Category: Social Justice

A New Year Resolution

Photo by Tairon Fernandez on Pexels.com

This is a true story about a chance encounter on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1962. It’s a testament to the good citizenship of my mother and father, who did the right thing sixty years ago.

The story, A New Year Resolution (I wrote it in 2017), fills me with hope and the warm possibilities of life even after seemingly awful things happen. It first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of Missouri stories.

As we cross into 2022, I wish you good health and a few magical surprises to lighten your spirit.

***

Aunt Thelma was flush with frozen anticipation and prepared to toot her fringe-laced party horn. It’s how she felt every year. She had a new year resolution: to be the first out the door to inhale the cold remnants of December night air and replace it with January oxygen expectant with sharp promise and unassigned possibilities.

Thelma fumbled to secure the buttons on her worn car coat, snap her hat in place on the top of her wobbly bun, and race into the frigid Midwestern night. “Happy New Year,” she hollered leading her merry band out the door as the clock struck twelve. In an instant, the atmosphere from two distinct years comingled in her lungs and the clamoring began on cue.

Uncle Ralph, Mom, Dad, Diane, and I twirled our ratcheting noisemakers, flailed away with wooden spoons on pots and pans, and shrieked with glee. Magically, in an instant, the joys and regrets of 1961 were erased. Each of us had a fresh batch of winter air to contend with. It was January 1, 1962, in St. Louis, Missouri.

The frosty air told us it was too cold for the revelry to linger. By 12:15 a.m., we scurried back inside and returned our cockamamie thingamabobs and pointy hats. As Thelma and Ralph gathered it all and washed off the wooden spoons for safe keeping in the kitchen drawer, Dad and Mom broke the news to Diane and me. Our makeshift winter carnival was over.

With Dad behind the wheel, it was time to head home to South St. Louis County and our three-bedroom brick ranch in Affton. We had an hour-long drive ahead of us in our ’59 Plymouth.

Dad figured Hanley Road would be the most direct route. He could take the highway, but he didn’t want to contend with higher speeds and the potential for an anonymous, boozy driver veering head-on into his path. The thought of that was too much for his weary brain.

Under the whir of tires hugging cold pavement, Mom glanced over her left shoulder to check on the two of us in the backseat. Diane and I were beginning to fade. Mom knew we would be asleep soon. She and Dad were prepared to rouse us from our slumber once we pulled into the driveway. She felt comfort knowing we would need to be carried into the house and rolled into bed. She didn’t know there was more excitement coming before we trailed off to sleep.

A few minutes passed before something caught Mom’s eye between the high beams of an approaching car. She spotted a fuzzy figure up ahead a few hundred feet on the right shoulder. Someone was walking alone. From a distance, it could have been a man or woman. She and Dad couldn’t be sure.

Dad reduced his speed. As we approached, our headlights illuminated a bewildered young woman teetering on silver high heels, shivering under a skimpy mink stole thrown over her shoulders, exposing an emerald cocktail dress and too much skin on a cold night.

Mom verbalized what Dad was thinking. “Walter, I think she needs help. Let’s pull over and see if she needs a ride somewhere.” They rolled down their windows and waved her over to the car.

At first, the young woman’s eyes darted away. She could see a man was driving the car. But when she realized that an entire family was in the car, she relaxed a bit and approached on her fast-freezing feet.

“It’s so cold out, honey. Can we help you?” Mom offered through her partially open window. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”

“Yes,” she stammered. “I guess I do.” She grabbed the hinge of the back door and shimmied into the backseat next to Diane. “I was going home with a date after a New Year’s Eve party, and we got into a big fight. So, I got out. That bastard drove off and left me on the side of the road … Oh, I’m sorry about the language.”

“It’s alright,” Dad assured her. “We’re just glad we stopped. Point us in the right direction and we’ll get you home. What’s your name?”

“Oh, it’s Melba,” she confirmed. It was a name I’d seldom heard. Melba recited her address in Maplewood. By this time, any notion of sleep in our eyes was history. It vanished when Melba and her allure entered our world. We were wide-eyed and dumbfounded–captivated by her exotic name and slinky dress. Diane homed in on Melba’s beaded purse and shoes. I was mesmerized by her glistening green eyes, which flickered when cars flashed by. They matched her sequined gown.

Melba must have been an aspiring movie star or a lost character in a Twilight Zone episode, I thought. I wasn’t sure which. Either way, I was certain she was navigating a sudden detour on the road of life, trying to make the best of plans gone awry. She was craving silence in a secure sedan with no requirements, explanations, or assumptions.

From the front seat, Mom respected Melba’s need for quiet and distance. In the back, Diane and I sat motionless; we preferred to watch relief wash over Melba’s face. Dad focused on the tasks at hand: operating our vehicle and driving Melba home. He could tell the young woman was rattled. He wanted to return her home safely without fanfare.

Within twenty minutes, Dad pulled up in front of a tidy bungalow with white awnings and a steep front porch. This must be where Melba lived, I thought. Even though it was 1:30 a.m., all the lights inside Melba’s house were lit. I was thankful and relieved that her family had waited up.

With a flip of her hair from the top of her fur collar, Melba thanked Dad and Mom for the ride. She flashed a grateful smile, wrapped each end of her mink stole around her neck, patted Diane and me on the top of our heads, and braced for the cold air. She left the cozy warmth of our green sedan.

By this time, I had imagined a whole new life for Melba–a wandering, sensitive soul with a caring mother and father of her own, a nosey little brother, and a dream to escape her world and climb a ladder into a fairy-tale universe filled with brilliant stars.

Then, under the partial glow of a frosty January moon, I watched Melba ascend the concrete stairs, turn to wave goodbye, and step across the threshold of her ordinary front door into an awaiting aura. Certainly, New Year’s Day 1962 was off on a magical foot.

None of us thought we’d see Melba again. And we were right. Even so, all we needed was thirty minutes together to keep the memory alive. I curled up in the back seat next to my sister and considered the vision of Melba–coming and going in a pre-dawn hush.

There wasn’t much to say, but Dad knew what to do. He eased the car from the curb and guided us back onto the road. With a flash of his headlights, he signaled to Melba that all was good.

We were on our way home.

We Remember

Last night my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus friends and I rehearsed at the Parsons Center for Health and Wellness surrounded by AIDS quilts. In a moment of silence, we remembered the suffering and all of the lives lost to a despicable disease. Today, on World AIDS Day, “we remember all those lost to AIDS who had no one to memorialize them. They live in our hearts.”

Pride

Today I will march (and sing) in the Phoenix Pride parade with other members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus. As an open and relatively healthy sixty-four-year-old man–married to another open and relatively healthy sixty-four-year-old man–I have a lot to be proud of, a lot to be thankful for.

I remember the unactualized, closeted version of me in my thirties, the sense of isolation I felt after my divorce in 1992, the challenges of single parenthood as I sat alone in the bleachers (in a sea of suburban straight couples) watching my sons play ball, the pain and anxiety that ruled my life as I moved from job to job and tried to find my way.

Fortunately, by the mid-90s, I found friends and colleagues who supported me. They cheered when I came out and began to speak my truth.

In hindsight, knowing what it felt like to be ridiculed for who I am sharpened my empathy. It gave me strength and insight that–more than two decades later–I parlayed into my writing. In all four of my books, especially my latest, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, I tell the story of my personal and gay evolution.

Telling my truth has proven to be cathartic and healing. I am the happiest when I give voice to my experiences and opinions, whether they relate to my sexual orientation or not.

In 2021, I rarely find myself confronted with blatant homophobia. But there are occasional “teachable” moments when I encounter someone who is ignorant or unaware that gay people seek the same love, understanding, and sense of belonging that straight people receive unconditionally.

I don’t have a problem getting up on my soapbox to defend that right, though I also don’t crave controversy. I prefer simply living honestly and openly, and letting those around me observe how I lead my life … versus the pitfalls of social media exchanges.

The key is visibility. The more of us who are out–and proud–in our daily lives, the more individuals in all circles will realize we have the same hopes and dreams: a loving spouse and family, a safe and secure home, gainful employment, personal freedom, a sense of community and belonging.

As I march in the Phoenix Pride parade today, I’m sure I will see all sorts of people in the crowd: Black, Hispanic, Asian, White, Native American. Many of them will be lesbian or transgendered or gay like me. Others will be straight allies cheering us on. There is power and creativity in our diversity.

Yes, we’ve come a long way in American society since I struggled along in the 1990s. But hatefulness has seen a resurgence. There are still instances of gay teens being kicked out of their homes or individuals losing their jobs, simply for being who they are.

What can we do as a society? Teach our children to love each other and embrace our differences. Because kindness is a choice; sexual orientation is not.

***

Pride postscript. It’s Saturday evening in Arizona. Though the parade is over, I will always remember the sense of freedom and inspiration I felt today. Shouting “Happy Pride” to exuberant strangers three deep along the parade route … all of us survivors of a frightening pandemic. Skipping down Third Street and singing Born This Way with my gay friends.

Rejoicing at the large number of young children in the crowd with gay and straight couples twirling rainbow flags. Waving to my smiling husband wearing his floppy hat. Celebrating the day with a rainbow umbrella that colored my world and protected my fair skin from the blazing sun.

On a September Sunday Morning in St. Louis

All of us are required to play roles in society, especially to earn a living. We project a persona that may or may not align with who we are or what we value. We wear masks.

Of course, in a pandemic some us wear them more than others in public situations. But in my post-corporate sixties–even if I’m donning a face covering for physical protection–I prefer to spend time with people who are genuine. I don’t have the patience for games or innuendoes.

My need for authenticity has roots that wind back to my formative years. In the 1970s, as a budding-but-denying gay adolescent who had unnamed feelings for other boys and wasn’t allowed to express them, my personal development was frozen in time.

Imagine closing off one portion of your identity entirely with no light, voice or path encouraging you to explore it. None of the relationship rites of passage for straight kids–flirting, dating, parties, dances–were available to gay and lesbian kids in the 70s.

In my middle school years, I became close with Daniel. There was a lot I liked about him: his intelligence, his quirkiness, his dimples, his love of language and the arts.

On occasion, Daniel came over to my house after school. We played board games or simply talked about school and the teachers we liked. We never acted physically on the bond and attraction we shared.

I remember that Mom and Dad liked Daniel … and Daniel admired some of my parents’ most endearing qualities: my father’s exuberance and sensitivity; my mother’s kindness and sensibility.

In seventh grade, I was the spelling bee champion for Mackenzie Junior High School. I represented our school at the St. Louis-area finals. Each student was allowed to bring one friend in addition to his or her family. My choice was Daniel. I remember him sitting in the audience that day in April 1970. It felt like he belonged there, like he was a part of my family.

Not long after I lost the spelling bee, a few boys at school must have recognized something about the care and closeness Daniel and I demonstrated for each other in the halls and in the classroom. They spewed venom. They bullied us physically and verbally. It hurt me deeply and pushed me further into the darkness.

Daniel and I remained friends in eighth grade and beyond, but we spent less time with each other as a result of that trauma and feelings of vulnerability that surfaced. Our paths crossed only rarely in high school even though we both performed in plays and musicals.

Looking back, it was a survival strategy for me to pull away from Daniel, but I always regretted that we never had a chance to be authentic with one another or to talk about the elephant in the room … the experience of being chastised for being different.

That would change on a September Sunday morning in St. Louis.

***

In August 2021, I contacted Daniel online to tell him that I wanted to reconnect with him while I was in St. Louis for the Six Flags reunion. (We hadn’t seen each other since 1995, and then it was just a brief hello at our twentieth high school reunion.)

Daniel loved the idea. So, on Sunday, September 5, 2021–before Tom and I left Missouri to drive to the Chicago area to see our sisters and my son Kirk–we met him for coffee at a place he recommended. The three of us spent an hour together talking on the patio of a lovely cafe in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis.

For the first time, I was able to tell Daniel how awful I felt about the way our friendship was derailed. That led to a deeper discussion about other boys who were tormented to worse outcomes. But that wasn’t the entirety of our conversation. It was just one moment in a warm exchange with each of us … Daniel, Tom and me … sharing stories of our careers, families, and adventures. The bonus for me was watching and listening as my husband and my first boyfriend discussed their favorite films.

Before Tom and I departed, we invited Daniel to come visit us in the Phoenix area. As we left the cafe, I hugged Daniel and said goodbye. I truly believe there will be another chapter to our friendship. Maybe it will happen in Phoenix. Maybe it will happen in St. Louis.

Either way, on my Midwest journey in 2021, I was able to tie together a few more of the disparate ends of my past rollercoaster life to my more fully actualized Arizona existence, and for that I am grateful.

Sad Saturday

I don’t normally dive headlong into political and social issues, but I feel a sense of doom and anger percolating inside me tonight after the acquittal of our previous president. I won’t mention his name here. I wish I had the power to encourage every media outlet to do the same, because what he wants more than anything is attention.

Today forty-three pathetic, posturing Republican senators disavowed a mountain of evidence presented by the impeachment managers, who connected the dots. They directly linked his unconscionable actions to an insurrection that caused death and destruction at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. But our unnamed ex-president has slithered away unpunished once again.

I know the past twelve months have been difficult all around the world. Families have lost loved ones: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, spouses, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and children. But what we have endured in the United States has been monumentally horrible.

Nearly 500,000 Americans have died from complications of COVID-19. As the numbers continue to mount, we’ve witnessed countless stories of unfortunate souls–many of them minorities–who have lost their lives and their livelihoods. We’ve watched as the evil of racism and hatefulness has surfaced and been fueled by rhetoric from the White House. It was once a hallowed place.

We’ve dodged crazy conversations with neighbors and ex-friends, who believe any number of preposterous conspiracy theories, especially the big lie of a rigged election, when all the facts and evidence tell us otherwise. We’ve shuttered our lives to survive, shrunken our existences to cope, masked our faces to protect ourselves and our neighbors, covered our eyes in horror at news reports, and swallowed hard to salvage any shred of our remaining dignity and sanity.

Now we are required to suck it up once again, and watch the shameful evidence of senior governmental officials who are more concerned with securing their political futures than what they were elected to do on behalf of the American people … to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

I don’t know if there is a silver lining in any of this. But, at least eighty-one million of us had the gumption to choose a forty-sixth president, who has a heart and good intentions. Joe Biden has already proven he will roll up his sleeves and fight on behalf of all of the American people, even those who didn’t vote for him. He and Kamala Harris are doing what they can to right this sinking ship and ramp up the distribution of vaccines across the country.

But here’s the biggest question of all. Even if we survive this global pandemic physically, what will be left of our democracy if we allow our past president to walk away without ever paying a price for the deep pain and intentional harm he has brought to our nation?

A New Day in History

As a memoir writer, I usually look for clues from the past to enlighten the present. Or signs from nature, such as the cottonwood trees, which I gravitate toward on my walks on the edge of the Desert Botanical Garden. Even in mid-winter here in Arizona, they cling to their brown autumn leaves as they touch another blue Sonoran sky.

No matter what happened yesterday or the day before — or which leaves hold on, fall, or decompose in the desert sun — January 20, 2021 is a day unto itself. It is a twenty-four-hour period filled with residual pain and new possibilities.

Despite the intense security required in Washington, D.C. to stage the inauguration of our forty-sixth president, the deed is done. Joe Biden is now our president; Kamala Harris our vice president. She is the first woman — the first woman of color — to hold this high office. That is something grand to celebrate.

Yes, the years, months and days leading up to this have been marred by a failed presidency, political upheaval, social distress, a January 6 insurrection, and the awful reckoning of more than four hundred thousand lives lost in the United States in one year to this pandemic.

But the light flickering in the sky above the cottonwood trees on this day feels different to me. The atmosphere on the steps of the U.S. Capitol is also new. There is unity in the messages, diversity in the images, and poetry in the air.

Finally, at least for one day, we have something to be proud of again as a nation. It is a new day in history.

The Pledge of Allegiance

Because I am a writer, you might imagine it would be easy for me to put my anger and pain into words.

You might think it would be simple enough for me to describe the brutality our current president has brought to our country for the past four years or the shame and frustration I felt as I watched a mob of misguided lemmings follow his lead, storm the U.S. Capitol, and pillage it on January 6, 2021.

But it is not.

It appears (to at least half of us and the rest of the world) that we have lost our bearings, sense of righteousness, and humility. The rest (some of whom smashed windows, dishonored our House and Senate chambers, and scaled walls for a selfie) are content to wallow in lies, deception and misinformation.

Most of this destruction was perpetrated by a man who has no moral compass, no interest in the well-being of our nation’s citizens as we wander for another day through the darkness of this pandemic, as we watch the death toll grow, as we wait for a vaccine that is slow to arrive.

It’s time for a history lesson. It’s time to examine The Pledge of Allegiance–something I learned and recited in first or second grade as I stood by my desk with my hand over my heart back in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri.

It’s time to ask: Do these words mean anything anymore? Do we still believe and adhere to these words that open our congressional sessions and have served as guideposts for our children, adults and–most important–government officials to follow?

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

If they do, we need to hold all of those involved–including the current president and his enablers– accountable for their treasonous and criminal behavior. We need to remove them from their offices, fire them from their jobs, convict them of their crimes.

We need to uphold our civil rights and liberties for the masses. We need to ensure there is justice for all.

The Shadows of 2020

In spite of the promise of a new presidency here in the U.S., we live in the shadows of the pandemic. Even so, Tom and I choose to hang wreaths on our front and back doors to brighten our space and give thanks for all we have as Christmas approaches.

Like many of you, we do our best to help people in need. Sometimes our assistance comes in the form of a small end-of-year check to a worthy charity or a card for a neighbor who’s lost her father. But what do you do when the pain of an unexpected moment shakes you to the core?

Recently, we were driving to our community gym for our typical, masked hour-long workout. On the way there, we noticed a familiar figure on the side of the road. It was a young man walking toward us. He was pulling his suitcase on rollers behind him.

After we passed, we realized it was Nathaniel (not his real name) trudging south down Hayden Road in Scottsdale. He is a friend. Someone who has hiked with us, shot baskets with us at the gym, and (before the pandemic) visited with us at our home.

Nathaniel–a smart, sensitive, handsome guy–has endured several tough years. He’s fighting a drug addiction and has been in and out of treatment for it.

About six months ago, he fell off our radar. He no longer has a phone, so we lost touch with him. Now, unexpectedly, he reentered our lives, lugging the weight of his existence and his world in a two-by-three-foot container.

Immediately, Tom slowed down. We turned on a side street. We found our way back, pulled up next to Nathaniel, got out of the car, and approached. Nathaniel was worn and disoriented, but happy to see us. Over the following fifteen minutes, he told us he had been in jail for several days after an altercation with his family. He wouldn’t or didn’t describe the details. Whatever happened, the year is ending with him roaming the streets.

Tom and I offered to give him a lift to a friend’s home (where he said he was walking). But, after repeatedly asking if we could drive him there, Nathaniel insisted he needed to get there on his own. Eventually, Tom handed him several disposable masks for his protection and a slip of paper with our contact information, so he could reach us when and if he is ready. I gave him twenty dollars for food. He thanked us both and continued on his way.

After we drove off, the sadness and horror we felt materialized. I began to cry for Nathaniel. I imagined the sketchy existence ahead for him, wandering with a fierce addiction, flying solo without the security of a family, home or path to a reasonable future.

How devastated Nathaniel’s mother and father must be, watching their son’s life unravel. What if one of my sons were in the same predicament? What would I do to help him recover? I think the answer is everything, but I don’t walk in the shoes of his parents. I don’t know the history of Nathaniel’s trauma that has led him to a life on the edge.

After this episode and the constant uncertainty we all carry into the new year, it is impossible for me to put a pretty red bow on 2020. Yet the wreaths Tom and I bought remind me how fortunate I am to have a modest, comfortable home in a warm climate. There are so many like Nathaniel who don’t. They are hurting, lost, hungry and homeless.

None of us know what the new year will bring, but I try to maintain a half-glass-full perspective. I hope–under the guidance of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and a kinder, gentler and more humane administration–we can turn the corner as a nation in 2021. Because only when and if we address the growing needs of the Nathaniel’s of our world, our disenfranchised and discouraged citizens, will we begin to escape the darkness and emerge from the shadows of 2020.

Maricopa

With every TV update of returns or refresh of election news coverage on my smartphone, I hold my breath.

Will this be the moment? Will Joe Biden arrive in the land of two-hundred-seventy electoral votes and officially become president-elect of the United States? Though my anxiety runs laps in my buzzing brain, he waits patiently. Ready to calm the turbulent waters. Steady a sinking ship. Steer our nation out of this dark age. This endless nightmare.

Diligent workers and volunteers in previously mostly disconnected swing states–Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Arizona–count unprocessed ballots. Anonymous state and local officials sit and stand. Doing their jobs while cameras scrutinize from above.

They are not our healthcare heroes in hospitals. Fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. Working to save lives that teeter as new cases escalate each day. However, they are just as heroic. Unfettered Republican and Democrat openers, scanners and sorters tabulating mailed-in ballots from distinct counties: Chatham, Dekalb, Fulton and Gwinnett in Georgia; Alleghany, Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery in Pennsylvania; Clark in Nevada; and Maricopa in Arizona. The list of counties and ballot counting goes on.

I live in Maricopa County. The gigantic land mass was named after the Maricopa Native American tribe, who originally lived along the banks of the Colorado River.

Maricopa is the fastest growing county in the United States. It encompasses the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and is home to four-and-a-half million diverse people.

Republicans and Democrats. Young and old. Poor and rich. Straight and gay. Employed and jobless. Citizens of all religions or none at all. Hispanic, Asian, white, black, and Native American people living in the vast Sonoran Desert.

As the final votes are tallied and reported in Maricopa County and elsewhere, this process will end some day soon. We must disregard unfounded claims of fraud and distractions from the White House and accept and celebrate the election outcome (whenever it arrives).

I believe all of us in Maricopa are stronger if we embrace our differences in this wide-open space of grand beauty, dry heat, and burgeoning possibilities. The same can be said for every Maricopa, every diverse American community, no matter the climate or terrain.

With Thanksgiving less than three weeks away, it’s time to give thanks to our democratic process, open our hearts and minds to our neighbors, and look forward to writing a new chapter under Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. If we follow their lead, we can unite.

Our future as a nation depends upon it.