Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Gay like Happy?

I think the tragic feeling is invoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing -- his sense of personal dignity.

On Friday night I was a pretty blank slate.  Yeah, I’d read more than my share of military history, and had a general sense of where the armed forces had triumphed and failed over the years.  But when I walked into the Spencer Theatre for KC Rep’s production of Another American Asking and Telling, all I really possessed was a vague sense that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was another red tape snafu.  A game of Twister gone horribly awry and it was fixed so it was over, right?

Thanks to Marc Wolf, I know better now.

That night I met Miriam Ben-Shalom, a decorated drill sergeant, and the daughter of a WWII veteran, who wanted nothing more than to serve her country.  An offhand comment led to a commander asking her one question.  Picture it suspended, the answer hanging in the air between the work that defines you and public humiliation:  “Sergeant Ben-Shalom, are you a homosexual?”

There was a reason they said Don’t Tell. 

In 1976 Miriam Ben-Shalom was discharged by the Army she loved.  And how did she repay this betrayal?  By spending the next 35 years trying to get back in.  She stands on stage, piercing eyes, rigid with anger, with sorrow, with shame.  Except it wasn’t her.  It was Marc Wolf, asking and telling like somebody’s life depended on it.

We saw people on both sides of the issue, portrayed by an actor who so thoroughly inhabits each soldier, that you would swear there was trickery involved.  Every time he did it, moving seamlessly from a chain-smoking, eye rolling WWII era Southern nurse who did not check the box marked Homosexual because, “That was for, prostitutes or something and I wasn’t that,” to a hyperactive, medal heavy Colonel who commented and twitched his way through his experience with a squadron of one gay man and ten sociopaths, leading him to declare, “and that’s why gays don’t belong in the Army.”  Interestingly, I recognized this soldier the moment Wolf opened his mouth—an outspoken and often lonely critic of the Vietnam war.  He’d gotten so many big things right. 

And yet, are we not merely a compilation of our own experiences, unless we hear the lives of others?  Will we allow ourselves to feel the grief of a mother whose child arrives in a closed coffin, thanks to his brothers in arms; the loss to an officer of all he held dear, his children casualties in the rubble; truth, the gift that emerged from a very public hell.

Each word spoken is verbatim from the interviews Wolf spent three years and all of his savings, gathering.  The words hang around your neck for hours, hilarity and tragedy weaving their weighty garland.  But the performance is a tour de force; an acting master class that is not to be missed.

Plays like this are the reason we have theatre.

Another American Asking and Telling at KC Rep January 14-February 6, 2011  http://tickets.kcrep.org/tickets/production.aspx?performanceNumber=4179

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Daily Grind

Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.
Studs Terkel

       Do work. Rayner Fredrick 

Today I got my first paycheck at my new job.  And while there have been paychecks, over the years, that elicited enthusiasm, I do not remember one bringing me so much joy.

The unemployment statistics churn out week after week, anticipated by stockbrokers and Obama's press secretary and the governors of states who are trying to figure out how in the HELL they are going to make 2+2=5.  But to millions of gainfully employed folks who are going about the business of life, they are just one more unfathomable number in a world filled with them.  

14.5 million people in this country are out of work.  
Until last Monday I was one of them.

And then, just like that, I was getting up at 6 and praying early and wearing clothes that weren't jeans.  I was thrilled.  I was terrified.  I wanted badly not to disappoint.  I made my lunch and got a security badge and the next thing you know, I had been there for two weeks.

The funny thing was I hadn't thought about the money.  Of course the initial sigh of relief could have been heard in New Guinea, but once I started, I didn't even think about it.  A hungry man appreciates food; a hot one, the AC; and a lonely one, companionship.  You might be groaning about getting up and going wherever it is you have to go in the morning, but when I rise, all I can feel is grateful.  So when Mike the mail guy handed me the big envelope with checks for my department I didn't even open it right away.  I passed the other checks out to my colleagues and then came back, found my letter opener and saw in black and white the exchange I had made, of effort for reward.

I have gotten bigger checks in my life.  But this one is, and probably always will be, the best.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Our Girl in Cape Town

She is sleeping now, this daughter of mine with whom I wait in airports, holding hands and saying goodbye--tears and joy our now-familiar mix.  A world away in summer, in Africa, while I contemplate once again the gift of her life.

The breakup of a family means many things, most of them a grueling kind of sorrow.  Yet, like any trial by fire, what rises is lasting treasure, a gold refined to its very essence.  I see all of my children gleaming in the sunlight and brushing ashes from their hair and shoulders.  But right now, today, there is just one story to tell.

She is extraordinary, this one.  Her first grade soccer coach called her The Pit Bull and yet when she wasn't demolishing opponents she was picking daisies, skipping downfield and tending to scrapes on the sidelines.  Over and over we moved.  Changing schools like so many cardigan sweaters yet each time she managed to find her way to the dearest friends, attracting loyalty and kindness with a gentle nature anchored in steel.  Unknown at the beginning and beloved at the end, every single time.

How astonishing that such friendship would be mine as well.  Too cautious for my own good, I put up walls around my heart, fearful that my children would feel overly responsible for my joy and knowing that they were working hard enough to hang on to their own.  But at some point in her freshman year of college Mary Glen shared that she'd told someone I was her best friend and all I could think was, Me?  It was the first chink in my armor.  Piece by piece we tore down the walls of parent and child and rebuilt ancient ruins, cities long devastated, until what was between us was so dear I could not have imagined it to exist.  She is, as Kris says, the closest witness to my life, total honesty and intimate secrets sandwiched between the hilarity of daily life and the binding cement of a hard journey walked together.

She adores Friday Night Lights and old Alias, and Slings and Arrows.  She has loved and lost, and loved and loved, growing and maturing so that life does not carry the same mistakes back to her doorstep, but instead the best kind of man.  She keeps a list of quotes on her wall a la Franny and Zooey and every time I read them I feel the deepest kind of joy to know such a soul so intimately. And perhaps most amazing of all, she has not only opened up her life to me, but offered up her friends as well, willing us to know each other, pushing me past my reticence to an entirely new life.

She is the woman I always wanted to be.

But for the next three months, she is on the other side of the world.   And even in an age of technology, tonight it's just a bit too far.   I'm counting on gratitude traveling fast.