I found Captain America where I’d least expect him

My husband Dave and I arrive late for a poetry reading—open mic, read your own work or somebody else’s—and watch the Midwestern version of Captain America approach the podium: trim well-formed body clad in blue jeans and a cardinal-red dress shirt, top button opened to reveal a white undershirt. Black cowboy boots match a thick black leather belt with shining silver buckle. Bright blue eyes, unapologetic nose, strong stubbled chin. Dark brown hair close-cropped up the sides, growing out of a crew cut on top his head. Captivating smile, a mixture of confidence and self-consciousness with a dash of eager-to-please stirred in. His introduction is promising: “I really like this poem and I love the man it’s about.”
He launches into the reading and my ardor cools. Flip-flops into foreboding, actually. Captain America narrates with pietistic fervor a piece of religious propaganda about the life of Christ. What starts as a sexy male daring to read a poem about the man he loves turns into a quasi-militaristic call to sacrifice lives for God and country.
I find myself thinking, Don’t trust this man. He will hurt you. This man hates you and your kind. He doesn’t believe you’re human. He thinks you deserve everything you get. A man like him fatally stabbed your friend Carl. Remember Andy and his partner? Clubbed to death by a man like this. And Dick’s suicide? Brought on by people with this sort of religious fervor. Their thoughts, words, theology and way of life willed his death. No, this man is not safe. Keep your distance.
I plan to. Eying Captain America, I now see him as a red, white and blue coral snake. Beautiful, but deadly. He symbolizes the irrational knee-jerk prejudice and homophobia I fear most. I’ll be careful not to out myself with him around. I wouldn’t want to meet him alone on the sidewalk afterwards or have him drive slowly by our house fingering his shotgun.
He reaches the final line at last, slithers back to his seat. I do not join the general applause.
Later that day, at another venue, Captain America takes to the podium again. He reads his own work this time, a revealing look at his childhood. Abusive home, alcoholic father, raised in squalor, often scrounging for food and affection. His words are heartfelt and moving. Life has not been easy for him. It’s a wonder he’s standing before us, looking as sane and sensational as he does. I clap as loudly as anyone.
Why must life be so complicated? I want to go back to hating him in peace. Instead, I must do the hard work of reconciling this conflicting information, the paradox that most human beings are, the mix of good and evil, of positive and not so nice. But really, the work to be done is in myself. Deep inside.




It’s not Captain America whom I fear and mistrust, so much as it is that part of me that still is quick to judge others, that believes I’m right, that divides the world into us and them. I’m right to mistrust this energy, but it’s this energy in me I need to be aware of and wary of first of all. Psychologists call this a negative projection, not recognizing an annoying quality in myself and attacking another person for it. A positive projection can be something I admire in another person (Captain America’s beauty) but unconsciously devalue in my own life (my own degree of handsomeness). Whenever I refuse to accept something as a part of myself I project that something onto others.
It takes energy to shoot out these projection missiles, but it takes work to withdraw them, too. It takes me waking up to the idea that I can’t blame others for my own failings, nor look to them as superheroes who may save me from myself.
The adage rings true, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Time to don my mask, take up my shield, get ready to roll.


Party Ever After

It wouldn’t be practical, let alone possible, but I’d love to take ’em all home with me, the LGBTQ+ folks who show up to Pride Day in our capitol city each year. Where do they all come from? Do we bus them in from neighboring states? Run special charter trains from the coasts? Are they posers, straight people pretending to be gay for a day, and has my gaydar grown so rusty I can’t tell the difference? Whatever the truth, their sheer numbers amaze me. I didn’t think our sleepy Midwestern state could cough up so many people ready to party.

Gay pride 2011 à Toulouse

Is that why they’re there, to party? Some look eager enough to celebrate—some as if they were a bit over-eager—but every year I pass many folks who look zoned out. Bored, even. Were they hoping for something more, something different? What did they expect?

My reasons for attending Pride are varied. One, I go to ogle. We live in the boondocks, Dave and me, and hordes of sexy men don’t exactly beat a path to our door. I go looking for them at Pride. I pray for sunshine so shirts will come off. I feast my eyes and my imagination. Last year my attention riveted on a shirtless man in skimpy red shorts. With his long curly hair and olive complexion, he looked the spittin’ image of my first-ever lover. Suddenly I was 30 years and a thousand miles away, reliving a magical summer spent as a camp counselor in England.

Am I the only one who does this? The images of attractive men I collect on Pride Day will nurture and sustain me throughout the year.

Too, they’ll remind me I am not alone. This is how crazy I am: I live with a man, sleep beside him every night, yet sometimes believe I’m the only gay man in a hundred miles, two hundred. Recalling Pride Day’s extravaganza reassures me, reminds me, wakes me up to reality.

This is not altogether pleasant. Living where and as we do, Dave and I do not often feel safe expressing mutual affection in public. I treasure our time at Pride Day, revel in being able to hold hands, kiss whenever we want to. For these several hours I let down my guard, walk about in public without looking over my shoulder, wondering if we’re safe.

This year it’s our turn to host the family reunion for my great-grandparents’ clan. A couple months back, I mailed out letters to folks I don’t even know, encouraging them to attend. The reasons I offered are valid for Pride Day, too. After all, what is Pride, but a big ol’ Family reunion? Here’s what I said:

  Come for the people. Come connect with folks you don’t see often enough. Or ever.
Come for the stories. Come tell a few of your own. Funny ones. Sad ones. Stories about how we get through. How we are.
Come for the food. Not such a bad idea.
Come connect with real people, in person.
Come because you’re getting older or wiser or both, and you’ve begun to realize that family means more than you knew; that in connecting with your relations, you connect with yourself in ways you can’t quite understand but feel somewhere deep down inside.

Of course, Pride Day isn’t all happy, happy. My eyes get glued to the beautiful people and my internal critic takes over: “Gee, aren’t we old. And fat, and out of shape. And about as pretty as a mud hut.” A crowd of people can be the loneliest place in the world. Every year I see a man off by himself sobbing as if his heart is broken. Probably it is. We’ve all known the feeling of heartbreak.

Here’s what I’d like to do: gather him up, hold him close, remind him that being self-aware, being out to himself and others is reason enough to celebrate.

I’d like to invite him—and you, and all the rest—over to our place the day after. ’Be right proud to have you.

I Did.

I Did.


Did I grow up hearing the word “gay” mostly on Saturday mornings while watching cartoons as in,

            When you’re with the Flintstones

            Have a yabba-dabba-doo time

            A dabba-doo time

            You’ll have a gay old time

and notice that a gay old time week in and week out involved a grown man getting locked out of his own house and hammering at the door to be let back in?

I did.

Did I make my way through the world compliant and quiet, the middle child, a people-pleaser who valued appearances because they helped keep the peace and make folks happy?

lonely tall boy in spaceI did.

Did I embrace the Bible thumping tenets of my family with a fervor all my own, label my same-sex attraction sinful temptation fanned by the flames of hell, plead with God to remove from me the stubborn desire to lust after other boys, promise to read my Bible two hours every day, never backtalk my mother and become a missionary when I grew up, if only I could be cured?

I did.

Did I hear whispered that homosexuals are monsters, child molesters with horns and red eyes who lisp and can’t hit a baseball, and know for a fact I wasn’t one of those even though the part about the baseball fit?

I did.

Did I lean on my reputation as the shy studious type to avoid dating women in high school and college as much as possible?

I did.

Did I learn to live in my body as in a house divided, keep at arm’s length the despicable part of me that lusted after men, assure myself this wasn’t the real me, and succeed so well that as a college senior I could find excuses to bathe whenever our floor’s resident Greek god padded his way down the hall to the group showers wrapped only in a towel, and envy the towel, yet banish from consciousness the idea I might be gay?

I did.

Did I marry a hard-headed woman in the sincere belief I was doing what was right, honorable and holy, and in the hope she would save me from myself only to learn she did not have the power to change me?

I did.

Did I become father to three sons, change diapers, read stories, play Robin Hood, sing songs, make funny voices and discover that parenthood, while demanding, did not lessen my attraction to men nor its accompanying self-hatred?

I did.

Did I finally devise a way to kill myself and test it on several small animals to make sure it worked?

I did.

I did all this and more. And although I peered into the void, I did not follow through with my planned suicide. After I composed my final farewell, I made a small choice for life, postponed my death for an hour, then a day, a week. (At such times grace may be measured in minutes.)

Even as I believed hope was gone and all was finished, a whole new world was waiting to be born—a world I had never dared imagine, never heard described in positive terms, never believed would receive, bless and nurture the likes of me. A world in which I am acceptable as I am, loved without having to change, remake or undo myself. Nowadays I often see it reflected in my gay friends and chosen family, in our shared laughter, warm embraces, genuine regard.

Here’s the thing: this world had been there all along. It had been and was and is within me. Within each one of us. The path is uncharted, the way perilous, the door hidden, the night dark. Yet life endures, cloaks itself even in catastrophe, calls to us ever and anon, in tones loud and soft. May we with courage listen, respond, reach deep, take hold the key, unlock and pry open the door, step into All that awaits us there.


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This piece appears in Flying Island Journal, May 2014

Ilustration: Spooky Dad at flickr


Between the sheets

“Can we add a second person to this room?”
“Yes, you can. But you’ll want a different room, one with two beds.”
“No, the one we reserved is fine. We’ll only use one bed, anyway. Both nights.”
“Not a problem,” she said. “But the price is the same either way.”
“One bed is fine,” I said.
Both Dave and I took out our credit cards. As the clerk looked on, we haggled over whose to use. I pushed mine her way.
She processed the card. “He’s bigger than either of us,” she told Dave.
We all laughed. bed bites
Even though she drew us a map, we got lost in the warren of multi-room units. In the dark we had turned right too soon. The room was chilly when at last we found it. I cranked up the heat, unpacked the knapsack, hung our coats and dress shirts. Dave had signed up for a two-day workshop; at the last minute I’d opted to come along for the ride. We readied for bed.
While brushing my teeth I heard his low insistent tone, “Bryn, come here. Bryn, come here.”
I spun about.
“What do you think this is?” He pointed to an insect crawling across newly turned down sheets. It looked like a large reddish-brown tick, only bigger, and with horizontal segments comprising its abdomen.
“Is it a bed bug?”
“Could be. I don’t know they look like,” I said.
“I don’t think you can see them; all you find is bite marks in the morning.”
“Let’s squish it and take it down to the front desk. Maybe she has access to the internet and can look up what a bed bug looks like.”
Dave tore the clear wrap from a plastic cup. I scooped the creature into it, then replaced the covering to keep it from flying out.
We dressed, donned jackets.
“We’re back.” I said this as if it were good news.
“I see that.” She said this as if she weren’t so sure.    “Do you know what a bed bug looks like? We found this critter crawling under the sheets.” I set the glass on the counter.
“They look like a tick, that’s all I know,” she said.
“Then this might be one.”
She approached, hands up, palms forward, as if we were pointing a gun her way. She took a quick look. “Now, I can handle pretty near anything,” she said, “but when it comes to bugs I go all ‘girlie.’”
She offered us another room. “This one has two beds. That’s all we have left.”
When we moved, Dave and I straightway checked the sheets—again and again. Lifted mattress, bed covers, mattress pad. No sign of bugs. No bite marks come morning.
A few days later I did an internet image search and learned our beastie was indeed a bed bug. I also learned (from the Utah Department of Health website) about these common misunderstandings regarding bed bugs:
•  You can’t see them. (You can.)
•  You can feel it when they bite. (You can’t.)
•  No bite marks means no bed bugs. (Not necessarily.)
•  They only infest filthy hovels. (Flesh and blood attract them, not dirt.)
•  They only affect other people. (Wishful thinking.)
•  They’re not all that big a problem, really. (Oh, really?)
These misunderstandings echo ways we often dismiss pestilences we’d rather not notice/admit/own: A planet in crisis. Blood for oil. Power to the One Percent. Institutionalized injustice. Prejudice. Arrogance. Self-absorption. Shame-based living.
We sleepwalk, learn not to see. O who will awaken us to the bite marks on our own flesh? We have made this one world bed for ourselves and now we must li(v)e in it. What do we want between these sheets?

Is it love that brings you here or love that gives you life?

Even when they filled with tears, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was tall, dark-skinned, gorgeous. And singing in slow tempo, almost in lament, “There is no map for where we go . . . .” He was a soloist with our capital city’s gay men’s chorus, performing Naked Man, relationship a song-cycle that voices the experience of growing up gay in a less than accepting society. I identified with his words. I’ve felt in me the aching loneliness in his voice, the yearning, the presumed being lost. Years now have passed but his voice still rings in my heart: “There is no map for where we go . . . .”

When I came out at age 35, I had no idea where I was or where I was going. I’d been so deep in the closet I believed I was the only gay man in Indiana. In 1995 I was that clueless. Felt that alone. Knew no role models, had met no gay men, found no Damron guide to gay life. Somehow I found Dave. (Or he found me, we’re not sure which.) Oh, happy day.

The 70-year-old poet Mrs. Stevens, a character in a May Sarton novel, reflects on her past loves: “I lived with their faces. I knew their every gesture by heart. I stalked them like wild animals. I studied them as if they were maps of the world — and in a way, I suppose they were.”

At this moment, my map of the world is lying on the davenport near the wood stove fast asleep. He laid down about 20 minutes ago still wearing shoes and eyeglasses, stocking cap and three sweatshirts. It’s wintery cold in the house and the couch sits near the heat. While my husband of 18 years naps I study his face.

He looks youthful, though time is making tracks, especially about the eyes. He’s sleeping with cap pulled down, blanket pulled up. Still, Dave’s is a face I know well. I tell myself that were I blindfolded in a room full of sexy men I could identify him by touch alone. (OK, it’s a favorite fantasy of mine.) Still, my fingers know the contours of his cheekbones, silkiness of skin, scratch of stubble beard, drop of droopy eyelid. I think I’d know him even in the dark.

Dave grounds me in ways I recognize, but can’t begin to fathom. My boss told me her husband nearly died last week in a work accident.

“You were that close to becoming a widow,” I said.

“Don’t even go there,” she said. “I know I’m a hothead and act like I have it all together, but I can’t open a jar of peanut butter without that man. He’s my rock. He keeps me anchored.”

I know what she means. As my map of the world, Dave offers a sense of direction, helps me stay the course, gives me the confidence I can make it from Point A to Point B. Heck, were it not for him, I sometimes wouldn’t know there is a Point B. He helps my world make sense—or better, helps me make sense of my world. Comedian George Burns was not joking after his beloved Gracie Allen died when he said, “My world is much less safe.”

Indeed, for each one of us, the world is a safer saner place when we are loved, known, accepted and embraced as we are. This the gift we offer one another. This the gift we give ourselves. There may be no map for where we go—few the footsteps and faint before us—we may stumble forward, grope in the dark, but as the soloist intoned, “we’re not lost, we’re here.”

Growl, Grumble, Whimper, Whump

The deep-throated snarl carries in the night air, from woods’ edge crosses the short span of yard to our listening ears. Two whimper-whines follow. Again the menacing growl, again the whines. This call and response repeats several times.
“What do you think it is?” my husband whispers.
“I’m not sure, but suddenly going out to the barn to feed the geese has lost its luster,” I say.
Dave was carrying in firewood when he called from the back door, “come listen to this.” I’d stepped into the snowy night without a jacket. Now I shiver from more than cold.
The guttural snarls are too throaty for a raccoon, too deep for a squirrel, and too close for comfort. Coyote, I bet. We regularly hear their yipping yowls in the woods around us. But on this dim overcast night, the ground glazed with snow, I conjure up images of timber wolf, tiger, puma, panther, zombie. . . .
“Think some creature is getting killed?” Dave asks.
“Sounds like a youngster getting too close to an adult and being warned off,” I say. “Or maybe Mama is forcing the little ones to keep moving when they want to curl up and sleep.”
The sounds gradually grow softer and further away. We both feel relieved. (All the same, the geese don’t get fed until sunrise.)
This morning I find paw prints on the other side of our fence—prints made by padded feet far bigger and heavier than those of our cat. _Yowza._ I set off to see who else has been wandering the woods: deer, rabbits, squirrels, small birds. At the north edge of our property I watch two flights of Canada geese glide in for a landing in the neighbor’s cornfield. I honk a hello and wish them luck in finding grain underneath the snow.

Winter Morning inWoods
I feel extra happy when snow blankets the ground—maybe because I am Minnesota born or maybe a bit batty. At any rate, today’s weather forecast has put me on top of the world. We’re to expect one to two feet of snow. Way it looks now, we’ll get that much before 2:30 this afternoon. A heavy wet snow. Sticks to tree trunks and limbs, looks like corn dog breading on the small short branches. Our beech tree, still covered with leaves, gains so much weight its lower limbs drag the ground.
I happen to be looking out the kitchen window when a hackberry tree, its bare branches bowed low, reaches a tipping point. Suddenly it shrugs off its coat of winter white. Bent branches straighten and the entire tree snaps to attention. Snow catapults into the air.
Other trees are less melodramatic: an upper limb dumps its load. This in turn hits against lower branches and knocks them clear. With a whump, an isolated avalanche lands beneath that particular tree.
Dave suggests a walk. Soon we are plodding through knee-deep snow, ploughing through drifts higher yet. Hard work, but oh, the splendor. Stunning sights at every turn. The sky come close, the world white, us among the clouds. Every dry weed dressed in ermine. Each standing tree a masterwork of line and form, saplings bowing at its feet. All through the woods, Nature’s already graceful limbs frosted fluffy soft, limned in ivory.
These trees are participants in beauty, simply by being what and where they are, I think to myself. Not that it’s a cake walk—witness the creaks and groans we hear, the one loud crack—but surely it’s worth it to be robed in such glory. Ah, that I, too, could be a participant in beauty.
As if in answer, branches overhead unload their excess weight and plaster me with snow.

A Blow Job — and All Best Wishes for the Year Ahead

The telephone rang—our son calling from Indianapolis to say a tornado had been sighted minutes away and was headed in our direction.

All day the wind had been blowing hot and cold, blustering its way across the Midwest. My husband Dave and I had been keeping a weather eye on the heavens. There’d been quite the cosmic argument up there and Somebody had overturned the barbecue grill, set gray-white-black briquettes scudding across the firmament.

We dashed outside (it made sense at the time) to batten the hatches on the chicken coop. We were almost back to the house when the wind took a sudden turn. Heavy rain pummeled us. We nearly tumbled into the basement.10999807874_1e079eb581_z

Turning the radio on, we listened to a litany of storm warnings and watches. Our governor had hurried to a homeland security bunker somewhere we learned and was now urging all citizens to take cover, stay alert. It seemed a bit overblown.

But maybe not. About this same time a tornado was tearing through a town the next state over. Dave and I would later look at a news magazine photograph of the devastation. Trees denuded. Landmarks leveled. More than a thousand homes blown away, damaged or destroyed.

Suddenly our lights went out. Radio silence descended. We’d be among the lucky ones; no tornado would strike our little home and power would be restored after 24 hours. Some of our fellow citizens would sit in the dark for a week.

Dave and I lit candles, then darted upstairs to grab crackers and spoons and fill two bowls with the chili we’d had bubbling in the crock pot all day. Before we ate I offered a simple prayer of thanks. “Amen,” we said together. I opened my eyes to see my husband sitting across from me in the flickering light. We smiled to each other. Then he said, “May we always have this much.”

His words caught at me, lodged in my heart. It was one of those moments that even as it unfolded I knew would stick with me for some time to come. One, Dave is a gorgeous man: bright eyes, energetic, a swimmer’s build, kissable lips, cute butt. Two, candlelight was casting a romantic glow on a scene already sharpened with the tang of danger. Three, there was the sentiment itself: gratitude for simple things, awareness of how much we are given, shared pleasure in each other’s company, a present blessing, and hope for the future.

In Dave’s words I hear my wish for all of us in this new year: shelter from the storm, nourishment for the body, comfort in good company. May we always have this much.

And may we nurture the capacity to be grateful for it. There is wisdom, not to mention mental health, in being thankful for small things. A basement. A bowl of chili. Crackers. Candles. We can spend more time feeling happy when we are happy with what we already have, when we look for reasons to be grateful rather than for excuses to growl.

May we nurture also awareness. May we recognize what is going on around and within ourselves, our present blessings. May we listen to the heart and live true to its leanings.

Too, may we surround ourselves with people and projects that add to our experience of life, not sap our energy. May we ourselves be joy-bringers.

Nature is not sentimental; our circumstances can change in a moment and without warning. Our time is short: why spend it chasing after the wind? Rather, let’s choose mindfully to embrace life. In gratitude. And with all the energy we can muster. May we always have this much.

Photo credit: Dave Malkoff, tornado damage in Washington, Illinois; photo modified