Friday, June 23, 2017

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Dad did not come into this world easily.  His mother was 14 years old when she gave birth to her first child - a premature, underweight baby boy born in a throw=away place called Deal, PA.  Dad was born a “Blue Baby”, a newborn whose blood is not oxygenated enough.  I don’t think we know how much Dad actually weighed at birth, or even how long he was . . . but his first bed was a sewing machine drawer.  Against all those odds, Dad survived and grew.  But then, so did his obstacles.

He’s had more than a few scrapes in his life.  He once cut the end off of a finger with a power saw.  He once didn’t duck fast enough while running through a low doorway and tore the top of his head open.  He's had surgical eye implants.  He had two back-to-back surgeries – one quintuple bypass, the other on his intestines that had spent years turning gangrene.  Not to mention, Dad’s been a bit of a smoker for more than the better part of his life.  You see, he wasn’t supposed to live long enough to meet his first grandchild, let alone see the birth of his first great-grandchild 27 years after that  The point is, Dad has defied the odds his entire life and is here today to celebrate his 78th birthday.  

Admittedly, 78 is still not THAT old, but despite everything, Dad has outlived his father, who died at the age of 57, and has more than doubled the life span of his mother, who died at the age of 34.  He’s outlived both sets of grandparents and all 8 great-grandparents.  In Dad's family history, he is now the 5th oldest person in his lineage. 

From Dad, I have learned many things - mostly by example.  He showed me early on what it is to sacrifice for your loved ones; what it is to be dedicated and committed to either an action or a belief; what it is to give of yourself and your time to a cause you hold dear; what it means to do things that need to be done despite whether or not you know how to approach it; what it means to be quietly principled; and yes, even what it is to be the life of the party when you want to be.

When I "came out" to my Dad in 1997, I didn't know what to expect from him.  However, after I was finished speaking, his response was simply, "Well, I had NO idea".  When I pressed him on it, he said, "well I guess I thought about it at some point, but it never really seemed to matter.  It's your life; live it however you want."  And then the next morning, he woke me from bed and told me he needed help working on the deck.  If my very blue-collar, unworldly Dad had any trouble with having a gay son, he never let me know it.  From my perspective, Dad accepted me for the man I had become - a man espousing those same principles I listed above.  

Today, Dad is not where he wants to be, and certainly not where we selfishly want him to be either.  But there he is, living every day in his own, private world.  Now and then, there's a connection.  I experienced my first real connection with Dad in a few years during my most recent trip home.  For his birthday, I gave him a globe that lights up with different colors.  When he received it, he cried, which is the only emotion my Dad can express anymore.  It was a happy-cry; we've been able to learn the difference.  And as I leaned in to kiss him, he looked at me and I could tell he wanted to say something to me.  It was the first time I had experienced that with him in the years he's been living in his mental prison.  He wanted to tell me something, and I can only imagine what it was.  And that has to be good enough now.

But I know what it was.  My dad and I have a long history of unspoken words between us, knowing what the other means without really having to say it.  Two weeks after my coming out conversation, I was back visiting my parents.  My siblings and I were sitting around the picnic table on the newly finished deck and my dad came and sat by me.  There wasn't much room so he pushed into me.  When I turned to look at him, he smiled at me.  That's when I knew Dad and I were "good".  And thus is my history with him.  

Across the many miles, I send him love on his birthday today.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

My Childhood Bully Is An Electrician

Recently, I was back home visiting Mom and Dad for the annual "Birthday/Father's Day visit". My parents' birthdays are one week apart with Father's Day always falling in-between. It's been very handy that this has been the pattern my entire life. It's like knocking out a few celebrations at once which has always been awesome for me when traveling back home.

These days, I like having projects to do when I go back to Frostburg. This fact is no doubt influenced by my life with Kevin. I've never been lazy or one to just sit around all day, but these days I really enjoy taking a project on or at least managing a project to completion. And if you follow Kevin and/or me on this blog or any other social media, you'll agree that there has been no shortage or projects in our lives for the past several years.

Before I arrived home, Mom joked that she had a list, which I loved hearing. But the only thing she really sought my help with was an electrical problem she was experiencing in the house, with ceiling lights dimming and blinking and appliances not seeming to work at full power. I told her to call an electrician to visit the house one day while I am home.

The electrician came on Tuesday of that week. When he arrived, Mom and I walked out to the driveway to meet him and I instantly recognized him as a kid I went to high school with named Mike. In short, Mike hated me, or at least chose to express his severe dislike for me in every form of discourse available to a kid at the age of 17. He was one of the reasons I wrote It Gets Better, one of the most transparent, naked blog posts I've every written. Seeing Mike instantly transported me back to those high school days. I was almost instantly consumed with a calm rage, expressed physically with folded arms and a wide stance. I found myself "puffing up", as Kevin calls it. I can be physically imposing when I want to be, and I caught myself doing it just for the sake of scaring/impressing/warning this man who I had always seen as a threat. And here he stood in my parents' house.

He chatted with us for a second and then went to investigate the house and problems. I leaned in to Mom and whispered to her "He HATED me in high school. He called me names, teased me, was just a horrible, rotten kid." And I wonder, now, what went through my Mom's head at that point. She knows full well what my adolescent life was like. And standing in her home was one of the causes of all my angst. She must have felt some kind of conflict.

After Mike looked things over, he starts chatting us up the way people in small towns do when they try to figure out who you and your kids are to make that personal connection. He recognized my brothers, Matt and Mike, from their names and then looks directly at me and asks, "Now which one are you?"

"I'm Darren."
He looked a little stunned, looked away, then back at me and a few seconds later said, "What year did you graduate?"

I looked him dead in the eye and said, "1984".

He said, laughing, "Well, hell we graduated together!"

"Yeah, I know. I was just telling her (Mom) that."

He looked away, searching through memories, and responded, "Yeah, I remember you."

And it took everything inside me not to come back with something like, "I bet you do, you little prick!"

There I was - face to face with someone who made me feel worthless, and I had the enviable opportunity to let him know how insignificant he made me feel all those years ago and how his actions and the actions of others caused me years of self-doubt and insecurity . . . and I couldn't say a thing to him because I needed him to perform this service for my Mom and to like her enough that he might cut her a break on the cost of the project.

I wonder, now, if he ended up really thinking about me after we met again. Did he have the same feelings and memories of me that I have of him? Do bullies carry those memories or was I so meaningless to him that he didn't remember how he treated me? He definitely remembered my name not surprised he didn't recognize me), so I would like to think he remembers what a horrible kid he was.

A long time ago, I put my faith in the universe that it would balance everything out in my life. When something went wrong, I always had faith that a retribution would occur. Maybe I wouldn't be there to witness it in person or even know about it, but I had belief that it would happen. So my consolation is in the recognition of how great my life turned out. I'm not going to compare my life to his, but I am so proud and happy with my life and the people I have chosen to be part of it, that now it all doesn't matter. My great revenge, if that's what it was, was living the life I did, having the fun I've had, and knowing and loving the people I have.

As for the electrical problem, Mike fixed it. And he charged half of what I expected it to be. Perhaps that's the result of small town pricing. But I decided that he factored a "bully discount" in the total. The universe pretty much demanded it.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Road Tripping

It;s no secret that Kevin and I like quirky things.  It's probably what has attracted us to each other all these years.  I mean, who wouldn't be attracted to a man who is incredibly smart, ridiculously talented, super cute, and is passionate about things like gardening, circus arts, and keeping himself in peak physical condition?

But enough about me.

I've mentioned on here before that Kevin and I have a personal challenge we are working towards as a couple: to visit every state in the country together.  We've been doing a fairly solid job of it in our 12 years together, and we keep track by purchasing a distinct brand of state magnet and posting it on a wall in our house to commemorate the journey.  Over Memorial Day Weekend this year, we added 5 new magnets to our wall, which now leaves only Georgia and the New England states before we've hit every state east of the Mississippi River.

Since starting this challenge, we have combined it with our love of visiting odd/random/bizarre places and things by taking road trips and following websites like Roadside America and Atlas Obscura to seek out and visit sites that have a story, be it strange, fascinating or just plain weird.  And going forward, it will help if these places are in states we have yet to visit.  And since there are not many things we like better than a good old fashioned road trip, one became the catalyst for our holiday weekend excursion to visit a few sites in Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky, thus adding those 5 states to our map.

Our first stop was on historic Route 66 where we visited a renovated Texaco station in Dwight, IL, followed by a rabbit farm in Staunton, IL, then on to St. Louis, MO where we visited The Arch.

We also spent about 4.5 hours in the City Museum, a constantly-evolving/"always building" 12-story building housing slides, caves, a ferris wheel on the roof, a bus solidly teetering on the edge of the building, steel tunnels and cages to climb through to get from one point to another.  There's no age limit for attending and it would seem that the only hinderance would be your size; if you can fit, you can try it out.  There are no maps and nothing explaining what anything is - you just have to discover it for yourself and try it out.  This place was Kevin's Disney World.  He lit up like a kid on Christmas when we walked in and was still excited (albeit it exhausted and sweaty) when we left.  I expect us to go back again.

The next morning, we headed to south and stopped in Chester, IL, the birthplace of the Popeye cartoon.  The artist was originally from Chester and most of the characters, including Popeye, Wimpy, and Olive Oyl, were based on people who lived in Chester.  The town had statues of just about every character in different places. Then on to the semi-abandoned town of Cairo, IL (pronounced Care-Oh), the southernmost city in IL at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and, thus, the lowest elevation in the state.  And then we passed through Arkansas, but not without first taking a glamour shot.

We finished Day 2 of the trip by visiting the Bass Pro Shop located at the Pyramid in Memphis, TN.  This place was massive and house every hunting, camping, boating and outdoor supply you could ever think of.  There were a few restaurants, a huge aquarium, a bowling alley, a hotel, and TONS of taxidermy.  We were completely out of our element but still enjoyed ourselves.

That night we stayed in Memphis (but that's a whole 'nother story.  Look for that blog posting in the coming weeks!).  We tried to visit Beale Street that night but it was impossible to get to, especially on a holiday weekend.  So we called it a night and went back to Beale the following morning.  Perhaps not as exciting as it is at night with all the lights, but still fun to be there.  A few blocks away, we stopped by Sun Records, the basis of the Tony-winning musical, Million Dollar Quartet (Mom and Kim - you saw this when you were in Chicago once).  And before leaving Memphis, we stopped by the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated in 1968.  The remarkably preserved motel now houses the National Civil Rights Museum.

Back on the road, we stopped in a cemetery in Mayfield, KY to see the "The Strange Procession That Never Moves": the grave plot commissioned by Col. Henry Wooldridge and built over the course of 7 years until his death in 1899.  The plot is populated by 15 life-size sculptures of Col. Wooldridge, along with members of his family (mother, 3 sisters and several brothers), his 3 pets (his horse Fop and his dogs, Toehead and Bob), a few wild animals (a fox and a deer), and a young girl who is either his grandniece or the young love of his life who died in a horse accident (depends on who you talk to).  All the monuments are cenotaphs since the Colonel is the only one actually buried in the plot.

After that weirdness, we drove back into Illinois where our first stop was Metropolis, which has embraced the Superman lore.  Then on to a small town called Gays - that's right - Gays, IL, where we saw a 2-story outhouse, and then a quick stop in Effingham, IL where we saw America's largest cross at 198 feet.

We spent the night in Champaign, IL and hit the road back to Chicago the next morning. It was a well-spent, well-traveled 4 days.  We added 5 new states to our magnet board, which is filling in nicely.  There will probably be several more road trips this summer, and we will be sure to document our fun.  Because who doesn't want to travel along with someone who's adventurous, fun-loving, and adorable.

But enough about me.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

I Was A 30-Day Diabetic

These days, diabetes is prevalent in American society for many different reasons:  some people are overweight, some people get it late in life, some people are genetically predisposed to develop it.  And it would appear that I am in the latter group.

Back in mid-April, I needed to see my GP in order to have blood labs completed for my upcoming (third and final) sinus surgery.  Most of the lab results were what I expected, with the exception of my glucose levels.  After staving off diabetes for years (I've been keeping records on my lab work for the past 20 years or so), my body finally tipped the scale. A glucose count that had been maintained at 103-110 (considered pre-diabetic) for the past two decades suddenly elevated to 286.  I had what my family calls, "the sugar".

How could this have happened when nothing in my lifestyle had changed?  Simple answer: because nothing had changed.

Realistically it's crazy, I guess, to think we can maintain ourselves year after year doing the same things, eating the same foods, getting the same amounts of exercise.  Our bodies change over time; they age and things start to break down - faster for some than for others.  MY body has been breaking down at a rate faster than others in my age group; I've often said I have the insides of someone 20 years my senior.  So naturally it made sense that I just couldn't keep doing what I had been doing all these years in order to maintain my health.  Things needed to change and I simply didn't realize it.

Back in my doctor's office, I was perplexed.  Why now, I wondered?  He asked who in my family has diabetes.  My mom, my dad, my brother, my sister...   For me it's genetic, as are most of my health problems.  And like those other health problems, I intended to fight this one too.  My doctor challenged me to lose weight.  In his office, I weighed 238 - again fairly usual for me.  But he wanted me to maintain 228 instead.  No more carbs, he said while he wrote out yet another prescription.  He said to me, "I know the last thing you want is to be diabetic, so I'm trusting you to take care of this.  I won't ask you to check your levels or monitor your sugar.  But I will ask you to download the MyFitnessPal app and keep track of your diet and exercise."

Which I did religiously.  What was fun about the app was that after I would input what I ate during the day, it would tell me what I would weigh in 5 weeks if I ate every day like I had that day.  It was somehow empowering.  And it worked.

Eight weeks after starting the app, which helped me keep track of my calories, carbs and exercise, I weigh 219 lbs, for a loss of 19 lbs overall!  The other great news is that my glucose went from 286 to 117, and my cholesterol dropped 30 points.  My doctor took me off of the medication and now I will just keep using the MyFitnessPal app and getting regular exercise.

Throughout my life, I've had these resets:  I've used Nutrisystem a few times to lose weight, most notably the first time I used it in 2010 when I lost almost 50 lbs.  I've used it again now and then since to drop a few pounds here and there and to remind me what portion control looks like.  But then I fall off the wagon somehow as food is my crutch, my comfort.  But this time feels different.  This time, I know the consequences because I experienced them.  And while I have been pre-diabetic for the past 20+ years, there's something about having diabetes that triggered something in me mentally and emotionally.  I don't want to repeat those 8 weeks again.

I already have enough to worry about.