An Olympic pitch…IN Chicago, not just FOR Chicago

2 10 2009

The big news this morning is that the President and First Lady knocked it out of the park in pitching Chicago as the 2016 Olympic site.  “They were rock stars” gushed a Today show reporter (of course, that’s about all the Today show does these days…gush…but I digress).

I’m thrilled that the Obamas made the pitch.  It’s great to see a president have fun touting all that is wonderful and positive and promising about our country and one of our best cities.

At the same time, I wish President and Mrs. Obama would make the 1.5 hour flight from DC to Chicago to tell school kids there that they’re as passionate about them as they are the Olympics. That their future is just as important to America as one week in the summer of 2016.

I wish they’d do it for Corey McLaurin.

I wish they’d do it for Corey Harris.

I wish they’d do it for Derrion Albert.

Who are these guys?

They’re the three young Chicago students who have been murdered since school started less than a month ago.

Three kids.  One month.

And this isn’t a flukey spike in crime.  Last year, almost 40 Chicago school kids were killed…that more than one per week.  Right here.  In America.  In our President’s hometown.  In the city that, hopefully and in so many ways justifiably, the whole world will be watching 6 summers from now.

The President and Mrs. Obama could fly to Chicago, give a speech and be back home—with their two children–in less than the time it took for them to fly ONE-WAY to Copenhagen.

Don’t you think that would be time well-spent?

Mrs. Obama said the other day that she would “take no prisoners” in her bid to secure the Olympic nod for Chicago.  What do you think would happen if she brought that same attitude to Chicago schools?

Or urban schools across the country for that matter?  As I write this, Boston has just announced that 5 more of our city’s high schools will have metal detectors.  Meaning that 35 of our 39 schools have them.

It’s all part of a federal program called “Secure Our Schools.”  Is that where we are as a country today?  That we “secure our schools” with metal detectors….instead of values?  Instead of leadership?  Instead of community?

Hours ago, President Obama wrapped up his pitch with these words:  “If we walk this path together, then I promise you this:  The City of Chicago and the United States of America will do the world proud.”

Imagine if he said those words–not via video, by the way–to the kids of Chicago. If he told them that he and the First Lady have their backs.  That they will take no prisoners in making sure kids go to school to learn, not to be killed.  That he would walk with them…to do their city, their country…and themselves proud.

Now, THAT would be worthy of a gold medal.


My Dad’s final gifts

10 07 2009

My Dad died last week.  And, in dying he has succeeded in getting me to do the one thing he always wanted me to do:  Slow down.

Slow down to experience his death fully…not as a project to be managed, but as a precious gift that, at last, opened the box of our relationship as father and son.

Talk about the universe throwing you an unexpected right hook (Dad was a former Golden Glove boxing champion…I couldn’t resist!).

You see, Dad and I weren’t close.

There wasn’t any animosity or anything.  And it wasn’t personal.  He wasn’t really close to anyone.  Eventually, we settled into a nice little routine where I had lunch with him at least once each time I went to Dallas.  We had the same conversation each time (weather, sports, family—always that order).  It may not have looked like a lot to the outside observer, but for us…it was enough.

Dad and I even were blessed with a great farewell lunch (though neither of us knew it at the time, at least I didn’t).  It was this past Thanksgiving.  Never being able to say he was proud of me, Dad DID say he was happy for my decision to become a writer.  He even said that “maybe someday, I’ll meet your friend” (that would be my husband).  I told him that I loved him.  As him.

After my sister called with the Hospice news, I sat down with that final memory and told myself that I’d take a day or two to sort through the other weaves of our 43-year journey together.   I quickly realized that there wasn’t much sorting to do.  To borrow a line from my old friend, Gerry, when it came to Dad and me, “there just wasn’t much ‘there’, there”.

At least that had always been the official version.

That night, I started crying… unexpectedly AND uncontrollably.

I went upstairs to the study and lit a candle for Dad.  And I cried. And cried.  More than I have ever cried in my entire life.

Eventually, I saw Dad.  He was covered in vines.

They were the vines life foists upon us.  Broken dreams.  False hopes.  Unfulfilled promises…that we had made to others, and they had made to us.

The vines were more alive than Dad…and they were weighing him down.  His face was at once both resigned and terrified.

“It’s ok Dad,” I said.  “Put down the vines,” I told him.  “They’re not clinging to you.  You’re clinging to them.”

I’ll never know if he did or didn’t.  But I do know what happened next.

Suddenly, I was in the house I grew up in.  On Lake Haven Street.  It was the holidays.  I was sitting next to the Christmas tree (artificial, of course, these were the 70’s!).  And I was waiting for Dad to come home and do the only thing Mom ever asked him to do with the tree:  hang the lights.  Now, when we were kids, my sister and I told ourselves we wanted him home because once the lights were up we could hang even MORE ornaments from their wires.  That night, as I sat crying in my house in Boston—so many years and lifetimes away from Lake Haven—I realized that, at least for me, we wanted him home so we could be a family.

And, then, I knew that was never meant to be.  At least not for me.  At least not for my family.

It was an illusion.  A vine that I had carried with me my whole life…just in case it ever came true.

And then, I saw the figure covered in vines again.  Only, this time, it wasn’t Dad.  It was me.

Turns out, when you reached below life’s surface to its true “hidden harmony”, as Heraclitus calls it, Dad and I were quite close, one and the same in many ways.  Unhappy with what we saw as our hand in life, we created illusions to fill perceived gaps.

Illusions around family, around friends, around work.  Around us.

And, the gift of Dad’s death was to show me that he wasn’t the only one who could drop those vines.  I could, too.

And so I did.

Now, if you haven’t done it, let me tell you:  the sound of shattering illusions is deafening, unsettling, terrifying….and freeing.

I slept full of gratitude that night…gratitude for my father.  It was the first time I had ever paired those words together.

As I drummed the following morning, I again saw Dad (this time sans-vines).  We were moving towards each other.  Neither of us had much shape at all.  At one point, our finger’s barely touched and, then, we kept moving…now past each other. Dad one way.  Me another.

4 hours later as I was making lunch, I felt a pain.  A release.   A feeling at once empty and full.

My sister texted me 5 minutes later to confirm what I knew.  Dad was dead.

That afternoon, the first wave of a completely new sensation washed over me.

Turns out that Dad’s gift of shattered illusions had been simply a stocking stuffer.

His real gift was what happens AFTER you shatter those illusions.   And that is the gift of peace.

Not the Hallmark version of peace where it’s always morning in America.  Nor the Southern or Yankee brand of peace where you just lock all those unpleasant feelings, things and people in life’s basement and “buck up”.

Nope.  The kind of peace that comes only AFTER you’ve dropped all illusions.  The peace that is synonymous with truth.  With life.  Not as it could have been or should be, but as it is.  Now.  This moment.

Wherever Dad is, I hope he’s riding wave after wave of infinitely beautiful, just plain fun, peace.

I know I am.   And, for that, this son is forever grateful to his father.

Of fathers, sons, Michael Jackson and Farrah

29 06 2009

Last Sunday, in honor of Father’s Day, I posted a blog about father figures…specifically, the two men who had been father figures in my life.  And who i honored earlier this year by shedding the names of my birth father and putting on their names instead.  Five days later, I got a call that my birth father, whose name I no longer wear, had been placed on Hospice.  Most likely, he will be dead in a matter of weeks, if not days or hours.

That jolt has left me sifting through the weaves of our relationship–physical, emotional and karmic.  It’s also sharpened my awareness of the labels we carry with us.  Labels that we put on or, in many cases, allow others to put on. Masks that, by the weight of their illusion, either suppress or, worse yet, extinguish our true self.

What do the labels of “father” and “son” mean?  Does the father you are born to always win out over the fathers who raised you?  And what does the label of “son” require in the final days, moments of a father who was never there?

Looking outside my own life, I see friends and family members who refuse to wear labels…society be damned.  As they’ve aged, the frenetic rebellion of youth has settled into a beautiful groove of peaceful power.

And then there are the friends and family members who have spent lifetimes feverishly collecting all the labels society demands we wear. Yet, over time, the youthful exuberance of raw ambition weathers into a hardened resignation that, once you hit a certain point, you simply accept life for what is familiar vs what is true.  Convinced that it’s too late to change, they put themselves on a psychic Hospice if you will.  Seeking whatever will ease the pain of missed opportunities and numb their soul while they wait for their body to die.

Just look at Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson seems to be someone who always was trying to come back to past glory rather than participate–warts and all–in the here and now. His eccentricities seemed to be more a reaction to society’s demands than a response to his true self.  Even in death, people refused to let him go. Pumping his dead body for hours to bring him back…to bring them back…to what once was.

And then there’s Farrah Fawcett.  Someone who accepted that others wanted to see her as an “angel”, but who never let that illusion cloud who she really was.  She used that illusion to lure folks in to see real truths–be it about rape, domestic violence or cancer.  Where Michael Jackson saw the ability of masks or labels to conceal, Farrah Fawcett saw their potential to reveal.

If that is, you took the time to look beyond the mask, beyond the illusion, to see the truth…to live in the moment of what is vs what was or, perhaps, what never was.

Faith-filled advice from an irascible Democratic activist

22 06 2009

Way back when I was in politics, I asked a friend of mine why he always stopped to give money to homeless people.  “Because you never know when you could be looking into the eyes of Christ,” he answered.  It’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

And before either give a “Praise Jesus” or roll your agnostic eyes, let me assure you the words did not come from some religious zealot.

They came from a guy named  Dick Bigos.  Anyone active in Massachusetts Democratic politics or social service advocacy in the 80’s or 90’s knew Dick Bigos. As irascible an SOB as ever lived, Dick was one of the world’s best social service advocates and THE force behind the Democratic Party on Cape Cod (to him, the world was divided into two parts: “on Cape” and “off Cape”).   Dick was old-school politics.  He swore like a sailor, smoked like a chimney and drank (caffeine) like a fish.  If he wasn’t at work or on the beach, he was at the dog tracks.  He was as UN-PC as they come.  A fierce supporter of my boss, Gerry Studds (the first openly gay Member of Congress), Dick used to call me and complain that the Studds bumper sticker on his car prevented him from  pulling over at any rest stops to take a leak.  “It’s a f*&%kin’ magnet for you homos,” he’d bitch.

Dick wore each of his vices like a badge of honor for all the world to see.  And he used each one to prick the hot-aired arrogance out of the type of folks you tend to encounter in politics (including yours truly on more than one occasion).

But he never let them camouflage his particular faith, which when you removed all the dogma and tradition and rules, came down to this:  every single living thing is filled with “spirit”…whether it’s a homeless person, an ocean wave, the kid who pours your coffee every morning, even Dick Cheney (or Hillary Clinton, depending on your political views).

And while Dick loved taking risks at the dog track, his advice to me that day was to always hedge your bets when it came to faith.  To never be arrogant enough to presume that you knew who (or what) did (or didn’t) have something to teach you, to inspire you, to make you a better person.

But, rather, to go through life with eyes, ears and heart wide-open so that faith could flow in, out and through you at every moment.

Now, regardless of how you define “faith”, that’s not bad advice to remember on a Monday morning!

A moment for fathers

21 06 2009

Father’s Day is a bit of an odd day for me.

My birth father is proof-positive that love and blood alone aren’t enough to make you a father.  They must be equaled by intent.  One of the constants in my life is that Dad always has offered the first two qualities and, rarely, the third.

But the universe has more than made up for that karmic deficiency by providing me with two father figures throughout my life.  Men who show that, if you have to choose the balance among the three qualities mentioned above, love and intent will always win out over blood.

They’re the men I honored earlier this year by changing my name, by dropping “James” (my father’s father’s name) and “Woodruff” in favor of “Brett” and “Taylor.”

“Brett” honors my step-grandfather who was my father for the first ten years of my life. His last name was “Brettman”, but all of his friends called him “Brett”.  “Taylor” honors my stepfather, who picked up the fatherhood mantle after my grandfather died and carried it until he died this past year.

But, there is a back of symbol to these two words.  Behind the men they honor are the rich lessons they imparted onto me..lessons that continue to unfold moment to moment.

A career military man, my grandfather taught me to be a gentleman; to fuel outward respect with inward pride; and to live life without a net.

On that last point…I was  sick for much of the first ten years of my life.  As a result, a lot of folks treated me like a fragile, frail object.  Not Grandaddy.  He picked me up every Saturday morning for an adventure.  He always kept me out later than my mom or grandmother wanted; let me eat whatever I wanted; talk about whatever I wanted to talk about.

He figured that, if I was going to die in childhood as a lot of docs thought, I might as well enjoy the time I had.  It’s an attitude that caused him to move back to Southern California after doctors told him that a series of heart attacks and skin cancers made him too weak for such a move.  It’s the attitude that sent him to the golf course on January 20, 1976–seven months after the move–where he dropped dead walking to the links.  One that walks with me every day.

I called my stepfather “Thoso”.  He taught me three things:  to love nature; to ground in faith; and to always, always, always enjoy food…especially dessert, specifically Blue Bell and Spring Creek B-B-Q.  I got that last lesson first and struggled for years with the second.  The first lesson, the love of nature, was his last gift to me.

Like many gifts, it’s best shared through a story.

After a lengthy struggle with Parkinson’s, Thoso died last March.  He had a rapid-fire series of strokes beforehand that brought me home to Texas 8 times between December, 2007 and March, 2008.

As I took that final flight home, 33-years of memories flashed through my mind.  Then, just as we were beginning our descent into DFW, a final image flashed:  Thoso and I were sitting on a ridge, looking out at the deceptively simple Texas landscape.  We had our arms around each other’s shoulders, gazing out.  Just sitting in silent awe at the wonders and gifts of nature.

When I got to my parents’ house, my mother told me that Thoso had slipped into a coma.  I went back to his room, knelt down and took his hand.  As I did, he opened his eyes, squinted at me as only a Texas cowboy can and said,  “We had some good times, didn’t we?”

They were the last words he ever spoke.

They weren’t just words of good-bye to my mother–his soul mate–and me.  They were words of appreciation for the gift of A life that was about to be extinguished so a new one could be born.

Never forgetting that life is a gift from nature best lived with adventure…and dignity…and pride…and faith.  What a gift to re-member on this Father’s Day…from the fathers who now walk to the left and right of my name every day.

Of words and keys

18 06 2009

The word on writers is that we write because we love words.  That may be true for some, but not for me.  I write because I love what words can lead us to.  I see words as keys.  Keys that unlock the doors leading to life’s mysteries.  Mysteries that aren’t meant to be solved, but experienced.  To me,  words are but the means to an infinite end.

I’ve been thinking a lot about words this past week as President Obama, Democratic politicians and gay leaders have been knocked back on their heels by a community that is starting to grow tired of a words-only movement.  Weary of finding that words that promise action only unlock doors revealing brick walls.

But, I’m an artist, not an activist.  So, this blog isn’t about politics.

Rather, it’s an invitation to look at the key chain of words you carry with you.

If you’re married, when’s the last time you unlocked the door of your marriage?  To go behind the door of the word and into the room of your marriage? What’s there?  Two chairs facing a table of responsibilities? Or, a wall-less room where, as Joe Campbell says, the two selves who enter into marriage have re united into the whole self?

What does the key of your faith lead to?  Does it open the door to a “chosen” room that is bigger, better, brighter than anyone else’s?  Or have you realized that while the doors may be marked “Christian”, “Jew”, “Buddha” , “Shaman” et al, they all open to the exact same room?

And on and on the keys go.  They key for your career, your hobby, your politics, and on and on.

What do you DO with all those keys?

Are they your keys or did you just pick up the ones society says you should have?

Do you even know which doors they open?  Or are you one of those folks who just like to carry around a big key ring because you hope it will tell a story of how very important you are?  Hoping that just the fact you carry the words “married”, “religious”, “executive” with you…that those words alone will be enough to get you through life.

And, even if you know the doors they open, when’s the last time you went in?  In other words, do words open doors for you….or close them?

Finally, when’s the last time you borrowed someone else’s keys? What would happen if President Obama, a black man who can’t hide who he is, traded keys with a closeted gay man who not only CAN hide, but DOES hide every day?  What would each find in the experience that is the other’s room?

You can tell a lot about a life, a people, a country by unlocking the doors behind the words we use.  Perhaps we should do it more often.

Obama’s Stonewall (re-)gift to the gay community

17 06 2009

With the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall riots coming up, I am sure that President Obama has been asking himself:  What do you get a community who has, well, pretty much nothing?    Today, we get his answer:  You give them a tiny sliver of rights.

This afternoon he is expected to sign a memorandum in the Oval Office (no cameras, please!) granting federal benefits (but not all health care benefits, apparently)….to partners…..of federal employees.  GLBT community, welcome to Animal Farm where some of us are now more equal than others! And even the “more equal” aren’t AS equal as their straight counterparts.  UPDATE:  Apparently, Obama’s “re-gifting” the limited rights already granted to federal employees and their partners some years ago.  Classy!

Really, Mr. President, you shouldn’t have.

Now, listen, this indeed is good news for the small percentage of glb and t’ers who actually work for the federal government AND have a partner (who doesn’t need full health care coverage)  I really am happy for them.  They now can add new meaning to their Manhunt profiles promising “friends with benefits”.

And, look, my mom always taught me to say thank you when given a gift.  So, “thank you, Mr. President.”

But Mom also taught me that it’s the thought that counts behind a gift.  And, the thought behind this gift looks to be pretty cynical.  Obama seems to be doing this to salvage a chi-chi DNC fund raiser honoring Vice President Biden and bankrolled by extremely wealthy gays.  I get it: Give rights to a sliver of the community so you can collect checks from the wealthiest sliver.  (It’s at Washington’s Mandarin Hotel on June 25, tickets start at $1,000/person…a bargain for equal rights…for some.)

The whole thing leaves me feeling a bit like Oliver Twist this morning.  I’ve got my nearly empty bowl of rights.  I take it into the room (at the Mandarin no less!) where the gay federal employees and the wealthy gays are savoring a lavish spread and say to the president, “Please, sir, I want some more, sir”….because, at least where my community is concerned, size DOES matter!