Friday, December 21, 2012

24 years ago today

I’d finished my classes for the semester and my dad had come to pick me up from college for the holiday break. 1988 had been an emotional roller coaster for our family. We’d lost four family friends in a small plane crash Easter morning, my mom had undergone a radical mastectomy in October and she was just starting her first rounds of chemo before Christmas. I was in the middle of my junior year in college, and I’d finally found a major I was willing to stick with: English. But since I’d waited a full two years to admit to myself I always should have been an English major, I had a lot of catching up to do. And my first-semester courseload had been heavy.

December 21 is the winter solstice—the day of the year with the shortest amount of sunlight—but it was beautiful and sunny in Eastern Iowa that afternoon in 1988. And Dad and I had a nice chat over the 40-minute drive home. My family has always been close, so when we saw Mom standing in the driveway as we pulled up to the house, I figured she was just excited to see me.

But she was sobbing.

I assumed she’d gotten some bad news about her cancer while Dad was gone, so I jumped out of the car before it even came to a stop and I ran up to hug her. But the bad news was something entirely different: Miriam’s plane had gone down.

Miriam was a friend of mine who had spent the semester in London studying under the auspices of Syracuse University. I’d just visited her over the Thanksgiving break, and we’d had an awesome time seeing the sights, exploring the museums and taking in all the shows we could afford on our college-student budgets. Among the four we saw were Les Misérables and an extraordinary revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. Sondheim was just starting to appear on our collective radar, and we both agreed that seeing Follies together was a mountaintop experience for us to have shared over our magical week together in London.

But by December 21, I’d come home, a whole month had passed and I’d been so caught up in my finals and holiday preparations that I’d had no idea Miriam was flying back to the States that day—much less what flight she was on. Neither had my mom. But our friend Jody in Ohio did. And when the initial reports that Pan Am flight 103 had disappeared out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, started washing over the newswires, Jody had called everyone she could think of.

Mom and Dad and I raced to the family room and crowded around the TV that crisp, sunny Iowa afternoon to see what we could find out about Miriam’s plane. It was the early days of CNN and 24-hour news, so we were able to get (spotty) information right away about the mysterious crash, along with grainy images of the wreckage shining dimly in the emergency lights that were working so hard to pierce the solstice blackness six time zones away.

Over the next few months and weeks, the world came to learn about the bomb, the Libyans, the retribution, the embargoes, the bankruptcies. We cautiously wrapped our brains around the unthinkable efficiencies of global terrorism at the dawn of the Information Age. And the friends and families of the victims of the 103 bombing started experiencing the bizarre dichotomy of watching our personal tragedy play itself out on the world stage.

In the years since Miriam’s murder, I’ve befriended her parents and friends. I’ve gotten in touch with the roommates she lived with in London, none of whom had been on her plane with her that day. I’ve written pieces about my relatively removed perspective on the bombing that were published in newspapers and scholarly journals and read on NPR. And since I had been in London and had hung out with a lot of the Syracuse students a month before the bombing, I’ve actually been interviewed by the FBI.

And as I’ve grieved and matured over the last 24 years, I’ve discovered that I now tend to be efficiently emotionless when I hear about epic tragedies like the 9/11 bombings and the Newtown massacre ... but I’ll still burst into tears over emotional pablum like Christmas cookie commercials.

Twenty-four years ago today, the world learned what a volatile mix misanthropy and religion and blind nationalism can be in a global melting pot.

Twenty-four years ago today, Miriam and her fellow passengers and their families and friends learned violently and unwillingly about harsh brutalities that the rest of the world got the relative luxury of absorbing over time.

Twenty-four years ago today, I learned that the distant tragedies that so often happen to “other people” should never be observed as abstractions.

I discovered that news of plane crashes and acts of terrorism that play endlessly in 24-hour newscycles can be both disturbing and strangely comforting. I learned that life is precious, that there are no guarantees, that people who waste your time are just robbing you, that small gestures can make heroic impressions, that your pain and suffering and anguish and heartbreak do not make you special, that no matter how bad it gets you should find solace in the fact that it will probably get better … or at least easier.

Twenty-four years is enough time for someone to raise a child and send him or her off into the world. Enough time for six presidential elections and four new Sondheim musicals. (Six, if you count Saturday Night and The Frogs.)

It’s enough time for a gangly, unsure college boy to cycle through four cars and five houses and six jobs and three cities and one engagement as he grows into a successful, confident (more or less) man. It’s enough time for him to realize that the world is not fair. That bad things happen to good people. That the bad people who did them don’t always get punished. That horrible tragedy gets easier to accept over time, though it remains impossible to forget. That the hate that some people burn into your heart never entirely leaves, and that the smug, satisfied self-righteousness you feel when you finally see images of Moammar Gadhafi’s bloodied, abused corpse feels powerfully good.

 I often wonder what Miriam would be if she were alive today. Famous actress? Influential journalist? Stay-at-home mom? She was among those people you just knew were going somewhere big with their lives. I’m sure that wherever the fates would have taken her, she’d be someone people knew about.

I also wonder if we would still be friends. We’d met that summer when we were singing and dancing in the shows at Darien Lake amusement park just outside Buffalo, New York. Our friendship lasted just seven months until she was murdered. I’m only barely in touch with the other friends I made at the park that summer. Miriam’s family and I aren’t in touch nearly as much as I’d like either (though her mother recently published a book of Miriam's writings along with essays from people who knew and loved her, including me).

Would Miriam and I have drifted apart as well? Since at this point I’m pretty much in control of our story, I choose to believe that by now I’d have sung in her wedding and helped her decorate her baby’s room and given her a prominent link on my blogroll and kept her on my speed dial from the moment I got my first cell phone. And I’m pretty sure she’d have written the same story for me if our fates had been reversed.

Twenty-four years ago today was the last, devastating act in a year that had shaken my family to its core. It was the day my worldview changed from naive to guarded, from optimistic to cynical, from insular to secular.

It was the day my friend Miriam was murdered.

And it was just another day for most people. And though the world continues to spin forward—as it should—and people’s memories continue to fade—as they do—I will never forget.

Monday, June 18, 2012

What the hell do gay people have to be proud of?

We’re proud because despite relentless persecution everywhere we turn—when organized religion viciously attacks and censures and vilifies us in the name of selective morality, when our families disown us, when our elected officials bargain away our equality for hate votes, when entire states codify our families into second-class citizenship, when our employers fire us, when our landlords evict us, when our police harass us, when our neighbors and colleagues and fellow citizens openly insult and condemn and mock and berate and even beat and kill us—we continue to survive.

We’re proud because pride is the opposite of shame—and despite what the Christian hate industry works so hard to make the world believe, there is nothing shameful about being gay. We’re proud because—thanks to the incredible bravery shown by gay people who lived their lives openly in the decades before us—we can live our lives more and more openly at home, at work, with our families, on our blogs … and even on national television.

We’re proud because we’re slowly achieving marriage equality state by state. And even though the change is happening at a glacial pace, we’re still making it happen. Even our president is behind us now.

We’re proud because through our tireless work and the prevailing powers of common sense and compassion, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone and Proposition Hate and the so-called Defense of Marriage Act are slowly collapsing in on their illogical, immoral, meritless foundations.

We’re proud because we are smart enough to overcome the self-loathing that our increasingly venomous, mindlessly theocratic society forces on us, and we have the power to stop its destructive cycle by fighting back and by making intelligent choices involving sex and drugs and money and relationships and the way we live our lives.

We’re proud because after all we’ve been through, the world is starting to notice and respect us and emulate the often fabulous culture we’ve assembled from the common struggles and glorious diversity of our disparate lives.

We’re proud because this month we’re celebrating with drag queens, leather queens, muscle queens, attitude queens and you’d-never-know-they-were-queens queens, and together we can see through the “pride” in our parade and enjoy the underlying Pride in our parade.

Quite simply, we’re proud that we have so much to be proud of.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

It’s been 21 years since I last barfed

Picture it: Cedar Rapids. 1991.

I’d finished college and moved home with my parents that December and immediately got involved (natch) in the local theater community. By April I’d already done two shows (a theater revue called Follies and my first fabulous experience in A Chorus Line) and I was in rehearsals for an original musical based on the Madeline children’s books.

April 18 was our tech rehearsal. It was also my birthday. We finished teching the show that afternoon and the cast was noshing on a few snacks when one of the girls in the show hurled. Massively.

I was nearby, so I helped clean it up. No harm, no foul, right?

Wrong. My woeful ignorance of sports and their metaphors came back that night to punch me in the gut.

I threw a birthday party for myself that night at my folks’ house (where, you remember, I was living). I invited a ton of people I’d recently become friends with in my three shows, though I technically barely knew any of them. Granted, I’d seen many of them in their underwear backstage and I’d touched a couple of their boobs in the context of being dance partners, but any friend history we had went back less than four months.


The guests arrived. The party started. The presents were opened. The cake was cut.

And suddenly I didn’t feel good. I really, really, really didn’t feel good.

I ran upstairs to the bathroom and threw up so violently my toes were pulled inside out. And I didn’t stop. Whatever was in me that wanted out so bad was making sure it exited with high drama. And a full orchestra. And pyrotechnics. And a profound death wish deep in my soul.

I went downstairs to find my mom (because moms always know what to do in these situations) and once I told her what was wrong I had to run back upstairs and hurl again. And again.

As you may know, hurling is no fun. And hurling this violently can quite literally be the worst moments of your life. Especially on your birthday. Especially as your birthday party – filled with people you’re only just starting to know and your folks totally don’t know – dances on without you in your parents’ living room.

Finally empty, I crawled gingerly into bed … with a path of old towels between me and the toilet in case my inner demon reared its ugly head again in the night. And at some point the guests – apparently oblivious to my absence – packed up and left.

And before I drifted off I vowed I’d never throw up again.

And so far I haven’t. For 21 years. I haven’t even come close, in fact. So happy birthday to me.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Punishable writing felonies

Ignorant redundancies
$25 dollars • ATM machine • 6:00 p.m. at night

Meaningless quotation marks
“The kitchen experts!” • Our “famous” apple pie

Punctuation gluttony
Important!!!!! • Why pay more than you have to?!?

Pointless capitalization
Call your Mom • I love Spring • Our Company is hiring

Dangling modifiers
As our best customer, we want to thank you

Toddler typing
Where RU? • Gr8 job last nite • cn I c yr pix?

Imaginary that
Take that vacation you’ve always dreamed of

Unparallel lists
I dumped him because he’s dumb, bad breath and died on Thursday