Did I ever tell you about Jim Foster?

Jim was one of my many bosses and my friend. He died this past Wednesday morning from cancer. I say cancer generally because by the time it was over, it felt like the cancer had ridden into most of his body. But it was technically the brain cancer that finally won a battle after Jim won in so many other battles with the beast in other parts of his body.

He never seemed to mind it. Because that was Jim. Jim wasn’t stoic about it or anything really. He was just full of life and always willing to find the laughter, no matter how bad the diagnosis or how shitty he felt. And he did feel shitty. He was originally diagnosed with kidney cancer and I believe it was already at stage 4. He just took that news and took the treatments and kept coming to work. Invited his grandkids over to shave his head and made a party out of it.

Because Jim loved a party. He was functioning alcoholic, claimed the fact as a matter of course and never showed the slightest shame over it. He was by all accounts a rollicking drunk. That lack of shame was a revelation to me. In my family alcoholism was shame personified. It was watching him that showed me that a huge part of the destructiveness of the disease in my family was the shame.

I don’t think anyone ever met Jim and didn’t immediately like him. He was the campfire the rest of us were sitting around, enjoying the glow of his energy and joy. He had a story for every occasion, many of them off color but not offensively so. All of them bubbling with laughter.

When he loved you, you knew it. He had a blazing insult battery that he aimed at those men he was fondest of. He worked with his best friend running the day to day operations of the company. You could not walk into the workspace without getting caught in insult crossfire. But he was equally protective of his best friend, sending emails asking why his BF was taking calls and answering group emails… ie doing the work the rest of us were responsible for. And he tempered his insults for the audience. He knew I was mental mess, and so he always adjusted for me. He made active efforts not to startle me – which is so easy to do and many people do it deliberately just for the comic effect. That small act of consideration is why I know the depth of his kindness. So few people think it’s worth noting except as a joke.

My greatest respect for a co-worker is if they do their job well. Jim was very good at his job. He was good at bringing in business, at building relationships with organizations that would bring us strong loyalty from them. He was fair about distributing the work he drummed up to the reservations team, because when he got us work, it was often large, and the time involved in entering reservations was not inconsiderable. He could easily have focused his attention on the 2 or 3 most experienced and reliable reservationist. But he spread it, but still judiciously handed his biggest and most complicated jobs to his most trusted reservationist. In my opinion, that is wise management. Don’t overwhelm your best with all your work, but pick out the “can’t go wrong” work for them.

Jim lived his life as the spark of energy in every interaction. He cared and it showed. No one met him and didn’t like him. Those kinds of people are so rare, it feels like we need to provide extra protection to them. But the universe decided it had gifted us long enough with his loving insults and his hilarious stories and just ripped him away. And didn’t even do it kindly. I hate that he isn’t here any more. I just hate it.

Secret Magical Places

I had one of those places in a wood behind the house I lived in when I was 14. It was county park – a large well maintained woodland.  Not particularly mysterious or dangerous.

But deep inside of it was a stand of very tall pine trees, who through many years of shedding pine needles had smothered away all the underbrush. There were giant lower branches that had sagged down in spots so you had to duck under them.  But once you were in there and under the pines, it was like being inside a house made by trees.  I would sit down on a towel on top of the pine needles and read a book.

It was very far from the path and I got lost several times going to and coming from it. But I adored it, so I kept seeking it out.

I wish I could go to visit that magic place now.  Although, I wonder if I would even be able to find it now.  Or would it still be as magical?  Perhaps it’s magic was connected to the person I was in those moments.  A day dreamer.  A awkward teenager, looking for solace.  Actually.  Maybe I am still the same, just change teenager to 55 year old and…



Have I ever told you about Matt Brown?

Matt Brown died the other day from ALS.  I was gut punched by the news, although I hadn’t seen or talked to him in 20+ years.  When I think of Matt the word that leaps to mind is Laughing.  Not snickers or giggles or chuckles – screaming laughter.  When Matt was around the world’s absurdity was clear because he showed it to you.  And when Matt laughed, everyone laughed.

Matt was my first openly gay friend.  Mind you he never came out to me. I’m not sure he came out to anyone.  He was flamboyant but it was more than that.  He just lived his life openly and honestly and never curbed himself for anyone.  He talked about his romantic interests like anyone would, he wore the occasional dress on campus (no make up or glamour just the the dress and sneakers), was a very active participant in the campus LGBT groups.  And he did that on a very conservative college campus in the 80s during the un-treatable AIDS epidemic.

How unfair it is that he survived the AIDS epidemic unscathed and was killed by ALS.  It feels like he should have won the medal of survival to 100 for making it out of that nightmare alive.

When Matt graduated he fell in love with Dick, a man nearly twice his age.  They moved in together, had a commitment ceremony, signed all the various contracts that were needed to provide the sort of legal rights that just come part and parcel with marriage.  I was lucky enough to be part of their circle of friendship.  They took me with them on vacation to Maine, rented me one of their apartments, took me to ridiculously priced restaurants and had me over for Lasagna and TV.

When we were in Maine, Matt and I made a daily tortuous and joyful ritual out of going into the Ocean.  It was barely into June and the Atlantic Ocean was ice cold.  It hurt to go into the water.  We would hold hands and scream as each step exposed another part of us to icy water until we finally gathered up the courage to just dunk our entire bodies under the water.  That is the only water I’ve been in, where my body never acclimated itself to the temperature.  It continued to bite the entire time.  So we would try to see who could stand it the longest, generally agreeing to leave together.  We weren’t good at competition.  Dick would watch us from the deck and I’m sure thought we were just insane children.  And I guess we were.

When Matt and Dick broke up, I was heartbroken for both of them.  Looking back from my current age, I can see that a generation gap is a very hard thing to overcome.  They did it with grace and remained friends.  Matt told me he still loved Dick and didn’t think he would ever find anyone else to be that committed to.  I hope he did.  But I don’t know.  His obituary did not mention a husband or partner.  But it did list a whole host of friends who helped him during his illness.  Matt never lacked friends.

He went back to school after the breakup and got his PhD.  He moved to Colorado and taught college.  The last time I saw him he came back to visit and tried to talk me out of getting the gastric bypass I had scheduled.  He had done his research – in a time before the internet was omnipresent – by going to the library.  He explained all the risks and most likely outcomes.  He was worried about me.  But I was determined. Being 400 lbs is miserable in all the ways.   He was right by the way.  On every bit of it.  Not that I regret my choice but it was a far more informed one because he talked to me.  That was who he was.  He challenged my decision with facts that it took effort to find and took on an emotionally risky conversation to do it.  He wasn’t in our friendship just for the laughter.  He was there for the hard things too.

Matt lived a life of integrity.  If he believed something, he acted on it.  In a society where most of us are content to just feel right, Matt lived it.  He used to be a Planned Parenthood escort.  Because he believed women had the right to healthcare and choice.  So he volunteered once a week to escort women from their car to the door in order to ward off the assholes who hung around to hurl insults and worse at the women who came to the clinic.  He did this despite the fact that he had NO DOG IN THAT FIGHT.  Because he knew it was right.

I wonder why I feel so lonely now that he has died.  I hadn’t spoken to him in 20 years.  I think the knowledge that I could pick up the phone and reach him has been stolen and in it’s place is just the void.  Time and space separated us, but Death made the chasm unbreachable.

Perfect! Get the putty, Honey.

That is a family joke.  It’s what I say when I do a thing and I feel like I Done Did a Thing.  It was a challenging and perhaps annoying task.  And it’s finally done.  Probably not perfectly.

My grandfather renovated their house without any prior experience and as a result there were a lot of obviously not quite right spots. He was known for putting way too many holes into things from not measuring well enough. Thus he would stand back, eye the probably crooked result and say to my Grandma. “Perfect! Get the putty honey.”

When you think about it. “Perfect! Get the putty, Honey.” is a sort of life philosophy.  A.  Just try to do the thing, even if you haven’t done it before.  B.  Don’t chase perfection. Putty and Paint and Pride are excellent substitutes.  C.  Keep trying when it goes wrong.  Just remeasure and drill on.  D.  Find someone to help you who shares your sense of humor.

That house did not have a straight wall or a plumb door anywhere in it.  It was a series of haphazard rooms strung together oddly, with alarmingly low ceilings.  But it was all – every uneven wall, crooked door and head scraping ceiling built with love and the effort of a man who only knew he wanted to build what his wife wanted.    And Grandma, who also had a love of just making a thing look like she imagined it might with bargain paint, was perfectly happy to abet his painfully amateur efforts.

He was not discouraged by his various missteps.  His natural humor was ever present when a shelf was not straight or the wall had a distinct wave in it.  And because Grandma and indeed all of his acquaintance, fell in love with him for his humor, no one had anything but positive to say of his efforts and his funny descriptions thereof.

If either of my grandparents had held up some ideal of perfection as their goal they wouldn’t have had a home.  And probably not a marriage after he began his renovations and add-ons. But both of them took the effort for the deed and loved the result.  After all, a bit of putty and paint will hide a whole lot of craftlessness.

I think it speaks volumes that I know this story from my mother, who used the phrase regularly.  She was his daughter in law.  In fact his STEP daughter in law.  But no one ever thought of him as anything but the dearest of relatives.  He came to visit me in Puerto Rico when I was just a couple of months old, when my grandma was still working and couldn’t come.  He came down “to do the duty”.  But of course he was so welcome and my mom always loved him for it.

He died when I was too young to remember him.  I have regretted that so often.  I have so many stories in my memory.  But I never met him as a remembering person.

I think stories are so important.  The sort of story that surrounds a saying that has infiltrated so deeply into my life that I say it and people stare at me strangely.  He lives in me, without his genes, without having an actual memory of his presence in my life.  He lives. In these kinds of stories.

Stories matter.  Tell them.  Talk about the people who came before.



Joyous Christmas to You

It’s a white Christmas in Cincinitucky. Or at least there’s snow on the ground in my neighborhood. White Christmas is a fairly rare occurrence in Cincinnati.

Last night it looked like it was frosting the neighborhood with thick white icing.  The icing snow didn’t stick – too much blowing last night. But there is still snow on the ground. There will be another morning with icing snow to look forward to. It’s the only snow I like. The snow that makes it all look like a postcard.

If the universe was properly organized snow would ALWAYS ice everything like cake. But no. Conditions have to be perfect. And they rarely are.

I thought it was nice though that the Texas snow was an icing snow. It felt so much more like a gift, rather than a problem.

I was born in Puerto Rico and didn’t see snow until we moved to the States when I was 12. My parents insisted that I was much better off having not seen snow, having grown up in Wisconsin and Indiana respectively. But a child always wants what it can’t have. And I thought I was deprived.

Anyway, when I was 12, my father got transferred to Illinois and we moved to the US 2 days after the blizzard of 77. It was cold and there was snow. I was excited to see it.

We arrived into O’hare and all the snow was black. It was horrid. It was dark and cold and the snow was black. And then I got a stomach flu on the drive to Bloomington. So my father pulled over 3 times for me to throw up into dirty snow banks.

I did not enjoy that winter.

The following winter we moved to Connecticut. That was where I saw the snow that I had always dreamed of for the first time. The snow that you see in postcards. It was heavy white wet snow that iced everything in perfect white downiness.

My mother explained to me how snow was different depending on the current temp, the previous temp and wind. I became a connoisseur of snow for a while. Fascinated by it’s varying textures and what produced them. The pinnacle for me will always be the icing. But a hoar frost is a lovely fragile second, even if it’s not technically snow.

College took away all the fascination. There is something about having to trudge a mile to class in the cold, on icy/snowy sidewalks that removes the allure.


Did I ever tell you about the time I was a Born Again Christian

In a weird roundabout of life, I’m living next door to the church I went to when I was a newbie Christian.

It was a wonderful church and it helped me tremendously at a very hard time in my life.

But that’s not really the beginning.  The beginning is the fact that my mother chose not to baptize me as a baby.  She grew up in religious home.  Church and related church activities from sun up to sun down on Sundays.  She baptized both of my sisters.  But I was a late life baby.  She was farther from her childhood and she decided to let me decide what to believe.

So I only went to church when my grandma visited or occasionally I went with my best friend to Sunday Mass.  I LOVED Mass.  It was so mystical and cool.  I did NOT love Protestant Church, which was so boring and uncomfortable.

When I was 16 my father died.  I was oddly not emotionally upset about his death.  I’m sure there are deep psychological reasons, and I won’t bore you with them.  But  I was more affected by all the uncertainty and change that came when the earner was gone and by my mother’s decision to move to Ohio.

Ohio was where I started to attend a group called Young Life.  Young Life in my high school was FUN.  It was a bunch of kids singing cheerful pop (not religious) songs and playing silly games.  A very cool and handsome guy would stand up and give a very short talk about things high school kids struggle with, which was generally funny and emphasized a strong moral imperative to act right.

God was only mentioned when we prayed before and after each meeting.  Also short and sweet.  Praying before a meeting used to be thing for just about any meeting so I really didn’t think it was too odd.

My point is that I never really recognized that this was a religious group.  I thought it was just a club where all of my friends could go and be silly.  I loved it.

Then they had a retreat and I went.  And that is where the God Factor was fully revealed.  They gave a full on evangelical talk and even though I had serious doubt that God even existed, I was also in a lot of angst, from being a teenager, from losing my father and because my mother was an alcoholic.

This is the summary of what I heard.  God loves you and ACCEPTS YOU JUST LIKE YOU ARE.  That last part was said over and over.  And I heard it.  And so I accepted Christ into my life.

I started to attend the church my good friend attended, (the one next door) and met lots of kind people in the process.  I got very involved in the youth group, in bible study, in youth service.  I loved the people and the activities and the sense of belonging.

I learned the deep importance of forgiveness from being a Christian.  I was taught the practical ways I could forgive someone who had harmed me.

I learned the joy of helping people just for the sake of helping.

I was very earnest in my belief, but it was slowly born on me over the next few years that I was the victim of a bait and switch game.  The simple message that attracted me to God was love and acceptance.  But the message that was swirling around in the undercurrent and occasionally in the open at church was not about love and acceptance.

I grew up being taught to look at each person as an individual.   To accept a person until that individual has done something to merit condemnation.  That is deeply ingrained in me.  And I was having a very hard time with all of the condemnation of groups that weren’t part of the Christian life.  There was this built in sense of us and them.  Not her, not him, all of the Them.  The oversimplification that comes from putting people into a group and judging.  The basis of all prejudice.

Then there was realization that there was a disconnect between church and my relationship with God.  Religious Life is an unspoken hierarchy of righteousness.  Another religious friend of mine and I compared it laughingly to being in Mary Kay.

Everyone was working for the Holy Pink Cadillac of churchiness.   You get a point for attending church.  You get a point for volunteering for something that helps the church.  You get a point for being in bible study.  You level up if you lead a bible study.  You get a point for being in choir.  You get a point for going to the Wednesday night service.  You level up for bringing in a new member, And if you convert someone.  That is the pinnacle.  If you are the reason someone converted you have achieved the Holy Pink Cadillac.

See, church is made up of humans and that is what humans do in all group situations.  Only in church it’s kind of weird because you are supposed to be there for God, but most of them are there working for the Pink Cadillac of Holiness.  I was finding myself just as guilty of it and not liking it.

So I stopped going to church.  I figured then it would just be me and God and I would skip the distractions.  But there is a reason why they work so hard to keep you going to church.  The same reason why sober alcoholics are more successful if they keep going to meetings and dieters are more successful if they attend the weight watcher meeting instead of just the weigh in.  Because humans respond to the need to fit in, to conform when we are in group situations.

Without the group telling me what to believe about what I read in the bible, my mind was free to think about it differently.  At first this was very freeing, I was able to find lots of reasons to discard the prejudices that abound in Church and accept all the groups they condemned.

Eventually, I explored other religious views and other ideas and over the course of 20 years I came to where I am today.  A nonbeliver.

But I don’t regret my time as a Christian.  It was just what I needed.  I met some very wonderful and kind people.  I learned some valuable life skills.

Have I ever told you about Grandma M.G.?

Grandma M.G. was my father’s mother. She wore a make up and a wig and smelled of Chanel #5.

She was glamorous.  Always and forever. When I was little she would arrive in Puerto Rico, where the weather was 85F pretty well year round in a gorgeous designer wool suit with a fur stole.

She then shed these “traveling clothes” for her resort wear.  Also chic.  Also perfectly appointed and considered outfits.  With matching head scarves and colorful jewelry and sandals that matched her outfit’s color to perfection.  Much luggage was necessary.

Every morning I would sneak into her room and watch her put on her “face”.  She had a very ritualistic and precise process of make up.  It was artistry and magic to me.

Grandma M.G. was born in South Africa, the daughter of an Englishman who worked in the Ministry of Agriculture.  Her mother was French.   Her uncle was a big game hunter.  When you are 10 years old these things all seem very glamorous and exotic.  When you are 18 the reality of it begins to dawn on you.  When you are in college in the 1980s and there are demonstration in the U.S. against Apartheid in South Africa, it makes the glamour turn to shame.

When you are 50 years old, you realize that humans live in their time and place.  I don’t know if my great grandfather did anything overtly horrible or just worked in a system that treated humans like garbage under foot.  Or if he treated the people he met with dignity regardless of race.

I will never know and it won’t ultimately have any impact on my life.  Which is odd, since I carry his DNA in me.  But his actions may still have some unknown effect on the people who live in South Africa.  In the same way that they say a butterfly beating its wings in the Amazon will cause a typhoon in the South Pacific.  Each action spawns others and those new actions spawn more and more… And now it’s impossible to say what the outcomes of a man who lived 100 years ago are.

Which is an accurate summary of human existence everywhere and we would do well to remember it.  Your genetic inheritance may affect your health and appearance, but it’s unlikely that it will ever have the large long term impact of your actions.  The long term effects may not be predictable but the short term ones are predictable enough.  And kindness and helpfulness are always positive.

My grandmother left South Africa when she was 18, but I don’t think she ever let go of the conviction than race mattered.  I was in college when I realized that she thought the caucasian race was inherently superior.  It’s a terrible thing to know about someone you love so dearly.

Grandma M.G. was in almost everything the opposite of Grandma Allen, who never wore make up and was practical in all things, especially clothing.  Neat, practical and durable pretty well epitomized Grandma Allen.  But Grandma Allen was also a racist.  She was also born in a time of racism but in the state of Missouri.  But Grandma Allen did not die a racist.  She changed.  I don’t know if that is true of Grandma M.G.

Grandma Allen died surrounded by family and is mourned to this day by her children and grandchildren.  She mattered to so many people in her family and out.  Grandma M.G. did not inspire that level of love in so many people.  She was glamorous but not generous of herself.  She was was funny and charming but ultimately a bit selfish.  She was not alone when she died because Grandma Allen raised my mother, who cared for Grandma MG until her death.  My mom was always kind to her despite not being very fond of her.

I had two grandmothers, whom I loved very much.  But in the end, I want to be like Grandma Allen.  She lived a deeply successful life.  I’m afraid I’m more like Grandma M.G. who probably suffered from depression in later life.  She became reclusive and didn’t leave her room.

I wonder why knowing the path isn’t the same as walking it.  I want to walk the Path Grandma Allen took.  But I’m probably wandering around on Grandma M.G’s path.  The paths are marked on a map, but somehow the map isn’t the territory.


Did I ever tell you about my Mom?

My mother was not always a great mom.  She was an active and very drunk alcoholic until I was 21.   I never really knew her until I was an adult.  When she finally sobered up, she changed and it was like meeting a new person.

People loved my mom.  I continued to be surprised by how much.  I guess I had seen her be such a bitch for so long, that when people gushed about her, I was just sort of surprised.

And it’s not like she was just a bitch when she was drunk.  She apparently was … uh… let’s say high maintenance as a teenager and young adult.  She threw some fairly colossal fits.

She was beautiful when she was young.  Not in an ordinary way, although she was a nice looking woman.  It was the way she carried herself and her style.  And although the alcohol stole her physical beauty and replaced it with bags and wrinkles, she never stopped carrying herself with a certain style and attitude.

But more than any of that, my mother taught me several important things.  She taught me the importance of equality and tolerance.  She taught me that being smart was the most important thing I was.  She taught me that helping people was the gift you gave yourself.  She taught me that family was important.   And she never really told me those things directly.

But she taught them to me, despite being drunk and mean and not very reliable.  And when you think about that, that is pretty fucking impressive.

But the biggest and most important thing she taught me was that it’s possible to change.  It’s possible to pull yourself out of mire of misery and self destruction and make your life good again.  Because she did.  She sobered up and changed her life completely.  She did it after 20+ years of being at least some level of drunk 90% of the time.

She did it at the age of 60.

She became one of my best friends.  And I miss her so much.

Happiness and Compassion

3 years ago I was homeless and obviously deeply unhappy.  And that was when I found out something about myself and maybe about all humans.  I was less generous and less compassionate when I was homeless.

I was more willing to contemplate harming someone to gain an advantage of safety or money.  I was more willing ignore the needs of other people to my own advantage.

I was aware of this and I didn’t like it in myself.  Because I was deeply non functionally depressed, which by its very nature made me unable to really change much, it was hard to grapple with this sudden change in what I considered my essential personality.

I have always considered myself compassionate  and empathetic.  I consider inclusion and participation and caring to be the very foundations that have positively changed the world.   But when I was  unhappy and afraid and my existence felt threatened – I was NOT compassionate.  I was selfish and self centered.

As my life improved, I was able to refocus myself on what I still consider to be my true self and that horrible willingness to hurt people to gain an advantage disappeared.

We would do well to consider that when we look around the world and see so many acts of violence and senseless emotional pain inflicted by one human on another.  All humans are complicated messes of emotions driven by both outside factors and internal damage.  It is very easy to condemn those who steal or hurt people.  They are wrong.

But they are also suffering, those people who cause so much pain.

Perhaps, instead of condemning them and ostracizing them and creating nightmarish prisons, we should consider how we can help them.  Because the rock bottom of the world is not the place where you create productive and compassionate people.  It’s the place where you create monsters.

P.S.  I’m late on this – I just couldn’t help but say this when I read the prompt on 1000speak for compassion.

Experiencing Art

I mean that as more than just going to a show and staring at Paintings.  That is experiencing it, and that used to be how I thought it was to be experienced.

And then in early 90’s I discovered a different type of experience.  Something that was more immersive.  Something that touches you more deeply and that sears itself into your memory as a result.

I went to visit the Dale Chihuly exhibit at Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center.   Its nearly impossible to describe it.  Chihuly put together an experience for his viewers and then he forced them to feel it.  You walked into a long tunnel where the very low ceiling and the walls were completely filled with individual shaped sculptures.  Each one part of a collective whole that was the piece of art.  Each individual piece was lovely.  But that wasn’t the art.  That wasn’t the experience.   The experience was wandering quietly through a multicolored hall without an apparent end, with colors almost floating in front of you.   That was a moment when I stopped thinking about anything but the moment.  I was there and nowhere else.  All of my brain was focused on experiencing that moment.dale-chihuly-artist038

Many years later I went to see the Bellagio’s ceiling piece, because when I describe that exhibit to people they always mention it, but it’s just a faint thing – too high, and not immersive.

I also went to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg.  Not too long after it opened.  There was a room there, filled with enormous silver pillows that floated.  You walked into the room and you could play with the pillows – hit them about and just be part of the art.  It wasn’t crowded that day and there was only one other person in the room. Everything stopped in that room.  It was a simple silly thing, but I stopped worrying about being late, I stopped wondering about lunch, I stopped thinking and I was just pleasantly in this place – with silver balloons. 1479035742_ba1677d6fc_o

That is the gift of experiencing art in an immersive way.  It removes you from the observer and makes you part of the magic.  A magic you will remember for a lifetime.