Did'ya blow?

They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our …

A real conversation, in a local pub, not long ago…

Q: My friend asked, “What would you do?”

A: “I’d start by punching that pastor in the mouth!”

But first, a childhood recollection—

Larry’s dad was a jazz drummer. He had a day job. But every weekend he was off gigging somewhere. One of his drum kits was set up in the house. Going over to play at Larry’s was a lot of fun. And loud. 

That’s not the way his dad played, though. Every now and again the old man would come in, sit down at the kit and show us his skills. He was all jazz, smooth and with delicate touch. I was like, ‘Isn’t the point of drumming … percussion? Feeling it? Like thunder? But Larry’s dad was gentle. And damn talented. Larry wasn’t bad, either. He could play along to Harry Chapin and Jim Croce records. 

“Have you ever seen The Jazz Singer?” Larry asked me once. “Al Jolson?” 

He told the story—a young Jewish musician was disowned by his traditional Jewish family for wanting to be a jazz singer. “It was something like that for my dad,” he said. “My grandfather expected Dad to be a Cantor. Dad did that for a while. Until my grandfather learned he was sneaking out to play in jazz clubs with other jazz musicians.” 

He explained that his grandfather was very devout in his religion; his religion taught you should turn your back on apostates. Cut and dry. 

Larry had living grandparents, at least as far as he knew. And I guess that’s the point—he didn’t know. Larry’s dad’s music came at a tremendous cost; his family of origin had written him out. 

Fast forward forty years. I’m having a beer with a friend. His daughter just came out to him. He went to see his pastor. The pastor advised my friend to “draw a hard line in the sand,” to disown his daughter … “until such a time as she repents, of course.”

My friend asked, “What would you do?”

“I’d start by punching that pastor in the mouth!”

Did'ya blow?

First, Last & Lasting

Q: My first encounter with death?

A: “Did you hear Shooter’s dad blew his brains out?”

Christmas break from school. I was playing in the backyard, listening to a Captain & Tennille cassette tape on my tape recorder—both Christmas gifts from Santa, the year Santa dropped the ball. Mom called me in. I can’t recall exactly what she said, I just remember the news: Matthew’s dad died. He hadn’t come home from work. They found him at his office. She said something about how I should act the next time I saw Matthew.

But I saw Greg Griffin first. “Did you hear Shooter’s dad blew his brains out?”

At 8-years-old, neither of us caught any irony in that sentence. Matthew was Shooter because his last name rhymed with marble, and his size … well, Matthew was a big marble. Like a shooter. And if you’ve never played marbles and have no idea what I’m talking about … What the hell kind of childhood did you have?

“Found him dead in his car underneath the CNA building,” he continued. All us kids knew the CNA building—a downtown landmark we’d all seen out the car window from the highway. 

I can see why Mom disliked Greg. I’m sure this wasn’t the time or occasion Mom had envisioned to have to speak to her child about grown-up topics like depression and suicide. Again, I don’t recall the specifics—he was very sad; no one knew; sometimes when people are this sad they aren’t thinking clearly, and …

Mom told me, years later, her real fear was not having to explain it to me, but Matthew learning the circumstances of his father’s death like I did—Matthew’s mother hadn’t told the kids. Mom called her. 

It was a while before he came back to school. And it felt really strange. Kids were staring at him. I was staring at him—this was the first time anyone I knew, lost someone; the first suicide I’d ever heard about. First thing that wasn’t stable in my world. Things went from bad to worse; with Greg, they often did—

“Your dad is in hell, now, you know.” The certainty with which he said it … Shooter punched Greg in the mouth. No exaggeration, the kid’s lip ballooned before the he hit the floor. And the SMACK! Ms. Eames heard it and came running.

Word got around the neighborhood parents. Of course, I was forbidden from seeing Greg. This time did feel a little different—like he’d really stepped in it. Usually a few days would pass and Mom would relax the restriction. Had the feeling this one wouldn’t blow over any time soon. Now she had to have a talk with her 8-year-old son about hell. She assured me: Greg is wrong! Bad people go to hell; Matthew’s dad wasn’t bad; he was sad. 

Matthew moved away not long after that. Not far. I remember at least one play-date Mom arranged. They had a condo with a community pool. We swam. Drank lemonade. Didn’t talk at all about his dad. That was the last time I ever saw Matthew.

But to this day, every time I drive through Orlando, I glance over where the old CNA building used to stand.

Did'ya blow?

Cooties & Companionship

Q: Do I remember choosing?

[A friend of mine—both a believer and gay—asked me this question in the context of a larger question: Is sexual orientation a choice (as evangelical Christianity espoused for years)?] 

A: For me, whether I liked girls or boys was never a question. It was more like a current I found myself in … orientation sorted itself out. I don’t remember choosing.

What do I remember? Katherine—Stephanie—Susie—Ellen—Melissa—Michelle—Mary-Katherine. Them, I remember. 

Katherine was fun. Stephanie was scary. Susie was pretty. Ellen was different. Melissa was just what you do when you’re in fifth grade. Michelle was … no doubt about it, I like girls! And Mary-Katherine? I damn near became a Catholic! 

Katherine was an across-the-street neighbor, and first friend who was a girl. We were four. You know how it goes—everyone doted over us, ‘They’re so cute!’ They referred to us teasingly as boyfriend and girlfriend. So there you have it: Katherine was my first girl.

Confession: Katherine was also my first kiss—a story I’ll save for another time. Greg Griffin dared us. Greg, of course, is the kid Mom forbid me from playing with after he told all of us neighborhood kids the reason Santa Claus didn’t go to Peter Marks’ house is because Santa doesn’t like Jews.

Pre-school introduced me to a wider group of friends and activities. And Stephanie. 

4-year-old pre-K at Brother Book’s All American Christian Day School. Yes, looking back it seems every bit as goofy as the name suggests—sort of a hybrid mix of staunch conservative, by-the-book (King James version, of course) Christianity, and radically conservative patriotism. We little cherubs were all dressed in red, white and blue; girls in long, blue skirts, white cover-it-all blouses, with red scarves; boys in blue pleated slacks, white collared shirts, and big-ass red bow ties. Hellfire and brimstone meet ‘Merica. 

My first interaction with girls other than Katherine, and none of them were as much fun as she was. Stephanie was pure evil. She pinched me every day at nap time. I told Mom. She said she’d speak to my teacher. 

Doug, always helpful, advised: “When a girl pinches you, that means she likes you. Just pinch her back—a firm pinch, like this,” digging his fingers into my side, “then she’ll be your girlfriend.”

I tried to separate myself from Stephanie at nap time. Somehow, her mat always ended up next to mine. Every damn day, the teacher would say, “Quiet now! The lights are out!” … and PINCH!

I was the star of the school Christmas pageant. THE star. You know, the one that shone down on baby Jesus. Mom made my costume—a huge cardboard star covered with tin foil. I quickly realized that my star reflected the stage lights and the more I moved, the more rays of light danced around the room. I didn’t have any lines. I was too busy strobing. 

Stephanie was the angel. No shit. 

Kindergarten meant two things: No more naps! And no more Stephanie! Like Brother Book always said: Praise the Lord!

It must have been some sort of kindergarten orientation thing. Mom and I went to “my big school” to see the classroom I’d be in, and to meet Mrs. Woods, my kindergarten teacher. It was cool—got to claim my cubby-hole, find my place on the mat, and practice sitting down and folding my hands. I learned I could wear regular clothes—not those silly Uncle Sam suits.

Then I saw her.

As Mom was pointing out all the cool things around the room—colors, shapes, letters and numbers—my eyes caught sight of a little blonde-haired girl, her hair in bouncy pigtails. She wore a pink frilly dress, lacy white socks and saddle-shoes. I couldn’t look away. 

I was five. I had no clue of anything romantic at this point. I just knew I liked looking at her. Pretty is something you like to look at, right? Pretty flowers. Pretty scenery. Pretty pictures. Susie was my first awareness of a pretty girl.  

The school year began. At this age, boys played with boys. Girls had cooties. But I really wanted to befriend Susie, somehow. Much of the year went by. Then, a stroke of genius: I could invite Susie to my 6th birthday party! 

I broached the subject with Mom. She was all for the idea of inviting Susie. Win! But … Mom insisted that if I was inviting Susie, I’d need to invite all the girls from my class. Steep price to pay, but worth it. Party invites out; everyone was coming. It would be epic—pin the tail on the donkey; clothes-pin drop; yard games; cake and ice cream; and presents, of course. The countdown was on.

The Elton John song Crocodile Rock was all over the radio. “I remember when rock was young, me and Susie had so much fun…” In my little mind—even though there wasn’t an us—it was our song.

The day of my party arrived. This may have been the single most anticipated day of my life thus far; Susie is coming over! Then the phone rang, I heard Mom’s end of the conversation. I knew something was wrong. Felt it. Mom sounded concerned, and then ended the call, “… we hope Susie feels better soon.” NO!

I’d never have another chance. A few days after my party, Mrs. Woods addressed our class. “Today is Susie’s last day. She and her family are moving to …” I couldn’t tell you where. May as well have been the other side of the world. That night our song came on the radio, soundtrack to my first heartbreak—“The years went by and rock just died; Susie went and left me for some foreign guy…”

A couple years passed. I was eight. Diann got her driver’s license. Mom and Dad laid down the ground rules: She wanted to drive anywhere—especially if there would be any hormonal teenage boys there—take the little brother along. Ingenuous! I was birth-control.

Diann’s boyfriend had a little sister—Ellen. She was an older woman. She was nine. 

And she was different. She was so intriguing to me. She was … serious. I was in beginning band, playing—and I use that word very loosely—trombone, like my big brother. Ellen was in a youth orchestra. I practiced my trombone as little as possible. She practiced for hours, every day. And liked it! Serious … ly. 

I never really interacted with Ellen. I’d like to think it’s because she was so devoted to her music. More likely, it’s because I was a pain-in-the-ass 8-year-old, and absolutely not serious. 

Fast forward a few years—5th grade. All of a sudden, girls were attractive. All of us guys were having our coming-of-adolescence experiences at the same time. Girls were on our radar. The question, for both the boys and the girls, became ‘Who are you going out with?’ To be cool, you pretty much had to have an answer to that question. 

That’s where Melissa came in. 

She was a Schultz, and I am a Shaw. They sat us alphabetically in the classroom. She wanted to be cool. 

We did that awkward adolescent thing—going out, but never really going anywhere. We talked on the phone, but honestly, the more we talked, the less I wanted to. It had to have been the same for her. We were doomed to break-up. But we both had an answer to the all-important question. So we went out for most of the year … with a wink to our secret. 

In fifth-grade culture, another threshold of coolness was being free of babysitters. The term itself screams … baby? My sister moved out, I was eleven … and Mom and Dad didn’t give a damn about my coolness. 

Michele was an across the street neighbor. In her senior year, with a college plan, respectful to the parents, Mom and Dad loved her. I was convinced she’d be the end of my reputation! There was this consolation: Michele was hot! Yes, at this point I’d started to notice. Michele had lots to notice. 

One of the nights Michele chaperoned me—sounds better than babysat—I confessed mine and Melissa’s faux-boyfriend/girlfriend ruse, and that I’d never really kissed a girl before. She asked, “Would you like to learn how to kiss a girl?” Hell yes! Michele gave me a very thorough lesson. 

No doubt about it! I like girls! 

Michele went off to college. I went on to Middle School … looking for that first girl to really kiss. 

Climbed on the school bus, heading for the first day of sixth-grade, and there she was—Mary Katherine. Wow! Beautiful in an out-of-my-league way. Once we got to school, it was all the more obvious, I’d never get on her radar, there. She was always surrounded by other kids. Cooler kids. But I noticed something: every Friday afternoon, Mary Katherine got off the school bus a stop early. I learned she went to Annunciation Catholic Church for CCD—whatever that is. 

Home room at the Middle School they sat us alphabetically again—I’m next to Liz Stone. Liz was a no-shit, tell-it-like-it-is pragmatist. I must have confessed my affection for Mary Katherine. Liz’s advice: “You want to impress her? Go to her church.” 

I briefly considered converting to Catholicism. Liz filled me in on all the rules—CCD, confirmation, first communion, serving as an acolyte or altar boy, giving shit up for Lent, not eating meat on Fridays. No thanks!

I don’t remember ever making a choice. Looking back, I see … lessons. Life is more fun with a girl like Katherine. Some girls do have cooties, like Stephanie. Beauty is fleeting, like Susie. Some girls grow up faster than boys, like Ellen. Some girls are better friends than girlfriends, like Melissa. Pretty girls, like Mary Katherine, could lead you astray— 

And kissing girls is important—so do it well. And often. 

Did'ya blow?


Five Minute Memoir quip #431

I’m wondering … How often do you suppose we unintentionally become the a$$- – – in someone else’s story?

I was on the beach yesterday as the tide was coming in. My wife and I had to move our chairs and all our gear back several yards to avoid being washed out to sea. Then we noticed, off to our right, someone’s towel. The rising tide was closing in. My wife and I discussed, “Should we go move that stranger’s towel back?” We wondered aloud about the risks–would someone see us touching their stuff and be angered? We did the obligatory look around–we saw no one who might have owned this towel. We considered that it may have been abandoned or accidentally left behind. Just then a wave reached the towel–not enough to carry it away, just enough to dampen the edges. It wouldn’t be long, though. What should we do?

Just then a man came running up from far away. He’d been swimming and the current had obviously taken him way down range of his towel. He bent down, scooped it up … and shot an incredulous look at us. You know what that look said to me? You got it.

So today he’s telling that story to others. “And there were these a$$- – -s sitting right there next to my towel and …”