, I’ve always had the father’s hairline. Too bad I got the mother’s hair to fill it in, but there’s nothing to do about THAT now. His hairline shifted as he aged, invading lower on his temples until it started to fill in, which is the reverse of how I’ve understood that hair is supposed to behave. I’ve noticed mine doing the same thing, but sadly, it’s doing that at the same time that my eyebrows are greying out and getting harder to see, while the lowering hairline is more pronounced. Yes. It is unusual. It looks like a small stampede of confused fuzzy brown caterpillars fleeing up my temples with one albino caterpillar with alopecia bringing up the rear on either side.

A friend introduced me to one of those neat “color in your eyebrows” magic sticks last year.  I think I got it right. I had to blend the whole front of my head, and that took about two hours so I missed the engagement I was getting ready for, but when it was done, my caterpillars were even and in the right places and I looked smashing…as I spent what was left of the evening feeding popcorn to the dogs and watching Netflix. But my eyebrows were fabulous.

Older friends have teased me for a while about if I was to grow a beard or not. I waited for this alleged beard to arrive and finally came to the conclusion that it might be the only factor of my new friend, the aging process, that I might not have to deal with.  Until that memorable night I was driving home from work and a tractor trailer fell in behind me with its blare-y white lights. I happened to look in the mirror at him but where HE was suddenly was of no interest. I had never had a reason to have such glaring light behind me. Now that it was there, I realized I wasn’t growing a beard—I was growing fine, blonde muttonchops, and when backlit, I could pass for Ambrose Bernside. Or a bleeping Founding Father.

There are a lot of things I’ve aspired to in life. A Founding Father hair-do was never on the list. Actually that’s more like a hair-don’t. For now I will just marvel at it. I have to. I am an aging carbon-based wonder.

geritol

 

 

 

 

 

A chapter from Urban Tidepool

2008

I wasn’t looking for a new site to set up another drop-in center. I already had enough to do without adding one more program. But when I was asked to apply for a foundation grant that would allow us to do just that and hire a program manager, I couldn’t get the paperwork submitted fast enough.

It was when the new Geneva site opened that we all met Michael Fairbanks, a sophomore from St. Charles. One meeting with Michael was all it took to know that he would advance through our youth leadership program without breaking a sweat. Already involved with his school’s Gay Straight Alliance, active in community theater and taking a list of AP classes, he shared his plan to go to law school to become a corporate lawyer to work on inclusion policies for Fortune 500 companies. Michael invited all of his friends to attend the new Geneva drop-in center, bringing new kids with him almost every week. The energy he put into the drop-in center reminded me of working with Blake a few years earlier. He would make this place his own, as Blake had done.

“Michael, there’s a house party that some of our donors are holding for us, and I’d like you to join me to talk about the drop-in center and what’s going on at your school. Interested?”

He nodded. “Can I tell them about the anti-bullying training I’ve been working on and the panel presentation?”

“That’s perfect. Plan on it.”

When Michael took the floor at the party, the lights glinting off his glasses, and started to describe being bullied in his locker room, silence descended on the group. It is so striking that so many adults who grew up being bullied think that our kids are not experiencing similar situations, as if being bullied somehow stopped after the Stonewall movement. Then they hear stories like Michael’s and realize the world hasn’t changed all that much.

“I had to go to my principal and he took me out of gym,” Michael explained. “It wasn’t safe for me to be there. Because of that, we started planning some training with the faculty at their meetings. I did a presentation on gay students’ right to have a safe environment. No one is talking to the teachers about this.”

 

2009

Michael kicked off his junior year with a bang. He served as president of his GSA and president of his French club, balancing his commitments against his youth leadership role with Youth Outlook. We honored Michael at the October gala, presenting him with the first youth leadership award. As an agency, we decided to begin offering that award based on our experience since last year and Michael’s performance as a youth leader. At one end of the room stood several pieces of artwork he submitted for the silent auction. At the other end of the room, a PowerPoint presentation ran, highlighting Michael’s contributions to the agency and noting his semi-finalist’s award for the national GLSEN award for student advocacy on behalf of LGBT high school students.

 

2010

“I wrote a letter to Oprah!” Michael announced.

I looked up, startled. “What for?” I asked.

“For Youth Outlook!” he said proudly. He pulled a folded sheet of paper from his backpack and handed it to me.

I thought he might be joking until I opened it and it started, “Dear Oprah Winfrey.” I scanned the letter. It explained what Youth Outlook was, who Michael was, and why he thought it was important for Oprah to be supportive of Youth Outlook. It was polite, it was genuine, and it brought tears to my eyes. “Did you send this to her?”

“I sent it to the newspaper. It’s an open letter.”

“An open letter!”

Basically, he dared one of the most revered celebrities in the history of television to get to know us. I looked at the letter again. His reasoning was solid. He pointed out that while things were changing, things were still difficult and dangerous and places like Youth Outlook were saving the lives of gay teenagers. He was right. It seemed like something she would talk about on her show.

Michael grinned. “I thought she’d pay attention more.”

 

09 June 2010

Oprah Winfrey

Harpo Studios, Inc.
1058 West Washington Blvd.
Chicago, IL 60607

Dear Ms.Winfrey;

My name is Michael Fairbanks. I am 16 years old and I will be a junior at St. Charles East High School in the Fall of 2010; in St. Charles, Illinois. I am the President of my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and French club; I am the Executive Director of the Gay-Straight Alliance of St. Charles, IL; I am a member of the French National Honors Society, and I am involved in my school’s music department. I am in the Chorale, Vocal Jazz Ensemble and the Chamber orchestra; the most advanced choirs and orchestra in my school. I am an openly gay young man, and as you may know, anything pertaining to GLBTIQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer/Questioning) issues does not go over well in today’s society.

Ever since I have been in middle school, I have always been bullied and harassed due to my sexual orientation. Up until this current school year, the harassment was over the roof; mainly taking place during my physical education class. I have been called a “faggot,” “fag,” “homo,” the “gay boy,” “queer,” and many more. Not only have I been called these very mean and offensive names, but I have also received threats, just because I am gay. This was causing me a lot of stress. It would cause me so much stress that at points I didn’t even want to go to school. Over the summer of 2009, my mother and I met with my school’s administration to talk about making my school a safer place for myself, and students alike. We decided that the best and most safe way for me to get away from the bullying and harassment would to get a doctors note, and have a medical excuse. Currently, I continue making my school a safer place for all students regardless of one’s sexual orientation, or gender identity/expression. I worked with my school’s administration to edit our districts policy on bullying and harassment, by adding “sexual orientation, and gender.” Those terms will be added to the handbook for the 2010-2011 school year. I have also been working on a sign that I have created called the “St. Charles East GLBTIQ Safe Zone,” and I have already spoken at a lead teachers meeting discussing how important it is that teachers are always showing support for the students, and that the students know they can trust their teachers to have a safe classroom and someone to talk to. At the Lead teachers meeting I also talked about dealing with diversity, specifically towards the GLBTIQ community. In the fall, I plan to speak to the entire administration to address the importance of the sign. I am also on the Suicide Prevention/Awareness panel that was presented March 25. I spoke about the risk factors of the GLBTIQ community and how they are four times more likely to attempt/commit suicide than the straight community. The panel was presented in front of a live audience and was also broadcasted through every TV in the school. On July 9, 2010, the Gay-Straight Alliance of St. Charles will be hosting a GLBTIQ”Unity Day,” a day that I created for the community to celebrate diversity in the GLBTIQ community.

Outside of School, I am a youth leader, and the president of the youth advisory board for the non-profit organization, Youth Outlook. Youth Outlook is the reason I am writing you this letter. Youth Outlook is committed to providing a safe, supportive, and respectful environment for adolescents, whether they identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or queer/questioning (GLBTIQ). It is also the only agency in the DuPage, Kane, and DeKalb counties of Illinois dedicated to solely serving GLBTIQ youth. All drop-in centers are open between 6:30-9:00 p.m.. There is group on Monday (DeKalb), Tuesday (Naperville), and Thursday (Geneva and Aurora) of every week. The DeKalb and Geneva groups serve youth who are 14 through 18 years old, or until they graduate high school. The Naperville and Aurora groups serve young adults ages 16 through 20. Youth Outlook provides leadership development, a social space, and wellness education on a variety of different subjects. Some of the subjects include, but not limited to; GLBTIQ issues (Harassment/Assault, Bisexualty/Biphobia, Coming out, Homophobia/Heterosexism, GLBTIQ Culture and History, and Transgender Issues), Health (Anxiety or depression, Drugs/Alcohol, STI Prevention/Treatment, sexual assault, self-esteem, and sex and sexuality), Relationships (Abusive relationships, boundaries, conflict resolution, dating issues, family issues, and negotiation skills), and other miscellaneous social activities. Youth Outlook is what I look forward to every week. When I go to the drop-in centers, the volunteers and staff members are always fun to be around, and I always know I can trust them. I have attended all the drop-in centers (Geneva, DeKalb, Naperville, and Aurora) and I enjoy them all! Recently, in the end of January 2010, Youth Outlook had to let go of their program manager, who was very loved by all the youth and myself, because Youth Outlook lost the funding for his position. Youth Outlook is facing many financial problems right now, and we really need your help. All the money donated goes to the organization, which goes to the youth. Without any money Youth Outlook would not be able to afford certain programs and activities, and Youth Outlook, if it doesn’t have enough money, might not be able to run anymore. I don’t know what I would be able to do without my weekly Youth Outlook. And that is why we need your help. Any amount of donation would be great, and any check should be made out to “Youth Outlook.” Youth Outlook is Youth Transforming the Future.

Thank you for your time, and if you have any questions and/or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Michael D. Fairbanks

 

2013

I booted up my computer and sat back to wait. The dinosaur would take at least twenty minutes before it was ready to work. I opened my calendar and punched the message button on my desk phone to retrieve the waiting messages, scribbling phone numbers down to return calls.

“Hi, Nancy, this is Ashley Rhodebeck from the Kane County Chronicle. I’m calling to get your input on a story I’m doing on the death of Michael Fairbanks.”

What?

 I snapped upright, hands flat on the desktop. Michael? No, that couldn’t be right. Michael?! No! I reached for the phone, then dropped it. As soon as my computer cooperated, I logged on and immediately did a search for Michael’s name. Nothing.

I opened a new tab and launched Facebook. I’d been Facebook friends with Michael’s mother since 2009, when we’d honored him at Dare to Dream. On her page, I read the chilling words that confirmed the reporter’s statement. Michael had died the night before.

My cell phone rang. I snatched it up with shaking hands, thinking I needed to call the Youth Leadership Coordinator before she heard this news in the heartless way I had. I didn’t even say hello.

“Tony, I just got some awful news—can I call you back in a few minutes?”

Tony’s voice cracked. “About Michael.”

I stilled. “You know?”

“One of the kids that used to come to group with him all the time sent me a message.”

He wouldn’t kill himself…He wouldn’t. Not Michael.

 

He didn’t. Michael’s death was accidental.

When I think about what we, as a staff, as an agency, as a community, have lost, I don’t know if it helps at all that it was an accident. It didn’t stop my tears when one of his friends approached his casket and sang “Amazing Grace” to him a capella at his funeral service. He gave everyone around him permission to be exactly who they are, and he wanted nothing more than to be loved for exactly who he was. Michael changed lives, and we are all cheated by this loss. In my heart, Michael will always be sixteen, challenging his school administrators to keep LGBT kids safe and writing to Oprah to ask her to help, this superhero boy whose talents we will never fully know.

I wish Oprah had responded. I think she would have loved Michael.

Michael, Nando, Denise

 

 

 

 

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I am clear on the fact that I will never impress anyone with my athletic ability. That’s been the case throughout my life, even as a young person when I was actively playing softball and racquetball. It’s fun. It moves me around.

People talk about exercise all the time. Parents talk to kids. Teachers talk to students. Doctors to patients. And Michelle Obama to the entire world. Awesome.  I enjoy it when I engage. Plus this is the time of life when doing these big feats (as opposed to big feet, which will end up in a later post) rate some attention.  I am told swimming is also a good option for aging parts and reducing wear and tear but I can admit to some reluctance about swimming.

I have friends who do triathlons. I have friends who used to lifeguard at the beach. Let’s be clear. I marvel at these people. Confidentially, I have also wanted to ask if their toes are webbed, but I haven’t worked up the nerve. I know, I know. I break all the stereotypes about lesbians and being athletically inclined. Or at least having webbed toes. But I digress.

Would now be a good time to describe my last couple of adventures with swimming? Although, I am aware that many folks would not consider the first adventure to be swimming as much as it was… lying around…on the ocean floor. It happened while I was surf casting in North Carolina. I had the requisite casting rod and the requisite chest-high rubber pants that made me look like Tweedle Dum.  In other words, I looked great! Very sporty! Like I knew what the hell I was doing! So, with rod in hand, I waded out into the water and commenced my adventure.

I was quite comfy in my Tweedle Dum pants and feeling distinctly sorry for those fish I was on a mission to land. My feet sunk a little into the sand, the heavy rubber boots settling and the sand filling around them, creating a vacuum.  When the random big wave began to build, I did see it coming, but far too late. It built both speed and height too quickly for me to pull my feet out of that sand vacuum.

I couldn’t do it, and when that wave slammed over me, it hit with enough force topple me backwards, taking me underwater.

There was a problem with that whole underwater thing. Several problems, really.  My chest-high Tweedle Dum pants filled up with water immediately. The second problem was it was the beginning of March in the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of North Carolina. That water was COLD. All of me was COLD. And the third problem, piling on the recognition of the other two problems was that with my Tweedle Dum pants filled up and the pressure of the water on top of me, I was pinned to the ocean floor, and I could not sit or stand up. Nor did I have gills. It occurred to me very quickly that I was going to drown in about three feet of very cold water. I blinked at the absurdity of it and wiggled in the weighted pants to see where there might be a weak spot as I breathed out a stream of bubbles to ascend to the surface.

A burb-bly approach heralded two of my friends who’d been standing on the beach rushing into the surf and disembodied hands grabbed my arms and the Tweedle Dum shoulder straps, dragging me—fishing rod still in hand– upwards and onto the sand.  Earlier that day when I’d proposed going out fishing, they both offered to come. I thought they might get bored standing around talking and watching me fish. Let’s pause to consider how this would have gone on that otherwise deserted beach, had they not opted to chat outside that morning so that they saw when I went down.

I knew it was all going to be okay when the one friend, an Episcopal priest, shoved me into a hot shower rather than offer me last rites. Not that I would have heard her giving me last rites–I had ocean water in both ears and I was distracted by a slight seaweed-y smell.

Yeah. I’m not sure you’d call that swimming. Or fishing! I’d call it a near-death experience but I think that detracts from the near-life experiences that I have most days.

My second adventure with swimming in more recent years was much more domestic.  Friends had a lap pool built and invited us over to check it out. I am now rather cautious about outdoor water, but indoor water still feels safe enough to navigate, so I was looking forward to this. I got all suited up and, following the directions of my host, I approached the front control panel that could have been designed by NASA.

“It’s really powerful, so be ready for it.”

Okay, this I was ready for. I touched the buttons in the sequence he recommended. The jets kicked on with a force that swept my feet out from under me and blew my board shorts right off. I clung to the Oh Dear bar for stability at the front of the pool in just my tank and my shorts bobbed peacefully at the far end.

After shooing my gracious host out of the room, I let the jets carry me to the other end to retrieve my shorts and redressed myself. Then I got out of the pool while the gittin’ was good. That was two for two. Obviously I am not engineered to be off dry land for any length of time.

Yeah. I know. That didn’t qualify as swimming either. But it flattened my spikes and isn’t that one of the evaluating criteria for any kind of exercise?

I get it. You don’t have to compliment me. I am an athletic carbon-based wonder. The wonder is usually about how I get into these situations in non-contact sports!

No_swimming_sign

I make lots of references to the folks I work with on both my personal and my work Facebook pages, often talking about them in terms of being “the dream team” and how proud I am of them and of our work together. I make jokes about how we’re never the team where the boss is trying to catch someone doing something wrong, because I know as sure as I’m standing here that when I see them, I will catch them all doing something right. Being the team leader, I appreciate some moments to consider how I can better do my job, to make them as proud of being involved in our work as I am.

As I pondered approaching holidays last month, I was feeling particularly pleased to be associated with our team. I’m sure some holiday sentimentality figured in there, but I wanted them to know they aren’t JUST the Youth Outlook senior staff. They are unique individuals who bring their own talents and interests to our table, building a powerful team with diverse skills. So…in good Brene Brown and John Maxwell fashion, I decided to let my appreciation of them as people, not employees, show and I shared my thoughts, putting Vulnerable Boss right out there on the line.

I don’t know if you’ll ever meet all of the team. Some of my blog readers live on other continents. But maybe after you read, you’ll know them just a little bit better the next time I talk about them.

A Christmas Note to Youth Outlook Dream Team

Do you know the story about “You were always my favorite?”

The way it was told to me, a mom leaves her children a note to read after she dies. Each note starts with the line, “You were always my favorite because…” and she goes on to tell them why each was her favorite. At the end, the note specifies that they should not tell their siblings what they just read, thereby ensuring that each child went through life believing that they were their mom’s favorite.

On the way back from Orlando, I started thinking about our dream team and how important the role is that each of you plays in elevating Youth Outlook (youth-outlook.org) to being this exceptional organization. I think I was reading something about how, in some organizations, ridicule is used to control people and keep them in line. And I thought, wow, how horrible…how do people live with that? And I was feeling most fortunate to have our dream team. I was going to send you all a Christmas card but then the story about “You’re always my favorite because…” occurred to me. As I reflected on it, here’s what it turned into.

Yes, of course you’re my favorite.

Andrea, you’re my favorite because you embody self-care. What you have done in your commitment to derby right down to the leg you broke in what…97 places???… and the demands that I know your Big Girl job has tossed your way, our new vision for youth leadership, and your more recent adventures in getting into kick-boxing inspire me every time we talk and make me want to take care of myself too.

​Carolyn, you’re my favorite because you embody welcoming change and challenges in both your professional and your personal world. You are shaking up structures and systems across the state, and I predict that soon it will be across the country. Your welcoming change and challenge is rivaled only by your ability to make those around you feel incredibly cared about. I admire your courage and your willingness to think and then rethink and then think some more, and then act on those convictions with kindness.

Kim, you’re my favorite because you embody diplomacy and objectivity, approaching all situations with a calmness and a thoughtfulness that is uplifting. I’ve seen you reframe questions and concerns in staff meetings and trainings to introduce new possibilities without judgment, and when at all possible, with a mix of humor that often leaves me in a heap on the floor. Sometimes, even when you don’t mean to. Sometimes, because you don’t mean to.  That I can say to you, “Oh my—we’re having a Brene Brown conversation!” and you know exactly what I mean and both us dissolve into laughter, that’s an awesome connection.

Carrie, you’re my favorite because you embody fearlessness. You walked into a brand new job with a brand new agency in a strange city, then carried the main role for an event you’d never attended, and then led our charge into our new model without hesitation.  Your adventures in running, your role play persona at volunteer training and your “mom stories” about your boys further prove it—there is nothing you won’t challenge yourself with, no job too tough.  Your ability to dream goes hand in hand with your ability to risk wisely and you are a leader in every sense of the word.

Peter, you’re my favorite because you embody creativity. You bring color and energy to your work and apparently even when we’re talking about life handing us lemons, they’re fabulous lemons and we should all keep that in mind. I look forward to your posts about which project happened at group, or over the weekend, or at the summer art shows because your work just brightens our Youth Outlook world in so many ways.

Karol, you’re my favorite because you embody survival. You served in our military at a time it could not have been easy to be yourself. You started a drop in center in the middle of a cornfield where it also could not—and at times is STILL not—easy. You put yourself way out there in places and times where it might be more convenient and (perhaps?) less hurtful to do something else—but you don’t let yourself be ruled by that. You share yourself not just through Youth Outlook but other LGBT arenas too, and you never speak of yourself as a role model for survivors but you are and I want you to know I think of you that way.

Nancy Carlson, you’re my favorite because you embody lifelong commitment to social justice and the spirit of giving. When I think of the thousands of people whose lives you have changed by your work through Rape Crisis and now through Youth Outlook…many of those people who will never meet you in person but whose lives are changed because of you…I marvel at being able to work with such a powerful activist.

Heather, you’re my favorite because you embody the spirit of adventure. From stripping paint to tie dying tee shirts to recruiting new volunteers, you approach everything as if it is the most magical thing ever, and we’re all going to have a good time doing it. I know that a year ago you couldn’t have imagined what 2017 would bring, and I hope it has impacted your life as wonderfully as you’ve impacted mine and Youth Outlook’s.

Denise, you’re my favorite because you embody persistence. It is never easy to get a new suburban program up off the ground. You’ve already determined that whatever it takes, you’re going to give and that shows through every time we talk. You’re always looking for the next opportunity to share us, the next place to get word about Youth Outlook out, the kid who just needs a friendly shoulder. Your heart is huge and I’m glad it’s on the dream team.

Marcus, you’re my favorite because you embody living authentically. From your stories about being a minister’s kid to your flip-flops in February to walking into the Sikh temple last year and saying out loud, “I needed to see you, can I hug you?”, you show us every day how to be the best versions of ourselves by being real, open, and loving and I so appreciate you.

I am surrounded by heroes every day because you’re here doing this job with me. As I said, I thought about sending you Christmas cards, but it’s my 20th Christmas at Youth Outlook so I thought something a little different was in order.

Just so you know, you’ve always been my favorite.

With warmest regard and gratitude,

Nando

PS  Don’t tell the others.

PPS  I wish you amazing holidays. As I signed off a recent blog post:  whatever your holiday, whatever your traditions, whatever your holiday traditions, may you celebrate in peace and kindness and may the people whom you love light up your path for our coming new year.

creative-desk-pens-school

 

I just watched a very poignant clip of Ellen interviewing Oprah about the 1997 coming out episode (The Puppy) on the Ellen Show. That episode aired in April 1997 and I started work at Youth Outlook in October 1998. I found it difficult not to tear up while Ellen and Oprah talked about both the episode and the backlash following. Ellen’s show was canceled. Laura Dern couldn’t get work for a year after playing her role. Oprah got hundreds of messages telling her to go back to Africa.

As a community, our fight is far from over and some of these messages have made an ugly reappearance recently. While listening to Ellen and Oprah, though, I was reminded of one thing—one primary feeling—of “the old days” that I rarely speak about to anyone, and at THAT time, I never spoke of.

I was afraid. I had reason to be.

When I moved to IL in 1998, I had been out for several years, sported a crew cut and Harry Potter glasses, and had a rainbow in the back window of my car. I was settling into my gender neutrality, having fun with my “boi” playfulness, and I was accustomed to a different atmosphere after living for twelve years in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement, and around Syracuse, hovering in or near academic circles of radical feminism. It was a great place to live and a great place to come out.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from IL. I hoped for Chicago overflow, similar to NY overflow, to which I attributed much of the free thinking I encountered in Syracuse. That’s not what I found.

In past blogs, I have mentioned the resistance I met in my efforts to form connections to some of the high schools.  That was rough. I was both irritated and embarrassed to meet other social workers who denied the existence of LGBT kids.  Countering the belief that kids were too young to know who they were (although most of the folks who maintained that could handily tell me at what age they’d had their first heterosexual crush or when they knew for sure that they were cisgender) was an uphill challenge, but it did not compare to the covert and cowardly threats I endured as the first employee of the first not for profit that specialized in working with queerlings in the western suburbs.

The timing of this was important. By 1998, services had existed within the Chicago city limits for years. There were potlucks, a sports association, bars, youth groups, churches, and medical clinics specific to LGBT people in Chicago. In the western suburbs, there were only the daring PFLAG groups.

Then I arrived. It was my job to make connections within our communities, to be a visible face of this new agency. To be publicly queer.

That part I had no problem with. I’d been publicly queer for a while.

Just pause for moment and think about the things Ellen describes and picture how that would have gone in towns and cities in DuPage County, IL.  Name calling? I certainly got the name calling. I got the slurs hurled from passing cars, most often “Faggot” which I have always found odd. I usually want to refer people to Urban Dictionary for the correct slur to hurl, if one is going to hurl slurs at all. Female bodied queer people are not generally called faggots, but I may have to re-evaluate that based on the frequency with which it was used at that time.

As the agency’s single employee and being who I was, I was particularly aware of the hostile environment. It’s a safe assessment that the early board members were also aware and to some extent, felt compelled to keep the kids hidden for their protection (except the kids weren’t interested in being hidden).  Many of them had lived here for years. They knew what to expect.

It was a bit of a surprise on the day a board member asked me to attend a county meeting and afterward, she called me to ask one question. “Do you have to look so….butch?”

At first, I was confused. I had sat next to her in the meeting. I had worn a blue silk shirt and black pants. She had also been wearing a shirt and black pants. I cast around for an answer, feeling vaguely insulted, when I realized she was referring less to WHAT I was wearing and more to HOW I was wearing it. My clothing was not that much different from hers. But I have a stance, a presence, that leaves little to imagination about what my orientation might be.  She had already told me that she could not come out.

We ironed out that she didn’t actually have a problem with the clothing I’d been wearing. She had a bigger issue with the fact that it was 1998 in suburban Illinois and I was identifiable as queer. When I pointed out that being identifiable as queer wasn’t really a bad thing for someone who was running an LGBT focused agency, the conversation came to an awkward stop and never arose again.

I could manage the questions about being out. On the other hand, the death threats put me on edge. It was the anonymous voicemails left about how the building we were using would be set fire to because we were all going to hell anyway. It was the creepy demands to “make sure you tell all those kids the truth—that they’re all going to hell for being disgusting little perverts” and the parents who cried and shouted at me that I could not tell their kids that they were good human beings that  left my sleep ragged.

Those were the days of Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps picketing churches that were becoming open and affirming and the funeral of Matthew Shepard, carrying signs that declared “Matt Shepard Burns in Hell” in front of his already traumatized and horrified family. As an agency, we had to be ready for anything that might be leveled at us, any day of any week. We learned to live with the fear. We wrote guidelines for how we’d handle if we ever needed to evacuate our borrowed spaces on short notice and we coached the kids on what to do if they ever found themselves confronted with a line of protestors carrying vile signs.

Verbal harassment. Death threats. Protestors. I was afraid. I had reason to be.

I did my job anyway, sometimes watching over my shoulder in dark parking lots and often enduring strangers’ comments that if I would just be open (to people of the opposite sex, to someone’s god, to psychiatric help, etc.), that perhaps someday I, too, could be as normal as they were. Oh, and by the way, which church did I belong to? I learned to fend off married women’s passes in public restrooms and to allow the slurs from passing cars and people in crowds to roll off me like water off a duck’s back.

I couldn’t exactly reach out to Ellen in those early days but I do owe many thanks to the Chicago women who supported me, those who understood that you live with the fear and you do it anyway. I just entered year 20 of my job and some of those early memories don’t get trotted out into sunlight very often. The Ellen interview sparked quite a few of them. (http://www.upworthy.com/in-1997-being-gay-on-tv-was-not-ok-ellen-and-oprah-look-back-in-this-emotional-clip?c=ufb3) These days, I’m more likely to be focused on what’s coming next week or next month, and less on what it was like to be a public queer in 1998.  Wow. We really have made history.

And yes, thank you for asking–I did have to look this…butch…while I was doing it. (And can you believe it–she hadn’t even seen me wearing a tux!)

Dedicated to my colleague and friend, Jessica Halem, who will probably never know how much of a sanity saver she was.

Nance

There is no time of the year that I am as aware of my shortage of family of origin as I am at the holidays. This is what some of us were raised with, right? Holidays are about family. Old songs extoll traveling long miles over snowy roads to be with family for that special holiday dinner and go to great lengths to depict our innate drive to avoid going back out on those snowy roads and sit with the love of our lives in front of a roaring fire.  Churches plan elaborate services at different times to celebrate with congregation members. This is the message repeated through the years. This is how we handle holidays.

This expectation has evolved a bit since my coming out days. At that time, family of choice was key. It had to be. Many of us had been thrown out of our homes, cut off from the families that brought us into the world. We survived by creating other family structures of mentors and dear friends, those people who could and would nurture us, gentle us, soothe the scorching loss so many of us experienced while parents and siblings wrestled with their own demons related to our orientation or gender identity.

Evolved, yes, but certainly not gone. And unfortunately, seeming to ramp up in ways I haven’t seen in twenty years, making me question what our new generation of young queerlings will do to build in their own structures of support.

In terms of my own structure of support, I’ve said numerous times over the past few years that I “family” differently than most people. I have found that a lot of folks don’t quite understand what that means.  Sadly, I’ve also found that a lot of folks whom I thought would understand because they’d come to know me well actually had no idea what it meant. That may end up being a post on another day.

I sat with a copy of Urban Tidepool on the table between a friend and myself this week and observed it again. “I family differently than most people.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

I tapped the cover of the coil bound book. “I don’t think it is possible to have these experiences and go on to family in a typical sense.”  I poked at the small child figure in the graphic.  “Look at this. I was this big when my mother died. Like…two inches tall.”  I held my fingers two inches apart in front of my eye for emphasis and peeked at her between them.  “Speaking developmentally, because you know I love all that developmental stuff, it’s not possible that THAT person could understand the changes that were about to happen and what it would mean to how I relate to family.”

She nodded, taking my point. “No, a kid that young isn’t able to do that.”

“All that kid is capable of is missing their mommy.”

There. I’d said it.  I’ve never put it into that context. Even when I wrote the chapters about the mother’s death and the three ring circus that followed, I’ve never spoken in plain words about being that kid, especially being that kid who missed their mommy. As a family, we never acknowledged it to each other that I recall. The game plan was always to keep acting as if everything was fine.

I’ve known for decades that things were not really fine. How could they have been?  I’m aware of the void left by her death, and then his, and the gap that exists where most people have parents, even many people my own age (which is sometimes a surprise to me that people my age still have parents).  As I have aged, the gap has worn larger, what memories I do have have softened and blurred until eventually I realized I have difficulty producing an independent image of her. There is longing….the gap DID have someone standing in it at one time…but the longing is now associated with gap rather than with image.  It is an odd combination, this longing for a person I barely remember, one that leaves me less enthusiastic about holidays than the average bear. The dread of Christmas begins to build immediately after Thanksgiving. It is a dark, foot-dragging time that peaks on Christmas Eve when I am so miserable I am unfit for human companionship and breaks about 2 pm Christmas afternoon, when I realize it’s done for another year and I can just go about my life again without the intense pressure, without the constant reminder that holiday time is coming and here are the things other people are doing with their families.

In 1973, getting through the first Christmas after the mother’s loss was nothing short of surreal. In the days before Christmas, it felt like we were moving through some Twilight Zone universe, going through motions that we’d always done, but we were hollow. It was supposed to be the most joyful time of year—at least that’s what all the old songs told us.

Over the years, I’ve figured out how to manage the obligation of Christmas joy that I don’t feel without bringing down everyone around me. I keep things low key to soothe that two-inch tall, gender neutral kid who feels like they’re living through a Twilight Zone episode. This year, I will call my sister, and then the day will probably include Die Hard movies, Gremlins, and maybe some Harry Potter and popcorn.  Well, maybe some Harry Potter. Definitely some popcorn.

As an aside, is anyone else intrigued by the fact that the only two Christmas movies that speak to me are called Die Hard and Gremlins? I’m sure that can’t be coincidence!

Anyway…that gap does soften and blur memory of people but I haven’t found that it actually does anything to soothe the memory of being without them. That’s a curious thing to me.

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool, Downward Spiral:

On a dreary mid-December afternoon, Michael and I cleaned the living and dining room and dragged the Christmas decorations out of the old storage trunk in the cellar. The nativity scene with the clay figures that the mother had painted and glued into place was stationed at its post on top of the TV that I polished with lemon Pledge.  We tried to hang things where the mother would have put them. We went through a mountain of tape sticking things to the front windows, now streaked with half-circles precisely the length of my arms, like the mother would have done. Well, maybe she wouldn’t have left so many streaks, but I was proud of the way I hung backwards out the window ten feet above the ground to get the outside clean. Across the street in Mr. Aubrey’s cellar window, his annual miniature train scene whirred on tiny tracks through a festive tiny village, weaving from one pane to the next, then back again. Almost every house on the street blinked shades of red and green. Some things were the same. But nothing was the same.

 We all have some gaps. We will all reach those points where some things are the same but nothing will ever be the same again. It is a normal part of aging and families growing and changing. My goal this year is to be gentle with that gap and see if I can get through Christmas Eve while still being fit for human companionship. It will be a first for me. Just consider me the Un-Spirit of Christmas.  If you’re around the neighborhood, Die Hard starts at 2 and the popcorn will be on and I’ll be hanging out with the dogs and my gap. Maybe I’ll even put the old manger out. Dress code, comfy. Bring your own gaps if you wish. We’ll be gentle with all of them.

Whatever your holiday, whatever your traditions, whatever your holiday traditions, may you celebrate in peace and kindness and may the people whom you love light up your path for our coming new year.

manger