Why I’m taking a knee today

MASH83

If you wanted to be somebody at my high school (which no longer exists, by the way) you had to be on the football team. There were other sports teams and activities, but the attention that was given to the football team made many of my classmates put in the time and effort that were needed to suit up and play a game on Friday nights in the fall.

American society has put football–and particularly the NFL–on an exceedingly high platform. The athletes who play the game at this level have made enormous sacrifices to be where they are, including the newly-understood risks to their mental health and well-being. The players live lives the rest of us can hardly imagine, and when their time on the field is over, many of them painfully wither away. All the fame and adulation given to them today won’t  restore what’s being lost underneath their helmets.

So if a player at that level of the game wants to use their notoriety to bring attention to causes or issues they believe in, who among us is qualified to say they can’t? The act of taking a knee during the National Anthem–which many players are poised to do–is only disrespect to those who want to see it as such.

When Donald Trump went to a rally in Alabama and called players taking a knee in this manner “disrespectful” and labelled them as “sons of bitches,” he scored some cheap, racially-motivated points. But he also set off a firestorm that America doesn’t need, especially not now. Houston needs rebuilding, the Florida Keys need rebuilding, and Puerto Rico needs basically everything: Power, water, you name it. But rather than address those issues, Trump decided to ride the racist wave one more time. It’s not surprising, and it’s not leadership, either.

Last night, I went out to dinner with my wife and youngest daughter to a Thai and Chinese restaurant in Chicago. At the end of the meal, there were three fortune cookies brought out, and the one I opened up read as follows: “People are waiting to take cues from you. Lead them well.” If only Donald Trump could have such wisdom and insight as my fortune cookie did last night.

Let’s do what we can to help Americans in need, and not let a dictator wannabe set the tone on what patriotism looks like.

In defiance of Donald Trump–who took multiple draft deferments to fight in Vietnam and has wrongly impugned the actions and character of his predecessor, Barack Obama– I’m reviving my blog today in order to take a knee. I love this country, and even though I was never a football player, I did play one onstage once. I was 15 at the time, and the man I am today is grateful that whatever physical concerns I may have, potentially having CTE is not among them.

Whatever is said or written about the actions of these players today will be a distraction from the profound needs of many Americans right now. Donald Trump can’t see that, but I’m hopeful that others will. Think of this blog post as my attempt to live up to what a fortune cookie told me to do last night.

 

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Being somebody

MASH83

MASH

Last night I saw my daughter perform onstage with the rest of her classmates. They performed “In the Heights” and it was a one-shot performance at the end of the school year. She goes to an arts school because she grew up loving Disney musicals and Glee and Wicked and High School Musical. She’s performed in over a dozen shows, and watching her on stage never gets old.

When I was fifteen, and in high school myself, I was a mess. I was an awkward kid who said and did as little as possible, desperately hoping to remain in the background whenever I could.

The one thing I wanted to do when I started high school was play football. I thought that was the way to stand out and be recognized for something. I was willing to endure the workouts and hit the weight room  if it meant becoming somebody different than who I was.

My parents, however, said no. They didn’t want me getting hurt, so they told me I couldn’t do the thing I most wanted to do. I hated them for it, too, because I didn’t know how else I was going to make my mark in school. But fate can work in some funny ways sometimes.

I went out for a part in the school play, which was M*A*S*H. The finale of the TV series had recently aired, and I watched the show for the first time  as it was going off the air. I got a small part as the clueless commander, who was in the first scene and maybe one more in the second act. It was a bit part, but I was a bit player so I didn’t mind it too much. It was what I wanted, even, at that point in my life.

But a bigger role was presented two me two or three weeks before the show. Someone had left the cast, and I could have the role if I learned all the lines in the time that we had left. It was a challenge, but I accepted it and did what was asked of me.

We only performed two shows, one Friday night and one Saturday night, back in the fall of 1983, but they were a revelation for me. I realized that when I was onstage, people looked at me and listened to words that came out of my mouth, which otherwise didn’t happen for me. I found the thrill of that feeling overwhelming. The shy and awkward kid had found a place where he wasn’t shy and awkward, and it was an experience I’ll never forget.

In one of the scenes I was required to put on a football jersey and pants, and carry a helmet with me onstage. I knew that it was the closest I was going to get to playing football, but by that point I didn’t mind it at all. And now, thirty years after the fact, I’m glad that the everyday aches and pains that I sometimes feel don’t have anything to do with football. And the awareness of head trauma and dangers of CTE are something I’ve been spared, too.

In retrospect, I’m glad I never played football, and that I got a chance to experience what being on stage felt like, instead. I tried out for, and had a part in, the musical South Pacific the following spring, but my budding theater career came crashing to a halt when I opened my mouth to sing onstage. And my school never again put on any non-musical plays, so M*A*S*H stands alone in my memory. To borrow a phrase from the Rolling Stones, I didn’t get what I wanted (football), but I did try, and I found something that I needed instead (validation and attention through performing onstage).

My daughter, fortunately, is blessed with a lovely singing voice, and where it comes from I don’t exactly know.But I know how she feels being onstage. You feel like you’re somebody, because you are. You’re what everyone in the audience looks to for the entertainment and the escape–however brief it may be–from the realities of everyday life. I couldn’t be happier she enjoys it as much as she does. And I’m proud to support it in every way I can.

A vote of confidence

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Saturday morning, Chicago

I was out walking my dog this morning when I had to find a dumpster. The dog had completed his task for the morning, and I had dutifully–an ironic term there, I suppose–picked it up in a plastic bag. Disposing of it in a dumpster was a necessary prerequisite for returning home and giving him his treat. Every dog owner knows this routine.

After disposing of the dog’s business, I spied a penny on the ground in the alley. More than half the time I see a penny on the ground, I pick it up and look at the date stamped on it. It’s given me food for thought on several instances, such as with 1995 and 1968 and 1986. There are a few others, but I don’t want to take away from today’s find more than I have to. Because 1983–the year stamped on today’s penny–was a pretty significant year for me.

In the fall of 1983, I tried out for the school play. I was a sophomore in high school, and wanted to try my hand at acting. It’s not clear to me today why I did it, because I was an awkward and shy kid at that stage in my life. What made me want to get on stage and recite some lines is something I still don’t fully understand.

I got a small part, a General of some sort, who had maybe two or three scenes in the show, which was M*A*S*H. The final episode of the TV show inspired by the play had aired earlier in the year, and the juxtaposition of these two was probably not a coincidence. “Suicide is Painless,” the haunting theme song for the show, was played as we came onstage to take our curtain calls at the performances. I’ll always have fond memories of being in that show, and regret that I never seriously thought of acting again after this show. But the things you didn’t do in life cause more regrets than the things you did do, and I understand that now. Not so much when I was fifteen, though.

The big moment of this play, and the reason I’m typing this out today, is because of the director of the play, Brother Vince. He was a rather heavy-set guy who was something of a priest-in-training. He spent one year at my high school, and was my religion teacher. He also decided to direct a play, so at least I knew who the director was. I doubt I would have tried out for the show, otherwise.

I wasn’t a football player–which is what everyone wanted to be at my school–and my parent-imposed exclusion from the jock culture left me to explore other options, instead. I started writing for the school newspaper, which I enjoyed a lot, but I wanted something else to go along with it. And the school play seemed to be a good outlet for it. Three decades later, both of my daughters are in every play they can find, and I think of this as carrying on whatever it was that I once did, but to a degree I never thought possible. And I’m so proud of them for doing this.

But back to M*A*S*H for a moment. I attended an all-boys high school, but the girls from the all-girls school up the street also auditioned for the play. I wanted to be around the girls, as any hormonal teenager would, so being in the play gave me a chance to admire them from afar. No way did I have the confidence needed to actually speak to any of them. But being in their presence was enough for me, at that stage of my life.

I had learned my lines for the part I had, and one day the director, Bother Vince, offered me the role of Trapper John. It was one of the meatiest roles in the play, and the guy who was originally given the role–a junior who also played on the school soccer team–either quit the play or was made to decide between the team and the play. The latter option had never occurred to me before today, and what the true story is I’ll likely never know.

I knew that this role offered more stage time, which I wanted, but would entail having to learn a lot more lines than I already had. I didn’t want to let my director down, but I was hesitant to take on the added responsibility. I finally agreed to take the part, because I reasoned that the offer would not have been made unless he thought I could handle it. I took it as a vote of confidence, and I accepted the challenge that came with it.

I learned the part, and found myself tremendously emboldened by the experience. The soccer team’s season ended a week or two before opening night, and the guy who had the Trapper John role may have wanted to reclaim his old part. It was never asked of me to relinquish the part, and I don’t know what I would have done if this had happened. In my mind, it was my part, because I had put in the time to make it so. And so it was, when the curtain went up on a weekend in early October of 1983.

Acting gave me a sense of self-confidence, which is something I had never had before. When I was on the stage, everyone in the audience was looking at me, and hearing my voice. For a kid who had spent his life seeking out the shadows at every opportunity, this was an elixir of a kind I had never yet known.

A great thing happened to me, some 32 years ago. I found a sense of confidence that needed some discovery and some nurturing to fully reveal itself. Whatever happened to Brother Vince after that year, I have no idea. But his decision to stage a play, and to offer me a bigger role than the one I originally had, and then stick with me through to the end, is something that I’ll always be grateful for.

My older stage diva needs a ride to her college class, so I better wrap this up. But I’ll see her on stage again before too long, and I’ll be sure to think of Brother Vince when I do.