Unfathomable

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So now the chief occupant of the White House is accusing a congresswoman of fabricating her version of what he told the widow of a slain soldier, that he [the soldier] “must have known what he signed up for.”

Of course he tweeted this morning that he has PROOF to back up his claims about the fabrication.

In my early 20s, I taught teenagers in Austria. Together, we read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell in German and English.

The teenagers, most of whom had never been outside Austria, took delight in teasing me, an American who has lived his life in both languages and cultures, about how Orwell’s world was really the United States. They would see the slightly embarrassed look on my face, listen to the mild surprise in my voice when I would explain how America is a vast and complex country that has done a lot of good for the world, that it was founded by highly intelligent statesmen who were champions of democracy.

And now we have our current president.

 

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The Innocence of a Sunday

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Mrs-HeckmanI’ve always savored Sundays. I loved going to church and everything that came with it and afterward.

If I were with my grandparents, I would sit with them and near my vast family in what was called the German Church in a small town settled by Bavarians in Pennsylvania. To this day, on a rare visit, I love reading the stained glass windows, all in German.

For quiet people, we certainly had plenty of gentle conversations on Sunday mornings, usually with relatives. Most people in that town were related in some way to each other. To my husband’s astonishment, I know many third and fourth cousins. On the rare times I see my Pennsylvania family, I slip into some form of the local dialect that is English but to this day has subtle Bavarian shadings.

I loved the doughnuts or family meals that were part of those Sundays, buying a big city newspaper, and returning to my grandparents’ home on a wooded hill to read it then or later if cousins, aunts and uncles appeared.

I think of those Sundays when I hear my daughter’s sweet voice in the morning, the excitement in her words about what the day holds — for her two dads and Ellen, usually joining the Buddhists, now and then the Quakers, then mixing with the community, then eating, then a trip in the afternoon to her favorite museum.

The news I gather on Sundays is usually on the Internet or on TV. Today, though, I had to turn it off to preserve some innocence in our home. The reporting may be excellent, but the content drains most of the optimism I wake up with. I want to keep my daughter safe as long as I can, for her to savor Sundays and have those memories with her decades later, to hold onto faith, and to know that the world can still be good and fair.

Staying a Little Ahead of the Game

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Ruckmann-by Kubota!With so many “weighty” headlines in the world, to borrow a Quaker term, I’ve needed a little more discipline than usual to keep myself centered.

A good friend once gave me this advice during times of too much or too little noise: complete one task, celebrate, complete another. Soon, the checklist will be calming. I love the simplicity and wisdom of her words!

Yesterday, when I was making those checkmarks and thinking about my young daughter and how she finds peace when she needs to, I remembered another technique that has helped me in life in surprising ways: getting a bit ahead of the game.

I wanted to graduate early from college because I couldn’t wait to work full-time! I also wanted to save money. I took a few extra classes each semester. When summer came around, I took a few courses while holding a job. In that way, when the official fall semester began, I felt like I was starting ahead. I graduated in three years.

A year into the working world, I realized I loved it but also wanted to go to graduate school — and live in Europe! I applied for many scholarships. Instead of letting the applications pile up, I tried to fill them out the day I received them. For one, I needed letters of recommendation from college professors. Whom should I ask? I took a day trip to my alma mater, visited a few professors, and asked if they could kindly write a few paragraphs. Fortunately, they said yes, so the money I spent on a round-trip train ticket was worth it even though for this particular scholarship I felt I had no chance!

But I also had a sense of relief when I finished the application a few weeks ahead of the deadline, fully expecting many more application deadlines in the next several months.

Guess what? I received a Fulbright scholarship. It changed my life forever. In direct and in indirect ways, it brought me to Hawaii many years later.

All because at the time, barely 20 years old, I wanted to feel I was ahead of the game.

I still like to have that sense, to achieve it costs very little, and years later the benefits can still be palpable! It’s wisdom most of you, Dear Readers, have probably realized long ago but I wanted to share.

Until my next post this coming weekend. Maybe I’ll write it ahead of time!

Has Being #1 Lost Its Luster?

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Ruckmann-by Kubota!On Monday, Simona Halep will be called the best female tennis player in the world by the Women’s Tennis Association.

Simona will join such legends as Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Serena Williams, and other women who have been ranked Number One.

Let’s be clear: Simona has a solid, consistent game that has taken her to the top of her sport and to two French Open finals, both of which she lost. She has also, but just once, reached the semifinals of the US Open and Wimbledon. She hits with power and covers all corners of the court with great speed.

But …

Consider this: Evonne Goolagong, who won seven major championships, only held the top ranking for two weeks in 1976, and due to the early days of computer rankings, her belated but well-deserved recognition as the best female tennis players in the world early in 1976 only came in 2007.

After winning the Australian and US Opens in 2011, Kim Clijsters held the top spot for exactly one week. Earlier in her career, in 2003, Kim was ranked first in the world for 12 non-consecutive weeks, at that time the first player to gain that honor without winning a Grand Slam singles title.

Other players followed Kim who are not exactly household names for the average tennis fan: Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki. All three could technically claim to be the best player in the world, but without ever having held the winner’s trophy of a Grand Slam tournament, did they or tennis devotees believe in their hearts that they truly were?

As a high school poet, I often did very well in competitions, but usually I was a finalist, with many second and third places and honorable mentions. My placing in those contests helped me obtain college scholarships. Was I ever Number One? Only once! I’ll never forget it. The envelope arrived in the mail and I was speechless. So was my mother who taught poets. I felt like I had won Wimbledon or in my case the junior Wimbledon tournament!

Nearly a year ago, at a conference in Honolulu for fundraising professionals, the featured speaker mentioned his days as a high school poet who had entered the same contests I had. I introduced myself to him during the lunch break. It was the first time we had actually met even though we knew each other’s names from way back when. I asked if he still wrote poetry. He said that he had stopped decades ago. He asked if I did. I told him that I still write about 20 new poems a year and have recently been published. We laughed about the contests where we competed against each other as teenagers.

I think of real poets as those who live and breathe poetry. I wish I did, but succeeding at parenthood, my marriage, my job, and devoting energy to my faith take precedence over spending more time I could or want to give to poetry.

Most of us can never even contemplate what it would mean to the best in anything. If we are fortunate, we can focus on what I believe really counts in life: finding and staying in love, becoming and staying a decent person, giving back to others, learning to let go.

Simona Halep is among the very few in this world who can ask herself what being Number One truly means. That alone is a stunning achievement. But until she wins a major championship, it will be one with a footnote for tennis historians.

 

 

Holding Las Vegas in the Light

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For all the countless victims, families, survivors. For those who against their choice have left us and for those left behind who will be haunted the rest of their lives? When will the leadership of this country come to its collective senses and wisdom?

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Where have all the flowers gone?

Sharing Cultures

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HulaYesterday morning at this time I was working with my seven-year-old daughter on her homework assignment for Tuesday: sharing with her classmates and teacher a piece of her culture. The options provided for second graders were fun: a song, for example, clothing, a game.

We chose a book Ellen has loved for years: Kennst du das? Mein buntes Bilderwörterbuch or Do You Know This? My Picture Dictionary.

In the next few days Ellen will practice telling why the book is important to her family and culture. She will present verbally to her classmates the reason she came up with on her own: “So that we continue our heritage and language.”

My daughter has been raised in two languages since she was born: German and English. She is now learning Hawaiian and a bit of Japanese. Her other father, a Harvard-educated linguist, feeds her Basque and Cornish words for fun. We keep it light in our home when we use languages other than English either in speaking, playing games, singing or reading.

For me, German has always been part of my life even though I lived only about six years in German-speaking countries. When I did, friends from those countries who knew I that I had grown up in the United States would either say I was an “honorary European” or that I was American. I would gently correct them and state that I was German-American, even Bavarian-American.

To many of those folks, this seemed incomprehensible. If you grow up in the United States, you love McDonald’s (I actually do have occasional cravings for McDonald’s fries), baseball, American football, violence, and only speak an English many Europeans, as best as they try not to, look down their noses at. You care only about being an American, have no interest in other cultures or languages.

Right?

Well, no, actually for many of us!

In my vast family with our German surnames, we pretty much know our family roots from centuries ago — where and how they lived, whom they married, when they came to the “New World.” Many of us grew up with the German language or at least German words that became kind of a family dialect on my mother’s side. A few of us are bilingual.

When my husband and I visited our daughter’s pediatrician when we were living in Germany, she asked what language we spoke to Ellen. Ben said English. Sheepishly, I said, “Well, I prefer to speak German to her.”

“Of course,” Ellen’s pediatrician replied, “That’s your mother tongue.”

Well, that was enough for me to keep my vow going that I had made to my maternal grandfather: that I would always keep the language going in our family.

So when my daughter said to me yesterday that she speaks and reads German because that way our family’s heritage stays alive, a shiver went down my spine in a good way.

She gets it. She lives in a city where you can walk down the street and hear four different languages at any time of day, is part of a faith community that traces its origins to Japan, learns Hawaiian culture, language and dance on Saturdays, and then unwinds at home by reading German!

This is all balm for my soul after reading news articles about a president ensconced in his golf club for the weekend in New Jersey firing off vicious tweets to the mayor of Puerto Rico’s largest city, a woman of non-white heritage, who has been working nonstop to deal with a hurricane that has devastated her island. The reason for his cowardly, disgraceful attacks on her? She had the nerve to question him and his lack of leadership, of understanding.

I want my daughter to continue to embrace other cultures, traditions, languages, to appreciate that if you do, you can go anywhere in this amazing world and find community. How lucky we are to be in a part of the world where that is valued deeply. How lucky we are that our last president grew up in Hawaii. How lucky we would be if only our current president could open his mind and heart just a little.

Billie Jean King

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These days, at the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world, Billie Jean King has a seat of honor, at Wimbledon often in the Royal Box at Centre Court, often with her life partner, Ilana Kloss.

To borrow a slogan from the Virginia Slims circuit (now the Women’s Tennis Association) that Billie Jean brought to life: “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.”

This blog posting would go on forever if I were to review Billie Jean’s career and life. Suffice it to write that one of the first professional athletes who came out of the closet  — actually she was forced out — and who lost millions in endorsements during that time in the early ’80s, now has an entire national tennis center named after her and is being portrayed in a major movie that has just been released.

It couldn’t have come at a better time when Civil Rights in the United States are now in danger after what I think of as an extended Prague Spring under the Obama administration. Something inside me kept saying, “This is too good to be true. I never thought this could happen in my lifetime.”

But Billie Jean King did.

I was a kid in love with the game of tennis when I first found out about her. The tennis boom was in full swing and I was hooked. I had major boyhood crushes on Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Björn Borg, and Jimmy Connors.

While most boys and then young men in my vast extended family couldn’t get enough of baseball and hunting, I was, typically, the outsider who took up something different. When I wasn’t writing poetry or practicing the piano or bassoon in my spare time, I was on the tennis court honing my two-handed backhand when most guys in that era in rural areas were thought of as sissies for using two hands, and to some degree, even for playing tennis.

That didn’t stop me. I dressed like Björn and Jimmy, grew my hair like them, and played like them, preferring to win from the baseline rather than at the net, again at that time not the expected style for young men.

I also read everything I could about tennis and competed to watch it on television when my siblings and father would groan about our one TV being turned on to tennis.

Billie Jean King was not, by any stretch, my favorite player to watch. I thought she was rude and way too single-minded on the court. But I liked listening to and reading about her. Even back then, long before I was ready to admit I was gay, I knew that Billie Jean was giving a voice to women and to other minorities that I would need and still do when I stand up for my rights. Had I not stood up for myself in my teens and 20s, I would have let myself be pushed off to the sidelines by many men and some women, young and old, with the exception of my uncles and the major women in my life.

I look back and think, “Well, given the era, they didn’t know better.” Very few people, especially in rural areas, talked about being supportive of young men struggling with their sexual orientation. Along with thousands of others, I was mocked, excluded, shunned, discouraged. It was easier that way. In fact, it almost became sport to pick on the fag. A classmate could win popularity points for doing so.

But guess what? I hung around — on tennis courts and in classrooms in high school and college, in the workplace, and in social settings with mostly straight people. Bit by aching bit, while I was trying to make sense of who I was, I gained confidence.

I later met Evonne, Chris, and Billie Jean. Yes, of the three, I enjoyed the thrill of meeting and talking with Evonne the most. I wanted to tell Billie Jean, though, that she gave me all kinds of courage to make it in life and still does. She is a timeless role model. The world can never thank her enough.

Protest and Unity

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Ruckmann-by Kubota!Dear Readers,

I’m stumped, again by Trump.

Don’t we have free speech in the United States?

Should athletes who kneel to protest violence be threatened with being fired or suspended as the chief occupant of the White House has urged?

I never knew that standing in unity with locked arms was heresy.

But wait. Let me draw from own life experience.

When I was in middle school many years ago, I had signed up for the basketball team. The roster was posted on the window of the main office. As I walked down the hall, I heard my classmates say, “Don’t let the faggot play.” They continued even when they saw the disbelief and hurt in my face.

One brave classmate, a very good athlete, protested when his fellow players jeered and even spat at me when the coach called me into my one and only game. I quit the team, believing that was the better choice rather than endure that experience again.

Except I did. It happened on my high school tennis team and the coach stood in silence.

Fortunately, it never happened on my college tennis team. I believe I know why: years later, five of us had a reunion and discovered we were all gay, something we never admitted in college!

Soon after my college tennis team reunion, I was asked to coach a men’s team for a United States Tennis Association 4.5 league. A few players quit.  I was actually advised by some well-meaning fellow coaches to promise the guys that I would never go into a locker room, never talk about any guy I was dating even if the rest of the team talked about their wives and girlfriends, and never mention that I was gay.

I was lucky. The other guys on the team stood by me. We played our matches. Two guys who quit rejoined the team. The sky did not fall.

Quitting is not the answer. Standing in unity, building community, and respecting differences are ways that offer more hope.

 

 

Quaker Light

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Ruckmann-by Kubota!Dear Readers,

I’ve been dealing with pain lately.

Not the familiar aches of distance running as I train for another marathon (my 20th). No, those are like friends I haven’t seen for a while. We embrace each other because we know each other so well and we keep each other company all the way to the marathon finish!

This pain is even more personal and a little scary because it’s not just about me but also about my most loved ones. I should state for my readers that physically we are all fine! It’s the other, dealing with the unknown, that is hardest for me. I try to be optimistic about it the way I psych myself up when I’m running and encounter a large hill!

I have asked my close friends (Friends and friends) to hold me in the Light, a wonderful Quaker practice. I asked a few last evening and I woke up at peace and ready to face and embrace what I need to today and in the next weeks. Holding someone in the Light lifts that person to hope, Light, love, healing, and sound mind and being.

So hold me in the Light, Dear Readers, and I will do the same for you over the next several hundred miles! Thank you, along with my gorgeous daughter and husband, for inspiring this blog and for reminding me of what is truly meaningful in life.

 

Squeaking By

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Ruckmann-by Kubota!Dear Readers,

What will I do when my best friend moves to China in a few weeks?

I can call her at any time of day, even though we are five time zones apart. I can continue a conversation begun two weeks ago. I can bring up any topic and know she will give it to me, a gay man, “straight.” She is loving, caring, practical, startlingly smart, and always a source of wisdom!

Once in a while I’m lucky to reciprocate for all she gives me. Recently, I encouraged her to move to China for a fresh start in her life, her career as a wonderful, nimble teacher, as a constant giver who has a chance to be given a bit of hope for herself.

I knew in my heart that China would be the right move for my friend, but I wondered how I could convince her. I mentioned that when I was barely in my 20s I received a Fulbright to study and teach in Austria. I knew that it was the opportunity of a lifetime. I remember when I received the scholarship, I celebrated by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. I was so excited I could not speak. The only person who knew for a few days was my mother, a teacher who grew up in a mountain hamlet in Pennsylvania. I thought she might be proud of her firstborn son.

A few decades later, to my astonishment I was offered a job in Hawaii, for me the most beautiful place on earth. I played in a small tennis tournament in my mid 20s and at that time thought, “Well, I’m glad I’ve seen it. I always wanted to spend at least a week in Hawaii and Iceland.”

I did squeak in that 10-day trip to Iceland a few decades after Hawaii and before I met my stunning husband. I had given up on relationships, so I thought I would become a good development director, runner, and gardener. My husband is younger than I, and at the time, with encouragement from my sister, I decided I could squeak by in our age range.

Then it came to parenthood.

I had wanted to be a parent my entire life. My husband did not. Oh boy. Somehow, I persuaded him. Time was perhaps running a bit short for me as I was in my 40s, but we did it, the best decision of my life — tied with having the audacity to set myself up for a date with my husband. We have the most glorious daughter in the world. I squeaked by.

As a family, we lived on the continental United States, Germany, and then, Hawaii. I convinced myself it was still the right time in my life to try something new, to return to a paradise I had discovered decades earlier, to squeak by one more daring move to a new home. It was one of the best decisions, next to marriage and parenthood, I ever made.

I’m glad I could recall that recklessness when my friend was considering China, when my Bavarian gut, said, “By all means, do it now, you don’t want to wake up some day and wonder, ‘What if?'”

Maybe we’ve all squeaked by in some way, and you know what, that’s perfectly o.k! Listen to your heart, your gut, your brains, and go for it!