On Living

Skydiving

Me skydiving in the summer of 2011. Photographer unknown.

While country music is not my favorite style of music there is one crossover song that strikes me every time I hear it. It is Tim McGraw’s song, Live Like You Were Dying. Every time I hear the line, “Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying” I acknowledge the truth of it in my heart. There is both hope and joy in it.

Growing up surrounded by death gives a person a different perspective on life. All of my grandparents, my father, my oldest brother, one of my uncles, and at least one of my cousins were all dead either before I knew them or had a chance to formulate any memories. My memories are photographs taken from times before I was even alive or old enough to remember. When I was just entering my teens another aunt and another uncle passed. A short time later another uncle left us. Around the same time, Etta Kelly, the old retired school teacher who was my mentor as a youth died of cancer. My cousin, Rick, died in Vietnam. The fall I graduated from high school my friend, classmate, and fellow altar boy, Ed, was killed in a car crash.

By the time I was eighteen I had experienced more death in my life than many of my friends did by the time they were thirty or forty. In addition I grew up in an Irish Catholic family, so pretty much every Sunday we were reminded that we had better be spiritually prepared for that day when we die. Every year at Ash Wednesday we received ashes on our foreheads with the priest uttering the phrase, “Remember, man, that you are dust, and into dust you shall return.”

As a result I grew up with a quiet acceptance of death. I understood at a very early age that life is fleeting, that at any moment God could pluck someone from your life and take them home. That doesn’t mean I didn’t grieve the loss. Even though I believed they were spiritually in the afterlife, they were no longer in my life and oftentimes that reality hurt a lot. But at the same time I understood that everything is tenuous, that today’s joy could turn into tomorrow’s tragedy. I understood that with everything in life so fragile a person had better appreciate what they have and live life with as much meaning as possible.

Nine years ago when I had a life-threatening heart attack I came to face-to-face with my own mortality and while the awareness was always there, having the reality of it come that close brought it to the forefront in a new way. After that experience I did do some things like the narrator of Tim McGraw’s song. I went skydiving. I flew a helicopter. I did some travelling. More importantly, I took stock of my life, what I had done with it, and what I had yet to do and I shifted some priorities and moved into some new directions as a result.

The thing is, once you accept the idea of mortality, that you and I are here for a limited time, you can do so much more with what time you have. Most of us trudge our way blindly through our lives, simply living for a paycheck to take care of ourselves and our families, but not taking the time to make the important connections, to do the important work of living and loving. Until you realize and acknowledge in a very real way that death is the inevitable end you won’t “live like you were dying.” Because, here’s the catch, once you fully realize that you are dying–that every day you are one step closer to that day nobody can predict or avoid–you can also realize that dying means that you are still living, that you still have that great gift to do with what you will.

One doesn’t have to be an old person or ill with a terminal disease to acknowledge, accept, and rejoice in the idea of death and the beauty of living. Give away your love while you can. For every bit of it you give it comes back to you tenfold and makes the living even better. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Understand that the clock started ticking the moment you were born, but it’s ticking still. There is time left to enjoy, to love, and to assure yourself that when you reach that last breath you can exhale knowing that you lived it as fully as you could and that you left more love behind you than what was there before you.

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Haunted House

Tree Spirits

Detail from Tree Spirits by Sid Boyum. Photo by Callen Harty.

Trigger warning: Sexual abuse, trauma, triggers

Decades later, this is what trauma can look like.

The other night there was a conversation happening and given that it’s getting close to Halloween the talk turned toward haunted houses. I’ve never been much for haunted houses, horror movies, or similar kinds of things, so I wasn’t very active in the discussion. As the conversation continued a memory suddenly came back to me. Someone said something that opened up a door in my mind and brought up an image of a haunted house in the basement. It wasn’t the kind of haunted house that we were talking about, with organized tours featuring ghosts and goblins. It was a private haunted house that I was told I had to try. I remembered that there was a leaf to a table propped up on something so that when I walked up it and got to the half-way point it suddenly dropped down and scared the heck out of me with a loud slapping sound and the loss of balance and control.

That’s all the detail I could remember, but as I was thinking about it my breaths started getting shorter and I started getting incredibly anxious. There was something deeper there, something scarier, but I didn’t know what. I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe at all and I had to step away because the anxiety started to consume me. I went upstairs and out the door into the rainy night and tried to slow down my breathing. I happened to glance at my Fitbit and saw that my resting heart rate, which is normally in the low sixties or even upper fifties, was up to 109. I focused on my breathing and tried to bring myself back down, and after a couple minutes the anxiety had started to dissipate and my heart rate was dropping again. The rain and the intentional breathing helped.

The thing is the entire house that I grew up in was a haunted house for years, especially that dark and cold basement, but also other rooms where I was repeatedly molested as a boy. I have been trying to process the other night, trying to remember something, anything, from that homemade haunted house. Had something happened there? After the plank dropped did I walk around the corner into something scarier? Was there another incident of abuse that I had forgotten and buried deep within me? Was the memory of that haunted house just stirring up other memories and bringing it all to the surface? Was my mind making a connection that I couldn’t see? There were too many questions and no answers. I didn’t know. I don’t know tonight. But something about it is apparently haunting me still.

This is the thing with triggers and trauma. You never know when some little unexpected thing might bring the trauma back to you. This one was a relatively minor event, but there have been times when something happens that is debilitating to me. I can go into a sort of emotional paralysis. Other times there might be flashbacks. And, of course, everyone’s triggers and traumatic memories are different. What might cause me to struggle to breathe might not affect another person at all, and something that might not affect me might send a friend of mine into a tailspin.

Still, I want to know. I want to face and to know all the details of what happened to me as a child, so that my adult self can take care of the little boy inside of me who was so traumatized so many years ago. As I was driving home the other night I started thinking about what had happened and I started to cry in the car. After a minute or so I let go of the wheel and put my arms around myself and told that little boy that everything was all right. Sometimes you have to let go of the wheel. Sometimes you have to face the ghosts of your past in order to move fearlessly into the future. Like a haunted house it can be scary, but you can come out on the other side.

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The NRA and the Culture of Guns

Army Surplus

Army Surplus Store, Mountain City, Tennessee. Photo by Callen Harty.

Nine days have passed since the mass murder of concertgoers in Las Vegas and we’re still not talking about guns, gun control, the number of gun murders in this country, what to do about the constant gun violence, or anything of substance about the violent nature of our society and the weapons that contribute to it.

Apparently, it’s still too early to talk about guns, and as soon as it’s no longer too early it will be too late.

So let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about the National Rifle Association (NRA) and what that organization does to promote the violent gun culture in which we live.

According to their own website, the NRA claims to be the nation’s oldest continuous civil rights organization. Although the current bylaws stress the second amendment, it was not founded to fight for the right of citizens to bear arms. It was founded in 1871 simply to promote better rifle marksmanship and in its early years hosted shooting competitions and not much of anything else. It took more than sixty years for the NRA to form their Legislative Affairs Division to inform members about pending legislation. Even then, they left it up to members to take action on their own. In 1949 the NRA and New York started a hunter education program and the focus of the NRA seemed to shift from competitive marksmanship to hunting and training on gun safety. They still host marksmanship competitions, but it is clearly not the sole focus of the association any more. The organization did not involve itself in direct lobbying until 1975, more than one hundred years after it was founded. So to claim the mantle as the oldest civil rights organization in the country is a little bit deceptive.

Since 1975 the NRA has worked tirelessly against pretty much any law that limits the availability of guns and for any law that opens up more weaponry with more power to more citizens. While many peaceful citizens who don’t like guns support the right of others to own them, the NRA has through its lobbying arm and political donations made cowards of legislators who might otherwise enact common sense laws that would protect everyone.

While still giving lip service to these things, somewhere along the line the organization stopped caring so much about marksmanship, hunting, and even its diligent protection of the right to bear arms, and sold itself out to the gun manufacturing industry. Yes, they still hold competitions, they train millions of people in gun safety, and they publish hunting magazines, all worthwhile endeavors. But anyone who truly believes that the NRA cares more about hunting, gun collecting, or their members and families as much as they care about the industrialists making money off of the fear that is sold to us online and on television has completely deluded themselves. Simply put, the NRA is not there to protect anyone’s rights as a citizen. It is there to safeguard, promote, and increase the income of weapons manufacturers.

Business Insider magazine article from January 16, 2013 claimed that more than half of the NRA’s funding now comes from weapons manufacturers through direct contributions, money made from corporate advertising, and donations from the sale of guns. Several gun manufacturers give a percentage of their sales to the NRA as a donation. The NRA also donates money to others. It gives large sums of money to legislators who support their agenda. A New York Times article last week (10/4/17) noted the national legislators who have received the most money from the NRA in their careers. The numbers included direct contributions and money spent on behalf of candidates. Top of the list in the Senate was John McCain of Arizona at $7,740,521. Almost eight million dollars to just one senator. Number ten in the Senate, Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, raked in just under $3,000,000 ($2,861,047 to be exact). Tops in the House was French Hill from Arkansas at just over one million dollars. And if there is anyone who doesn’t believe the NRA expects votes in return . . . well, it would be pointless to even try to break through a head that thick.

The thing is all of our amendments are important. Most Americans do believe in the right to bear arms and to protect oneself and one’s family. But most Americans also do not believe that citizens should have the right to own nuclear weapons, tanks, or assault weapons that are designed solely for the purpose of killing large amounts of people at one time. They certainly aren’t designed to kill large amounts of animals at one time because there are bag limits and laws regulating a hunter’s take.

The reality is this: the more types of guns, ammunition, and weaponry that are allowed by the country’s laws, the more money weapons manufacturers make. The more they make, the more they donate to the NRA to make sure the cash flow continues. The more money the NRA makes from the weapons manufacturers the more they can give to advance their agenda. At the same time, the higher the percentage of their income is from corporations the less they have to make from membership fees and regular citizens. The less they make from citizen supporters and the more they make from industrialists the less they have to concern themselves with the rights of citizens and the more they have to bend to the will of the moneymakers. It really is as simple as that.

The NRA will continue to couch its battles for guns as a second amendment issue, but it is no more a second amendment issue than Citizens United is a free speech issue. It is all about the corporate money and the rights of corporations to continue to earn more and more while Americans make less and have less of everything, including individual rights like the right to free speech. The second amendment is under no threat as long as there is money to be made from the selling of the arms we have the right to bear.

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On “Our Heritage”

Defend Equality-Love Unites

Defend Equality/Love Unites. Photo by Callen Harty.

As more National Football League players and even college and high school players stand with arms linked or kneel in protest it is not a phrase from one of Donald Trump’s tweets that stands out most to me. It’s not any of his seemingly endless tweets about it. It is not even his statement during a rally in Alabama that drew such attention to the few NFL players who had been protesting up to that time. At the Alabama rally he said players should be fired and that owners who did so would be considered heroes. But that’s not what is sticking in my head either. It is something he said right after that, a phrase that many people didn’t even notice–“total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything we stand for.”

I keep hearing “our heritage” and “everything we stand for” and I have to acknowledge that clearly what he meant was “our” and “we” as in “white people”. And, of course, the word “heritage” had only recently come to the forefront as the argument against tearing down Confederate statues and symbols that serve as racist reminders of our true national heritage. Clearly Donald Trump had been listening again to the voices of the alt-right and the apologists for our racist past and present.

If standing for our national anthem is nothing more than a show of support for “our heritage” then it is a wonder that any person of color, any Native American, any queer person, any immigrant has ever stood for it. African-American heritage goes back to being forcefully removed from Africa and brought in chains to the Americas to live as slaves. If I were African-American I would have a difficult time wanting to honor that heritage. I would have a difficult time honoring an anthem written by a slave-owning aristocrat who wrote words against my people in the third verse, even though that verse is never sung anymore. I would be hesitant to celebrate the country that kept my people segregated for a century after supposedly granting my people freedom. I would not trust those who have done their best to keep black citizens from voting and full participation in society. And I would know that the police are to be feared rather than trusted.

Because of white privilege most white people don’t think of “our heritage” as belonging to all of us. Our schools don’t typically teach us about the contributions of people of color in science, history, and the arts. “Our heritage” is whitewashed. It is white European leaders and heroes in the pages of our history books. Because of it those of us who are white don’t have to worry about discrimination based on our skin color. We don’t have to worry about getting arrested, beaten, or killed simply because of melanin. If we were black we would better understand that the police and military are the protectors of the ruling class and wealthy capitalists. Yes, they help people in trouble, catch murderers, and they do serve and protect many Americans, but they also absolutely protect the assets of the rich and powerful above all else. Witness Standing Rock. Witness the civil rights movement of the sixties. Witness the raids on gay gathering places in the 50s and 60s. Witness the litany of unarmed young black men killed by armed police who fear them.

Many of my fellow white folks fear the loss of “our heritage” as the country becomes more mixed and we head toward becoming a minority in “our” country. It scares the bejesus out of racists, so they lash out whenever African-American citizens stand up for the rights that should belong to all of us. Sometimes it is by dismissing the protests as meaningless. Other times it is by portraying movements like Black Lives Matter as radical and violent, even when there is no evidence that it is true. Yet other times, when things start looking too scary to them, it is lynching, beating, and killing to put people back in their places.

What Trump is doing with his tweets and rants about the anthem protests and by using words like “our heritage” is calling upon those who are scared of losing their privilege to stand up and fight against those who do not honor “our heritage”. The racists among us will hear that call and respond.

So that is what sticks in my mind–“our heritage”–a call to protect it against those who they believe are not really part of it. When that happens, Donald Trump will have blood on his hands.

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At the Table

The local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) maintains an information table at the weekly Farmers Market downtown. They have literature and brochures and typically have two volunteers sit at the table to greet people, give out free stickers and rainbow ribbons, and to talk and answer questions. Today my partner, Brian, and I volunteered to watch the table. PFLAG and our group, Proud Theater, have had a good working relationship over the years so we were happy to give of our time.

Most of the day was a delight, with children happily taking free stickers, queer people and allies taking the rainbow ribbons and pinning them to their clothes, and several people stopping by to chat, take some literature, or ask questions. One young boy’s parents allowed him to take both a sticker and a pin. I had turned away to talk with someone when I heard him say, “Look at this!” I turned and he puffed his little chest out to proudly show me the ribbon and sticker. A couple families stopped by and many, many people simply thanked us for being there as they passed the table.

Toward the end of the day, though, there were a couple instances that put a bit of a damper on an otherwise good day, and made me realize that despite the progress we’ve made in the last fifty years or so there is still a hell of a lot of work to do. A man and his boy were walking by when the boy noticed the stickers and came toward the table to get one. I could see his father surveying the situation, apparently noticing the rainbow flag and maybe the word “gay” on the PFLAG sign. All of a sudden he said, “No, no! Don’t stop there. No. Come on. Let’s go.” He reached out and grabbed the little boy’s arm and yanked him away from the table and back into the crowd of shoppers looking for deals on pumpkins and other market items.

Brian and I couldn’t help but think how horrible it will be for that boy if he proves to be gay, bi, trans, or anything but an overly masculinized straight man. We have often seen and heard stories from friends and some of the youth in Proud Theater about parents who are not supportive of their child’s identity and in some cases actively hostile to their own children, people who try to force their children into a mold in which they don’t fit, and it is never good for any of those involved. I hope for that boy’s sake that if his identity is something other than what his father demands of him that he finds a group like PFLAG or Proud Theater with understanding people and unconditional acceptance.

The other thought was how insecure that the father must have been in his own identity to be so afraid of two gay men sitting at a table in the public square. Those who are secure in their masculinity and sexuality don’t typically become so frightened of the sight of someone different from them. We laughed about the idea of having the power to instill such fear in a man, sort of like the power that evangelical Christians bestow upon us when they lay the blame for hurricanes, floods, and other devastation from Mother Nature on queer folks.

As we were finally letting that one go an old woman approached the table. She had very white hair, wrinkles, and was somewhat bent over, clearly having lived a long, long life. She looked at me and Brian and the table several times before she looked me in the eye and with venom dripped out the word, “fags”, drawn out almost as if it were a two-syllable word. It was so weird and so unexpected that I didn’t really hear or understand what she said, so I just smiled as I often do when I don’t hear something fully. She turned away and headed toward a table of vegetables and I turned to Brian and asked what she said. When he told me, I started going after her to tell her what a rude, unhappy, and hateful person she was, but Brian made sure I didn’t get too far.

Of course, that would have been the wrong thing to do, to return her hatred with anger. I was just so shocked that an old woman like that would have that kind of vitriol in her and it’s actually been so long since I’ve had anyone use that word directly at me that it sort of surprised me and I wasn’t thinking straight (no pun intended).

The thing is, this is 2017. It continues to amaze me that there are people who use the “F” word and the “N” word and who still hold that kind of fear and hatred in their hearts toward people they just don’t understand. We are definitely not in a post-racist, post-misogynistic, post-homophobic (or post-anything that people hate) society and sometimes it seems impossible that we ever will be. We clearly do still have people who hate Muslims, Jews, gays, and every other possible minority group there is.

The two instances today tell me that we still need to have tables set up so people can learn something that may help them move past their fear of “other”. It tells me that we have a lot of work still to do, though I do take some comfort in all of those today who smiled or said thanks, or the PFLAG member who told me that the two instances we witnessed today were the standard twenty years ago. Little by little love, compassion, and understanding continue to change hearts and minds. Some people will hold onto their ignorance and hatred until they die, but they will die, and the younger people coming up who have more open hearts will take their places at the table. The rest of us will continue working toward a more accepting and loving world.

PFLAG table

Brian and me at the PFLAG table at Madison’s Farmers Market. Photo by Peggy Porter Koenig.

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Open letter to Donald Trump on the Flag and Anthem

Flag shirt and bandana..

Flag shirt and bandana. Photo by Callen Harty.

Dear Donald Trump,

You may think that taking a knee during the national anthem is disrespectful to the flag and to the anthem, and it is your right to hold onto that belief. It is also your right to spew out words like “sons of bitches” when talking about it. While I believe your word choices are inappropriate for the leader of the United States and your viewpoint is wrong, I absolutely defend your right to choose what words to use and what viewpoints to hold.

I also defend the right of football and other sports’ players (or their fans, or anyone else) to kneel, sit, or raise their fists in solidarity during the anthem as a way to draw attention to the injustices prevalent in this country. It is not an affront to the flag. It is an affirmation of what the flag represents, which includes freedom of speech, equality for all, and so much more.

Are you aware that it is disrespectful to the American flag not to follow the flag code, which prohibits the use of the flag on clothing or in advertisements? Where is your anger about that? Do the rules not matter when industrialists are making millions of dollars off of that kind of disrespect? Are you also not offended by racists carrying the American, Confederate, and other flags when they hold rallies that represent hatred toward large segments of the population? A racist, anti-Semite, or homophobe waving the American flag while they march for hatred is as offensive and disrespectful as it gets.

True disrespect to the flag is politicians who wear flag pins on their lapels while passing laws that hurt the citizens of their country. It is failing to protect the health and welfare of the masses while lining the pockets of the rich. It is jingoistic yahoos who don’t understand that American soldiers have fought and died for the right to express one’s beliefs or to protest, even when those beliefs are unpopular. It is a nation that professes that all are created equal yet incarcerates a disproportionate percentage of persons of color in prisons that are run for profit. Or one that gerrymanders maps to increase the power of those in power. Or passes laws to ensure that minorities and others who may vote against those in power are prevented from doing so. Or allows unarmed young black men to be killed by authorities without the slightest hint of concern or justice for the victims. It is a country that enslaved millions of people and is just now beginning to acknowledge that horror and still refuses to acknowledge the modern-day oppression that African-Americans face on a daily basis. It is a man-child who regularly tweets offensive words about and against the citizens of his own country.

I stand with those who kneel because I believe we can be better than what we are and better than what you represent.

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Shower

No matter how long

I stand under a hot shower

I cannot

wash away the stain of you.

Memories,

like the tendrils of creeping

(creepy)

vines

wrap themselves

around my heart,

my brain,

my neck,

suffocating

memories

suffocating

me.

Tears drip down my face,

a warm shower,

but they cannot wash away

the unclean memory of you

or the stain on my soul.

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