A Pink and Purple Christmas

It started as a joke. It became an obsession.

The four of us, strolling through Portland’s Festival of the Trees, were enjoying and evaluating the dozens of Christmas trees decorated by the region’s largest corporations and most identifiable big businesses. The trees had themes. One was adorned in Disney paraphernalia, another in Barbie dolls. There was a tree depicting a Dickensian Christmas and one covered in forest animals, reflecting a “Walk in a Winter Wonderland.” Even the Portland Trailblazers sponsored a tree, its black and red ornaments and decorations reflecting the professional basketball team’s colors.

The Festival of the Trees was a fund-raiser to help the less fortunate enjoy the holiday season. Proceeds from ticket sales and the sale of the trees, bid on at the end of the weeklong display, bought food and gifts for needy families and individuals. The highest bid for each tree not only won the tree, but a team of decorators to set-up the fir in the winner’s home.

“Which was your favorite?” I asked as we aimed toward the exit.

“The Raggedy Ann and Andy tree,” Cindy said. “But I’ve always loved Raggedy Ann.”

“I liked the “Under the Sea” tree with all the fish,” Gary said. “I am a Pisces, after all.”

“The one with those ugly miniature Model-T cars. It was horrible,” announced Wendy. “How could anyone decorate a tree in black, metallic cars?” She laughed. “I loved it.”  Wendy had always been the oppositional one, the one marching to a different drummer.

Oh, there was a tree adorned in drums.

“Which was your favorite?” Cindy asked me.

“I liked the one covered in oranges. Who would have thought a Florida citrus fruit or the color orange was an appropriate motif with which to decorate a Christmas tree in the Pacific Northwest?” I paused. “I think it would have looked better on a white or flocked tree, though.” I paused again. “You know what would look good on a white tree?” I asked.

“No,” Gary and Cindy said in unison.

Wendy was staring at a tree covered in coffee themed decorations. “Those strings of brown coffee beans don’t show up against that dark green. But the little red and green mugs and coffee makers are cute,” she said.

“Pink and purple. They’d look good on a white tree,” I continued. “If I were to have a tree, I’d cover it in pink and purple.”

Of course, the likelihood of my having a Christmas tree was minute. As a Jew, my childhood home was without Christmas trees. Instead, we had a menorah. It was a lovely symbol, a touching tradition, and it offered a warming glow. But it was no Christmas tree, with all its decorative possibilities.

When I moved out in my early twenties, the idea that I could have a tree never dawned on me. That was something goyim did, Mom had said. Besides, I didn’t have an attic-stashed treasure trove of decorations

But on the Christmas Eve following the Festival of the Trees, Cindy, Wendy, and Gary presented me with two boxes of simple glass ornaments, one full of pink orbs, the other purple. “For next year,” they chimed. And I had a starter kit.

That simple gift blossomed into a collection of ornaments ranging from pastel to hot pink and soft lavender to deep purple. But the ornaments were not limited to basic shimmering balls. There was a pink poodle, a purple Elvis, pink ballet shoes, a cluster of purple grapes, pink birds, a purple car, a pink Santa, a purple Star of David, and shiny shapes that defied description. Most were store-bought, but some were given. And some were found on the street, like the lavender hat veil, separated from a mystery chapeau and doomed to a gutter death until I spotted it seductively waving at me.

The collection grew and grew until I prepared to move to Ajijic. I can’t move all those delicate, breakable decorations to Mexico, I thought, so the glassy, glittery assortment of holiday whimsy was given to a second-hand store with the hopes it would be sold intact. But it wasn’t. The ornaments, to my disappointment, were sold individually.

I looked at the situation, however, through rose-colored glasses. I get to start a new collection of pink and purple ornaments in Mexico, I realized. And I have. There’s a pink gecko, purple dangling earrings handcrafted by a local artisan, and lavender starbursts. Does anyone know where I can get a shimmery, shiny purple taco? Perhaps stuffed with pink shrimp?

Damn You, YouTube!

I’ve fallen and I can’t get up. Well, actually, I can get up.  I just can’t get out of this rabbit hole.

Damn you, YouTube!

I was so disciplined when YouTube was introduced to the world in 2005. I heard students at the high school at which I worked talk about it. I heard other gym rats rave about it at Gold’s. News people and talk show hosts discussed it on TV. “No!” I said. “I am not going to fall into that trap.”

And I didn’t.

Until I retired. And then I fell, not into their trap, but into their rabbit hole.

It was innocent at first. I was searching for information. How to cook Chateau Briand in a microwave, I think. Then I sought a lesson on how to make elegant Labor Day decorations out of empty toilet paper tubes. The next thing I knew I was bombarded with tutorials on applying eye-liner on a pet goldfish, hemming clothes with poisonous blow darts, and other important ways to improve one’s life.

But then I discovered that people with a variety of talents and various levels of talent utilized YouTube to exhibit their performances. Justin Bieber started that way. So did fire-eater Art Burns. I should say the late Art Burns. He accidently, and ironically, cremated himself during an unfortunate incident. Luckily, Burns had set up a camera to film the performance for YouTube. The video now has over 15 million views and 12 million “likes.”

I have found former students on YouTube. Some were in films or commercials. Others led tutorials or were making Ted Talk presentations. But none impressed me more than the ex-football player now working as a male exotic dancer. He looked good and appeared to gyrate well. It made me happy to see that he had fulfilled his class’s prophesy as “Most Likely to Succeed.”

However, YouTube was becoming an addiction. I tried to say “NO!” to this drug in my best Nancy Reagan voice. But I couldn’t stop. I began watching color-blind individuals seeing color for the first time with their new vision correcting glasses. And I got teary-eyed. I witnessed hearing impaired people hear for the first time after receiving cochlear implants. And I cried. I watched adventurous infants take their first unsure steps, then fall down. And I cried with relief. At least, I sighed, they didn’t fall down the YouTube rabbit hole in which I was mired.

Then I discovered “music reaction” videos posted by young people, raised on rap and hip-hop, hearing for the first time the records of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. And loving it! I’ve watched numerous people born since 1985 discover legendary artists like Elvis, Aretha, Elton, Little Richard, Tina, Jimi, Sinatra, Ella, Janis, the Beatles, Bee Gees, and Queen and hear iconic records like “We Are the World,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hey Jude,” “Nights in White Satin,” “Hotel California,” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”

One of my favorite experiences has been viewing young Black people watching a 1964 black-and-white TV performance of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” The video begins with Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield in shadow. Medley sings the classic’s first two lines and the lights come up. The YouTuber’s eyes bug open. Fingers press the pause button. All are stunned that he is White. When Hatfield joins in, doing his vocal gymnastics, they are speechless. Many awkwardly apologize for assuming those voices came from Black men. “I don’t want this to sound racist,” they often begin. The turnabout is fascinating to watch and eye-opening for all involved.

The most common thread in “music reaction” videos is the acknowledgement that artists from the past could sing, had talent, and didn’t rely on autotune and other technological advances to hide their mediocrity, like many of today’s performers. The also noted the absence of production distractions like pyrotechnics or sexualized choreography to hide the artist’s average vocals. In addition, the abundant use of orchestral instruments impressed the young reactors.

I also am fascinated watching young Blacks discover parts of their musical history. Reactions to Sam Cook, Diana Ross, Al Green, Fats Domino, and Dione Warwick are positive, genuine, and heartwarming. I, however, wonder why they never were exposed to these legends by their elders. Or had they been? Had they just tuned out the attempts due to typical teenage old fogey phobia?

But they are not the only ones who learn through the “music reaction” experience. We, the viewers, can, too. Recently, I watched a thirtyish married couple listen to disco classic “Gloria” by Laura Branigan. I’ve heard that record countless times. But I had never really listened to the lyrics. Perhaps I was too busy dancing. A caught line here and there and the hook led me to my misguided interpretation. This couple instantaneously picked up on the correct lyrics and the song’s important message to young girls. Those kids taught me something.

So, if I ever find the strength to climb out of this rabbit hole, I will be a smarter, happier person. But I have to go now. I just discovered a new tunnel in this hole: High school math teachers yodeling their lessons. Oh, I hope this doesn’t lead me to videos about Swiss cheese or Heidi.   

My Life as a Thespian. That’s Thespian!

I’ve always been a spotlight whore. Performing never scared me. Having an audience didn’t scare me. But there always was one underlying condition: I had to have some control of the situation. And since I usually worked alone, that condition usually was met. But my recent forays into acting and live theater have challenged my need to and ability to control my performances.

My need to perform first came to light, I suppose as a child. I had no qualms about dressing up for Halloween. In fact, I suspect I enjoyed it more than most of the other boys, perhaps because it seemed, from what I remember, that I made more of a production out of the tradition than my 1950s elementary school peers.

But by the time I reached high school, I had expanded my moments in the spotlight beyond Halloween. I ran for offices, and won, as a sophomore and junior. As a senior, since I was more a joke than a jock, I became a yell leader and was considered, I believe, the leader among the four of us. I’ve always said being part of a cheer squad was my way of participating in sports. But it really was an opportunity to perform. I didn’t, however, participate in the school’s drama program. I’ve always regretted that. But because I was active in other school activities and understood that theater productions required dedication and a time commitment I didn’t think I could provide, I opted against drama class. Besides, boys in theater were suspected to be gay. And God forbid anyone were to think I was…you know…like that. So, I became a yell leader. That would surely throw off suspicious minds. Covered my ass really well. That was a wise choice. Or so I thought until decades later when I learned yell leaders had become known as cheer queers.

When I did come out, I was fascinated with performing drag queens, not because I had a desire to wear female attire, but because I enjoyed the talented one’s performances. I admired their ability to become someone else and linked their created personas to theater. Curious how it would feel both mentally and physically, I decided to perform in a Sunday amateur drag night, lip synching to songs by Cher and Barbra Streisand.

I was received well. Regular performers in the audience applauded and cheered. Their faces expressed surprise that an inexperienced slab of masculinity like myself could transform so successfully. I could have been a star! But I never performed in serious drag again. Oh, I’ve had other costumes that would be considered drag, but they were comic, gender-fuck concepts. A tutu with a moustache. A negligee with a beard. An open woman’s blazer without a blouse, exposing my chest and its 19 hairs.

Whenever a call was put out for volunteers to participate in a show of some sort, I would volunteer. I’ve been a male dancer in a patriotic, gay bar Fourth of July production. I’ve ridden floats in major parades. I’ve marched with the Seattle School District contingent at numerous Pride Parades. I didn’t avoid being seen or having a spotlight shine on me.

I competed in several beefcake contests, winning a few. I appeared on a TV game show, winning, among other things, a trip to San Francisco. How ironic is that?

As a high school staff member, I always participated in staff skits and/or dances for student assemblies, while most other teachers stood on the sideline, like insecure pretty girls watching a beauty pageant on TV. When a drama teacher asked staff volunteers to fill out Bye Bye, Birdie crowd scenes, I was the only one to step forward.

And that brings me to my more recent attempts at performing. I have, in Ajijic, performed in three lip sync shows, as 1940s-’50s Hollywood musical regular Howard Keel, Bruce Springsteen, and folksinger Tom Rush. The response I received from theater veterans gave me the confidence to attempt musical theater. The perfect opportunity arose when a casting call was posted for a local production of My Fair Lady.

Clearly lacking in singing skills, particularly those needed to warble specific notes, I scanned the roles searching for a small non-singing one. Enter Zoltan Karpathy, Hungarian linguist whose purpose is to expose flower girl-turned “Lady” Eliza Dolittle as a fraud. “Ah, this might be the role,” I thought. “I can do an Eastern European accent.” But, I wondered, if I could memorize the 130+ words of dialogue?

Even though I was inexperienced in theater, I got the part. Perhaps it was because I was the only reader for the role. Or, perhaps, because the exuberant lunacy I gave the character matched the vision of the director. I wasn’t, however, only cast as Karpathy; I also landed a role in the chorus, dancing and doing my atonal version of singing, in many of the musical numbers. How that happened remains a mystery to me, like the success of The Dukes of Hazzard, Sarah Palin, and Taco Bell.

Within moments of arriving at the first rehearsal, I realized the director had a lot of power. I thought he’d be limited to saying things like, “Stress the word ‘damn.'” or “Say ‘shoehorn’ with more pathos.” Or “This time try walking around the actress instead of knocking her on her ass.” But he made decisions about my appearance, too. I didn’t have control of the situation. Theater, I discovered, is a collaborative effort. Who knew?

I managed to learn my lines, but, as I’d never had to memorize that much before, it wasn’t easy. Luckily, the exchange was with one other character in one short sequence. Nothing complicated.

When the My Fair Lady run ended, I thought, “I’d like to try a small role in a drama or comedy.” The 130+ words I had to memorize as Karpathy, however, appeared to be near my max. Could I go much beyond that?

Then COVID-19 hit and theaters worldwide went dark and that became a moot question.

A year and a half later, however, I saw a casting call for a local production of an Edward Albee adaption. Albee, possessor of several Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and Tony Awards, has been described as “the foremost American playwright of his generation.” I thought, “OMG! I could be in an Albee play.” The call asked for three men who may have had little or no theater experience and would like to attempt theater. The roles would be small.

“Maybe there’s a bartender who listens to customers and nods a lot,” I thought. “Or a deliveryman who gets shot in the back waiting for someone to answer the doorbell.” I requested a copy of the script. To my surprise, the three “small” roles each had between 50-65 lines and physical cues. “I’m not sure I can handle that,” I thought.

But I auditioned anyway. And got cast.

There was a pesky director again. This time it was a woman with a different vision and style than my previous helmsmen. Again, my control was limited. In the end, I believe I bit off more than I could chew in my second attempt at theater. Learning my lines was about all I could handle. But as an untrained actor, I learned I was using my voice incorrectly. I also discovered the importance of breathing prior to uttering a line. I’m supposed to relearn those basics now? I thought.  This can’t be done quickly. After all, I’m old, somewhere between Social Security and Betty White.

I had good nights during the run. But I also had bad ones. Forgotten lines, sputtered ones, and missed cues were more common than Meryl Streep Oscar nominations. It was embarrassing and I felt bad that my lapses reflected on the director and rest of the cast. Early in the run, I realized that perhaps my brain and memory had passed its peak or that this form of entertaining did not fit my skill set.

Will I try to grab the spotlight again? Who knows? But I’ll keep all doors op…Excuse me. “What? Alright, Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up.”

I’m Coming Out

I still hear it. From my childhood. Mom’s voice, with its thick German accent, saying with anger and frustration, “Vy are you zo impatient?”

I didn’t have an answer. I just thought, “I’m not impatient. I just think and observe faster than you. That’s who I am. What are you getting so upset for?” Mom, of course, didn’t have an answer either, nor did she seek out one. And, in hindsight, it was her responsibility to look into it if she really cared. But that would have involved spending money, something she avoided with fervor, and it would have been an inconvenience to her. It would be easier to attack, belittle, and make me feel bad for being myself. That was her style.

But, lo these many years later, I have figured out why I appeared to be impatient. There was an underlying cause that, until recently, I had never considered. It impacted my behavior and countless decisions and choices I made throughout my life without my realizing it was there. I had, for decades, attributed my personality, habits, and way of seeing the world to several dominant factors. But this epiphany meant I would have to include a new one, one that, perhaps, played a larger role than I ever realized.

I had thought Tom Nussbaum was the complex individual he is primarily due to genetics, the result of Mom and Dad’s combined gene pools. That was the “nature” part of who I am. I also understood I was the product of the environment, the psychological environment my mother created around me. That would be the “nurture” component. Dad, of course, played a role in creating that environment, but Mom controlled it. Those who know me, can verify that I have chronicled that in writing and orally my entire life.

My mother’s influence in forming my psyche was greatly the result of her questionable child-raising skills, which were more slash-and-burn than unconditional love, her contradictory insecurity and lack of self-esteem and self-centered, self-involved manner of interpreting everything around her, and her quirky way of viewing the world, which included her obsession with the zodiac.

I probably was introduced to her fixation with birthdays before I knew my address, phone number, or middle name. Mom hired handymen based on their zodiac sign. She informed doctors they were in the wrong profession based on their zodiac sign. She told newly-weds they shouldn’t have married based on their “incompatible” zodiac signs. And she reminded me constantly that I am a Taurus.

As a result, I attributed my positive qualities to my zodiac sign. Conversely, I blamed my Taurean nature for my problematic traits, shortcomings in life, and difficulties. For example, I thought the impatience mentioned earlier was the by-product of a Taurus mind. Taurus is an earth sign, allegedly practical and logical. Therefore, I thought I simply didn’t want to waste time on something in which I was no longer interested. But I now realize that something else contributed to the making of me, something that accompanied the genetic, psychological, and astrological contributors to my personality. Something else may have been responsible for my impatience.

I believe I have had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, with the focus on the AD part, all my life. I just didn’t recognize it and no one told me. Elementary school teachers probably saw my quirks, but didn’t have the language in the 1950s with which to alert my parents. They did include comments on my report cards like, “talks out of turn,” “disturbs his neighbors,” and “doesn’t stay focused on his work.” But elementary schools didn’t have psychologists then and teachers didn’t understand the variety and complexities of special needs.

In fairness to those with more serious cases, I probably only have, what I call, ADHD-Lite. And I likely have Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder, too. But, again, it probably is OCD-Lite. In both cases, I expect I would be diagnosed a borderline case.

I would share more about my discovery, citing countless examples of ADHD and OCD throughout my life, patterns in my behavior that may have been evident to others as well as those hidden from public view, and choices I made that were influenced by my ADHD without my realizing it, but I won’t. I’m already bored talking about this, my coming out of the ADHD closet. I got to move on.

Maybe I’ll research online the Autism/Asperger Spectrum and see if or where I belong on it. I hope I get a full understanding in 10-15 minutes. Before I get bored. Yeah. Fifteen minutes. Tops.

Is it What it Appears to be?

A substitute teacher enters a high school through an out-of-the-way doorway. The halls are empty because it is more than an hour before school begins. (S)he stops next to a vending machine and orients him or herself as (s)he had never been in the building before.

As (s)he steps from the blindside of the machine in search for the main office, a nearby classroom door opens and a tall boy, who looks more like a college student than a high schooler, emerges. A petite woman, thirtyish perhaps, in a mini skirt and high heels, follows him. The young man glances around the hall, apparently without noticing the semi-hidden witness and faces the woman. “Love you,” he says and bends over and kisses her on the forehead. He dashes away, backpack bouncing behind him, at a pace later described as “getaway guilt.”

The woman turns to the classroom, briefly adjusts her skirt and blouse, and enters.

How do you interpret this situation? What would you do?

A high school teacher is observing a pep assembly.  A senior boy the teacher does not know, with whom (s)he has never interacted, is representing his class in a competition. The teacher casually comments to a fellow staff member that every time (s)he sees Jake in the halls, (s)he thinks, “That kid is so ready for college. Look how he presents himself. And he always has a pencil perched behind his ear.” The speaker pauses. “And when he gets to be about 25, he’s going to be one handsome man.”

The other teacher, a woman, gasps. “I can’t believe you said that!” she says with a combination of shock and disgust.

The “offending” teacher is called into the principal’s office the next day. The administrator tells the teacher that (s)he will no longer be serving as advisor of two student groups, that replacements have already been found. “I am so disappointed in you,” the principal says. “How could you sexualize a student like that?”

How do you interpret this situation? What would you do?

A high school staff member is in the halls during class time. A girl comes toward her/him. The teacher does not know the girl, but knows she is a prominent student leader. The girl is 5’7″ to 5’9″ tall, slender, with skin reflecting her East African heritage. She has big, alert eyes, delicate lips, and cheekbones that a person who never notices cheekbones would notice.

From the first time the adult saw her, (s)he thought the student could become a successful fashion model. Her face, (s)he thinks, is a palette any designer, cosmetologist, or modeling agency would want to employ. If she is more interested in academics, the staff member thinks, she could model in college to pay for her education. The adult knows people who modelled while in college, juggling the two worlds, until they graduated and were ready to utilize their education and degree. But (s)he does not know the young girl, so (s)he says nothing.

Until that day.

On an impulse, without thinking, the thoughts that have repeated in the staff member’s head for months, spew out as the student approaches. Only they come out wrong. “Hey, you should be a model,” (s)he blurts, realizing (s)he needs to explain her/his intentions. The girl reacts with understandable surprise as the adult had never spoken to her before. Her look did not reflect disgust with the question or its implications.

Before any other words can be exchanged, a young teacher, a woman, rounds the corner. She has heard the awkward, ill-phrased words. She sees the surprised look on the girl’s face and calls the adult’s name loud enough for Tyra Banks to hear, wherever she is. She spits it out as if the adult had asked the girl to come to a strip club for a job interview. The teacher turns her back on the embarrassed staff member, focuses on the girl, and asks with a nurturing sympathetic voice, “Are you OK?”

How do you interpret this situation? What would you do?

Would your interpretations and actions be different if the person were male or female, straight or gay, near retirement or fresh out of college?

I offer these scenarios and pose these questions in the aftermath of Andrew Cuomo’s resignation as governor of New York State, the result of numerous sexual harassment complaints against him. His situation appears to be clearer than those above. That also is true of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior charges against many men, and women, in power, such as Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Harvey Weinstein, Mary Kay Letourneau, Congresswoman Katie Hill, and Kevin Spacey.

But not all incidents are what they appear to be. For example, in the first example cited above, the thirtyish appearing teacher actually was fortyish…and the boy’s mother.

“I’m Saved,” They Cried

Mom wasn’t a hoarder. Just a “sale” shopper. Coupon clipper. Catalog browser, then inevitable buyer. You know, Walter Drake, Harriet Carter, and Carol Wright Gifts catalogs. Then she saved the acquisitions, often unopened. Mom was more a collector. But she didn’t hoard. Unlike in a hoarder’s home, we could walk freely through the living room. No stacks blocked our path. No rows of piled up miscellany created narrow aisles. We could sit on chairs and sofas as intended. We didn’t have to climb over a mountain of seasonal-themed welcome mats, kitchy tea cozies, and NFL flannel pajamas to get to the bathroom. Like a hoarder, however, once something fell into Mom’s possession, she could not throw it away. “I will use it,” she’d insist. Or “Someone will like it. Maybe one of your gay friends needs a mini-weaving loom to make potholders.”

               Because of Mom’s shopping habits, the family home became a small warehouse, albeit a reasonably orderly one. In it were stored an overstock of useful household items, unnecessary cheap crap, and doodads that defied categorization or names. Any suggestion, however, that she stop buying catalogue merchandise, reduce her coupon cutting, or eliminate some of the clutter was met with anger, defiance, and insults.

               I was aware of this quirk in Mom’s personality while growing up as well as during my adult life when I lived on my own. So was my sister Dorie. But the obsessiveness of that habit was not fully appreciated until Mom fell and broke her hip at 95 in 2011 and was moved into an assisted living facility for the remaining three years of her life. Within days, I began exploring the nooks and crannies of what had become, after Dad’s 1999 death, Elizabeth’s Estate. What I found stashed in out of the way places did not surprise or shock me; instead, it triggered a panicked realization that now that we finally could get rid of this accumulation of varied paraphernalia, it was going to be a long, arduous task.

               But several years before I explored the stacks of stuff stashed in the Nussbaum home, I had to examine the inordinate amount of junk mail Mom received. Most came from charities, frequently accompanied by a free gift which was, in actuality, a bribe, and they contributed to the organized clutter in the house. The frequent pleas from charities came because they knew they had found a sucker, a weak, heart-of-gold sucker. Mom had been unselectively giving minimum donations to charities for decades. She gave to any group that asked. Any group. Cancer research organizations. Animal adoption agencies. MADD. World War III Veterans. Disabled Christian Strippers. People With Poor Penmanship. The Pompano Beach Sunburned Lifeguard Association. Dogs with Large College Loan Debts.

               Because I was aware of the number of charities sending her solicitations, I had had Mom’s mail delivery stopped and rerouted to a post office box several years before her fall. The first goal of this ploy was to amass one year’s worth of solicitations to analyze its volume. The results of this surreptitious collection showed that Mom had received over 450 pieces of mail from more than 150 charities during one year. After that was determined, the focus switched to halting the constant pleas for donations. To do this, I did a terrible thing; I fabricated the death of Elizabeth Nussbaum and, with faux tear-stained notes, informed the charities of it.

               But the damage had already been done; Mom had amassed so many “gifts of appreciation” from charities that the large, heavy box holding them sitting on a bed in her sewing room overflowed. The bed’s mattress groaned with the pain of sprained springs. The overflow surrounded the box like lava from an erupted volcano. The box’s lid hovered over the box like the eruption’s gaseous cloud. In the box were 27 trees-worth of greeting cards designed before humor had been invented, outdated calendars, self-promotional bumper stickers, monogrammed key chains, photographs of the charities’ D-list celebrity supporters, notepads, pencils, pens, pins, and a partridge in a pear tree. The greeting cards alone could have filled a Hallmark Store, provided that particular shop only sold sappy saccharine cards. Around the box were scattered burlap shopping bags, tee-shirts, and paper-thin beach towels stylishly adorned in charity names or logos.

               That collection of charity bribes straining that bed was only the beginning. In the living room a book shelf housed three sets of 1950s-1960s encyclopedias full of obsolete information. These reference books had not been used since the 1970s when both my sister and I had left the house to live on our own. Accompanying the encyclopedias were numerous editions of the Farmers’ Almanac and World Almanac & Book of Facts from decades past. They, too, were rarely used as references once Dad died. I had suggested at some point Mom toss out the encyclopedias, but she insisted they were “worth a lot of money.” I researched them; they were not. The internet had replaced encyclopedias. So there they sat, surviving in Mom’s Google-less world.

               In the dining room were two doorknobs—one on the hallway door and the other on a closet door—so covered with dried, brittle rubber bands the knob’s narrow stem section could not be seen. Any rubber band that had ever entered the house—Thank you, The Seattle Times delivery person—was placed on one of those knobs. Very few ever left. They all dried out with age and non-use. They died of dehydration.

               Mom’s kitchen was a major collection site of…oh, Lord, Mom’s kitchen; archeologists have certified the room a historic excavation area. In one cupboard, I found enough packets of sugar substitute to cause faux-diabetes in each person in China, India, and Indonesia. Many were boxed, probably bought with coupons or on sale, but far more were loose, taken from every restaurant Mom had ever visited. Next to the sugar substitutes were a near equal, no pun intended, amount of Coffee-Mate packets. Which she never used.

               A plethora of pots, pans, dishes, and cooking utensils old enough to be honored by Willard Scott on The Today Show filled cabinets. You might think, then, they were antiques. But they had no value because they were in such poor condition last rites should have been performed every time one was used.

               One of the bottom drawers in Mom’s kitchen contained food wrapping supplies. There was tin foil, three rolls. Unopened. There was Saran Wrap. Six rolls. All started. Aged. Dried out. With the ends permanently stuck to the remainder of the rolls. Useless. There were several boxes of sandwich bags intended for on-the-go meals, to pack work lunches, or to take when hiking the Himalayan Trail. Mom, however, did not eat on-the-go, work, or hike in Asia.

               While many of us collect paper or plastic shopping and produce bags for future use, Mom did so with fanaticism. She had enough bags for every child in Oshkosh, Wisconsin to go trick or treating. For the next seven Halloweens.

               The basement, however, was collection central for Mom. It was also a fire trap. Stacked haphazardly in the dark end of the basement were so many cardboard boxes, the entire Kardashian Family could pack and move without going from Safeway to Safeway begging for discarded boxes, which I am certain they do when they move into another multi-million house. There were so many boxes, even flattened, I filled our 32 gallon blue recycling bin about eight times.

               On a shelf nearby were more decorative cookie tins than there would be elves at a Keebler convention. Because they could neither be easily flattened nor nested, the tins, too, took several weeks of recycling bin filling. Oh, and we tried finding the tins homes before tossing them; two garage/estate sales failed to place one cookie container in an adoptive home. People seem to adopt children and pets. But not round or rectangular cookie tins. Misguided priorities, I say.

               Mom was a fine seamstress and talented dressmaker; she made most of her clothes as well as professionally altered clothes for other people. As a result, she had gathered so many fabric remnants through the decades that they, if sewn together, could have covered Canada. Well, maybe not Prince Edward Island. They remained, however, in the basement, near the cookie tins, waiting to be used again. That rarely happened. Therefore, these ancient remnants sat, collecting dust, housing insects, and deteriorating with age. Like the aforementioned cardboard boxes, these boxes of fabric leftovers were a fire hazard. But they were not nearly the danger the countless envelopes of paper sewing patterns were. These out-dated patterns, of course, reflected styles popular during the days of Madame Curie, Dolly Madison, Jean d’Arc, and Eve.

               Another fire danger simmered under the stairwell. That is where Mom stashed every piece of wrapping paper she had ever received. She would unwrap gifts with what she thought was care in order to save the paper. She then would reuse the old paper. That, in itself, is not terribly unusual; many people do that. But Mom would wrap gifts using this paper without totally removing the old scotch tape or cutting off torn ends, which, of course, exposed her careless recycling. She didn’t, however, limit her reuse of wrapping supplies with the paper. Mom also recycled bows and ribbons, whether or not they were stained with age, crushed, creased, fraying, or deceased. 

               We had a cupboard in the basement that served as a pantry. The shelves were stacked with countless cans of mandarin orange slices, pineapple chunks, Dinty Moore Stew, Hormel Corned Beef Hash and jars of pickles and olives, all bought on sale at Bartell’s because Bartell’s offered these items on sale more frequently than Steve Harvey TV appearances. But the real treasure found in the pantry was the Mason jars Mom used for canning. There were so many, every American named Mason, first or last name, could have had one. Some still had contents like canned pears. Most did not. I was quite surprised, however, how easy it was to dispose of the Mason jars; I simply placed them on the parking strip. Neighborhood canners came out of the woodwork. I should have Super-glued a cookie tin to each jar.

               Across the basement from the pantry was the paper products department, another fire hazard. Mom had bought so many paper towels, tissue boxes, and 12-packs of toilet paper that neither my sister nor I had to buy any for the remainder of the Obama presidency. And I use these products as frequently as a teenager says “like.” I have constant spills, runny noses and diarrhea. OK. That’s not true. I went for the cheap joke. I don’t have constant spills or runny noses.

               After Mom died, Dorie and I emptied the house of Mom’s clutter in preparation for the house’s eventual sale. But, I was surprised to find more clutter, my own, most of it flammable.  There was a box full of yellowed newspaper clippings from the early 1960s chronicling the building of Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair. There was a six-year accumulation of The KUAY Weekly, my junior-senior high school newspaper, from my years at Queen Anne. There were years of rubber banded weekly Top 40 lists from KJR, the radio station of my youth. I found stacks of miscellaneous magazines, usually gay-themed, like the newsy The Advocate and the nudie Blueboy. There were countless newspapers editions and magazines issues reporting historically significant events like political assassinations, sports championships, and visits to Seattle by The Beatles. I uncovered an almost forgotten collection of tee-shirts from gay bars or events that dated to the early 1970s. These were all items I only looked at when I packed to move. For that moment, they gave me comfort and memories. They, however, really served no purpose. Suddenly I understood the difficulty Mom had throwing things away. But I was moving to Mexico. I had to say goodbye to much of my past because I was not going to move, one more time, that heavy hoarded collection of nostalgia.

               It would have served me right if I had found among my old belongings, a mishmash of my yesterdays, a plaque, poster, or crocheted wall-hanging saying “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

Let the Commencement Begin

Recently, a North Carolina high school student was denied his diploma because he draped a Mexican flag over his graduation gown. The school principal noted doing so was a direct violation of the commencement dress code. She also offered to give the young man his diploma if he were to apologize for breaking the rule and disrupting the ceremony. But he wouldn’t.

Immediate charges of racism were leveled at the principal, school, and school district.

Another Mexican student, however, decorated her mortarboard with a Mexican flag and received her diploma, stifling the charges. That, according to school officials, was because the rules clearly state that only the mortarboard can be altered.

I bring this up because it reminds me of my stuffy commencement ceremony fifty-plus years ago and how the ritual has changed over the years. We didn’t take political stands or make personal statements back then. It wasn’t in our consciousness. Yet. The most daring incident to occur at my graduation was that a student, a boy who regularly found himself in trouble or teetering at its edge, created a faux middle name, one which he thought was funny, for all his senior year records. Therefore, when commencement attendees read his name in the program and heard it read aloud and then laughed, E… “Percival” O…. got the attention he wanted and maintained his reputation as class goof. Faculty and officials, of course, wondered what triggered the chuckles.

Several years later I attended another graduation. By now, the do-your-own-thing 1970s were in full swing and expressing one’s individuality and rebelliousness was the norm. A shaggy-haired young man received his diploma, stepped to the top of the ramp leading off the podium, pulled his skateboard from under his graduation gown, and rode back to his seat.

Had that young North Carolinian hidden the flag under his gown, pulled it out after receiving his diploma, and waved it with the pride he felt, there would have been no controversy and no problems.

Many years after the skateboarder cruised to his seat, after I became a high school special education instructor, attending commencement became an annual tradition for me. Any remnants of the stiff formality of my generation’s graduation ceremonies were gone. Jeans, shorts, and flip-flops replaced dress shoes, black slacks, and conservative dresses. Graduates with Hawaiian or Polynesian heritage wore leis around their necks. Those identifying as LGBTQ added rainbow decorations to their mortarboards. Christians secured crosses to theirs. Recently-arrived African students embellished their caps with reminders of their homeland. Others sequined the class year on theirs.

They followed the rules. Mortarboards could be decorated; gowns could not. They were told this at commencement rehearsal the morning of the ceremony. I know this because I witnessed many rehearsals, assisting my special needs students. And students were told not “to showboat” or draw attention to one’s self. The senior class advisor would remind the graduates that “as important as this day is to you, it is also very important to your parents and family. Do not embarrass them by doing something stupid to get attention.”

At one rehearsal, as the staff member finished his instructions, I turned and found myself facing the boy most likely to showboat that night. Our eyes met.

But before I tell you what happened next, let me tell you something about him.

I had been aware of Josh from his first days as a freshman. He seemed to know every prominent senior, whether they were involved in sports or student activities, and he hung with them. That is unusual because, generally, seniors do not socialize, let alone acknowledge, freshman. But when I learned Josh’s last name, I understood. His older brother Zach was a popular athletic senior and, it appeared, that Josh had carte blanche in his brother’s social circles, perhaps through their involvement in sports.

Josh also ran with many of the male African-American members of his class. It appeared he thought of himself as one of them. He dressed, swaggered, and moved to music like them. He was a wigger, a late Twentieth Century term for a White dude who identified as quasi-Black

His association with both groups—Zach’s friends and the Black freshman peers—gave him a confidence rarely seen in freshmen. At lunch, he would walk into the Activity Center, full of upper classmen, as if he owned it. In the halls, he raucously careened from one social situation to another. But with his confidence came an unflattering cockiness and arrogance. He came off as a loud attention-seeker. My initial reaction to him was not positive.

By the time Josh was a senior, his wigger days were history and he had become the stereotype good-looking jock who thought he was cooler than he actually was. He was among the movers and shakers in the senior class. But he still had that off-putting attitude. We had brief interactions—”nice game,” “great shirt,” “What was that about?”—but I’m sure he did not know who I was other than “that special ed dude.” But he was, I must admit, always polite and respectful when we interacted and my opinion of him improved.

Perhaps two weeks before he graduated, Josh, I learned from his P.E. teacher, had a disruptive encounter with a girl in the class, a girl who he had known and been friends with him since elementary school. “You are so conceited and arrogant,” she charged with anger.

The boy’s confrontive demeanor changed instantly, the teacher told me. He stepped back, looked painfully hurt, and tried to defend himself. “How can you say that? I’m not conceited.” And he turned and ran out of the gym. The teacher said he looked as if he was on the verge of crying.

A few days later, I had the opportunity to talk with Josh and I purposefully echoed the girl’s sentiments. “I gotta tell you something, dude, before you graduate,” I began. “I have to admit,” I began, “I didn’t like you much when you were a freshman.” Josh looked directly at me. He didn’t nod, but his eyes did. “I thought you were cocky and arrogant. But this year, I’ve figured out that there’s a lot more to you than that. You’re an OK guy.”

He snorted a laugh. “I had a longtime friend tell me I was conceited and arrogant a few weeks ago,” he said. I played dumb. “Of all people. She’s known me for like forever.” He paused. “That hurt.”

“Well, if she said that and I just told you what my first impression of you was, maybe that’s something you could correct in college. When you meet people there,” I suggested, “let them see what’s inside here and here” — and I motioned to his heart and head — “and not all this.” My hands swirled around his exterior, his muscular façade.

He smiled. “I can’t wait for college.”


“I get to create a new me. Finally.”

So, when our eyes met at the end of commencement rehearsal, I rhetorically asked, “You think he had you in mind when he warned about showboating?”

The young man pulled me into a hug and buried his face in the curve of my neck. His friends stared. He said nothing, but I could hear him think, Finally, someone here gets me.

He didn’t showboat that night.


Each of us has a COVID-19 vaccination story. Here is mine.

Living with the threat of COVID19 has been difficult and challenging. But for those of us residing on the north shore of Lake Chapala, receiving the COVID vaccinations has proved, in many ways, to be as difficult and more frustrating than the pandemic itself.

As the distribution of vaccinations trickled down from Mexico’s federal government to state and local governments, organization and communication appeared to become mired in chaotic confusion. What I experienced is what many, if not most or all, residents, Mexican or gringo, living in the general Ajijic area went through.

Vaccines were slow to get here. When they first arrived in Mexico in late-December 2020, the largest cities, like Guadalajara, appeared to get served first. That was expected and makes sense. We, at the lake, patiently waited for the distribution to spread to the surrounding suburbs, towns, and small villages. We watched as areas relatively near us received vaccines, but we were not included. We also were aware of a lack of communication and reliable information about distribution patterns and timelines from those in charge.

Finally, late in the day Sunday March 14, COVID-related Facebook sites reported vaccinations would be given in Ajijic and Chapala on March 16-18 beginning at 8:00 a.m. They would be for people 65-years-old or older. I had commitments on the first day so I had to wait until the second day, Wednesday, to get my shot. An advantage to waiting a day was being able to read about the experiences of those who went on Tuesday. And their reports, it turned out, were not encouraging or positive.

While many in Ajijic did receive a vaccination that first day, I learned, a large number of people were turned away after waiting in the hot sun for hours. The number of vaccinations delivered was insufficient to serve the demand. The lesson I took from this, as did many others, was to arrive hours before 8:00 to improve one’s chances of receiving a shot.

I arrived at 6:10 a.m. Wednesday. There were approximately 150-200 people ahead of me. Many had canes. More were in walkers. And a good many were in wheelchairs. The line continued to grow behind me and by 8:00 appeared to be well into the hundreds.

As 8:00 neared, I noticed numerous people arriving and walking to the front of the line. They, we learned, were the people turned away the day before; they had received numbers so they could be served first on Wednesday. Suddenly the 150-200 people ahead of me became an irrelevant number.

But that didn’t really matter, because the line did not move at eight. Nor did it move at nine. The reason, we later learned, was that the vaccine delivery, done by the military to protect it from drug cartels or opportunists, was running late. It arrived, as I understand it, before 10:00. The “yesterday” people were served first. And around 12:15, the line began to move. I had been in it for 6 hours at this point.

I received my vaccination a few hours later. It was the SinoVac from China, one receiving generally poor initial reviews based on its sub-standard effectiveness. Therefore, few of those receiving it that day were thrilled with the choice, but were happy to have received anything. We were told we were to receive our second shots in 28 days as was necessary for the inoculations to be effective. We turned in our papers, which included contact information, our email addresses and telephone numbers. This was to facilitate communicating our second shot appointments.

We anticipated receiving a receipt, prove of our receiving the first shot, in exchange for the turned-in paperwork, but we didn’t. That, we learned later, was the result of another organizational screw-up; none of the staff or volunteers brought laptops for input of records, which would have triggered receipts. We were assured repeatedly we would be contacted via email or telephone regarding our second vaccinations.

Long after the 28 days had past, we learned via Facebook posts, not emails or telephone calls, that our receipts were ready. The 2nd vaccines weren’t, but the proof that we long before had received a reputedly weak shot was ready.

While not as disorganized as my March 17 experience, it was, nevertheless, another day of frustrating communication break-downs. But I received my receipt.

By this time, many of my expat and emigré neighbors had given up on the alleged system in this area and were going to the US, where appointments were becoming unnecessary and walk-ins becoming the norm. I decided to join them, although, as I am not the most spontaneous person, in took me a while to act on my decision.

I opted to go to Phoenix and, through Google, learned where vaccinations were being given and what brands were available at those sights. I chose to get the one-and-done Johnson & Johnson vaccine, to simplify things since I would be traveling from another country, and found several locations near my hotel. The one closest, perhaps a 15 to 20 minutes-walk, was a health center and I walked there in the hot, but dry, Arizona heat.

However, upon arrival, I learned that they, as well, as Maricopa County in general, were no longer issuing the J&J. The county had stopped distributing the J&J when it was halted nationally because of reports of health complication from its use. The national stoppage, however, was short-lived. But Maricopa health officials opted not to reinstate J&J use. Therefore, I had to choose between Pfizer and Moderna, each requiring a second trip to Phoenix. I opted for Pfizer.

The process was quick and professionally performed. The staff was helpful and friendly. Ironically, as I was getting my Pfizer in Phoenix, residents of Ajijic, Chapala, and the surrounding area were receiving their second SinoVac. Finally. Long after the recommended 28 days. It was closer to 60. The process, I read, did not run as smoothly as did my Phoenix experience.

My second Pfizer is scheduled for this week. I’ve booked my flight and hotel room. I’m thankful I can afford to do that as many others can’t. Again, opportunities in life are based on economic status, not need. Hopefully, receiving my second vaccine will end my direct involvement with the tragic, infuriating, and frustrating chapter of our lives known as COVID-19 and we will watch it become COVictory19.

My Kupp Runneth Over

I’ve been asked the question 657½ times in my life. A precise number. I know, but I kept count. “Did you ever have a crush on a teacher growing up?” the plethora of inquiring minds wondered, wandering into TMI territory.

To begin with, 123 people with whom I attended school have asked as have 288 other gay men who hoped to validate their young boy attractions to a male teacher. There were the 246 times other teachers asked in conversations exploring the complicated student-teacher dynamic. And there was the half when a telephone survey-taker asked, but I hung up before the question was completed. I will not be interrupted while watching The Bachelorette!

The simple answer to the question is no. I never had a crush on a teacher. But I did have one on a teaching intern. It was the seventh or eighth grade. We were lined up in our gym clothes at the beginning of P.E. Attendance was about to begin. An unfamiliar man was standing with Coach Lang, our teacher, facing us. And, oh, was that young man handsome.

“We have a student-teacher from the University of Washington School of Education with us for the rest of the semester,” the teacher announced. “This is Mr. Kupp.”

A collective gasp echoed through the cavernous gym, reflecting the boys’ recognition of him. I, too, gasped. But my reaction was internal, stifling my puzzling attraction.

Jake Kupp had been one of the stars of the UW football team and a two-time Rose Bowl player. And UW football was followed by nearly everyone in early 1960s Seattle, even me, who didn’t understand why some linemen were considered offensive. Was it their smell, their language? But I did understand that I did not find Mr. Kupp offensive. He was cute.

I don’t recall ever interacting with Mr. Kupp. I don’t remember peeking at him with confused lust after that introduction, although I probably did. Obsessively. But then, after several weeks, he was gone.

Kupp went on to play in the National Football League. So did his son, Craig. And today, his grandson Cooper Kupp plays for the Los Angeles Rams. Every time the third-generation Kupp makes a reception, and a play-by-play announcer calls out his name, I am reminded of that day when I first saw his grandfather.

There were other male athletes and entertainers of that era that teased my confused sexual awakening. I thought teen idol Ricky Nelson was very cute. There was Tommy Sands. I found Father Knows Best‘s Billy Gray to be strikingly handsome for a young teenager. There even was an original Mouseketeer I found very attractive, Lonnie Burr.

And there was green-eyed Fabian, not to be confused with Fabio, the long-haired romance novel cover-boy who came along 30 years later. I was initially attracted by Fabian’s face, but it wasn’t until the teenager was interviewed on Ed Murrow’s Person to Person that I saw beyond his exterior. Fabian began the interview by announcing he was exhausted, having just returned from a lengthy tour. As a result, the tired teen seemed to me to be more vulnerable, genuine, and human than he had in any previous TV appearance or Tiger Beat photo-spread. In my mind, I became Fabian’s care-giver and wanted to scream at Murrow, “This interview is over. Fabian needs to go to bed.” Fabian’s welfare became more important than my curiosity and I learned that night that lust and caring for someone could be combined. That interview helped me understand myself better and irrevocably changed my life.

But there was one young man before Fabian and the others, from the mid-1950s, that drew my attention. I’ve saved him for last because, now, sixty-plus years later, he is doing it again.

I have discovered several cable networks re-airing classic sitcoms. Among them is Antenna; it airs The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. Although dated in its depiction of woman, marriages, and male-female relationships, I love that show as much now as I did as a child. I still am amused by the convoluted storylines and fascinated by Gracie’s brilliant comedic timing.

Several seasons into the show’s run, George and Gracie’s adopted son Ronnie was added to the cast as their womanizing, charming, college-age stud of a son. And the show became appealing in an entirely unexpected way. I became mesmerized by Ronnie. As young as I was, I was attracted to his smile, physique, and, yes, his ass.

As I stare at those black-and-white images, a marker of sorts in the chronicle of my life, I recall how many attractive men, beyond those initial childhood fantasies, I have known in my real life. So many were beautiful men, both externally and internally, and were fascinating, admirable and inspiring people. And so many are gone, taken prematurely by AIDS or now by the normal life-cycle. Most were part of my social life, primarily in the 1970s and ’80s.  Others were from gyms to which I belonged. Some just meandered in through jobs, neighborhoods, and countless other connections.

As a result, whether I am watching young Ronnie Burns from decades ago or reminiscing about a teaching intern, I know how fortunate I’ve been to have known all these men and had them as part of my journey. And I realize my Kupp runneth over.