Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Dark Corners of Grateful Hearts


There's nothing unusual about the southwest corner of 9th Ave. and 23rd St.. It's just another corner in an innumerable series of corners that form whenever two streets meet on the island of Manhattan. I have stood on that corner at every hour, during every season, under every conceivable variant of precipitation, through every extreme of temperature, waiting for countless lights to change, nearly being hit by bikes going the wrong way on the wrong side of the street. The corner is, as far as corners go, unremarkable.

Until tonight.

     Tonight I was waiting for the walk signal when I heard some commotion to my right. I turned to see a group of six people, all forming a single file line, with their left hands on the shoulders of the next except the front two who had walking sticks. These six were all blind. It was literally the blind leading the blind.
The signal changed, giving me lighted permission to cross the street. Instead I stayed put. I wanted to see the ones who couldn’t see as they navigated this corner. I wanted to watch how they made their way, how they worked as a unit to communicate where they were going and how they would get there.

    It isn’t unusual to see the blind in New York, especially on 23rd.  Selis Manor, a 14 story residence for the visually impaired, sits between Sixth and Seventh Avenues and its residents navigate the streets with the aplomb of sighted city dwellers. I have a blind acquaintance that lives in the building who puts my running ability to shame with the many marathons he has run. In fact, José’s perception is so attune that you’d not know he was blind if it weren’t his white cane or guide dog.
    
    What is unusual is seeing a group lined in a row, a full two long avenues west of Selis Manor, making an effort to cross the street together. They had apparently just deboarded the Access-A-Ride bus, the City’s paratransit system that operates to help those with disabilities for whom the subway and standard buses are not easily accessible (though I’m constantly surprised at the amount of blind passengers on the subways). The bus driver, who was also on the corner, did not help them get wherever they were going. And, from all appearances, the group preferred it that way.

     Such an encounter would hardly prompt me to write an essay. If I wrote a piece for every highly unusual thing I saw, I’d not have much time for much else. This city, for all its legend and pomp, and in all its supposed scrubbed-clean-Giuliani-Bloomberg glitz, is still a uniquely strange place to live. No, it wasn’t the group of six visually impaired people holding on to each other to get where they were going that led me to write, though that is truly a remarkable thing to happen upon.

What was remarkable was their joy.

     New Yorkers are notorious for their hurried pace, the seeming speed with which they move to get from one place to the next. There's a determination in their eyes and God help the person that unknowingly gets in their way or slows their step. It's a tough city, and its occupants are hardened to fighting their way to get where they're going. The word ‘joy’ would scarce be used to describe a typical New Yorker on a typical commute.

       Which is why the six were so remarkable. Not only were they reliant on each other as a group, they were joyful in their pursuit. 

When the two leaders with their white canes both ran into the same trash can at the same time, the group erupted in laughter.

       When they realized they needed to navigate around a light pole, the group heaped words of encouragement and instruction, one to the other.

      When they needed to listen intently to the sounds of traffic, the group hushed in unified determination.
      
       And each of the six did each of these things smiling, holding on to each other, never once snapping or moaning, never once with a hint of giving up.
        I wonder sometimes about my capacity to endure. I often let my mind drift to scenarios that find me struck blind or deaf or without the use of my extremities. And just the thoughts of such things strike me with such fear, I can't imagine what actually living them would do.
        But I do know what I do now. I do know when a group of tourists flank the sidewalk and shorten my gait, I default to anger. I do know when a person has the audacity to sit in the empty seat next to me on the subway, I audibly groan. I know that when the trains are late, or the baby cries, or an elderly man boards -- prompting me to get up, not out of sense of respect (though there is surely some of that) but out of a sense of wanting the entire train to see my noble action or at least not see me stay seated -- my whole demeanor resents every second.

      I know that at any given second in any given morning can turn on nothing more than a funny look from a stranger. I know that when I ruminate on my life, my ruminations dwell in the messy spots, on all that is wrong, on all I don’t yet have or haven’t yet experienced. The money is never enough, the friends are too superficial, the loves too shallow, the needs too great.

       And yet the six without supposed sight turned my world alight with a lesson on what we do when life doesn’t live up to all that we expect it should. These six, all smiling, bumping and fumbling on their way, had more sight than most any sighted person I saw today. And the lesson they taught me was this:

     Be grateful, not for what you have, but for what you don’t. Be grateful for the friends who will travel with you along roads of darkness, and be grateful for the ones that won’t. Be grateful for the lack of money because you’ve seen what it does to those who have it. Be grateful for disease because the illness taught you things that health never could. Be grateful for the lack of anything beyond your next breath because it made you trust in the unseen things that are more real than the air you breathe. Be grateful that the world didn’t give you anything close to what you had imagined because what you had imagined was far less than you could ever have dreamed.

     Be grateful for blind joyfulness, for the smiling few who will never see another smile, the ones who laugh when they stumble and the ones who quiet when the world rushes by. Be grateful for the six who knew beyond anything I have ever seen how to see things beyond which I will never know.

    
     And finally, be grateful for the dark corners. Because there you see glorious, illuminating joy etched on the faces of a wonder filled few for whom a guiding light is seen, not with their eyes, but with their hearts.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Before the Miracle


At mile 14 I knew. I made the rookie mistake of going out way too fast and, though I knew to slow down, I didn’t. It was all falling apart and there was nothing I could do about it. Though I was still on pace to hit my goal of 3:45:00, at 14 everything shifted. My quads began to tighten, my body stiffened, and all my fears were being realized. I started walking instead of running through fluid stations, the cheers of the crowd were starting to be replaced by the doubts in my mind.

Just past the 24 mile mark I was defeated. I just couldn’t go on. My whole physical being was wrecked and my mind begged me to just give up and give in. And for the love of God let my legs give out. It was over. Maybe next time I will listen and slow down at the beginning and maybe next time I will finish. Not this time though. It’s just too much. That’s what my mind said. The dream wouldn’t be realized this time. Let it go. No shame in quitting.

Don’t quit before the miracle. That’s what they say. Don’t quit before the miracle. Mile 25. Don’t quit before the miracle. Mile 26. Don’t quit before the miracle. Crawl over the finish line if you must, but don’t you dare quit before the miracle.

If I could put into words what yesterday was like, I still couldn’t do it justice. The crowds, those multiplying crowds, their roar as I was making the descent from the Queensboro into Manhattan. Mark Sam and Christopher in Brooklyn, my rock George and his beautiful, gracious, amazing wife Lauren in Queens. The strangers who screamed my name. The thousands upon thousands of kids and adults alike with their hands extended for a high five. The ones that society has labeled ‘disabled’ running and walking and rolling their way to the finish. The signs, the noise makers, the smiles, the bands, every single of the two-million spectators. All these things and then…

And then there they were at mile 17. My Wendy, my gorgeous Wendy who inspires me every single day to be a better person. And my Ric. And my brother, Grant. And my ineffable mom who flew my 92 year old Gran up from Texas just to see me run. There they all were, at mile 17 with signs and screaming for me. You want to know how to make a grown man cry? That’ll do it. If ever there was a memory that will be forever etched in my mind’s eye, that’s it. A tableau of love and heart, of friendship restored and life brought back from the brink of death. A young man for whom a big brother could not be more proud. A mom whose heart has mended mine, a Gran who is one of the few angels among us and who embodies the words service and godliness.

And at 24 when the whole thing was closing in, there was Quentin, whose enthusiasm and pep was what I wish every person could see when crossing their own 24 mile mark. In fact, every person on this earth should be blessed enough to have a Quentin in their lives.

I wish every human being could experience what I experienced yesterday. The marathon was life with all its ups and downs, its indescribable torment, its unbelievable joy, its pain and its overwhelming promise. I wish we all, in everything we do, would think twice when that voice is telling us to quit. I wish for all these things and so much more.

I finished it in 4:17:07, 32 minutes and woefully short of my goal. But I crossed that finish line.
         I didn’t listen to that voice.
                Indeed, I didn’t quit before the miracle.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Come Sunday




 I sat at a bar on 7th Avenue, just south of Central Park, and watched them go by. It was a perfect day. The temperature was in the mid 50s, the skies were clear, the crowds were festive. And it was New York’s first chance to unite en masse and celebrate their precious and scarred city since the unspeakable tragedy less than two months prior.
            
I'd been in New York less than 9 months.  I, too, lived through that terrible September morning, having lost friends and colleagues, and I grieved for a city that I was gradually learning to call my own. However, as was my wont, I anesthetized the terror with copious amounts of booze. My drinking was always a problem but never more so than just after 9/11. I felt I had carte blanche to act any way I pleased, including drinking myself to oblivion every night. After all, my thinking went, the world was coming to an end so I might as well be blottoed beyond comprehension when it happened.

I’m not sure what came over me that day as I watched those runners. It was surely a bit of envy and awe at how those thousands of men and women pushed through all the pain and agony of not only that day, but the previous days as well. The fact that they trained for countless hours, sacrificed time with family and friends, skipped dates and brunch and, heaven forbid, booze, just for the torment of running 26.2 miles. Why, I thought, would they do such a thing?

I could never do that, I thought. Though I had accomplished many things , most of these things had been in spite of myself. I also failed 95% of anything I ever tried . I rarely finished what I started and had such a penchant for self-sabotage that it was guaranteed if I succeeded at something, shortly thereafter I would thoroughly and completely destroy it  . 

The proximity of that bar stool to the marathon was not lost on me. Though I was just feet away from the runners, I was many lifetimes away from the run. It was not their world that angered me as much as it was that my world had become so abysmally small. I wanted to be them. I just didn't want to do what it took to get where they were going. 

I had dreams, sure, but dreams not pursued are cold reminders of a life not lived. My dreams flourished in my gin soaked mind but brought to bear against the unforgiving morning light that seemed to blister my head, the work necessary to bring those dreams into reality was beyond the reach. At 25 years old I was the town drunk. Life had already passed me by. Every single person who was closely associated with me knew that alcohol was my number one priority and nothing - absolutely nothing - could come between me and the drink. I had come to live by the drink and surely I would die by it too.
As the months became years and I resigned myself, one tumbler after next, to my fate, I never failed to note the marathon. And with each passing year the dream diminished until eventually it became the distant memory of foolish youth. It was a fitting metaphor for my life, a life that was as impossible as the marathon itself.

And then, some years later, in the midst of the most trying time of my existence, as I watched a man I loved more than anything slowly die, as he slipped the bonds of life and my once imperious problems  began to seem insignificant,  I laced up a pair of running shoes and I started to run. And with the help of friends I trained for my first race of 4 miles. Suddenly I was a runner and though the 26.2 was still the fancy of my drunken fantasy, it was no longer impossible. Running was providing me with the slightest hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. I ran, not to escape life, but instead to be a part of life with all its attendant heartache and despair, in all its glory and brilliance. I ran to be present. I ran to live.

I still struggled with my demons and progress was as intermittent as my sobriety, but no matter how dark my world became, running always provided a glint of sanity. And though faint at times, that glint was often all it took.

July 2012 I began to train for the New York City Marathon. Just weeks out of an eight day hospital stay related to a binge that nearly claimed my life, I was determined to turn the dream into reality. My entry had been guaranteed, my fees had been paid, and the only the thing that came between me and the finish line was getting my body in shape to run the 26.2 miles. Or so I thought. 

Training for a marathon is intense. For a November marathon one must start training in the heat and humidity of the summer. There are hundreds of lonely miles, runs in the rain, runs before the sun makes its debut, runs with leg pain and stomach pain and mental anguish, long runs on Sundays that wipe out the entire day. You must rest, and monitor, and gauge, and gu, and learn to listen to your heart and legs and ignore your mind. There are journals to keep and shoes to test. Your running clothes begin to permanently smell like a 6th grade boys' locker room no matter how many odor masking agents you put in the wash, there's a sense of alarm at every creak of a joint or sniffle or sneeze. Ibuprofen is bought in bulk, toenails turn black and fall off, chaffing occurs in crevices on your body you never knew existed.  The marathon becomes everything and everything else is just periphery. I ran long runs in Virginia Beach, did speed work on the banks of Lake George, ran 10Ks and 5Ks and half marathons, ran the hills of Washington Heights and the flats of Jersey City. 

     And then the God damned bottom fell out.

     Sandy hit and delivered such a devastating blow that even a city accustomed to catastrophes of cataclysmic proportions was left stunned and knocked aback. As half of Manhattan was left without power and parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn were battered beyond recognition, the city's citizenry began to fight among themselves. And the fighting got nasty...and personal

  A marathon, long known for its unifying narrative was now the great divide. People took sides, took to social media to deride their perceived opponents,  took to City Hall, took to the airwaves. Each side took the city by storm almost to levels that washed out the storm coverage itself.

  Mary Wittenberg,  the CEO of New York Road Runners (NYRR), the organization that puts on the marathon, became the storm's bête noire and  was demonized and pilloried in ways that you would've thought she was responsible for the storm itself . The anonymity of the internet provided fertile ground for people to threaten runners with tomato and feces pelting should they choose to run the race. Dear friends, people who knew how much the race meant to me, were publicly chastising runners and vehemently staking an anti-marathon position.
     
And the pro-running crowd wasn't much better.  There seemed to be an attitude of indifference or worse towards the suffering millions. They rallied behind trite platitudes like "New Yorkers bounce back from anything" and "The run, like the show, must go on". NYRR, in a decision that can only be described as one of the most tone deaf in recent history, assured the runners that indeed the race would go on and confidently encouraged those traveling to make their planned trips to New York.

  Feeling completely deflated, damned if I did, damned if I didn't, I made my way to the Javits Center in midtown where the marathon expo was being held to pick up my bib, t shirt, swag bag etc. My dream race had flipped on its head and was turning into a nightmare. I had no idea what to expect along the marathon route or what us 40,000 runners would encounter. I just knew I was running, as conflicted as I was about that fact. 

 As I left the expo, my phone rang. 

"They cancelled the marathon" Ric, the man whose death sentence had inspired me to run in the first place and whose miraculous recovery I am still at a loss to understand, said. "They're having a press conference. That Mary woman and the mayor, they cancelled it."

"There's no way, Ric! I'm literally standing outside the expo. I just picked up my bib not even five minutes ago. There's no way. They would have told us" I replied in disbelief. 

But, alas, it was true. The marathon had been cancelled. Outside that convention center  I started to cry like a child who'd just been told there was no Santa Claus. The marathon that I could only dream of years earlier would remain just that, a dream. Though I no longer had to feel conflicted about my decision to run, I grieved the loss of the marathon in ways I still can't explain. 

  As time went by I was invited to run other marathons. I respectfully declined.

  "New York will be my first. I don't know when, but New York will be the first marathon I run. I know it seems silly and doesn't make any sense, but there's a 25 year old guy who has been struggling a while with life and he doesn't believe I can do it. I'm running for him" was my standard answer. 

 The year since the canceled marathon has not been easy.  By every worldly standard, my life seems pretty bleak. I'm still paying, both emotionally and monetarily, for the wreckage of my past. Work comes and goes, the bank account hovers around nothing, I am not sure where Ric, Weezie and I will be living in two weeks time due to the lies of an ex, and homelessness is a very, very real possibility.  

       But come Sunday....

           come Sunday I will make my way, via the Staten Island Ferry, to the foot of the Verrazano and I will toe the line. Come Sunday, I will run New York.

       Come Sunday I will run for that 25 year old who said it couldn't be done and for the 37 year old determined to prove him wrong. But I will also run for the others.

    Come Sunday  I will run for the hopeless, the still sick and suffering, those that will sit on a barstool just feet from the race and think it an impossible feat. I will run for those who ever had a dream but never had it realized. I will run for my mother and my grandmother, both of whom will be among the over two million spectators. I will run for my other grandmother who has spent most of the past year in a nursing home and for my aunt who visits her nearly every day. I will run for the naysayers, the ones who dismiss my running as nothing more than a phase or way to escape, or worse yet, a foolish endeavor in the grand scheme of things. Come Sunday I will run for my father, a man I haven't spoken to in over 4 years and dearly miss. I will run for my brother, who came to New York a few years after me and who is making his dreams a reality on a daily basis. I will run for both my grandfathers who did not live to see the day. I will run for my friend Jack, who died a year ago in a hospital room as Sandy loomed. I will run for George who has taught me in both word and deed how to live one day at a time. Come Sunday I will run for my beloved Wendy who has taught me what unconditional friendship really is and for Quentin, who has taught me that friendship needn't be long in time to be strong in heart. I will run for Amy  who has taught me that friendship is at its core about love . I will run for Charles L, who bought me my first pair of running shoes when I couldn't afford to buy them myself. I will run for Helen and Clarissa, two women who are the very essence of the runner's spirit and  for my running crew of Richie and Thomas and Daniel, all of whom have pushed me to be a better runner. Come Sunday I will run for Kim, who loved me when I couldn't love myself, and for Rich who has taught me the definition of endurance and perseverance. And  I will run for my boys at "the lodge", the ones who show me every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday how to be a better man. I will run for my kindred spirit Marika who was at my first race, and for Michael who was there too.  I will run for Ric, my forever and always, who continues to defy the odds and inspires me with his strength.

           Come Sunday I will run for the doctors who told me in no uncertain terms I should long be dead.

                I will run for every single living creature who is trudging the road of happy destiny along with me. 
            I will run for all these things and more. 
               I will run for you. 
                  I  will run for us. 
                      Come Sunday, I will run for life.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Consistent, he

I wrote this piece about my grandfather months before he died. I repost today in honor of father's day. I love you Granddaddy, and miss you!

My Grandfather's bible and one of the things I cherish most

As a child I frequently spent the night at my grandparents' house along with three of my cousins who were around my age.  Every night after a day of playing and surely some fighting, my grandmother would give us all baths and put us in pajamas.  And the pajamas were of the super-hero variety.

They were not Batman or Superman or any of the others. They were my grandfather's old shirts.  And as she would pull them over my head I could smell my grandfather's aftershave.  There was always comfort in that smell. I was the biggest little boy with his shirt on.

I always knew I was growing up just by where the lower hem of his shirt reached my body.  First down to my ankles, then down to my calves, then to the knees.  I measured my growth as a boy by the consistency of his size.

And in the morning we would assemble in the breakfast room where my grandmother put together a veritable feast (she always made us menus the night before and we each got to check off what we wanted.  And it would always be made just the way we ordered it.  Every.  Single.  Time!). And when I would reach up to give my grandfather a morning hug, I would notice just how strong my Granddaddy was.  I measured my strength as a boy by the consistency of his embrace.

And Sunday mornings when he would preach, he would look into the congregation and find his family.  And from the pulpit he would ask us to stand.  As we stood I would well up with such pride.  It was my Granddaddy taking time to say "hello" to me.  To me!  I measured my pride as a boy by the consistency of his acknowledgment.

And just after 09/11/01, I went to Texas for a three week visit.  My grandfather asked if he could take me to lunch.  He asked me to recount what that terrible day in September was like.  He was the only member of my family to do so.  And as I told him the horror he listened intently and said, "You're the only person I know who was there. That took a lot of courage, son.  You are a strong young man.  I am so proud of you."  I measured my worth as a young man by the consistency of his love.

And sometimes in the not so distant future the memories will be all I have. And the day will come and he will leave.  And the chains will loosen and he will be set free from the confines of his now frail body. And the man I adored all my life will be before God for whom he lived his life.  And the gates will open, the angels will rejoice and my grandfather will enter...measured by the consistency of His grace.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why the Lemonade Stand Stood


I was in Texas to visit family as well as run a half-marathon. As I pulled into my grandmother’s driveway I happened to notice a patch of grass in a way I had never noticed it before.You could pull into the circular driveway a thousand times and never notice it. There's no reason to, really. It's meaningless to nearly everyone who passes it, as well it should be. It's a patch of grass as nondescript as any patch you've ever seen. And yet this time when I looked at it, it drew me in and took me back to a time where every memory was worth making and every dream worth having.

We were part of a select club who didn't call her Mrs. Coggin or Carolyn or the pastor's wife or even mom. We were the lucky few who called her Gran. To us, there was no equal. She was, in our eyes, perfect. And though we couldn't have articulated it at the time, we knew God had given her the spirit of a thousand angels and the light of a million suns, and no one in heaven or on earth could ever compare.

And that patch of grass at the edge of the driveway silently tells the story why.

Lemonade stands are not an uncommon part of childhood. Children the world over hang their figurative shingle in front yards and peddle their goodies in the hopes of earning a few bucks to spend as they please.

And if the lemonade stand were the end of the story, or even the beginning of the story, it wouldn't be much of a story at all. But it's not. The lemonade stand stood for something far more than just the table and chairs, the posters and quarter priced drink. It stood for us.

Everyone should be so lucky as to experience the welcome that each grandchild felt upon entering my grandparent's house. No matter what chaos our lives might have been on the outside, when we walked through their door, every problem slipped away and every anxiety vanished. For a child to feel that incredible amount of love only by walking through the door is rare. And to feel that love every single time we did, rarer still.

Spending the night at Gran and Granddaddy's was a paradox of fantastic predictability. We knew what to expect every time. And yet it never once grew boring or redundant or stale. It was our old familiar full of new possibilities.

We knew that we would feast like princes and princesses. We knew every morning upon waking to look under our pillow for a surprise. We knew that every night, before sleeping, Gran would present each of us with a handwritten menu for us to check off what we wanted for breakfast. We knew that every single thing we checked off would be waiting for us the next morning. We knew that we could check off every single thing.

We knew that we'd be given one of my grandfather's oversized shirts to sleep in. We knew that we'd be read a bedtime story. We knew that she'd stay in the room with us until we fell asleep. We knew that we'd try and pretend to be asleep until she left the room. We knew we rarely succeeded in doing so.

We knew that if we asked and she could do it, it would get done. We knew when we had done something wrong simply by the look in her eyes. We knew that we wanted nothing more than to please her. We knew that there was no greater joy than making her proud.

It wasn't the lemonade stand on that patch of grass. It was the thousands of lemonade stands that were built on the bedtime stories told, the menus for meals, the oversized shirts. It was the trips taken to ride the train at the zoo, or the tram at the airport, or the log ride at Six Flags. It was the hidden Easter eggs and the kites flown and the sausage and cherries drowning in sweet sauce at Christmas. It was the pineapple sandwiches and ambrosia.

She's 91 years old and still building us lemonade stands. Yesterday, as I left my grandmother's home for the airport, she handed us a sack lunch that she and my mom had prepared. It had a sandwich, cookies, a banana, and some trail mix. "You don't need to pay for snacks on the plane" she said.

Perfect strangers still clamor to meet her when she's out in public, hugging her neck, moved to tears simply to have met her. She's still the humble servant, the meek minister, the matriarch, the queen, gran, and yes, still the lemonade stand builder.

It's been a while since the last lemonade stand. But from this day forward, each time I see that patch of grass, and my mind's eye recalls that distant yesteryear, I’ll be reminded how my Gran built us a thousand lemonade stands each day by the things she did for us, and continues to this day to do for us.
              And the lemonade stand always - always- stood for us.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Ted Nugent thinks I belong on an island to die


For a moment let’s forget that, during an interview in 1977, Ted Nugent told a reporter that he took drugs and deliberately shit himself and didn’t bathe and faked passing out while giving blood all in an effort to dodge the draft. After all, Ted has since recanted his story and said the real reason he dodged the draft was a student deferment. Let’s take him at his word. I mean, who hasn’t made up a story about shitting their pants when discussing the draft at least once in their life?

      And let’s forget, for just a moment, that Ted has a thing for young girls. Like really, really young. Let’s forget that he has basically admitted to pedophilia and statutory rape. After all, he’s a warm blooded, American male and he has urges. He’s the Nuge, baby!

      Finally let’s forget that he told the Detroit Free Press  Apartheid isn't that cut and dry. All men are not created equal. The preponderance of South Africa is a different breed of man ... They still put bones in their noses, they still walk around naked, they wipe their butts with their hands ...These are different people. You give 'em toothpaste, they fucking eat it.”  And in the same interview, defended his frequent use of the n word.

       Forget all of that and instead travel with me, if you will, to the Summer of 2000. I was 23 years old living in Fort Worth, Texas. My job at the time was a dream job for someone like me. I produced book signings and in store events for Barnes & Noble.  Some   five months later I would be promoted to do the same thing in New York City.
   
      One day I was sitting  in my boss’ office when a call came through for me. “Mr. McDonald, I’m calling on behalf of Ted Nugent and was curious if you would be interested in hosting a signing for Ted and his book, God, Guns & Rock’N’Roll.  Ted will be in Fort Worth for a concert with KISS  and would love to be able connect with his fans in a way that he can’t on stage” said his publicist or manager.

         “I’m sure that would be ok. I would need to check with our corporate office in New York but I don’t think it would…”
  
         “No need. We already checked with them and they said it would be ok. So can we count on you, Mr. McDonald?”

        “Well then I suspect corporate will call me soon and let me know. Usually I can ok these sorts of things without their input but given the book and Mr. Nugent’s recent comments at concerts, I really need to get the green light from them before I commit to anything”

         “Great. It’s set. August 23rd. It will have to be in the afternoon since the concert is at night. We will do publicity on our end and expect you will do the same”

          “Actually, I don’t think you understand. I can’t do anything until New York tells me, via email or a phone call, that we can host. And I’ve not heard from them yet“ I said.

          “Great. So call them. And then call me back. Ten minutes enough time?”

         “I’ll call you back when I call you back”

           I called New York and, just as I thought, no one had heard from Nugent’s reps. However they did give me the go ahead and we moved forward.

       The day of the signing I showed up at the store in downtown Fort Worth and there were people who had camped out overnight for the signing. I had called my counterparts from all over North Texas as back up and had 17 booksellers assigned to the signing, an unheard of amount for signings.

       Nugent arrived with his gorgeous wife and his equally gorgeous son, who said he was a model, but who the hell knows. I briefed Nugent on how the signing would transpire. He was friendly enough but wasn’t really paying attention. Nonetheless I explained how there would be a press conference and then we would move to the signing. Since there was no room for several television cameras upstairs where the signing would take place, I explained that the conference would take place by the newsstand downstairs. So far, so good.
At this point I should point out that just a few months prior to the signing, Ted had received a lot of heat for some comments he made concerning the English language. Specifically, he said at a concert, “If you can’t speak English, get the fuck out of America.” Rumor was that this nearly caused riots and the mayor of San Antonio or Houston or some other large Texas metropolis banned Nugent from ever playing in their city again
.
         However, what he said coupled with what I had read and studied about Nugent left me with a sick feeling for ever agreeing to host a man that stood for everything I was against. But I had a job to do and I just wanted to get it over with. That didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to have some fun while I was at it.
The press conference was well underway when his wife ran up to me, visibly upset. “Why is he giving this press conference in front of the Mexican books?’

           What?” I replied, smiling on the inside. You see, I deliberately placed Nugent on front of the Libros En Espanol section, so that every camera shot was forced to capture the signage right above Nugent’s shoulder.

         “He’s in front of the Mexican books! Why?” she persisted.

          “Oh, well that was pretty much the only place where we had room. The newsstand area is open and there is ample room for the cameras. It just so happens that that is where the Libros En Espanol section is. Sorry.”

         On the elevator ride to the signing, his son told his father. Nugent didn’t  care.

When we arrived at the receiving area, one of my counterparts who was also a gay man and close friend paged me. I had assigned him to the front door of the store.

       “Jon-Marc, there are people out here that want to bring in guns and antlers! What do I tell them?” Christopher said.

       “Guns? They’re bringing in guns?”  I said certain I had heard wrong.

         “AND ANTLERS!” Christopher exclaimed.

          “I’ll be right down” I said as I hurried downstairs before the signing started to see what was going on.

         Sure enough, people were stretched down the block and many had guns, antlers and other things they wanted Nugent to sign.
  
         “Will he sign my breast?” a woman screamed from down the line.

          Poor Christopher. He was the one that had to tell them not to bring in the guns and antlers and, sure enough, they were pissed.

         The signing got underway and it was something to behold. It was by far the largest signing I had hosted up to that point in time. Hundreds of people bought books and hundreds more brought posters and records and CDs and some even managed to sneak in their guns. And the woman who wanted her breast signed, well, she got it signed.

         When it was all said and done, I felt as though we had made it through relatively unscathed. I was relieved and ready to put it behind me. The Nuge had other plans.

         The next day while I was working on an event report about the signing, I received a call from a bookseller telling me Nugent and his wife were in the café part of the store. I rushed downstairs, wondering why they were back.

          One of the store managers went with me and, interestingly, we found the Nugents at the newsstand, perusing magazines.

“Hey Ted, how’s it going? How was the concert?” I asked, unsure of what exactly I was doing.

“It was great. We’re just here relaxing. Getting some fresh air out of the hotel” he replied.

“Great. How long are you in town?”

       At this point the store manager piped up. “Have you had a chance to explore downtown?” she asked.
“You know”, Nugent replied, “what I don’t understand is homosexuals. I mean I feel bad for innocent kids who get AIDS, but homosexuals deserve it. We should send all homosexuals to an island. Let em die off in a few years’ time from AIDS and not being able to reproduce.”

       I was stunned! I was absolutely speechless and stunned. The non sequitur was one thing, but the bile that he spewed was so gross, so upsetting, so dangerous, that for one of the few times in my life up to that point, I felt physically threatened. And, for the first time in my life, I looked into someone’s eyes and I knew what it was like to look at evil.

“Well, Ted, I’ve got to get back to work. Have a great day” I said as I walked away.

        As I made it back to my office I was ashamed. I was ashamed that I didn’t have the courage to stand up and say something in the face of such evil. Instead I cowered and slunk away. And I vowed that I would never, ever stay silent again. And I won’t

       That’s why Ted Nugent being invited to the State of The Union matters. It matters because this man represents everything that goes against the very thing this country stands for. And the fact that an elected official in our government invited him is so disturbing, it literally makes me sick to my stomach.

        I will never forget looking into Ted Nugent’s eyes that day. I will never forget how I felt when I didn’t speak up. I will never not speak up again.  

Friday, November 30, 2012

The laugh I was not supposed to hear

Four years ago I didn't know what was wrong with Ric. All I knew was that the man I loved beyond life itself was slipping beyond the reach of life and there was seemingly nothing I could do about it. As his decline accelerated and hope all but disappeared I had resigned myself to the fact that this elusive foe, whatever it was, would claim him within weeks.
              Today, the man that four years ago I had turned over to the care of God with the certainty of his imminent demise, laughed. He laughed so hard that he couldn't stop. The kind of gasp-for-your-breath, belly-ache laugh that is so genuine it makes all other laughter seem counterfeit. In this season of great expectation and anticipation, I am grateful beyond all words for the sound of unadulterated, unrestrained, joyful, hopeful, boundless laughter!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The truth cannot be amended

         Behind all their bluster and bravado, behind their high claims of righteousness and Godliness, behind their jingoistic pap are people who are, at their core, very afraid and little people. They pine for years gone by. Years where people were relegated to the back of the bus due to the color of their skin, where women were subject to the whims of men, where children slaved in sweatshops without protection, where gays were voiceless pariahs. These are the people who vote for amendments that etch hate into the heart of sacred documents. These are the people whose time has come…and whose time will soon go.
         So let them wax nostalgic about the supposed “good ‘ole days”. Let them speak of protecting an institution that their actions otherwise mock. Let them attempt to take God hostage as means to their own twisted, selfish ends. It simply does not matter.
         We’ve already won. We’ve already won because we live and dwell in truth. And truth, no matter how hard they may try, cannot be amended.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Saving Race

I started running for one reason and one reason only. To save face.

When Ric was at his worst and could not even feed himself, much less prepare even a simple sandwich, I signed him up for God’s Love We Deliver. For those that don’t know, God’s Love, as their mission statement states, prepares and delivers “nutritious, high-quality meals to people who, because of their illness, are unable to provide or prepare meals for themselves.” They do this at no cost to their clients and they have never…I repeat, never turned an eligible person away. In addition to their meals being amazing, they deliver special “feasts” for holidays, a cake for birthdays, “blizzard kits” for storms when they can’t make a delivery and so much more. They literally saved Ric’s -- and by extension my – life during a time when I didn’t know if either of us would survive.

My gratitude for the work of God’s Love cannot be adequately put into words. The ineffable love I have for this organization is such never to be forgotten. And it was because of that love that I signed up for the 2009 annual Race to Deliver, a four mile fundraising race in Central Park for God’s Love.

Shortly after signing up I began raising a significant amount of money. So much so that I was the lead fundraiser for a race that would end up having 4,768 runners cross the finish line. I realized early on in my fundraising that I was going to have to actually run this thing. After all, my thinking went, what if I was still the lead fundraiser by race day, or even 2nd or 3rd, and I couldn’t complete the four miles? That would be slightly embarrassing!

So I started to train. Having quit smoking three months prior I was certain that, after a couple of weeks of training, I would breezily cross the finish line to the applause of the adoring masses. I was wrong.

My first day of training netted less than a quarter mile before I nearly fainted and died. The second day, just over a quarter mile. The third, back to less than a quarter mile. I was, um, out of shape. Come race day, I would cross the finish line in 39:49 at a 9:57 minute/mile. I stopped three times, walked a half mile and wasn’t even in the top five of fundraisers. It was nothing like I’d imagined.

But what it was was so much more. That race sparked something in me that would carry me through some of the darkest hours and days of my life. Running saved me from myself. It carried me above and beyond any and every thing I thought possible.

During those first months of training my friend Charles L. bought me a new pair of running shoes because the pair I had were not only five years old but a size too small. He bought them for me because I couldn’t afford to get them myself. My friend Helen C. invited me to her Saturday morning running group where I was able to socialize with other like-minded people. People from my daily life offered advice and tips.

Those first few months I suffered knee injuries, ankle injuries, plantar fasciitis and so much more. I was homebound weeks at a time incapable of even a walk to the mailbox. But that spark! Oh, that spark! It couldn’t be extinguished!

Now close to two years later, I run almost every day.

I live in the hilliest and highest part of Manhattan. Washington Heights is hills and slopes and stairs and everything else and then more hills and more hills and just when you’re about done, more hills.

The first mile of most of my runs is the most brutal. My first mile of running is almost entirely uphill. The truth is by the time I hit half a mile I want to give up. My body, to this day after hundreds of first miles, tells me to turn around, go home and go back to sleep. It wants nothing to do with 5:45am uphill running. But my mind, my mind usually has different plans.

Go for it, it says. This mile is almost done and then you have a downhill reprieve, it whispers. Don’t give up now, it pleads. And nine times out of ten, my mind wins.

There is nothing like the feeling, when the world seems about ready to break you in two and all your problems are crashing in all around you, when you are running and, at a different point every time, those pressures vanish. They seem to literally melt away. There is nothing but the road before you, the miles behind and the hope within you. Each person on God’s great planet should be blessed to experience that feeling just once in their lifetime. I get to experience it nearly every single day.

There are many miles between the day I signed up for the Race to Deliver and today. There has been much heartache and triumph and everything in between . Ric is thriving in Ric’s own way, God’s Love still comes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and I still don’t know how we’re going to make it.

But I do know this. I know that tomorrow morning I will run. I know my body will tell me to turn around and I know my mind will push me forward. I know that at some point during that run all will be right with the world. I know that, probably between miles three and four, I will reach my hands towards the heavens and whisper a prayer of thanks. And ultimately I know that even if I am never able to run again, running will continue to save me from myself.