howdy valentine…i wish i could quit you

Hi There, Pardner! I wish I could quit you.

Valentine’s Day was always troubling for me as a gay grade schooler.

I was expected to share giggly little messages of love with my classmates—that is, of course, girl classmates.

The messages were corny puns and all about the boy-meets-girl romances of the 1950s and ’60s.

It was indeed a confusing exercise in futility.

I have wondered what it would have been like to hand a valentine to a boy I had liked back then, or even now in this brave new world where children are supported by loving parents who encourage them to express their feelings.

Continue reading “howdy valentine…i wish i could quit you”

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real christmas stories

true lies

Santa came to our house on the eve of Christmas Eve each year, the night before December 24th, a whole day earlier than for everyone else I knew. My mom explained to us that there were way too many people in the world for Santa to visit on one night, so he had a special Christmas Eve list and we were on it. We also opened our presents ahead of tradition on Christmas Eve night, right after dinner, not the next morning like everyone else. But we didn’t ask for an explanation for that difference, not after waiting an entire day, from dawn to dusk, with unopened Christmas presents in the house.

Yes, later when we were older we learned that mom had practical reasons for breaking with tradition. She wanted to avoid squirmy children at church on Christmas morning. She had learned that, whether presents were opened right before or immediately after church, they danced too much in the eight wee little heads she needed to keep calm through Christmas morning mass.

Continue reading “real christmas stories”

sidewalks of new york

a field guide for taming the wild pedestrian

When I arrived in New York 25 years ago, there was a shared sense on the street that if you didn’t follow the rules you could get hurt.

Figuring out the correct side of the sidewalk and how to navigate taxis, bike messengers, and loose mental patients was part of survival in this tough City. It was also part of being a good fellow New Yorker. You felt proud of yourself as you accomplished the ways of the City. Similar to stepping confidently onto a “people mover” at the airport, you learned what “regular coffee” really meant at a street cart, how to fold your Times so as not to annoy fellow subway passengers, how brief a question needed to be for a New Yorker to answer it, and that you always stayed to the right and moved attentively on the sidewalk.

True New Yorkers knew these things. New New Yorkers wanted to learn them quickly. Visitors wanted to know so as not to draw attention to themselves. We were all in it together. And if you hadn’t figured that out yet, you quickly did, or risked being run off the curb. Continue reading “sidewalks of new york”

f*ck

Last week a friend posted a Gawker video of consummate New York actress Elaine Stritch saying “fuck” while on the Today show to promote Shoot Me, the new documentary about her life.

I actually don’t understand why hosts Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford were so surprised, except to fain chagrin for anyone in the home audience who was offended by it. But I suspect most people would have been more surprised if Stritch had not said “fuck.” She has built a long career on being herself—a crusty New York broad who speaks her mind with unapologetic gusto and humor—and everyone knows it.

My comment on my friend’s post? “Everyone should say ‘fuck’ on the Today show.” Continue reading “f*ck”

gray’s papaya lights go out on 8th street

Eater.com has spent the past few days celebrating the life and death of Gray’s Papaya at the corner of Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue, with photos of its bright orange lettering being removed from its awning and reminiscent post from followers about drunken munchies and Gray’s goofy signage.

I, myself, best remember Gray’s Papaya, and the Famous Ray’s Pizza of Greenwich Village a few blocks up Sixth Avenue (which also recently closed for the second and final time), on my late-night walks home from Bob’s NYU dorm during our first year in New York, when he lived in graduate student housing on Third Avenue and I lived in the Jesuit Community on 17th Street. Continue reading “gray’s papaya lights go out on 8th street”

madela’s peace and 1960s christmas

Jim and Jane Henson’s handmade Christmas card from 1960.

Nelson Mandela’s death reminds me of all the great men and women who put their lives on the line for peace and justice, especial those of my childhood.

As a kid in Catholic grade school in the 1960s I was very aware of what the “reason for the season” really was. It was something more powerful than Santas kneeling before a manger, a fish on a bumper sticker, or a fight in a mall parking lot over being wished the wrong happiness.

We were taught that the message of the first Christmas was the longed-for good news of the coming of peace and justice to those who needed it most: the poor, the war-torn, the oppressed, and to ourselves when we recognize our humble role in the story. The great messengers of my childhood were not just from MY church or MY country, but from all over OUR world, and these men and women literally risked their lives for it.

Continue reading “madela’s peace and 1960s christmas”

kempster all-saints day

This week, many people have celebrated All-Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls Days, but my family has one more of its own: November 5th.

It started back in 1888, when my father’s father Edward Llewellyn Kempster was born on that day. And it remained a major day of celebration until grandpa’s death in 1990, having lived to be 101.

But only a few years later in 1995, my mother died on November 5th, followed over the next couple years by two of my father’s siblings—my uncle Brenton Kempster and my aunt Mary Kempster Hand—both passing on that day in subsequent years. Continue reading “kempster all-saints day”

bullying & empathy: honk if you hate bullies

I was bullied in grade school. I hate bullying passionately. It breaks my heart. It makes me angry.

But I was disturbed by this story about a Ft. Hood, Texas father who, upon hearing that his son was bulling his fourth-grade classmates, forced him to stand at a busy intersection holding a hot pink sign that read, “I am a bully. Honk if you hate bullies.” The father made the case that “we don’t need another Columbine.”

Continue reading “bullying & empathy: honk if you hate bullies”

love songs to blue skies

With art school, parish duties, and New York at my doorstep, I barely had time to be homesick for California, that first autumn in 1989. But I was. I missed Berkeley’s temperate climate and dramatic landscape, the way nature entered everyday life, how people treated one another, the forward-thinking politics, and my friends. Oh, my friends. And the deep, clear blue West Coast sky that saturated Berkeley’s daylight, the shadows, and my mood most of the year.

Having in the past only visited New York during its damp springs and hazy summers, I had no idea that crystal blue skies were a trademark of New York autumns. Continue reading “love songs to blue skies”