Thursday, July 11, 2013

Can a bus be fueled by Lincoln Logs?

                I should have known something was amiss when the tour bus finally arrived and I pointed out to my colleagues that, “um…that back window is plywood… painted black.”  Let me back up a little.

                I was in DC recently for my Excellence in Government Fellowship's Business Acumen session.  One of our benchmarks included leadership lessons learned at the Battle of Gettysburg.  To get the full effect, we were to travel there by bus and take a guided tour by a retired government executive who has created a very informative lesson concerning the successes and failures on both sides of the War Between the States.

                We were supposed to be at the Partnership for Public Service building on New York Avenue early enough to board the bus and leave by 7:00 am.  This required me to cut short my much needed beauty sleep and forgo the free breakfast at my hotel and be all aggressive about Deonte at Starbucks (he had a nametag, people) opening the doors at precisely 6:00 am even though he was not finished stocking the baked goods display, causing him to under-sweeten my Trenta Black Iced Tea, four Splenda, no water. As a former food service person, I totally understand why he did it.  I ain’t mad at him, y’all.

                My classmate from San Antonio (hey Cory!) and I shared a cab driven by a man who was unhappy to not be taking us to the aero puerto (that’s Spanish, although he was not) and dropped us off at 6:30 on the nose as we are not ones to dawdle all up and through here.  Cory, too, is from the boonies.  Oddly enough we went to school less than 20 miles from each other in the wilds of East Texas.  However, as neither of us had a mode of transport other than our bodies (and you know I wasn’t traveling any further than the bus stop in those days, at least voluntarily), we never met each other until this program. The world is tee-niney, dear readers.  Tee-niney indeed.

                So, I was ready to get on the bus as snacks were promised and I needed a full stomach so as to fully realize all the American Spirit that lies within me and learn something.  At least I hoped to learn something other than I freckle like the dickens when exposed to too much sun.  I actually already knew that and it doesn’t even have to be the sun; a flashlight or bright lamp does the trick most of the time.  I sure do hope freckles are deemed sexy at some point in my lifetime.  Dare to dream, right?

                Those of my classmates who are from out of state (locals had the option of driving their own cars) had assembled at the appointed time and location and were awaiting the bus(es) when 7 o’clock came and went just like I did around the corner to the Subway (sandwich shop, not public transport) as they now serve breakfast.  As the hour changed from 7 to 8 with still no bus, our fearless point of contact (hey Lindsay!) made some phone calls and seemingly ascertained that the buses were in fact en route having been caught in traffic.  As the hour slid toward 9, there were more calls and no bus and the report became the buses had been caught behind a wreck on the interstate.  More classmates left, Subway did a fairly brisk breakfast shift that morning, as did the quickie mart in the lobby of the beautiful art deco building at 1100 New York Avenue.

                After several comments ranging from “Did they say New York Avenue or an avenue in New York?” and “were they behind a wreck or in a wreck?” the buses finally arrived at the ripe old time of 10:15.  Wisely I chose to board the bus that was not powered by a wood-burning stove and off we went to learn of many things leadershippy from His Lincoln-ness.  After we had been driving for more than an adequate amount of time to have left District of Columbia city/state limits, we received a phone call from one of the other points of contact that someone on the wood-burning bus had called her and said that the bus was in fact driving 30 mph with the flashers on as they were in the throes of a breakdown.  When our fearless Lindsay asked our bus driver if he could contact his co-worker driving the breaking-down bus, he replied, “No.”  So, we texted one of the other passengers and had them call us from the area near the ear, nose and throat of their bus driver who stated matter-of-factly that they were not about to breakdown.  When it was ascertained that he did not know what he was talking about, our fearless Lindsay stated, “We must go and get our classmates.  No EIG-er left behind”, while American flag-clad gymnasts flipped behind her holding sparklers and grown men wept at her selfless Americanism.  I may have overstated that last part but she was impressive to say the least.  And she was duly recognized by our fearless coach, Feli (hey Feli!).  There are many fearless people at the Partnership for Public Service, y’all.

                After it was decided that we would rescue them and it was also noticed that they were not behind us, we had to exit to turn around on the car-packed highway to get them.  In moments of crisis I am very calm but also downright pedestrian in my grammar.  My suggestion to “bust off across the median” was wisely ignored.  I did that once in a truck.  I was asleep at the time.  It didn’t end well.

                Once we re-traced our steps, as it were, we found that the driver of the wood-burning bus had not been truthful to their whereabouts.  We then called the bus and through the magic of GPS found that not only had the bus driver been driving too slow, he had also taken the wrong exit and was in Virginia, not Maryland.  Once we got there the bus driver was adamant that nothing was wrong with his bus even as there was black smoke running up the back of said bus.  As our comrades boarded our bus, he took off in his bus, very quickly I might add, shouting about his intended retirement.  Well not so much shouting as it was being reported by his former passengers. 

                Upon our return to the highway, we had driven another twenty minutes or so and I saw the exit for College Park.  To those from the DC area, you know that this means we are FAR, FAR from Pennsylvania.  I commented that we should just exit at the Ikea and have meatballs for lunch.  Although many concurred, we trudged ever onward toward the Burg that is Gettys. 

                We finally arrived and went straight to the buffet that was to be the mid-point of the day.  Nothing against the proprietors of General Pickett’s Buffet, but what I did not need prior to heading out into the open fields to hear tales of leadership gone awry and poor communication in spite of the talent on the Southern side was meatloaf and mashed taters.  I was weighted down, y’all.  Walking sleepy and stumbling toward an actual ledge atop Flattop or Tabletop, I forget which one.

                Suffice it to say, I did learn a lot about leadership from the battle but I learned much more from the trip getting there.  Some of the lessons I learned from the wood-burning bus besides never get on a conveyance that has wooden parts unless it is the paneled side of an estate wagon are:

1.       Never be too afraid to speak up in the face of poor decisions.

2.       Never lie about your whereabouts; you will be found out, and then silently judged.

3.       Never leave your team behind.  Everyone is important, especially those with granola bars and water.

4.       Never, under any circumstances, eat meatloaf on a walking tour.

5.       The Subway at 11th and New York Avenue in DC is open for breakfast and there isn’t a line.

And that is all I’m saying.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

It's about to get real up in here, y'all

                As many of you know, I have been blogging about my Dad living with me for almost two years.  I can’t believe it’s really been that long but it has.  Twenty one months to be exact.  Now, I didn’t really know what to expect when he arrived but I figured it would be blog-worthy, hence the blog; thank you Liz Shellman for planting that seed.

                Now, it has not been an easy transition as regular readers have learned but it also hasn’t been as bad as it could have been.  Granted my Dad is not the easiest person to live with and while I understand that he is still, after 13 years, grieving the loss of my mother, there are personality quirks that he possesses that I get and there are those that continue to confound me week in and week out.

                In full disclosure, I have admitted some of my own quirks like the all-consuming need to have a house that smells ‘pretty’ and feels ‘fancy’; two phrases to which my father likes to roll his eyes ever so sarcastically.  He reminds me of a dramatic teenager.  He reminds me of, well, me when I was in my mid-to-late teens.  My early teens were much more about being loved by all and sundry and I was more obsequious than anything.

                My 15 years in federal healthcare has given me insight into what many veterans of his generation think, feel and expect.  But it wasn’t until recently that I even considered that his life-long anger may have been undiagnosed PTSD.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is something that you read about, hear about on TV with those returning from war in the now and even the subject of a couple of movies, mostly on Lifetime and usually starring Meredith Baxter-no-longer-Birney-now-a-lesbian. 

                It had never occurred to me that he might have a legitimate reason to be angry and distrustful.  I never really gave much thought to why he is almost agoraphobic and seems scared of the world in general.  I always assumed he was just a chip off the old block as his father was someone who, for the longest time, was my frame of reference for cruel and hateful.  And I never really stopped to even think of why he would be so unhappy; that he truly hated himself, as he admitted me to me one evening.  When I asked him why he hated himself, he seemed confused and asked me, “don’t everybody hate themselves?”  To which I answered, “No, they don’t.  I don’t.  And you shouldn’t”.  What I didn’t say was, I did until I turned 40 and finally decided that I was who I was and if people didn’t like me, I was far too old to care about that.  Jesus understands me and that is all I needed to know.  That Jesus understands my Dad was something that I really put no effort into broaching as a subject.

                I know that some have asked if I feel I make fun of my Dad in my blog and I initially was defensive, stating that I was simply reporting facts, not trying to make fun of him.  When in all honesty, there was an edge to the humor; a need to distance myself from him and who I thought he represented.  For so long I didn’t want to be from where I was from.  I didn’t want to be from a family that was lower-middle to middle-middle class, depending on the job situation.  I didn’t want to have so many relatives who had been to jail, who lived in trailers, which I did and still refer to as pre-fabricated housing because it sounds funny and I can then laugh at ‘those folks’, not realizing I was hurting people who are good people in difficult financial straits.  As if money is any indication of the quality of a person.

                I always wanted to be somebody other than who I was.  I never saw what was so great about me; what was so special.  I never put much thought into whether I was smart or funny or ambitious or loyal or any of those traits that I have come to appreciate.  I was only focused on what I didn’t have, which was money, looks and self-esteem.  Truth be told, I wasn’t aware of self-esteem enough to know I didn’t have any.  Like my father, I thought everyone hated themselves.    Awareness of this destructive mindset came much later upon inward reflection due to the honesty of friends from high school and college.  You know who you are and I love you very, very much.

                Growing up gay (and so far in the closet I was almost homophobic) in a Southern Baptist family in Texas and Mississippi wasn’t the easiest thing to do, to be sure.  But when I told my Dad at the ripe old age of 24, he said he already knew and he didn’t care.  It was not the reaction I expected and for some reason I never really appreciated how hard that must have been for him.  I already wasn’t the son that he expected as his oldest; his namesake (loyal readers already know how close I came to being Terryll Odis Thompson III).  As I’ve previously discussed, I was the plaid koala bear in my family and after a childhood of trying to fit in, I have spent most of my adult life trying to not fit in with the countrier of my relatives, to the point that my nieces and nephews are apparently under the impression that I spent my childhood at boarding school or some other elsewhere and want to show me how to ride a horse or drive a four-wheeler.  When I remind them that I actually knew how to do all of those things, they seem confused as if a member of the royal family had suddenly appeared next to them at the Dollar General, buying generic aspirin and Little Debbie snack cakes.

                June is Gay Pride month, for those of you who don’t know.  And I attended the parade and festival in San Francisco, with some friends.  My surprisingly supportive father asked why I had never attended Pride and I told him, half-jokingly, that in order to attend a Pride event, one would need to be proud.  And until very recently I was most certainly not proud.  I wanted to be gay even less than those members of my family who are still not supportive and those who until this very moment didn’t have confirmation.  I apologize for springing this on you, although to be fair, how surprised could you be?  You’ve met me before.

                From the ages of 12 through 40, I was your typical self-loathing Southern Baptist homosexual the likes of who publish painfully narcissistic, poorly realized coming of age memoirs with prodigious efficiency.  This disclosure also helps explain why I talk and dress ‘like that’.  I won’t go into any memoir-y reflections today (you’ll have to wait for the publication that you know is forthcoming).  Suffice it to say, I had spent so much time thinking about my issues I never really gave any thought to anyone else’s; especially my Dad’s.

                And I realized that as much as I expected him to hate me, he didn’t.  And I never gave him credit for that.  Unfairly, I gloss over the fact that my mother went to her grave devastated and convinced that I was wrong about my orientation.  So desperate for her “sweet, precious boy” to be normal, she tried to find me a girlfriend, in the form of her nurse, as she lay dying in the hospital.  It took me more than 10 years to find it within myself to feel as if I wasn’t a walking disappointment and to actually think I was worth something.   

                 And the whole time my Dad was steadfast in his support, constantly saying he loved me and didn’t care that I was gay.  And for some reason I didn’t care that he didn’t care.  He had his role, written in my teenaged mind, and I refused to allow him to re-write it.  I took all my hurt out on him.  How do you apologize for something like that?

                As much as I expected him to toe the line when he moved in, he didn’t.  He also didn’t try to get on my nerves and has been exceptionally accepting of the changes I have forced upon him.  He eats what I cook, he voluntarily washes dishes and recycles with the fervor of a dyed-in-the-(fair trade)-wool tree hugger.  He even acquiesces to my request for him to wear something other than his house shoes (slippers to my Yankee friends; scuffs to my friends in Lafayette County) to the Wal-Mart when, truth be told, who cares what he wears?  I should just be happy he’s still around.  And I am. 

                What I wouldn’t give for one more minute with my mother.  And I am keenly aware that I have a limited amount of minutes with him as he approaches his 72nd birthday later this month.  Why can’t I just enjoy what he wants to do?  Why do I have to put so many parameters to our relationship?  I know we aren’t what the other necessarily wanted in a father/son, but we are what we have.  And I am grateful that I got his sense of humor and his generosity.  I am less thankful that I got his temper, short legs and lack of posterior.  On another note, why can’t I just say butt?

                For better or for worse, I am what I am and before someone bursts into song, I will say that although I have sometimes begrudgingly cared for him these last two years, I hope that it still counts as love.  We’ve discussed how God doesn’t have a last nerve and I hope my Dad doesn’t either; if he does, I haven’t found it yet.  Should I one day find his or he mine, we have coping mechanisms in place.  He has Zoloft and rib eye steaks.  I have great friends, thrift stores and the location of said Zoloft and rib eye steaks.  And I don’t really think I need to say anything else.