20/20 Hindsight

There are moments in our lives that change them forever: Marriages, the birth of children, unexpected deaths, serious accidents or illnesses, getting fired, aha moments, a world event. We all experience them.

I’ve been thinking about those moments in my life, those events that impacted all the days that followed. These are the twenty events or moments that, I believe, formed who I am today. I know I am exposing much of my inner-self here. But it has been cathartic. If, however, you see it as self-indulgent. it isn’t. It would be had I included twenty-one.

  1. Just prior to my sixth or seventh Hanukkah, I discovered a sled in the darkest corner of the basement. It was, I realized, my BIG Hanukkah present. The second-hand sled had been freshly-painted burgundy and a pinkish off-white, colors I would not have selected. Mom was very proud and excited when she unveiled the gift days later and pointed out how difficult it had been to paint. I, too, was excited. . . until the first snowfall when I discovered I could not steer the sled because the sticky, thick coat of paint had gotten under the steering bar rendering it useless. Disappointed, I wondered why I hadn’t received a new sled. I knew we were not rich, but certainly not so poor we could not afford a new one, one that worked. I was hurt. What that incident taught me was, in my mother’s eyes, I was not worthy a new sled. I did not deserve it. I could, and should, always accept second best. I should settle. Because Mom had not asked me what my favorite colors were as she prepared to paint the winter toy, I also learned my input and opinion did not matter. She painted the sled burgundy, her favorite color. Imagine the impact those lessons had on my psyche, self-confidence, and future.
  2. It was the late 1950s. I was eight or nine, maybe ten. I was introduced to Top 40 radio and pop music by a schoolmate who had a family friend who was a disc jockey on one of Seattle’s top radio stations. My love for pop music was born. Certainly, I would have discovered pop music eventually under other circumstances, but Bill and the deejay were the ones that steered me toward pop music and away from the classical music to which my parents listened.
  3. About the same time, Top 40 radio entered my life, I discovered my affinity for writing, a talent I likely inherited from my father. I had been selected by my fifth-grade teacher to write a summary of our class’s activities for the monthly PTA Newsletter and I took this duty very seriously. I felt great pride when I saw my work in print. That assignment marked the birth of Tom Nussbaum, Writer.
  4. I was ten or eleven when I first saw late ‘50s-early ‘60s teen idol Fabian Forte on “American Bandstand.” He stirred feelings in me I neither understood nor could explain. Or share. They, of course, were my first pings of same-sex attraction. When, at the peak of his popularity, Fabian appeared on “Person to Person,” Edward R. Murrow’s Friday night celebrity interview program, Fabian looked tired. He was slumped on his couch, valiantly trying to maintain a smile. The sixteen-year old began the interview with an apology. “Ed,” he said, “I just got home from a long tour and I’m really tired.” I heard a plea. Internally, I became Fabian’s agent or parent; my inner-voice screamed, “This interview is over. Can’t you see Fabian needs to go to bed?” Because I was a pre-pubescent child, my intent was not sexual. My motive was more protective. I wanted to take care of him. Later feelings were more sexual. However, as a result, throughout my life, I have joked that Fabian brought me out of the closet.
  5. November 22, 1963: The assassination of John F. Kennedy. Anyone who was alive then knows how that tragedy impacted the world, the USA, and the future. Like Pearl Harbor a generation earlier or 9-11-2001 nearly four decades later, this was a date that influenced all the days after it. It was the first time I was disappointed in the world around me, the world beyond my home and family. It wasn’t the last.
  6. My post high school plans were to attend Shoreline Community College, an established and reputable two-year school, for a year and then transfer to the University of Washington. However, I missed the deadline to apply to Shoreline and I had no Plan B. I was panicked, freaked-out. A school counselor, suggested I attend fledgling Seattle Community College in its first year, pointing out that there still was time to apply. I was not thrilled with this option as the quality of the school had not yet been established. But I went. When classes began, I was contacted by the school’s journalism teacher and school newspaper advisor offering me, based on my experience as a high school newspaper editor, the founding editorship of the school newspaper. I took the offer. Good fortune then came my way. Not only was I part of history, but my tuition and books were covered for the year. And through that connection with the instructor/advisor, I landed a summer job at The Seattle Times, which I parlayed into a longer lasting, more appropriate position at The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. My college major, journalism, was written in ink. But more important, I became a believer in fate and destiny, a philosophy I still believe in today.
  7. I was a University of Washington frat boy in November 1969 when I suffered my first herniated disc, a moment that changed everything. On the positive side, that moment saved me from being drafted and going to Vietnam; it provided me with a life-saving out. The trade-off, of course, was a lifetime of back problems culminating in five hours of surgery more than forty-five years later during which three other herniated discs were verified.
  8. Although I had recognized and explored my homosexuality earlier, it was not until I graduated from college in 1970 that I “came out.” If there were an official moment when that happened, it would have been when I met George at Madison Beach, Seattle’s perennial gay summer playground. Although he was a year younger than me, he became my mentor and conduit to a new life and social world. He introduced me to my first circle of gay friends.
  9. I met Ray Woods in 1971. He brought me to a gym. I didn’t leave until 2016. As a result of my workouts, generally 3-4 times a week, I transformed myself from an insecure soft blob to an insecure buff dude. Because I met many interesting and wonderful people through gyms, it became as much a part of my social life as a physical regimen. Ray, who had been one of the founders of the UW’s Gay Student Union, also introduced me to political activism. Obviously, meeting Ray was life-changing. It was because of him, I, shirtless, rode a floral float in the Portland Rose Parade. It was because of him I represented Seattle in a beef-cake competition at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and got ogled by Andy Warhol. It was because of him I was featured in a Gay Pride report on local TV news. And it also was because of Ray I laughed through the ’70’s.
  10. We can all chuckle about this. But disco music and discos were very important to me. I know. Silly. Shallow. The truth, nevertheless. My first disco experience took place at San Francisco’s The City where I heard, for the first time, its overpowering speaker system. As I recall, I was mesmerized by The Intruders’ “I’ll Always Love My Mama,” Everyday People’s “I Like What I Like (Because I Like It),” and Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “Love’s Theme,” which segued into “Under the Influence of Love.” I had never heard music like that, lyrics that touched me like that, and rhythms that stirred my soul so. Discos, with time, became a safe-zone, its music an audio comfort food. It was the soundtrack of the most exciting time in my life. To this day, disco gives me joy, lifts me when feeling low, and makes me feel young. I know not everyone loves disco, and they are entitled to their opinion. Nevertheless, I believe disco-haters and detractors should be banished to Siberia and forced to listen to Ethel Merman’s disco version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and the holiday classic “The Little Drummer Boy” a la disco. On an endless loop.
  11. In my “coming out” process, I had chosen to keep my sexual orientation a secret from my parents as they, I felt, had experienced enough disappointment and hardship because of Adolph Hitler. They had lost family members, left their homelands, and made numerous other sacrifices. But as time passed, the burden of this secret became heavier and more complicated and, finally, after seven years of being “out” socially, I told them. It was difficult and it had its bumps, but it was an unloading of a crippling weight. I did feel a freedom I had never felt before.
  12. The fight for gay rights became personal in 1978. After defeat in public votes in Florida’s Dade County, Wichita, St. Paul, and Eugene, the issue of equal rights for the LGBT community came to Seattle. Well, surprise-surprise, we won. The No on 13 victory was the first of its kind in the US. And it wasn’t even close. The celebration that November night gave me one of the happiest moments in my life and a heart full of hope that lasted about 25 years. But, alas, that feeling did not last forever.
  13. Because I had never lived anywhere but Seattle, I moved to Portland in 1985 to prove to myself I could live somewhere else and start anew. I immediately met Larry, with whom I was involved for about a year and a half. He was not my first “boyfriend,” but it was through him that I discovered why my relationships had not worked and understood my role in those failures. I realized that the societal ideal that everyone must be married or partnered to be happy did not apply to me; I was happier, freer, more content, alone. When Larry and I broke up, I decided I would no longer seek Mr. Right. I rearranged priorities in my life and began to understand and accept myself on an entirely deeper level.
  14. When tests were first approved to determine if one had HIV or AIDS in the mid-1980s, gay men were advised to avoid them. “The results,” community activists warned,” will be shared with employers, landlords, insurance companies, and families.” Therefore, it was not until 1988 or 1989, after we all had lost countless friends, and acquaintances, that we felt safe being tested. I was certain I would be found to be HIV positive. I had been, after all, rather promiscuous in previous years. But as fate would have it, I tested negative. I was stunned. Once I recovered from my shock, I determined that God, fate, the zodiac, or whatever, had plans for me, a mission. There was a reason I was spared. But I did not understand what that purpose was. Yet.
  15. I returned to Seattle in 1990 and held two unsatisfying jobs over two years. I was unhappy and frustrated. But during those years, I had a brief friendship with a neighbor, a middle-school special education teacher. He often mentioned his assistant and her duties. I could do that, I thought. Then I realized that that was my calling, the purpose of my HIV negative status.  Because I had often served as a trusted advisor, “big brother,” or “uncle” to younger gay men, I thought, I’m supposed to work in high schools, using those skills and my experience.  Special education is my entrée. I applied to the Seattle School District and was hired. I spent twenty-one of the next twenty-two years working in high schools. When I retired, I knew I had helped many special needs students and influenced countless other teenagers as the advisor of gay support groups, gay-straight alliances, AIDS awareness clubs, and the Men’s Forum, where boys discussed sensitive issues concerning them. I also forged relationships with numerous young men, friendships that some outsiders looked at as “suspicious,” but weren’t. They were innocent and appropriate, but they were needed, by both the student and myself. Conversations, images, and memories from those days are part of my DNA now. I had found my purpose.
  16. It was a few days before school started in September 1993, my second year in special ed. I had been transferred with a certified teacher to a different high school to start a new program. We entered the office and introduced ourselves. I, in typical Tom-fashion, said something humorous and smart-assy. I heard a snicker behind me. I turned. A young man, sitting at a table, looked at me with an expression that mixed a smile with disbelief. I thought he was a college student, perhaps an alum hoping to see a favorite teacher or a teaching intern waiting to meet his new mentor. He was, however, the student body president. Years later, David told me, because of that irreverent comment, he knew immediately that I was to play a major role in his life. It was providential, he explained. He became my unofficial son, I his “other” dad. We learned from each other. We impacted each other. I witnessed his graduation, departure for Marine bootcamp as part of ROTC, college graduation, and wedding. I was elated by the birth of his son. I worried when he was sent to participate in 2003’s Iraq War. David is a lawyer today, my lawyer.
  17. I will be the first to admit that I had an unorthodox way of doing things as a high school staff member. As I said earlier, I forged relationships with students that from the outside may have appeared odd, even suspicious. None, however, were inappropriate. None were sexual. My concern at all times was in the student’s best interest. I mentored, looked out for, and protected them as best I could. Nevertheless, I, after years of advising gay support groups and then gay-straight alliances, was removed from my position by the school district administrator overseeing these groups. Her reason? My unorthodox style might, if exposed to the public, rankle homophobes. The irony here is that this administrator was a lesbian and was acting out of homophobia-phobia. But, I believe, she also was driven by a general distrust of men, including gay men, and saw them all as potential predators. I was informed of my removal days before summer break and that decision ruined my vacation. Being distrusted by someone who should have supported me and being thought of as a perv sent me in a tailspin. My vacation was spent with suicidal thoughts, crippling depression, and growing anxiety about returning to school. But, because I began taking ant-depressants as the summer ended, I did return and survived. I still take the medication, albeit at the lowest dosage. To say that woman changed my life would be an understatement.
  18. I attended Vancouver’s Gay Pride in 2004, the summer George W. Bush campaigned for reelection, the year Republicans in eleven states put same-sex marriage on the ballot to lure conservatives who had not recently voted to the polls. This divisive tactic worked. The Battle for Equal Rights was defeated in all eleven states. But more important, that sense of hope I acquired in 1978 died. Bush’s reelection became the straw that broke the camel’s back, the point at which I had had enough of rationalizing and tolerating US politics and its countless hypocrisies. While in Vancouver, I had an epiphany: I did not have to remain in the US forever. I could, and would, leave upon retirement ten years later. And I did.
  19. With a few years remaining before retirement, I conceded it was time to seek counselling. Psychiatrists and sociologists were people I had avoided my entire live, for reasons too involved to explain here. But a situation had arisen at work that I could not remedy and it was affecting my mental health. I could no longer avoid “the couch.” Within a few sessions, Gary connected the specific school situation to my mother, something I had never considered. Suddenly, my entire life flashed by and I understood why I had made many of the decisions I had, why I reacted to people and conditions in my life as I had, and why I saw myself as I did. In a flash, I understood why I was unable to maintain a long-term romantic relationship. I had been right; that ideal wasn’t for me. But after two plus decades, I understood why. Gary was a godsend. He steered me into my future.
  20. My second stop in the search for my post-retirement home as an ex-pat was Ajijic. It was 2009, five years after I had made the decision to leave the crumbling US. I knew within hours it was the place for me. Five years later, I left Seattle for Lakeside. Once settled, I watched, from a distance, as Seattle continued to change and became too big for its britches, and I witnessed the downfall of US democracy. I never looked back. I have no regrets.
  21. Now it is your turn. What choices or events changed your life? A marriage? A divorce? The birth of children? Disease? A job change? An election? Or reading my list?

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