A Parking Lot Full Of Stones

The party store the Guls owned was within walking distance of our house.

But let me back up a minute to explain that very Midwestern sentence.

In Michigan, where I grew up, a “party store” is not a place to buy helium-filled balloons, or economy packs of Power Ranger-themed napkins and paper plates, no. A party store is a convenience store, a Kwickie Mart, a 7-11. Back in the 80s, they were everywhere and they were family-owned and the Guls, an Iranian-American family, happened to own the one nearest my house.

In rural Michigan, “walking distance” was a flexible term. It was all relative to how far away the places you needed to walk to were. I was 12 and lived about 15 minutes driving to anything interesting. So that’s how the Guls’ store became a neighborhood hangout. In 20 minutes, my friends and I could walk down a two-lane country highway and buy all the pop, Fritos, and Snickers bars we could afford. But the real attraction was in the back of the store.

If you walked past where Mr. Gul sat beside his cash register and turn left down a shadowy hallway, a neon glow would eventually greet you. It was there we would gather around the latest arcade games. Two at first, and then the Guls expanded to three.

The arcade hallway also happened to be the connection between the Guls’ store and their home. Through that closed door at the end, we could smell unfamiliar food cooking and hear people, usually women, chattering in a language we didn’t even know the name of.  Without fail, the Guls conversations would switch from Farsi to English when they walked through that door. The switch wouldn’t even register on their faces or in their body language; their cultural identity shifted as naturally as the cows in the fields outside shifted their weight to walk.

I suspect that door was also where the Gul children traded in their Persian names for English ones. I never knew the names Victor, Lila, and Ashley’s parents called them. Victor was a year younger than me in school. He had a round face with dark eyes and a gleaming smile. He didn’t have an accent; he was American, born and raised.

When Victor came through that hallway, he’d always stop and joke around with us until his father called him to stock the refrigerated case or sweep the parking lot.

He would sweep the entire parking lot. He’d even sweep the large stones that acted as barriers between the lot and the small patch of lawn that separated it from the trailer park street. While he swept, Victor waved to the cars that drove past. The store was on the corner of the country highway and the entrance drive to a large trailer park, so he knew most of the people in the cars. He swept and waved daily for years.

In 1990, two major things happened: I turned 16 and received my driver’s license, and the United States began sending troops to Kuwait to fight in Operation Desert Storm. The idea of wars wasn’t completely lost on me; we’d read about them in history class. Still, I was surprised at how little our lives had changed after President Bush had invaded. I was surprised at how few people even talked about it.

One morning, I got up early—I think I had to open the Subway restaurant I worked at—and headed to Gul’s party store for breakfast. As I was approaching, I saw all five of the Guls standing in the lot looking at the huge stones blocking the entrance to the parking lot. Someone had moved the barriers from the edges of the lot. The words “Go home Camel Jockeys” were spray-painted in red across the stones. With no way to pull in and a job to get to, I kept driving. I don’t remember thinking about it much after that. Work and school and friends kept me busy.

A few months later, my dad mentioned that the Guls had gone out of business. Apparently, the people of the trailer park got together and decided not to shop there anymore. They turned on a dime

Living just down the street, we hadn’t heard a thing about it. It never occurred to me that someone would treat the Guls that way. They’d been a part of the neighborhood almost all of my life.

Early early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.

String Bean

“Thin people shouldn’t talk about their weight. It always sounds like bragging.”*

A few years ago, at a party I hosted, an acquaintance— all six-foot three, 235 pounds of him— leaned down to me and said, “Look at you! You’re just a wisp of a thing.” He meant it as a compliment, but I couldn’t stop old insecurities from flushing my face. I felt like every jock I went to high school with somehow crawled through 20 years of space/time continuum to slam me up against my own refrigerator.

I am a thin man. That’s not bragging. I have always been self-conscious about being “too skinny.” It sounds weird now in these times of skinny jeans and moob jobs and size-zero male models, but I grew up when “skinny” was a put-down. It meant frail and nerdy. Thin guys were called weakling or twig or string bean. And everywhere we looked in the media of the 1990s we saw powerful bodies like Mark Wahlberg’s and Tyson Beckford’s with arms the same size as their thighs and shoulders that angled out from their waists at impossibly wide vees.

“Everyone likes to hear how thin they look.”

Not long after that party, I went to the doctor for weird feelings in my extremities. Tests were done and a specialist informed me that I was pre-diabetic. She gave me no prescriptions; she wanted to see how I fared without them. Instead, she handed me a tri-fold pamphlet with an illustration of what good eating habits look like: half a plate of vegetables, a slice of meat that could fit in your palm, and either an apple or a dollop of mashed potatoes. It looked meager. She told me to cut out carbs and sweets, to eat more greens and less starch. No sugar or white rice and exercise more. In other words, the string bean was on a diet.

“Man, when you turn sideways, you disappear.”

Of course, I followed her orders: I started ordering Amstel Lights (the beer with the fewest carbs) at bars. I ignored the looks on waitresses’ faces when I quizzed them about low-carb fare. I secretly put back the cake and donuts that well-meaning co-workers brought to my desk. When friends offered to “fatten me up,” I laughed politely. I became known as a health nut, and swallowed the anger I felt due to my prescribed eating habits. They couldn’t know I’d kill for a heaping bowl of pasta, or a sandwich with regular fucking slices of bread. I kept my mouth shut about why I ate the way I did because I knew they would say exactly what I hated to hear: “But you’re so thin.” As if being thin made me invincible.

Around Easter this year, I started feeling thirsty all the time. Like an unrelenting fill-a-swimming pool-with-unsweetened-iced-tea-and-I-will-either-drink-my-way-out-or-drown kind of thirst. I waited for the thirst to pass, finally seeing a doctor when it was either that or clawing my throat out. As the doctor handed over a prescription to manage the diabetes symptoms, she nonchalantly added, “One of the side effects is weight loss.” I’m not sure what sound I let out, but her subsequent concern demanded an explanation.

“Look at me,” I huffed, motioning with my open hands from my chest to my waist. “People tease me about being blown out to sea by a strong wind. I just started gaining back the weight I lost after quitting carbs on your orders, and now you’re telling me I have to start all over again?”

“Oh, poor skinny dude. Can’t gain weight. Boo-hoo.”

I know. There are so many worse diagnoses to hear. I’m lucky to live in a time and place where I can manage my symptoms with a pill. But this just happened. The ink has barely dried on the prescription bottle. I need a day (or six) to wallow in my frustration. I need to tell people that “thin” is not a synonym for “healthy.”

Five Star Mixtape

*The italic sentences in this essay are direct quotes from various people at various times in my life.

Author Stephen King learns about his relatives’ progressive past


Finding Your Roots returns this Tuesday night on PBS. I prefer this show over Who Do You Think You Are? Henry Gates, Jr. is a fantastic host: witty, friendly, caring. He makes a point in his research to uncover common themes between two or three different people’s family trees. For instance, Tuesday’s show is called “In Search of Our Fathers,” and focuses on three celebrities (I posted the incredibly moving Gloria Reuben preview on my Facebook page) whose childhoods all lacked fathers. With three different people to cover, FYR doesn’t resort to the filler moments WDYTYA bookends each commercial break with. Henry Gates, as you can tell from the video, checks in with his guests while he tells them their family’s story creating genuine moments between them. Sometimes I feel like WDYTYA tries to force emotional reactions on camera.

Anyway, I’ll be watching. If you catch the episode, leave me a comment. We’ll talk.

The Creeper of the Family Tree (revised)

Sums it up pretty well.
Sums it up pretty well.

A few times a week, especially when I’m feeling groggy, I’ll jog up and down the stairwells of my office building. Each time I hit the bottom landing I’ll turn down into the little-used basement and lay on the floor for my jack knifes, squats, and pushups. I like that it’s cool and quiet down there, but mostly I want to spare my co-workers the mental image of me huffing and puffing while doing lunges.

The drawback to exercising in the basement is that it’s within earshot of the back door of the building. Many people take their cellphones to the bottom of those steps to make a call, or they’ll pause there to finish conversations with co-workers before going back up to work. As a result, I find myself overhearing a lot of strangers’ conversations without their knowledge. A few of them have actually screamed when I’ve emerged from the basement and crossed between them mid-conversation. Since mine is not the only company in the building, these people don’t know me as anyone other than that weird guy that’s running away from whatever suspicious thing he’s got going on in the basement.

In other words, I’m the inadvertent office creeper.

Me, after a workout
Me, during a workout

And sometimes, I must admit, I feel like a creeper when I’m researching my family: shining lights into dark corners, uncovering tawdry secrets, sniffing out facts about strangers to whom I happen to be related.

For instance, early on in my research I found the names and whereabouts of two relatives that had fallen away from the family. Exhilarated by my discovery, I immediately reached out to them on Facebook, but my enthusiasm was not reciprocated. They politely asked me not to contact them again. I was crushed. It hadn’t occurred to me that they wouldn’t be equally enthusiastic, nor had it occurred to me that they’d associate me with the grudge they held against our common relative. I didn’t understand their immediate dismissal at first. I’m not to blame for what happened to them, I thought, and the past is past.

But it’s not.

Let’s face it: families are messy. There’s a lot of baggage there, and genealogists like me make a hobby out of rifling through it like the NSA at security checks. My relatives’ rejection helped me to understand that my research and my feelings of connection to familial strangers could be construed as intrusive and stalkerish.

Their rejection also reminded me that our past is directly tied to our present. For some people, like my two relatives, the consequences of past events can be so raw for so long that an enthusiastic Facebook message might make the pain of an entire childhood resurface. I realize that now.

Then it occurred to me that if researching my living family members can stir up bad feelings, maybe it’s ticking off my dead ones, too. What if my research is just bringing up long-forgotten resentments and shame in the afterlife? What if they’re sitting together in an all-white hotel conference room right now throwing fast food wrappers at my image on the afterlife’s version of a television?

Most of my ancestors sought and successfully led quiet lives. They were solid, modest Midwesterners living as best they could in the capsules of their time. Maybe they weren’t the kind to like attention. I wonder if they find my stories about them ostentatious. I wonder if they’d rather not be researched by me at all. My devout Baptist and Methodist relatives probably wouldn’t agree with my life as a gay man. If they were living, they might have ignored me, disowned me, or sent me off to a ‘conversion therapy’ camp.

Obviously, I hope not. I hope they see my creeping as interest in their lives. I hope they appreciate that I’m trying  to understand and learn from them. I hope they recognize that their lives are inspiring me to be grateful for every moment of my own quiet and solid Midwestern life.

(I pulled this from my archives and submitted it to two very gentle editors for their feedback and guidance in yeah write‘s Silver Lounge. Thank you, Christine of trudging through fog and Rowan from textwall, for helping me see this post in a different light. Click here to read the previous version.)


Hey, Buddy, Look Up

A while back, I was walking to work and heard someone yell, “Hey, buddy! Look up!”

My first reaction was to ignore it and continue on my way. People yell out non sequiturs at each other in the city all the time. I thought maybe he was telling me to turn toward God. Wouldn’t be the first time a stranger expressed concern for my soul. Then I heard brakes squeal behind me,  a long car horn, and more shouting. I turned to see a woman—mid-40s and wearing scrubs— clutching her steering wheel in a stopped car.

“Do you have a death wish?” She yelled at a man standing at the curb holding a cell phone. Another woman sat between them in the car’s passenger seat. Apparently the man hadn’t noticed he had walked into traffic because he was occupied with his phone. Aside from the passenger plugging her ears, nobody looked hurt. “How about you keep that phone in your pocket when you’re walking around town because it’s apparent to me that you can’t stare at that thing and avoid getting killed at the same time.” [Writer’s note: I’ve deleted many, many swear words.]

“Sorry,” he muttered and looked back down. I could tell he was embarrassed and trying to avoid looking at the driver, but the fact that he went right back to doing the offending act just ticked her off more.

“I’m so tired of you people making the rest of us responsible for your safety because you can’t be bothered to watch where you’re going. You’re like a 4-year-old walking down the street expecting other people to make sure you don’t get hurt. Should we put some Huggies on you too so you don’t have to stop watching that thing to go to the bathroom?” That’s as far as she got before the car behind her honked. The light turned green. She continued haranguing him as she swerved away from the curb and down the street.

What she said to him made me happy. It put a picture in my mind of grown men and women walking around town with their eyes stuck to their cell phones wearing extra-puffy-at-the-top slacks and being followed by people yelling out instructions you’d usually only hear a parent tell a toddler. Tie your shoelaces before you trip. Don’t run into that lightpost. Stop at this crosswalk and wait for me to hold your hand.

I used to get really mad at people who walked around town with their faces in their phones. But I’ve since adopted saying “Hey, buddy! Look up!” whenever I encounter it. Mostly I say it to people who take a few steps out of the subway station, stop in the middle of the sidewalk, and start tapping away on their iPhones. This habit annoys me because I’m walking past the station—not into it—and they are obliviously standing right in my way. After I tell them to look up, they mumble their sorry and step into an even more annoying spot. That’s when I hear the voice of that angry woman in my head and surprisingly, I soften.

At the risk of sounding like a self righteous jerk, I admit that I soften because I picture them as toddlers. It’s an inside joke with positive effects: I don’t yell and they are politely informed that they are not paying attention. I say, “Be careful with that thing, huh?” as tenderly as I can. The concern in my voice makes them detach from the screen for a moment to look at me. I smile and continue on my way.

Drilled Since Diapers

I recently read a blog post judging a dude’s dating choices. In it, the author, Charity, explains that this dude gave her female coworker a dozen red roses after a first date. He also offered to fly Coworker to Las Vegas later that same month. Charity opines that Dude’s “generosity” is a sure sign that he’s a straight-up player, which I concede is likely, but seeing the stream of comments that followed agreeing and calling for Coworker to dump him raised my hackles.

I don’t think Dude should be written off so fast. Coworker should be careful, absolutely, but Dude’s poor dating decisions may be the direct result of years of gender role tropes such as “Women want to be doted on” and “Women want to be provided for.” I think he should be given some slack.

source: www.etsy.com/listing/91052242/furniture-for-monster-high-dolls?ref=related-0
I couldn’t resist. (photo credit: monsternitezzzz on etsy.com)

Full disclosure: I’m as gay as a Monster High doll on a chaise lounge. Why do I feel qualified to weigh in on this issue? Not only am I an impartial observer, I also was raised, through no fault of my parents, to be a Real Man.

When I was little, I remember older relatives instructing me to eat my spinach so I could grow up big and strong. The implication being a woman wouldn’t want me otherwise. I remember TV programs showing me how proper men wooed prom dates with limos and crisp tuxedos. “Women want strength” and “Women want to be wooed” are two more common tropes, in my very unscientific opinion. Tropes like these are just as pervasive now and, Mila Kunis-Kutcher, are they getting specific. Magazine articles dictate what women expect on first dates. Commercials pinpoint the jewelry store from which women prefer their diamond rings. In other words, I, along with almost every other guy in America, have been drilled since diapers on society’s expectations of how to be The Man in a relationship.

photo credit: Jessica Thomas  http://fp1001photographyblogjessicathomas.blogspot.com/2010/11/power-of-colour.html
photo credit: Jessica Thomas (source: fp1001photographyblogjessicathomas.blogspot.com)

That said, maybe Dude is just sticking to misguided tropes because he’s confused by all of the instruction. Yes, he may have less than noble intentions, but I can also see how he might think roses are a good idea. He likes this woman. He wants to make an impression on her in order to stay at the top of her boyfriend contender list. It’s lazy, sure, but it’s the centuries-old answer men have been taught women desire.

What about the meaning of a dozen red roses, you ask? I think many young women would be surprised at how little some men pay attention to the arbitrary meanings of flower-gifting. (Read in: about as much attention as they give to the cleanliness of their bedsheets.) A man sending those roses after a first date either knows exactly what he’s saying or has absolutely no clue.

Dude’s choice to fly her to Vegas is harder to parse. It’s over-the-top, no doubt. But is it surprising he’d play the “I Can Take Care Of You” card so early in the relationship given that he knows he’s in a competition? I don’t think so.

These tropes, and the miscommunications surrounding them, are what make the two sides in the dating game so mutually exclusive. Again, I’m not saying Dude isn’t a player. I just take umbrage at his immediate dismissal by commenters. That is, unless I find out Dude didn’t open the car door for her, in which case she should totally dump his inconsiderate ass!

(source: my Facebook feed as I was editing this post)
(source: my Facebook feed as I was editing this post)

Crossing Saint Clair

Fingers numb, Sadie ties
wolf skins to the pack
on the toboggan.

The river is finally solid.
She’s told she’s big enough
to toddle over ice.

She double-checks
her knots, picks up
the family hen, and steps

onto the margin between countries.