Thursday, October 25, 2012

Barbara Eden, Boris Karloff, and Halloween at the YMCA

As Halloween nears, my mind wanders to the YMCA.

It's not what you're thinking.

By the time I was born, my parents had already raised four daughters. My father, at the time, was 47, and my mother was 39. No doubt exhausted by the whole child-rearing thing, they gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted, to a point. For example, while other kids played kickball in the street, I positioned myself in the middle of the downstairs hallway, drawing cartoons. My entire family had to step over or around me for hours at a time. Surprisingly, no one seemed to mind.

As I grew older, my lack of typical boyhood interests and skills became difficult for my parents to step around. My father, I suspect, was in denial and tried to find a rationale behind my behavior whenever one even remotely plausible might be deduced. One night, during an episode of I Dream of Jeannie, I drew a diagram of what Barbara Eden's hair must have looked like when completely unknotted. Having sketched something vaguely resembling a cantilever bridge, I showed it to my father. One of my sisters shot me a look of icy disapproval.

My father studied the drawing and gently chastised my sister for her scorn. "He might grow up to be an architect one day," he said.

My mother had other strategies in mind. At first, she used shame as a tactic. "Why can't you be more like So and So?," she'd ask. I'd usually respond by citing that So and So just got into trouble for catching the nearby woods on fire or breaking Coke bottles in the church parking lot.

When the shame game didn't work, my mother tried bargaining with me. If I'd take basketball lessons at the YMCA, she'd give me a reward. I don't remember the exact bribe, but it must have been good because I begrudgingly accepted it. Soon, my mother was driving me to the downtown Greensboro YMCA on a regular basis. Each time, there was a little bit of hope in her heart and a big knot in my stomach.

As I expected, my adventures in basketball were a failure. I was the skinny asthmatic kid who, if he were lucky enough to actually possess the ball at any given moment, looked at it as if it were a live hand grenade. I couldn't get rid of it fast enough. During every game, I was threatened at best, spit on at worst.

But all was not lost.

The conclusion of my long basketball nightmare coincided with the YMCA's Halloween costume contest. It was a big to-do that included a showing of a Boris Karloff movie called Die, Monster Die. The film is chiefly memorable for a scene in which a young man enters a creepy old house, decorated with cobwebs, creaky doors and dry ice. The young man approaches a bed draped in a thick canopy, behind which an ailing old woman with a raspy cigarette voice is shrouded. "You must think this house is obsessed with mystery!," she says. It's still one of my favorite movie lines.

Back to me. I'd gone to extreme lengths for my costume, wrapping myself in a big decorative blanket, painting my face red, and wearing a black wig. In other words, I went as a kid's politically incorrect idea of a Native American back when we still called them 'Indians.'

After the party was over, my mother picked me up. "Did you have fun?" she asked.

"Not really," I answered. "But I won the costume contest!"

Halloween with sisters Julia and Mimi. I'm afraid that's me in the tutu.
That was the last time my mother attempted to coerce me into extra-curricular athletics. There would be battles between us in the future, especially during my rebellious teenage years. But on that Halloween night, despite my ineptitude on the basketball court, I suspect my mother was just a little bit pleased.  

Friday, October 19, 2012

How I Missed the Chance to Be on the Radio

While spending the afternoon on a clothing-optional beach, I missed the chance to be interviewed on a radio program about public nudity.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In San Francisco, our summer weather usually arrives in mid-late September and sometimes lasts as long as early November. Nick and I had noticed that the middle of this week looked ideal for playing hooky from work and going to our favorite beach, the ever-elusive and, yes, clothing-optional Gray Whale Cove. I say 'ever elusive' because too often, we've ventured down Highway 1 from San Francisco on a warm, sunny day only to discover the beach had disappeared beneath an impenetrably gray, chilly fog.

This is why I call Gray Whale Cove 'the Brigadoon of beaches.'And on Wednesday, it materialized out of the mist to deliver a spectacular, warm, sunny beach day. Nick and I settled in for the afternoon. My beach bag bulged with an iPad, a Kindle, an iPhone, the day's New York Times, a notepad, and other stuff I'd planned to get to. There was this blog to update, some research to do, email to answer, stories to read about the previous night's presidential debate.

Before long, Nick and I became absorbed by the spectacle of waves smashing against distant rocks, exploding into what looked like fireworks. I felt the coarse, golden, warm sand against my bare feet.

Gray Whale Cove, as seen from the hill above the beach
The beauty of our surroundings led to a discussion of spirituality. Nick told me of the time when, as a boy, he'd endured another long, drunken argument between his parents and had felt completely alone in the world, until he looked out the living room window into the clear night sky and saw one particularly bright star. I was reminded that I don't currently have any particular spiritual beliefs or strong disbeliefs, and maybe now would be a good time to start figuring things out. Religious and spiritual practices have always felt too dogmatic for me. But it occurred to me I might approach them the way a seasoned cook follows a new recipe: Read the steps, line up the ingredients, but follow your instincts and make it your own.

Periodically throughout the afternoon, a tension crept into my body. Since it was midweek, there must be email that needed my immediate attention. And yet, here we were, taking much-needed time away from work on a beautiful beach, a place where one day long in the future, I would like some of my ashes scattered. The iPhone stayed in my backpack along with everything else I'd brought until about 5 p.m., when we were packing to leave.

That's when I saw it: an email from a producer at KQED, a highly respected public radio station in San Francisco. She wanted to know if, as the author of a recently produced play that addresses San Francisco's public nudity controversy, I'd care to speak on that topic during the next day's Forum program. Hurriedly, I tried to respond to the email, but the signal on the beach was too weak. Clearly, my response would have to wait until we climbed the many steps that led back up to the road and the parking lot. Over three hours had passed since the producer had emailed me; wouldn't they have found someone else by now?, I wondered.

Before I even started up those steps, however, something amazing (for me) happened. I was grateful I hadn't checked my email until then. Being on KQED the next morning would have consumed my thoughts the rest of that afternoon: What wise or funny things could I say? Who else might be on the program? How could I get a digital copy? The radio show would have drowned out the crashing waves, and it would most likely have derailed the spirituality discussion.

As I expected, when I was able to reach her, the KQED producer informed me she had made other plans. She encouraged me to listen the next morning and if I felt inclined, to call in. I did as she suggested, but the lines were jammed.

The road to talking about my play on a popular radio show had been sealed off, just as the fragile Highway 1 that leads to Gray Whale Cove often is after a strong winter storm. But that afternoon on the beach, another path started to materialize out of the fog. I move toward it, grateful.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Does Honey Boo Boo Get Spanked in School?

Recently, I turned on CNN to see what in the world was happening. I expected news about the presidential election, the economy, and other such weighty matters. Instead, I learned about Honey Boo and school paddling.

I'd heard of Honey Boo Boo, of course. She's the child beauty pageant contestant in Georgia who, along with her family, is the focus of the reality-TV show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. The CNN segment was about the show's huge ratings success and the fact that the titular star is now a household name. This fact was confirmed for me personally when, a few days later, a Southern friend jokingly used 'Honey Boo Boo' as a term of endearment for me.

Next up on CNN was a segment about school paddling. The news hook was that a male teacher in Texas had paddled a teenage girl student (which, no matter where you are on the corporal punishment issue, just feels horribly wrong). CNN flashed a map of states in which school paddling was allowed. Guess what? Except for Virginia, every state in the South allows school paddling.

Honey Boo Boo: Naughty or nice?
Wait a minute, I thought: Honey Boo Boo is a child who, presumably, attends school. She lives in Georgia. I wonder if any teachers have paddled Honey Boo Boo? Was she naughty enough to provoke such treatment?

I became infinitely curious about the child dubbed by at least one blogger as "the redneck Shirley Temple." So I TiVo-ed her show, starting with a rerun of the first episode. A night or two later, Nick and I sat down to watch. We started midway through the pilot episode because of a TiVo recording 'boo boo.'
Shirley Temple, left. The death of taste and decency, right.

Our first image was of a bunch of people gathered around a large, red mud hole. Each person took turns getting hosed off before jumping into the hole. Nick and I looked at each other. "Turn it off," Nick said. "Done," I replied, hitting the 'off' button.

The show most definitely appalled but failed to enthrall. It's not that I have a problem with people jumping into mud holes to cool off; they're not harming anyone except perhaps themselves (that mud hole looked shallow). I turned off the show because it made me feel awful, as if I'd just unintentionally insulted a child.

Like many reality TV shows, Honey Boo Boo encourages its viewers to feel superior to other people and laugh at them. I was certainly guilty of such behavior in the past, and I'm not immune to it now. It's practically engrained in our culture. But that doesn't mean it makes me feel good about myself (it doesn't), or that it's something I'll actively devote time to it (it's not). Rather than help me unwind after a hard day of work, a show like Honey Boo Boo makes me agitated and uncomfortable. Perhaps a better name for the show would be American Horror Story: The South.

Based on my brief viewing of her show, I have no idea if Honey Boo Boo is naughty enough to make teachers want to spank her. But I do know this: The producers of Honey Boo Boo could use a little paddling.

Friday, October 5, 2012

My Late Father Helped Me Take This Picture

Last month, Nick and I were at my niece Kathleen's wedding in Greensboro. I hadn't been particularly focused on taking pictures during the reception, other than getting a few snapshots of my sisters and me clowning around. Frankly, I was more interested in raiding the risotto bar than attempting photography.

I was standing across the room from the dance floor when the bride and groom had their first dance. I peered over a few shoulders and caught a glimpse, smiled, and went back to the conversation I was in. A few minutes later, Kathleen was dancing with her father, John. Suddenly, I felt an urgency. I had to get a picture of them. I was behind several people, trying to find a good angle; Nick pointed out an opening and I jumped in. I quickly dug into my pocket, pulled out my phone (which has a decent camera), and snapped only one photo. Here it is:

I posted it on Facebook. It was one of my most 'liked' posts ever. John is currently using a cropped version as his Facebook profile photo. He told me he loved the 'thumbs up' Kathleen gave him in this touching moment. And I somehow managed to capture it.

I suspect my late father played a role.

C.W. Martin was a professional photographer for decades, starting out as a newspaper photojournalist and then launching Martin's Studio in Greensboro with his business partner. He was beloved in the community, his photos won awards; the Greensboro Historical Museum put together an exhibit on Martin's Studio that ran for years.

When I was younger, my father tried to interest me in photography. He failed. The reasons why are complex, and I'm still identifying them all nearly 20 years after his death.

On multiple occasions, as a kid I'd asked my father if we could move away from Greensboro. Partially this was because I was getting picked on a lot as a gay boy in the South in the 1960s. I'd also been watching a lot of TV and was longing to see the world beyond: New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Europe.

My father's answer was practical but not wanted I wanted to hear. He'd explain that he had spent years building up his photography studio in Greensboro. It wasn't a business that could be easily relocated to another city. We'd have to go without so many things because he'd have to start all over in a new place, he said.

So I got it into my head, which seems preposterous to me now, that photography was an anchor, or at least, it was my anchor. It kept my father tied to Greensboro, and so it kept me stuck in place, too. I realize now I resented the entire concept of photography for doing this injustice to me. And while I could appreciate an artful photo, the science behind capturing it bored me. Aperture and f-stop were as interesting to me as an isosceles triangle. I'd rather draw cartoons (and did).

There's more to this story, however.

I know now that, as much as I loved my father, I rebelled against everything he tried to teach me. Save your money for a rainy day, he'd say. I'd spend it instead on a designer rain coat. Wear a navy blue suit on job interviews, he'd advise me. Navy blue, in my mind, was the color of Southern male conformity. Instead, after college, I wore an off-white suit on all my job interviews, much to my father's disbelief. (Needless to say, it took me a year to get my first job, and only after I ditched the Tom Wolfe look).

Every Saturday night, my father cooked steaks on the grill for the family, except me. I would insist instead on chicken pot pie; anything but steak. I didn't even eat steaks until I was in my early 20s and had left home.

I'm not particularly proud of this. I regret that I wasn't closer to my father, because he was a terrific man, someone everyone respected. But I rebelled against him because I instinctively knew that if I didn't push him away, he might get a better look at who and what I was: his gay son. I couldn't risk disappointing him or, worse, losing his love. And so, I suspect I disappointed him in a different, though seemingly safer, way. Over the years, I've been letting go of this long-ago father-son drama piece by piece. I'm not finished yet; maybe I never will be.

But then, at the wedding, when my niece danced with her father, I felt as if my father and I had joined forces, too. With his spirit and my camera, we captured something beautiful. The partnership only lasted for a few seconds, but it is a start.