Are You Down?

My Uncle Daniel is gay.

He’s married to my Uncle James…who is also gay.

No revelations there.

They’ve been together almost precisely as long as I’ve been breathing on my own.

That’s 40-plus years.

I’ve been breaking bread with them since before my Mom married my Step-Dad in 1984.

That’s 30-plus years.

Easter.  Thanksgiving.  Christmas.

The big three of family meals around my parts.  These holidays meant a calling to the family feast…and secular pseudo-hymns sung by Barbara Streisand.

The only reason I still feel pangs of nostalgia when I hear Babs is because my uncles brought her into the fold of my life.  She’s also a spirit who further endeared my Grandmother to James and, I’ll argue, helped her accept the entire endeavor unfolding before her.  (My step-father’s family is rooted deeply in primitive Methodism.  Fire and brimstone.  Old testament stuff.  Gay was not a thing…but Ms. Streisand provided the lyrical and musical medicine which allowed my Grandmother to breathe.  And relax.)

From my earliest memories of those meals, and that funny lady, I see Uncle Daniel and Uncle James.  Except then it was Uncle Daniel and James.  James was simply…there.  As ubiquitous as the dulcet tones of that iconic vocalist who serenaded the unwavering and adoring throngs of Jews, Gays, and Senior Citizens…

…that was James.

Daniel’s “friend.”  But even that didn’t come up until much later, until my teen years.  Before then?  It was a holiday.  It was dinner.  It was my Grandparents, my parents, Daniel, and James.  And Babs, of course.  Always Babs.

And then came the year.  I believe it was Thanksgiving…because I can see turkey on the table.  (Easter and Christmas were ham.  Which is scripturally ironic that we’d be consuming brined swine on the very days Christians celebrate the birth and the resurrection of the Jewish king of kings.  But I digress…)  Turkey on the table meant Thanksgiving.  And perhaps it was just after James passed the cranberry jelly (…do you remember that stuff?  Not the high-brow cranberry concoctions that would eventually populate my gay uncles’, and probably your gay uncles’ Thanksgiving tables.  Ours was straight out of the can, sliced lovingly along the fossilized indentations…), or maybe it was after, “The Way We Were.”  Regardless, there I sat…thinking about absolutely nothing.  And then….out of nowhere…in my brain emerged this question, “Are they gay?”

I don’t even think I asked my Mom later that night.  I had the thought, I answered it (…yes, they’re gay…) and I shoved an overflowing spoonful of mashed potatoes in my mouth.

And that’s it.

Everything occurring around me was treated as “normal.”  As I said before…It was dinner.  Just another holiday feast.  And so when I realized what “friend” meant, I just continued on with my life.

As it should be.

That consistent and otherwise unremarkable exposure to my uncles proved extremely important.  Particularly in the light of the ever-present, ever-progressive, unconditionally loving influence of my Mom.  She used to tell me, “I don’t care what you do with your life.  You can be a doctor or a garbage man…as long as you’re happy and as long as you’re the best garbage man you can be…that’s all that matters.”  I remember learning the term unconditional positive regard in a psychology class.  That’s what my Mom gave me.  Love…with no strings attached.  Well, maybe one string…she also used to say, “I just want you to be a good person.”  A good person.  And I understood what that meant.  Why?  Because of her examples.  Be kind, be courteous, be open, offer smiles, stand up for what’s right, treat others the way you’d prefer to be treated.  You know…be…a good…person.

And so, with that exposure, those experiences and examples, I went forth into the world.


Many years later, as a young professional attending a conference, among new friends and acquaintances, I found myself poolside with a cluster of other aspiring educators and activists whom I would come to learn were gay.  I found myself in deep, meaningful conversation with one of the group.  Unexpectedly, he leaned in, “Are you part of the family?”  I paused, clear on his meaning.  I considered lying because for years I lived in constant fear of not fitting in, of not being liked, of being perceived as something I deeply hoped I was not…but I immediately turned toward honesty.  In relationship.  This man, this conversation, this environment…were all safe.  “No. I’m not.”  He didn’t react harshly, didn’t judge, didn’t turn and swim away.  Rather, he immediately said, “But you’re down.”

(You see, he knew.  He didn’t ask me.  It was a statement.  An invitation.  An embrace and a welcoming.  Nonetheless, I answered.)

“Yes.  I am.”

And that was that.

Is it possible to NOT be a member of a group with whom you don’t (…in fact can’t…) identify BUT remain an ally?

Is it possible to connect with “the other?”

Possible?!

For the sake of humanity, it is essential.  Because there is no other.

There can be no justice until there is just…us.

You dig?

So I ask you, are you down?

-G

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The Rage

I read.

I run.

I hike.

I meditate.

I eat well.

I hang out with children for a living.

I take a live probiotic.

And sometimes other consciousness-calming vegetables.

And Prozac.

And still, the rage lives within me.

If you don’t know the rage, drop to your knees and say a prayer of gratitude to whatever higher power in which you believe.

I’ve written extensively about the rage, so I won’t bore you further about my journey.

Today, I saw the rage as it boiled over in another human.

That’s a punch in the gut, because one never knows how one appears to others while blindly raging.

It’s not a good look.

I turned right around a large building after having purchased bacon and nectarines.  (Don’t judge, bacon brings nothing but joy.  And cholesterol.  And maybe cancer.  But lots and lots of joy.)

About 100 yards ahead, on the right, I spotted a parked car…not because it was notable in and of itself…because a bicycle rose above it and just as abruptly disappeared.

“What the…?”

And then I saw a head rise up, and the bike rise up again above said head, and the bike slam to the concrete for a second time.  By this point I was at the level of the parked car in front of which the bike was being given yet another WWE-style body slam.

I veered out of the way, turned my head to the right, and a heaving, spite-filled, bloodshot-and-teary-eyed, sweaty man locked gaze with me…and my face softened.  And maybe his did too.  In any case, I’ll tell you this: I saw myself.

As I continued forward, I peered in my rearview mirror as the man sat, utterly defeated (…body language unambiguous…) on the sidewalk and buried his head in his hands.

At the stoplight, I saw him gingerly, perhaps embarrassingly settle the bike upright, now askew from the beating it just endured, and begin walking it in the opposite direction.

And I sent a loving prayer his way.

And I thought, “There but for the grace of serotonin reuptake inhibitors go I.”

-G

 

(Moondance – Evolushun [rehearsal])

(These Boots are Made for Walking – Evolushun [rehearsal])

(Steal My Kisses – Evolushun [rehearsal])

(Kate – Evolushun [rehearsal])

 

Angry Greg
The Rage

I’m Not Ready. Yet.

I went to see the movie, “Sausage Party.”

We got to the theater a bit early, my wife and I, and watched as other people entered.  Predominantly, we saw groups of 4-6 which consisted of all young men or all young men plus one young woman.  It was, in a quintessential example of sociological meta-comedy, a sausage party.

We’d come with my step-daughter and her friend, both of whom are 13-years-old.  Neither of whom saw “Sausage Party” with us.  (If you see “Sausage Party,” it will become abundantly clear why this was a good decision, and not necessarily for any moral or ethical reasons…but simply for the sake of saving everyone the embarrassment of sitting through an all-out, no-holds-barred, cartoon-food orgy scene which still haunts, amuses, and, if I’m being entirely honest with you, arouses me.)  The girls hung out at the mall to which the Sausage Party sausage party was attached.

We all met up after the closing credits and began the commute home.

My step-daughter, M, is beautiful and bright, kind and thoughtful, anxious and stubborn.  On the final two points she and I are exceptionally similar…and that’s not often a recipe for peace and harmony.  When two angst-ridden, hard-headed individuals come together, it’s less tranquil and more, “Where’s the tequila?!”  M is exceptionally close with her Mom.  And she’s 13.  (I know I said that already, but it’s an important point.  Most men, particularly those of us who haven’t raised or interacted extensively with pubescent girls, have no frigging clue what’s happening, nor what to do, nor what to say.  Ever.)  Keep in mind, I’m also anxious, stubborn, and often whatever the opposite of “laid back” is.  M doesn’t often talk with me.  Like ever.  Mostly I take no offense and understand the bigger picture.  (Who the frig am I kidding?! As skilled as I am at processing bigger pictures professionally is as frustratingly incompetent as I am when they are related to me and those living in my home.)  But sometimes, usually when I least expect it, M will completely relax and open up.  (These interactions are often so unpredictable because they happen when I happen to also be in a maximally relaxed and non-judgmental mindframe.  See, both M’s and my tiny windows of chill don’t often coincide…but when they do, it’s wonderful.)  Well, usually it’s wonderful.  Sometimes when our chills align, and those chills also align with my wife’s chill, and M’s friend is also present and in a chill mood…the Buddha emerges, and shit gets real.

“Guess what?”  M asks from the back.

Jen, “What?”

“We saw A and T, and we actually got along?”

(A and T are girls who I hadn’t seen in a very long time, but were regular installments pre-Summer.)

I asked, “Why haven’t I seen A and T recently?”

“Oh, it’s a thing that happened with L,” who was the friend in the car.

I asked the obvious question, “What happened with L?”

(A prayer bell chimes somewhere in the cosmos.)

“You’re not ready for that story yet.”

I sat silent.  The girls laughed.

“What do you mean?!”

And M explained to me that I would need another 5-10 years under my belt before she was comfortable telling me certain stories.

“But what about Mom?” I tried, unsuccessfully, to sound less offended. “She knows!”

“Yeah, but she’s a girl…plus she’s just…ready.”

The conversation continued, but the details are irrelevant.  M couldn’t quite put her finger on precisely why I wasn’t ready, or what might make me ready, or what “ready” even quite meant.  But I totally understood what she meant, and it floored me.  It stunned me to silence.  And contemplation.

I’m not ready yet.

I’ve spent so much time attempting to get enlightened, worked so hard to be relaxed and open and understanding and kind and generous and present and…

I’m not ready yet.

Attempting to get enlightened doesn’t get a man enlightened.

You dig?

Just living, present-mindedly, without attachments or desires…that’s what gets a man enlightened.  And sometimes, a man is simply not ready yet for certain insights, experiences, and/or lessons.

That’s deep.  And it’s particularly deep when a 13-year-old hits you with it just 10 minutes after you’ve seen a Jewish bagel tea-bag a Syrian wrap as a hot dog voiced by Seth Rogan finishes dramatically in a buxom bun voiced by Kristin Wiig.  I certainly wasn’t ready for that.

But M’s bit of honest wisdom?  Maybe not that night.  Maybe not completely.

But I’ll get there, when I am ready.

-G

not-ready

Profoundly Unapologetic (Story)

I found this wonderful video on YouTube (here), described by the person who posted it, “I took Steve Reich’s Section I from Music for 18 Musicians and slowed it down by 800%. I got some of the most peaceful ambient music I’ve ever heard. Wonderful for sleeping and meditation or just observing the sky on a summer day.”

I also recorded  ambient sounds from Cook Forest and the Clarion River, and layered those on top of the slowed-down Reich piece.

In there you will find the introduction to, “Profoundly Unapologetic.”

Finally, I continued an exploration of a Tibetan prayer bell and small kalimba…and recorded a piece of prose I wrote and published several months back.  (Here is the piece)

If you have 10 minutes, I would appreciate your ears and the time.

I present to you, “Profoundly Unapologetic (Story).”

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Forgiveness Begets Forgiveness (Love Begets Love)

I was mugged for the first time in my life in late December of 2000.

At machete point.

(Merry Christmas.)

I lost everything of monetary value not attached to my body.

I was neither physically harmed nor irreversibly emotionally damaged.

I lost neither my optimism nor my passion for human service.

For that, I have a small group of people to thank.

A group with whom I boarded a series of buses from Central Kenya to the coast.

We were freshly minted Peace Corps volunteers.


In the three months of immediately previous training I’d crammed as much Kiswahili, Kenya Sign Language, and Kenyan culture into my brain as was possible.

Our education group included 18 people, 7 of whom, including me, were designated deaf education volunteers.

I’d left my family, my friends, my career, and my cultural foundation behind.  I deplaned in a foreign country on the other side of the planet.  We landed in Nairobi in the wee hours of the morning, while it was still quite dark.  On the drive to the training center, we stopped along the Great Rift Valley as the sun rose above an overwhelmingly profound landscape.

RiftValley
This photo does approximately 10% justice to what I actually saw that morning.

And for the following three months we attempted to do the impossible, which is to gain a thorough enough understanding of Kenya’s history, languages, cultures, politics, and society to serve a post-colonial developing country and its myriad communities and simultaneously stand as de facto diplomats of the United States.

These endeavors will, and did, inextricably bond a group of otherwise unfamiliar people.  We became a kind of family, a community connected by a common exceptional experience.

We graduated from training in December, 2000, were given our assignments, and were released to cobble together a meaningful life for the following 2-3 years.

And so, as I mentioned previously, quite near Christmas, half of our group boarded a series of buses from Central Kenya to the coast.


I had a bunch of expensive shit I’d bought and been given in the weeks leading up to my departure.  A hydration backpack, SPF clothing, camping and survival tools, a sweet Grundig short wave radio, and traveler’s checks.  Looking back on it now, that bag was screaming “steal me from this clueless mzungu.” (Notably, urban dictionary has perhaps the best definition of “mzungu,” and I’ll share that with you here: In Swahili [the lingua franca of East Africa], someone who wanders without purpose/someone constantly on the move. It came to be applied to all white people in East Africa, as most were encountered as traders, visiting colonial officials or tourists.)  We’d been warned about traveling with such bling.  Taught how to become “hard targets” for crime.

But I was 26.  Blissfully happy.  With my new “family.” Traveling along busy roads in crowded buses.  I hadn’t yet learned anything about life in Kenya beyond the structure and safety of our training center and our homestay experiences.  I was the softest of targets.

That…was about to change.


We were on a very large vehicle, somewhere between a bus and a matatu.

The matatu was, and perhaps still is, the quintessential, ubiquitous form of transportation in Kenya.  Vans which seated 16+ in a space intended for 10.  The matatu was the repository of all humanity.  Countless were the times I swatted live chickens headed to market from pecking my sweaty cheeks, held babies as they were passed across the rows and aisles, chewed upon the breath of impoverished drunkards nearly blind from illicit spirits, kicked empty tubes of potent model glue huffed by homeless children, or half-sat on a sleeping Grandmother’s lap as a family of 4 half sat upon mine.

And at a stop somewhere on an unpaved, arid road on the way to Mombasa, sitting contentedly with my backpack upon my lap, twangy trebly East African music drifting up from dust-clogged speakers, this matatu would be the vehicle from which I’d be relieved of all my new, expensive, ultimately unnecessary shit.


As I remember it these 16 years later, I turned my head to look out of the window and a young man with a machete began a chopping motion at my face as he screamed, bloodshot red vitriol in his eyes.  I released the bag, he snatched it, and that was that with that.

Here I could wax post-colonial about the justifiable historical and social reasons why a young man would feel compelled to commit such a pitiful, nearly heinous, act.  In retrospect, everything is easier to process.  But at that moment, heartrate likely near 200, bowels threatening an additional release of unnecessary shit, and a sea of faces shouting in a foreign language (…in this moment, any Kiswahili had been long forgotten…), I sat silent and stunned.  And angry.  Angry with all of the anger my angry-leaning brain could generate.

The other volunteers had exited the back of the vehicle, entirely unaware of what happened to me up front.  They led me out of the vehicle, brought me to a shaded area, and waited me out.

We filed a report with the local police, but we knew that the endeavor would prove fruitless.  The stuff was gone, as was my desire to remain in country.  My fellow volunteers convinced me to continue toward the coast for Christmas.  I went along robotically.  They lent or bought me necessaries (…I’d lost toiletries, underwear, and the bottom half of the zip-off pants/shorts I’d been wearing…), joked with me, cried with me, but never did they allow me to wallow too long in fear and pity.


The days immediately following the machete incident proved the most important window of time in my adult life to that point.  I was embraced by a small group who would become my family in country.  I was lifted up and rebuilt.

I was mugged twice more while in Kenya.  The final time, just weeks before returning to the United States, at knife point by a small group of children not much older than my step-daughter is today.

I could have easily, and would have justifiably, taken those terrors with me as the quintessential impression of my time.  However, the love and humanity of that small group, and eventually of multiple other people, most of whom were Kenyan, allowed me to frame my 27 months in country holistically and optimistically.

The journey from day one, stunned by the landscape of the Great Rift Valley, until I stepped back on an airplane headed for London and eventually Pittsburgh, carved a healing cavern in my soul into which I’ve tried to pour as much love, through service and relationship, as is possible.


Kiswahili and Kenyan culture is rife with proverbs.  Tiny lessons often printed on the beautiful fabrics worn by women across the country, and weaved inextricably into the language of nearly every Kenyan with whom I interacted.  I’ll share two such phrases with you here.

Asojua kusamehe nasitumai kusamehewa.
(One who does not know to forgive, should not expect to be forgiven.)

Moto hauzai moto, huzaa majivu.
(Fire does not give birth to fire, but to ashes.)

-G

Kanga
Love me so that I may relax.

The Balmudo Triangle (Grease Two, pt 1)

Have you seen the movie Grease 2?

Yes?  Good!

Do you love it?

Hate it?

Love to hate it?

Hate to love it?

Well…have I got something for you.

Jen and Jim, both of whom actually love to love said sequel, sat with Greg, who had, for most of his adult life, simply hated it.  Maddy came along for the ride because, a.) Jim is just awesome, b.) So is Jen, and c.) both of them consistently called Greg on his bullshit and assholery throughout the recording.

You may remember the, “Llewellynsanity” trio of podcasts from several weeks back.  Well, the “Grease Two” trilogy, the first of which is just below, is a continuation of the same evening.  That means quite a few ounces of alcohol have flowed by the time you hear Greg, quite obviously inebriated and having just tripped over the recorder and lost an entire podcast’s length of material, say, “Driven to Drink.”

Here you’ll also hear the classic (…classic, really?  Perhaps…) songs, “Cool Rider,” and “Reproduction.”

Strap in, comb some oil-based pomade through your locks, and throw on your goggles and helmet so that nobody recognizes you.  We present to you, “The Balmudo Triangle (Grease Two, pt 1).”

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Moses, Mercy, and Me

I just returned from a week in the Cook Forest.

More than any ingested substance or pharmaceutical, more than any mental health expert or spiritual guru, the forest, and that forest in particular, provides me both therapy and medicine, immediately and powerfully, impossible to replicate with human intervention and innovation.

I biked, kayaked, ran, hiked, climbed, meditated, and had the opportunity to complete sun salutations atop a large, flat boulder on the bank of the Clarion River…as the sun rose.

I brought a prayer bell and a kalimba with me.  I played and recorded those outdoor sessions as well as natural sounds around me and across the week.  By Saturday, I had a sonic sampling of my experience.  Playing the kalimba reminds me of my time in Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer.  You may remember the story, “Moses Chege,” from a recent D2D post.  I revamped that story as a spoken tale and edited in some of the sounds from my time in the forest.

I hope you enjoy it.

-G

Moses Chege Photo
Moses (far right)