Angels in America

I’d like to tell you a story about hope. It might get kind of long, but if this isn’t your first time here, you probably already knew to expect that. But I like to think it’s a good one.

Twenty years ago, I went to college to be a teacher. I had known for a while that I wanted to be a teacher, but I did not know what kind of teacher I wanted to be. My high school principal at the time helped me make up my mind in the most expedient, practical, pragmatic way possible. She asked me, “Do you want to get a job?”

I mean… who DOESN’T answer that question with “yes”?

My choice, you see, was between becoming an Agricultural Education teacher or becoming an English teacher. These were my two passions as a teenager… one born of nurture, one born of nature. I was raised on a goat farm, and ag class (and thus FFA) seemed like such a perfect extension of my regular life experience. It gave me chances to develop as a leader and to travel and to experience a sense of belonging that I had not often felt before. Some of that was because I had a few really amazing ag teachers.

But English was something that came naturally to me. I was passionate about it even though I had no external, experiential connection to it. English was just there, inside of me, and it didn’t require fostering or deliberate developing or anything like that–it just grew on its own. Some of that was because I had a few really amazing English teachers.

At the time (and still, honestly), that principal was right. Oftentimes, ag teachers get jobs like humans make carbon dioxide–without even trying. English teachers… well, there are a lot of us out there. I’ve never sat on a hiring team for an English job in Des Moines where we were short on qualified applicants.

So I took that advice and I went to Iowa State University fully intending to become an ag teacher.

Then I got to school, and I started failing.

Everything.

Fast.

Yes, I was irresponsible and testing my limits in a world where my parents didn’t get to decide how I spent my time. Some people get that figured out right away, but I was pretty dense. I failed every course in my first semester and still didn’t get my act together.

I didn’t care. The classes didn’t speak to me, they spoke at me. Lecture halls with hundreds of students in them learning about the basics of animal science didn’t get me out of bed in the morning. Labs in the agronomy building where we looked at the endless permutations of dirt didn’t set my heart a flutter. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make sense out of what was going wrong.

It was probably my first scary experience with depression. I just didn’t know how to get out of it.

After that first cataclysmic semester, my mother told me I had to get a job. I did so… by working at food service in my dorm complex. I started to like myself a little… and I started to make friends. In fact, I started cutting class in order to work shifts–more for the chance to talk to people than for the money.

When I did go to class, I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t feel like I could. Everyone there seemed invested, committed, focused… and I was just some strange imposter who wandered in the door.

I continued to fail. I was placed on what is called Temporary Enrollment, which basically means, if you fail again, you are going to get thrown out of school.

I went home for that first summer and just completely, totally, fell apart. My support systems–work and the friends I had made through the New Warriors Crash Pad mailing list–were inaccessible to me. This was before I had a cell phone. This was when downloading a day’s worth of e-mails took more than an hour via our shitty dial-up internet at the farm.

So I retreated to old friendships–all of the people that mattered to me that were still around home. Many of my friends were a year younger than me, so I went around doing the graduation party circuit and relishing in their delight at being ready to move on to the next stage of their lives… all the while confident that I was incapable of making that same transition myself.

When I went back to school, I resolved to do better. To try harder. I started dating someone, and as ill-advised as that relationship ended up being, he did at least motivate me to go to class and do my damn homework. He did these things in a nagging, parenting sort of way, which is one of a hundred reasons that we broke up, but… in that moment in time, I may have needed that.

That spring–still barely holding on, but now in possession of a bunch of Ds on my transcript instead of a unanimous crowd of Fs–I took a class for fun. I hadn’t done that before–I had been taking classes based solely on how quickly they moved me towards my graduation goal. But I took a survey of English lit class just because I wanted to do something that wasn’t ag or science.

We read some short stories for the first couple of weeks, and then we talked about them in class, and I realized I COULD talk to people in this class. I WANTED to. I wanted to talk to them not just in class, but outside of class. I love that feeling, and I hadn’t even realized that I was missing it until that moment when it came back into my life.

Then we geared up to read something new. The professor, a kind, brilliant woman closer to my grandmother’s age than my mother’s, directed us to pick up a copy of a play.

I thought–Oh! A play! I was in drama in high school! I haven’t read a play in ages! Fun!

The play was Angels in America by Tony Kushner. A Pulitzer Prize-winning play billed as a “Gay Fantasia on American Themes.”

I was ALL OVER THAT.

That play changed my life. That isn’t hyperbole… it is the 100% unvarnished truth. As I read the struggles of Joe (I love Joe, even though I know it is not cool to do so) and Prior (everyone loves Prior) and Louis and Harper and Hannah and Roy and Belize and the Angel (oh, the Angel)… I WOKE UP.

Why was I putting myself through this hell? Why was I doing something, day in and day out, that I didn’t love? I had mountains of evidence that I was no longer in love with agriculture… but I was ignoring it. I was fixed in the course of my life that I had laid for myself. I was doing everything necessary to live my life correctly…

Which is Joe’s story, you know. Anyway.

By the time we finished reading that play, I had found myself. I found the courage to change my major–which was as much about telling my parents as it was about filling out paperwork, and that was scary because I was so sure I was letting them down.

I started living a life I could love instead of one that I thought I was supposed to.

Now mind you–I blame NO ONE for those two years of struggle and failure. I am who I am because of those two years. I picked that major. Yes, choosing an ag major made life easier in a bunch of ways at the time… but I made that choice. So changing to English wasn’t about vanquishing a foe… it was about renouncing the destiny I thought had been laid upon me and instead embracing the one I would make for myself.

Which is Prior’s story, you know. Anyway.

An interesting aside…

Angels was written by Tony Kushner, as I said before. But he has written more than just Angels. He also wrote a short play called Reverse Transcription that appeared in several anthologies. One of those anthologies was purchased by a dear friend of mine from the Iowa State University book store when we visited it as part of our Adventures in Supercomputing team my senior year in high school. We read that play aloud together, my team and I, and it enraptured me.

So maybe the universe was sending signs to me that I wasn’t yet ready to receive. It said, “Jeremy–keep going on this road. Follow this trail and you’ll find yourself.”

And I decided that it was more important to “get a job.”

BACK TO THE STORY…

New Jeremy, English Major Jeremy, went on to start getting good grades, going to class, and meeting/dating the love of his life. My life was transformed utterly by the decision to change majors, and that decision was born in the pages of Angels in America. Without it, I wouldn’t have my career in Des Moines. I wouldn’t have my husband. I wouldn’t have my side-life as a novelist. I wouldn’t have anything–or what I did have would be so unrecognizable to me that I can’t imagine it.

In 2003, HBO produced a mini-series adaptation of the play. I didn’t have HBO, so I begged a friend from work to videotape it for me.

That mini-series was the first time I ever saw the play come to life. I had kept an eye out for the chance to see it performed in the intervening years, but no such opportunities presented themselves anywhere around me (or within my means at the time). So the movie would have to do… and it was great! Meryl Streep! Al Pacino! Mary-Louise Parker! Jeffrey Wright! And more, of course. But I clung to that thing… even though it didn’t stir the same magic in me that my original reading of the play had conjured.

I thought, at the time, that perhaps Angels in America had done its work. It had already transformed my life, and now it was no longer special to me–it was time for it to move on and be special to someone else. That’s life.

So I didn’t think much about the play for a long, long while. We moved into our house in 2009, and I remember holding the slip-cased edition of both halves of the play on my lap as I sorted bookshelves. I almost pulled it out and read it again… but life kept moving, and I put it away.

Last year, I read about the National Theatre’s production of Angels in America–a new staging, directed by acclaimed director Marianne Elliot, starring Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, and Russell Tovey.

I’ll be honest–I would have probably not paid it much heed, except I’m in love with Russell Tovey.

Now, flying to London to see a play (and an 8 hour-long play at that) wasn’t really in the cards for me. So I let it flutter into the back of my brain along with all of the other cobwebs.

Then, one day, Tom pointed out to me that the movie theater in Ames was going to be broadcasting the play from London for a special engagement. One Thursday in July of 2017, I could see the first half of the play… then I could see the second half on the next Thursday.

Tom eyed this whole thing skeptically–that’s 8 hours (480 minutes!) of play, and he’s the sort of person that gets restless at the 91st minute of a movie. So I asked another friend, the inestimable Kim, to go with me… and she agreed.

The feeling of being in that theater and seeing the play performed in front of us–even though it was on a screen–was electric. It was magical in every way, and it brought me back to that moment of revelation and transformation I had experienced back in the spring of 2000 as though it were yesterday.

After the second night, as we drove home, we cried and talked and cried and talked… full of happiness.

My life was complete in this regard, and Angels had given me its magic again. It would sustain me for another 17 years.

It was not long after that that news broke that the production would be traveling to Broadway for a limited engagement. The same cast… except Russell Tovey was out and Lee Pace would take his place.

Kim and I promised each other we would find a way to go and see it in person.

Then the time came… and it was too hard to get away. Too expensive. A bad time for both of us. You know… the things that always stop us from living our dreams.

When the Tony Awards aired on June 10th of this year, Angels in America won several. And one commercial made note that the play was ending on July 15th. I looked over at Tom, and he looked at me, and I don’t remember who said it, but we agreed that we would go to New York. That he would weather his reluctance for me and we would see this 8 hour masterpiece LIVE, IN PERSON before it was gone. Kim couldn’t join us, which is a horrible shame… but we decided to go.

Time flew by… and before we knew it, we were looking at this:

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We saw Part 1 on Thursday night, July 12th.

We saw Part 2 on Friday night, July 13th.

We sat in the first row of the mezanine, because I am not now, or ever will be, rich enough to sit on the orchestra level on Broadway for a show of this magnitude. In truth–these seats were sublime. See for yourself:

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Again, my heart was stuffed full of the magic of this magnificent piece. It was everything I wanted and so much more. It was funny and touching and powerful and TRUE and it approaches its subjects and themes with clarity that I envy and fear. It will always be one of my most cherished memories… a touchstone of who I am.

And Tom was with me, which makes it all the better. Here we are before the curtain went up on night 2, after dinner at our favorite place in the city:

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So… what does this all mean?

Angels in America was originally performed as a complete work in 1993.

Twenty-five years later, its power is greater, not less. Its vision more prescient, more piercing. Its heart more vast and more savage.

I have written a lot about my heart this year on this blog. About the things that make it feel full.

Angels in America makes it ache in its fullness. It makes my life bigger and better and nobler because of its words and its breath of air coursing through my blood.

Its moment in the sun has passed us once more.

But I know one thing for absolute certain…

It will be back.

And when it comes back… it will bring its magic into my world again. And if the universe puts you in a place and a time where you can experience it for yourself, I beg you…

Do so.

There are Angels in America, but they do not descend from on high. They ascend from right here and right now… they are born of hope and love and the living of life.

When times feel darkest, we make the light by living and loving.

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Posted in Lifestyle, The Seven Great Loves of my Life | Leave a comment

The Courage to Open the Door

As you may have noticed, I’ve been in a hard-core introspective place lately. My recent embrasure of a couple of movies (as outlined in this post, which I consider pre-requisite reading to today’s) has forced me to confront things I had, traditionally, sort of back-burnered. So today, if you don’t mind, I want to talk about an actual process that I have not fully detailed in this blog before: Coming out.

Trust me, I even went back and re-read the entire blog just to make sure. I apologize for some of the zaniness of the past… but not much of it. That was me. Just like this is.

Anyway.

Each time that I watch the movie Love, Simon, it sort of forces me to open a door a bit further… a door I was not entirely aware I had closed in my head and my heart. OK, before I go any further… seriously, if it is at all within your power, you should go see that movie. Just go to Youtube and watch the trailer. At least do that much for me!

OK, back to the point. I have seen the movie five times as of this writing, and with each viewing, I have had the good fortune to bring new friends along for the ride. And each time, I have grappled with my own long-ago coming out process differently–more directly. Whether it is sitting at Perkins eating pie after the movie or standing in the cold, cold parking lot talking… this movie has led to a lot of processing. Tears, too–but mostly processing. Remembering. Saying aloud things that are not often said aloud. Then, of course, examining why it is those things are not said aloud.

When I watch this movie, I am moved–repeatedly–by the support system that springs up around Simon. Not because I didn’t have a support system–I am not moved out of jealousy. Not because my friends and family have not been supportive, because in the long run, all of those relationships are in good places for me. No… I am moved because of something that this movie creates that I did not possess, and that many before me did not possess… and that too many after me did not possess either.

This movie is a glowing beacon of possibility. When you watch it, you see the possibility that coming out will not be the end of everything. That people will be OK. That you will be OK.

I did not have that. I had no way of knowing what would happen when I came out of the closet in fits and starts from the fall of 98 through the summer of 99. I didn’t have a movie that said, “People will still love you.” Or even a single functional role model anywhere, on TV or in my town. That was the year that Will & Grace started, and it was revolutionary television, but it wasn’t about kids… it was about adults. Adults in New York City, where everything seemed both possible and magical. That didn’t do a guy in Jesup very much good.

Coming out back then–and for many still today–was taking a horrible chance that you were about to step off a cliff. This movie isn’t a promise that today’s young person will survive, but it is at least a rickety rope bridge, stretching across that chasm… the possibility of being OK. That may sound like slim hope, but imagine, by order of magnitude, how much greater that small hope is than having none at all.

So in that regard, the movie is magic. It makes my heart full because it is the bridge I did not have, and it is a bridge that more young people need. So for that reason, I adore it.

But all of this processing has also opened up some old boxes–locked up tight feelings and memories that were locked up for reasons. Like Pandora and her box, I’ve let them all out, one showing of this little movie at a time. I think, perhaps, what remains in the box, now, is–as with her–hope. But the ugliness that has come out, and that my dear friends have helped me to grapple with in these past weeks…

I guess, this far down the page, that’s finally what I think I am here to talk about. To talk about why I believe it takes incredible courage to open the door to the unknown, even in a world where a little movie creates a sense of possibility. Because it is SCARY. And for lots of people… it goes BADLY.

Five showings.

Five times opening that box of old hurts.

Shall we?

We shall.

First Time (with Tom)

For those who have seen the movie, the quiet moment in the car between Simon and Abby brought this on…

I remembered, viscerally, what it felt like to say the words “I am gay” out loud. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the whole world. Every sound was too loud, every word carried too far. I had never, ever felt more vulnerable or broken or lost or helpless. I chose the right person to say those words to… but I thought saying them would kill me. I had never even said them to myself. I don’t know what I wanted the reaction to be. Would anything have been right? I don’t know. I thought that letting those words pass through my lips would unmake me. In a way, they did. It began the hardest year of my life, and it was a year that was spent, so often, alone. Trying to figure things out. Never feeling like I was doing it right. Always, always out of breath… falling.

Second Time (Alone)

For those who have seen the movie, the confrontation between Simon and Martin towards the end brought this on…

There is a kind of anger that comes part-way through the process of coming out. Anger at others for their actions or reactions, yes, but also–at least in my case–anger at myself. Anger for being this way, for being made the way I was. Coming out was the beginning of acceptance of who I was, not the culmination of it. And in the middle, in late spring of 1999, that anger took me over. I had been isolated and alone with myself–just me and the internet for way too many hours, skipping class and avoiding everything that could be avoided–and I just… I just couldn’t stand the mess I had made of my life. I wanted to take it back, to apologize for the trouble I had made and just…

I wanted to give up. I wanted it to be over. I wanted out.

For the only time in my life, in that moment, locked in my dorm room in the dark, I catalogued the ways in which I could end my life. I… settled on one. I started tapping some freakish resolve that I had never before possessed, and I was going to do it.

I’ll spare you the details, because in truth, the details are too hard for me to bring back into my mind. They are attached to those feelings, and those are feelings I do not want back inside of me.

But I was ready to be done. Gone. Over. Out.

A random conversation on a comic book chat room diverted me. Someone popped up on my instant messenger on the computer, and then someone else did, and then… they convinced me to come in to chat for a while. I relented out of a sense of… dramatic farewell, perhaps? I mean, someone had to know what happened. Someone had to miss me. At that moment, irrationally, I was not convinced that anyone else would have.

And they kept talking. Making jokes. Being strangely, magnificently, supportive. Like they always were. Strangers saving me from a moment that could never be taken back.

I largely stopped going to all classes from that point on. I went to work, and I chatted online with my New Warriors Crash Pad friends. And day by day, inch by inch, they pulled me away from the place I had gone.

Had I been left inside of that anger, that self-directed horror and rage, alone… I do not know that I would be here. Maybe something else would have diverted me. Maybe a hundred things would have done it. I don’t know. All I know is what did happen.

So the statistics of LGBT teen suicide do not startle me at all. I can remember what that moment of decision felt like, even if I had, for many years, locked it up tight.

Third Time (with Andrew J)

For those who have seen the movie, Ethan’s chat with Simon in the office brought this on…

About two years after Tom and I got engaged, something happened that reached out and tore a chunk out of a heart that had mostly, largely, healed from the pain of coming out and figuring out my place in the world. Tom had that effect, by the way–he helped me heal over all of those wounds. Turns out, love does that. That’s why this is all worth it, right? So you can have someone you love standing beside you?

It was my grandfather’s death. We were gathering as a family at a relative’s house. I was a wreck of course–we all were. As I walked into the house, one of my relatives came up to me, the MOMENT I came through the door, and gave me a giant hug. She was sad. I was sad. That’s what you do.

But in the midst of that embrace, she grabbed my hand and pulled my engagement ring off of my hand. She stuffed it in my pocket and whispered, “Now is not the time” or something like that. The words are not important.

I had been wearing that ring for more than a year. I almost never talked about my personal life with my family. And yet, the first thing that person thought when I walked through the door was… what? Maybe they were trying to protect me. Maybe they were trying to make their own life easier in a hard moment. I don’t know.

I just remember now what it felt like to be erased for the comfort of others.

Fourth Time (with a ton of people, but especially Christi D)

For those who have seen the movie, Simon’s driveway conversation with his dad brought this on…

Sometimes you just want the people who matter most to you to say, “I am proud of you.” In your wildest dreams, you imagine they might say, “I wouldn’t change anything about you.”

Parents… that is what you are supposed to say. That is what you are supposed to mean.

I remember what it was like to get… something different. Memories of screaming at each other on the telephone. Threats. Tears. Curling up into a ball on the kitchen floor and throwing up in the bathroom. Checking the locks on the door.

I remember fear replacing love, and I remember believing that would never, ever be made right.

It got better. It is better.

But no one believes that when they are in the middle of the storm.

Fifth Time (with Kelly K)

For those who have seen the movie, Simon’s talk with his mom brought this on…

There are no magic words that make it better. Most of coming out is done alone, and we emerge from it stronger for that. But for God’s sakes, we have to be better to our people. To friends and to family and to the friends who become family.

No one should be alone because they HAVE to be. Should they want to be, should they need to be, then by all means, give your people space. But until then, and even then, be there when they need you.

There’s no magic words, but there are magic people. I found some–some early, some late. But everyone needs them. Be the magic person.

Be the person who gives the people in your life the courage to open the door. Be the person who they KNOW will still be standing there when they bare their soul.

And hope that we can build a world where no one again has to imagine that there is nothing on the other side of that door but an endless, breathless fall.

I still have the hope in my box, I said. Hope for that world to be our world.

But I’ve also churned up all of these complicated, painful memories of the process of coming out. As long as the movie theaters keep showing my movie, I’ll keep going back, week after week… and my heart will get full.

And we will keep talking about this, because it is important.

I can breathe now.

So can you.

Posted in Family, Lifestyle, Steam Vents | 3 Comments

Big Announcement (Life)

So, in many of my social media circles over the past few days, I have made cryptic reference to the “Big Announcement” that was coming today. Here we are today, and I find myself dragging my feet a bit about it.

Maybe I can explain why with my patented application of too many words!

So… for the past six years, I have had the tremendous honor and pleasure of working in my current role in our school district. I am the coordinator of curriculum for secondary English/language arts and associated content areas, and it has been a job that has, in every way that matters, changed my life.

Yet, as of Thursday night last week, I have accepted a new job. Still with our district, of course–my heart will never be content away from the students and community of Des Moines. But I will instead shift gears to work in our amazing Teacher Development department, focusing my efforts on supporting instructional improvement through our leadership and instructional coaching structures. For those of you who don’t speak educationese, here’s the gist:

  • Before, I helped to decide WHAT we would teach, and sometimes we got to talk about HOW to teach it.
  • Now, I will help to shape HOW we teach, and that is a thing that excites me beyond my meager capacity for words.

Of course, it means change, and change is scary. I notified the amazing teachers that I work with through our department newsletter earlier this week, and writing that message was harder than expected. These have been six really good years.

I feel very much like I felt in the late spring/early summer of 2012 when it was time to move into the curriculum job and leave my beloved North High behind (I found the post!). Scared and thrilled and worried that I will suck and hopeful that this move will be the right one for me and for everyone into whose orbit I am lucky enough to fly.

I think this will be another good one. I really do.

But change is hard. Always.

I can scarcely recognize myself in the mirror, compared to the guy who was, this time six years ago, starting to nervously panic about packing up at North and moving downtown to the Curriculum team.

Maybe, several years down the road when the next move–a move back to the classroom, I think–happens, I will be able to say the same thing.

I hope so.

I want someone watching my life in retrospect to be utterly suspicious of my character development. That’s the English teacher’s final revenge on the universe, I think!

Sigh.

I’ve been an English teacher since 2004, and I’ve known I was going to be one (for sure) since 2000. Come August, when I start in the new role… it will be the first time in 18 years that I haven’t identified myself that way.

Change is growth is necessary is important is hard is right.

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Progress Blog: He-Man RPG (COMPLETE!)

It took 20 hours, but it’s done! Head over to the He-Man RPG page to get your copy of the ALL-NEW He-Man and the Masters of the Universe RPG, featuring a brand new rules system that I am very excited about.

It has glitches–most notably that it currently has no rules for Battle Cat or for vehicles at all. But I was barely able to get everything into those 60 pages–the game could easily grow another 30 pages in a second edition!

Anyway… I’m going to bed now! This has been a really long day!

 

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Progress Blog: He-Man RPG (Update 3)

Today, I have 24 hours to build and publish a nostalgia RPG based on the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe animated series.

About 10 hours into the process, we are 50% complete! The two major jobs left to do are Action Mechanics and Narrating Eternia, which will each take a sizable chunk of time this evening…

Table of Contents

Introduction (DONE)

Game Concepts (DONE)

History (DONE)

Character Creation (DONE)

Genres

Aspects and Drawbacks (DONE)

Sample Characters

Action Mechanics

Narrating Eternia

Evil Warriors

Resources (DONE)

Blank Bio (DONE)

Appendix (DONE)

If you would like to follow along with the major beats of progress, you can visit the blog throughout the day and check out the Microblog on the sidebar (or you can go direct to the source and follow @nightcandle on Twitter)!

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