Meliorism: n. the belief that the world gets better; the belief that humans can improve the world
Twenty four million children in America, one out of every three, grow up in a home without a father.
My father left home for the first time when I was in second grade. He returned and then left for good a year later. I never asked, and no longer want to know, what the reason was for my parent’s separation. I do know the divorce was ugly on both sides, but for the most part they managed to keep both my brother and myself out of it. And aside from a few counseling sessions where I was forced to discuss how it felt – I don’t remember ever being asked to talk about my “feelings”.
Memories can be strange things – there are days when I will struggle to remember what life was like when I was a child, and then every now and then I am reminded of a moment that I had long forgotten with crystal clarity as if it was happening in the here and now. I remember the good things about my father: playing catch in the backyard, sitting on his knee while we watched the Browns lose another heartbreaker – and the bad ones – the absences, the day he moved out, and the promises he made that he never kept.
With the absence of a father, even though mine sporadically returned or we visited him, it was my natural inclination to search for father figures – men who could fill the role in my life that I suddenly found empty. Father figures aren't quite the same as having a dad in your life, but the actions they take – whether consciously or not – have a tremendous impact on your life. I was lucky enough to have several of them growing up and they all impacted me in different ways. I think the thing about "father figures" is while they can never truly replace having a dad, they can teach you a lot of the things that a father would. Growing up, every child needs someone to teach him how life works. And the people I grew up from were all teachers at heart -- There was Jack, my high school cross-country and track coach. And Michael, the father of my best friend as a kid. There was even my mom, who worked so hard to make sure my brother and I wanted for nothing. And there was Paul and Dan. I met Paul when I was eight or nine years old, a shy skinny kid with very few friends who decided, on a whim, he wanted to try out for a play. The year before as part of a field trip my summer daycare camp took, we had traveled to a local theater to see a show starring kids between the ages of eight and eighteen. And imagine my surprise to find one of my best friends at the time performing in it. That looks like fun, I thought, and went home and told my mother. The next year she brought me out to audition – this shy skinny kid with very few friends was planted up on a stage and asked to recite some lines to an auditorium full of kids and parents. I don’t remember anything about that audition, but knowing my general demeanor back then, I’m surprised I didn't collapse in a quivering heap of nerves and social anxiety. Surprisingly enough, Paul cast me and I spent that first summer at Kent Trumbull running around with my friends pretending to live in the world of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Two years later I was given a role with actual lines. Instead of being asked to just stand in the back and look cute I had to stand center stage, face the audience and deliver a short speech. “My name is mouse,” I would squeak, “And everything, everything is bigger than me!” It isn't an exaggeration to say my voice probably registered barely above a whisper – and it was unlikely it projected past the first few rows of the audience. Paul had been directing at the theater for several years and was well-known in the community. I, of course, didn't know that – he always seemed kind of scary to me then – in the way that young kids find giant men with deep voices frightening. My fear, it turns out, was completely unjustified.
Paul was an incredibly patient man and he had a gift with kids that went far beyond what most people could offer. One day, before rehearsal began, I remember Paul pulled me aside, sat down with me and talked. I don’t remember what he said anymore, but whatever he did – I was able to get onstage later that day and lift up my voice to the back rows of the theater. And at the end of the rehearsal, Paul smiled and congratulated me on a job well done. And I had never felt prouder in my life. I don’t remember my own father ever congratulating me on anything – but here was this amazing man giving me the praise I had craved unknowingly for so long. As the years passed, I grew to love Paul deeply. He taught me small things, like how to tie a tie, and larger ones, like how to be confident in myself. I cannot overstate the importance of Paul’s influence on me – and without him, I’d probably still be crippled with intense anxiety, withdrawn into myself, and unwilling to do anything beyond sticking my nose in a book. But with Paul’s gentle guidance, I grew – and I became more secure and confident in who I was.
When my mother had to work overtime, because she was a single mom trying to raise two kids, Paul would come to my house – undoubtedly out of his way – and pick up my brother and I for rehearsal. Has patient, kind, and amazing with kids – and as I grew older I began to see how even the most frightened of children would light up in his presence. And in all the years I knew him, and all the years since – I have never known anyone to speak ill of Paul.
When I was eighteen and having just graduated high school; I decided I was done with theatre. I wanted to spend more time doing other things – playing video games, running, and girls. I didn't audition for Summer Stock that year. I was too old for such nonsense. The night after the final round of auditions, Paul called my mother and asked why he didn’t see me and then explained he was going to cast me anyways and I had better be at that first rehearsal.
These days I often claim theatre as my religion – the way I connect with an intensely spiritual part of myself, and the way I connect with strangers – and I don’t know where I would be without it. If Paul had let me go my own way, and do other things – I know I wouldn't be the person I am today. Theatre has been important to me – as a participant or as an audience member – and I don’t even want to know how empty I would feel without it in my life. When Paul died, I lived in Chicago, and I was struggling at the time to make ends meet. I wanted desperately to return for his funeral just to give his wife, Kadey, a hug and to let her know how much Paul meant to me and how important he was to my life.
One of my great regrets is that when I was growing up, I was too young to fully appreciate Paul’s influence on my life every summer – and by the time I realized just how important he was, he was gone, and I was never able to tell him. I don’t believe in heaven – but I do believe in memories. I will always hold the memories I have of Paul dear – and the lessons he taught me just by being the kind of man he was. I met Dan when I was ten or eleven, still that skinny little shy kid with very few friends. He worked at the same theatre as Paul did, and I mostly knew of Dan as that friendly guy, almost as skinny as me, who always had a smile on his face. My earliest memory of Dan is with his wisp-thin mustache and over-sized Summer Stock T-Shirt, tearing tickets in front of the auditorium on show days. While Paul was instrumental earlier in my life, Dan became a great influence later on.
After I graduated high school, I went to college at Malone University for a semester and a half before the culture there became too conservative for me to handle and I dropped out. A half a year later I enrolled at my local college, Kent State – Trumbull. There I took a theater class that Dan taught – he remembered me, as he had watched me grow from the age of 10 to 20, and I remembered him. But I don’t think we spoke much to each other before I began taking courses at that campus. I did drop out halfway through that first semester at Kent Trumbull as I didn't enjoy college much then – and when September 11th happened, I couldn't find a reason to continue. Back then I was terribly, terribly unhappy. A year later I had somehow managed to piece my life back together again and re-enrolled – and took Dan’s class again. This time college stuck.
There are a lot of professors I've studied under through the years that I owe great debts to – Rosemarie for furthered my love of academia, Noelle and Marya who encouraged me to write, Carol who helped me embrace a side of my life I had long refused to admit existed, and Dan --
While Dan was, first and foremost, a theatre professor – it isn't there that he made his biggest impact on me. His encouragement through the past dozen years of my life was a major influence on how I approached things, but I like to think that his contribution to the person I have become goes deeper than that. Dan fundamentally changed the way I see the world. Today I am a staunch ally of LGBTQIA rights, but there was a time I wasn't. I don’t know if I would have called the old me homophobic, though I often said glib things like: “If they grab my ass, I’ll kick theirs.” But I certainly wasn't an ally – I didn't care one whit about equality beyond how it would benefit me. I was asked recently why I, a heterosexual white-ish male, why I am so adamant about LGBT rights – and in my mind I always respond with: “Because of Dan.”
When I get upset at bigotry and hatred being spouted by the ignorant, it is because I keep thinking: “How can they say that about Dan?” And this goes far beyond just LGBT issues. I once overheard someone making racist comments about a mutual African-American friend and as he went on, I pictured someone like Dan, with that same generosity and warmth of spirit that Dan possesses, being the recipient of such hatred.
Let me be blunt here, and say that this is not hyperbole. Dan is, without any thought or hesitation in my mind, an example of someone everyone should aspire to be like. Patient, even when he doesn't have to be; kind, when kindness is not needed; understanding, when presented with situations where any ordinary person would snap; and loving – even to those who don’t deserve it. When I think of Dan, and his husband Jim, I often find myself thinking of my own mother and father. In Ohio right now, Dan and Jim, two people who love each other more than my mother and father ever did, aren't allowed to get married in the state they have made their home. They pay taxes, they vote, and they do their best to live a life without any regrets.
I remember my father saying once, “I don’t have any problem with gay people, but no son of mine will ever be one.” And I laughed then – but now, I would be offended because something like that implies that people who identify with a non-binary sexuality are somehow less than those who are heterosexual. And there is no person I've met in my life that I consider a better example of the human race than Dan.
I remember sitting in a Politics class one day when the discussion of gay marriage came up – Massachusetts had just became the first state to legalize marriage then – and listening to the people around me decry the decision. According to these people, Dan was not considered equal. And my heart broke. And all I wanted to say was: “You’re right – people like Dan aren't equal – they are better than you.”
I've been on the receiving end of racism before, I've been called a sand nigger more than once, or a towel-headed terrorist motherfucker. I've also dealt with audism and ableism in the workplace. But those were all subtle forms of discrimination, where people would be careful where they said what they said. Those were whispers in closed rooms, never in public. But this was different – this was people being open and out and proud about being a bigot.
I can’t ever imagine living in a world where it was okay to tell someone they aren't worthy of the same rights and respect as others just because of who I have chosen to love. Right now the Sixth Circuit is debating the issue of gay marriage – and I hope they rule in favor of equality. I want to be able to live with the knowledge that Ohio, the state Dan calls home, considers him as worthy as I do. For some people, the realization of just what equality means may take a long time, for others it is a moment that flips a switch and helps them to understand. For me it was just being around Dan. This wasn't a conscious effort on his part, in all the years I knew him, outside of a LGBT course I took my final year of college, I don’t remember him ever once talking about politics with me. I don't think I've ever thought of Dan as solely defined by the fact that he wasn't a straight guy like me, the way he acted - it just seemed normal. He shaped my worldview simply by being who he was. And, like I said, this isn't just LGBT rights – but he helped me put a face to a lot of issues I had so far been disconnected from
These days I think of Dan often while I am in Chicago and watching the news on gay rights and the steady progress that we are seeing happening. I think often of the kind of person he is – and while I may aspire to be so, I have no illusions I will ever become anything like him. I’ll be happy to be half as good of a man, and teacher, and a friend as he has been.
I may not have gotten a chance to say my thanks to Paul, for everything he did for me when I was a child, but I don’t want to let the opportunity pass by with Dan.
This coming weekend marks the end of what may be the last show Dan will direct at Kent Trumbull, a theatre I called home for over a dozen summers as a kid, and a theater I performed on for another ten years as an adult. This past weekend, a gathering of people got together to toast Dan and wish him a very fond farewell as he heads on to the next phase of his life at Kent State’s Main Campus. I wasn't able to attend the gathering and I won’t be able to attend the final closing weekend of Steel Magnolias, though I badly wish I could just so I could see him in that theatre, where I grew up for so many years with both Paul and Dan, one last time.
I know Kent Trumbull will miss him, just as I do here in Chicago, and I know it won’t be quite the same without his presence there. I hope the next person they bring over to oversee the theatre program there is only half as inspiring as Dan was. Like Paul, I've never known anyone to speak and ill word of Dan (except for my own criticism: “He is too goddamn nice!”). And like Paul, I don’t think I can count the number of people Dan has touched just by being there and lending support wherever he could.
My thanks to Dan goes far beyond anything I could write here. His impact on my worldview is only a small part of the what I owe to him. His encouragement, support, knowledge, and his continued refusal to let me give up on the dreams I've had are incalculable. As I sit here tonight in front of my computer trying to think of how I would be if I hadn't met Dan, I am struck by the fact that my life is infinitely better just by knowing him.
Life isn't simple, and you can’t break it down into tiny sections, no matter how hard you try. I've attempted to separate and compartmentalize all these different aspects of who I am, my family, social, work, theatre, and academic lives – but every time I reflect I am struck by how the effects of someone I've met in one aspect of my life has bled through to shape another.
Life is a collective sum of everything – and some rare individuals, like Dan and Paul, resist the categorization of being someone in my “theatre life” and impact every aspect of me just by being who they are. So my thanks to Dan, just like it would have been to Paul, is the same. Simply: “Thank you for being you.”