two-beer Marcus

All other things being equal, I like Two-Beer Marcus better than I like Sober Marcus. Two-Beer Marcus is more authentic–more relaxed, more friendly, and more confident. And, at least in his opinion, he’s pretty damn funny. Sober Marcus, on the other hand, is often uptight, shy, and hesitant. I guess this is because he tends to take himself pretty seriously and is often concerned about what other people think, particularly at dance events. But Two-Beer Marcus doesn’t give a fuck. (T.B.M.D.G.A.F.)

Before we go any further–and in the spirit of honesty–One-Beer Marcus is typing now. (He’s not so bad.)

My intention with this post is not to discuss the benefits (and obvious drawbacks) of drinking. Rather, what I’d like to point out is that I think sometimes a couple of beers can let you know what’s lurking just below the surface. To quote my therapist, “Alcohol reveals what sobriety conceals.” (She typically uses this line if I’ve told her about someone who got drunk and hit on me, or someone else who got drunk and acted like a real tool bag, but I think it can be applied positively.)What I like about this theory is that, apparently, just below the surface is a guy I really like, a guy who’s more honest with himself and everyone else, a guy who’s not such a stick-in-the-mud. And whereas there’s part of me that wishes I could just drink a couple of beers every day in order to calm all my social anxieties, there’s an even bigger part of me that knows that could turn into a real problem. I mean, beer has a lot of calories, and I’d eventually have to buy new pants, and that’s something I, my wallet, and my pride are NOT okay with.

Speaking of needing to buy new pants, I just sat down on the floor–and it wasn’t easy. As I sit here, the final dance at Sunflower Swing is in progress. It’s at a place called Care to Dance, and it’s maybe my favorite dance venue so far–mostly because there are mirrors in the room. (I’m pretty famous for looking at myself in the mirror when I dance, so I’m in heaven now.) And whereas I’ve been accused of being vain–and I am–what I like about the mirrors is that they offer me immediate feedback on my dancing, and I almost always come away feeling better than I do without mirrors. If the point hasn’t already been made and belabored this weekend, I’m usually running a low level of “beating myself up” or “feeling insecure.” But when I look in the mirror, I actually like what I see. It’s better than the me that’s in my head.

I think that as a general rule, I blow a lot of smoke up my own ass. Like, I gan five pounds, and I think I’m SO FAT or SO UNATTRACTIVE and I’M SO SORRY you have to even look at me. Or I mess up a dance move or don’t dance like THAT GUY, so I think that the person I’m dancing with is probably bored, really inconvenienced by having to hold my hand for three minutes. Well, just a couple of beers (and two easy payments of $4.99), and that voice in my head gets a lot quieter. Or just a quick look in the mirror and (most the time), I get closer to the truth–I haven’t completely let myself go, and my dancing is more polished than I give myself credit for.

I once had a friend–who’s older than I am–ask me if I thought she was pretty. (There’s only one socially acceptable answer to this awkward question, right?) When I told my therapist about the situation, I think she rolled her eyes. She said, “By this point in my life, I know what I got, and I know what I don’t got.” So when it comes to things like how I look or how I dance, she says the goal is to take an honest, accurate assessment, to not make myself more than I am, but not make myself less than I am either.

Ultimately, I think the closer a person gets to his or her authentic self, the labels of more than or less than seriously start to fall away. When you’re authentic, your authenticity is enough. You don’t need to compare. And that’s what I think the value of Two-Beer Marcus is. (He doesn’t G.A.F., remember?) More specifically, he lets me know that I’m capable of being more relaxed, friendly, and confident. I mean, those qualities have always been there, or they couldn’t come out after a couple of drinks. And honestly, especially since starting therapy three years ago, I’m more of all those things than I used to be, even without the beer. And whereas it may not be perfection (whatever that is), it’s certainly progress.

[P.S. One-beer Marcus may have started this article, but Sober Marcus finished it, and he resents being called a stick-in-the-mud.]

well, that was awkward

marcus coker and megan p at sunflower swing, 2017

Once again, I’m coming to you live from a big swing dance in Wichita. (Can’t you feel the excitement?) The dance is being held at the local Shriner’s…uh…shrine, and the ballroom is on the second floor, and the floor is literally shaking, bouncing up and down like a dime store pony. Earlier I had a vision, like, what would I do if the floor collapsed? In my fantasy, I’d jump up and grab a chandelier, and think, That was close, but the truth is that I’d probably just fall to my death and (on the way down) think, I wish I hadn’t had that pizza for dinner.

Last night Megan and I stayed up pretty late. I was blogging, and she was uploading pictures from the dance. You can find them here if you’re curious. Anyway, somehow we started talking about awkward situations at dances. I told her that my standard thing to do after a dance is over is to clap my hands together two or three times like a little girl and say, “YEAAAAAAAH!” And then I say, “Thank you for the dance” and run away because I don’t do so great with strangers and small talk. After “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” I’m pretty much toast.

Once I told my therapist about a situation where I’d been spending a lot of time with one of my friends, and I ended up saying that I needed some space. So the next time I saw them, it felt really (like, really, really) awkward. And this is what my therapist said–“So let it be awkward. It’s probably them more than it is you.” And it was like this big revelation for me–let it be awkward–that it was okay for there to be tension in the air and it wouldn’t cause me to combust.

So I was telling Megan about how awkward I often feel when I try to make small talk with someone when a dance is over, how it often feels like I’m trying to force a connection that’s just not there, like the other person is giving me nothing to work with. And she said, “A lot of dancers are awkward.”

AND ALL GOD’S PEOPLE SAID, “AMEN!”

I mean, is she right, or she right?

“A lot of dancers are awkward.”

marcus coker and megan p at sunflower swing, 2017

For whatever reason, this was like big news to me. Not that I didn’t know it before, but I just hadn’t applied it to my interactions. Instead, I was taking full responsibility for every bit of small talk and conversation–asking twenty questions, afraid of just a moment of silence. I was too afraid to let things be awkward.

So my take away from the conversations with my therapist and Megan was that it’s not just me (it’s you). Any conversation is two people, just like any dance is two people. And if things aren’t clicking, if things aren’t going well, sure, part of the responsibility is mine, but not all of it. The other person plays a part too. So my new goal, at least for tonight, is simply to be honest with myself–I’m getting along with this person, or I’m not. And whereas it may be awkward for a moment if we’re not connecting, it’s not bad. It’s just something to blog about later.

[Thanks again to Megan for the photos tonight (and the great, non-awkward dances and conversations). And to Nikki who actually took the photos.]

there’s plenty of room here

At this moment, it’s a quarter ’til midnight, and I’m in Wichita, Kansas, which the locals say is “Wichitawesome.” (Isn’t that adorable? I think it’s a lot better than the one my friend Craig came up with for Fort Smith, which is “Fort Smith—It’s okay.”) I drove up earlier today for a Lindy Hop weekend called Sunflower Swing, and it’s going on now. The ballroom has started to thin a bit, but it’s still full, and the sounds of jazz skip across the floor, as do the dancers.

My typical experience watching Lindy Hop dancers is twofold. On one hand, I’m completely inspired by the talent, creativity, and—at the very least—enthusiasm. But if you haven’t met me, I tend to be pretty judgmental, which means I either end up feeling better than every one else, or feeling like everyone else is better than I am. Facebook reminded me today of a quote, I think by Eckhart Tolle, that goes something like, “When you feel better than or less than someone else, that’s your ego.” So my ego is definitely here tonight. I mean, I don’t remember inviting him, but I guess it’s good to know he hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s nothing if not loyal.

On the way here, I stopped in Tulsa to see my friends Gregg and Rita. They’re probably the Lindy Hop friends I’ve known the longest, and two of the coolest. And although they are lovely dancers, that’s not why I love them. Rather, I love them because they love the dance and love other people. Plus, they’re just amazing. Rita used to dance for Disney, and Gregg used to ice skate and teach blind people how to snow ski. And I guess when I dance with them, my ego gets quiet because the joy I feel dancing with my friends is louder than my ego could ever be. Today we even danced in Panera Bread.

It’s like I always have this moment that I’m having right now at dance weekends. I’m having fun, and then my ego pops up out of nowhere, like, HEEEEEEY, I’m over here! And then he starts telling me how great I am (which feels pretty good), and the he sucker punches me and tells me I’m not as perfect as someone else seems to be. (Rude, I know. Total party crasher. Bad form.) And it usually just takes a few hours for me to convince him once again that we’re just fine, it’s only a dance, and he’s welcome to go sit against the wall with the other nerds.

My therapist says I have an abundance issue and that I’m pretty focused on scarcity. (I’m working on it.) Usually this is in the context of money, but she says that if you’re into scarcity, it’s across the board. Like, sometimes I think, Where’s all the sex? (See, scarcity. But really, where is it?) So for the last thirty minutes, I’ve been thinking about this whole ego, comparison, who’s-the-better-dancer bullshit in terms of abundance and scarcity. I’m thinking that I’m approaching the matter as if there’s not enough talent to go around, that if someone else is succeeding or doing well, that somehow diminishes me and my success. (This dance floor’s not big enough for the both of us!)

When I look at it on paper, it sounds kind of ridiculous. (Silly ego.) Still, it’s how I feel–sometimes. My therapist says that when you feel like there’s not enough of something to go around, that’s the time to open up. That’s the time to give–give thanks, give money, give your talents. So during this period of my life when it feels like I don’t have a lot of stuff (did I mention that I sold it all?), or a job, or a plan, or a six-pack, I’ve been trying–trying–to open up to the idea that there is abundance here somewhere. (Hello! Where are you hiding, abundance?)

Well, so far what I’ve come up with is that I have an abundance of time. I don’t have a deadline to move out of my parents’ house. I get to sleep in every day. I get to do whatever the hell I want, whenever I want. And a lot of people aren’t in that situation. So I can give my time to my friends, and I can listen. I also have an abundance of talent. (I used to think this was bragging, but my therapist says it’s just a fact.) As Craig says, I “suffer from doing a number of things well.” So that means that I can give my writing to this blog and to anyone who reads it. I can give my dance knowledge to my students, or kids like the ones at last week’s dance who wanted to learn more. I can help my parents out with odd jobs around the house, like fixing the garage door, since they are unable to do it for themselves.

But back to the dance tonight, which is now over. (My friend Megan, whom I’m staying with, and I left the first venue when it closed, went back to her house, grabbed some food–food always helps–then went to the second venue. And now we’re back at her house where I can use the internet, which means I don’t have to upload this entire blog from my phone. More abundance. There’s internet IN THE AIR.) As I think about it now, there was an abundance of talent tonight, more than enough to go around. And there was an abundance of room, not just room to move around in, but room for every single person, including me, to grow and learn in. And there was room for my ego to show up, and room for us to sort things out. There was room for my mood to improve, dip back down for a while, then pop back up again.

I guess no one comes into this life knowing how to dance, always moving with grace. No, at best we stumble along, often forgetting there’s room for that too.

[Special thanks to my friend Megan for hosting me, taking the two photos of me dancing at the top of this blog, and for the great dances and conversation tonight. Your abundant generosity sent my ego running.]

Jesus and dolphins and oxygen

First, my immediate goal, other than digesting the tacos I just ate and trying to keep my head from falling on the keyboard due to sleep deprivation, is to keep this blog post short. Or at least be finished within an hour. I mean, a girl’s gotta sleep.

Second, I’ve been thinking lately that it would be worthwhile to make an effort to blog about only funny things, you know, to not be so fucking serious all the time. Like, I could probably stand to spend an entire day watching The Golden Girls and picking my nose and not try to make a life lesson out of it. It would probably do us all some good. The problem with this idea, however, is that just about every day, there’s something that gets under my skin, sort of like a soul chigger, that won’t leave me alone, and writing about those sorts of things seems to help.

But good news—nothing like that happened today. Surprising, I know, since Mercury is in retrograde, and that’s supposed to screw with everybody’s life. But really—today was a wonderful day. Like, if you were in a bad mood, you wouldn’t have wanted to be around me because I would have been THAT PERSON that just LOVES Jesus and dolphins and oxygen. (Isn’t breathing GREAT!)

Don’t worry. I’m sure it will pass.

The day started with lunch with my friend Ray. He’s the one with whom I usually have “therapy after therapy.” But today, we had “therapy before therapy,” which my mom later referred to as foreplay. (I’m just going to pretend she didn’t say that, but I guess that therapeutically and professionally speaking, she had a pretty clever point.) Anyway, Ray and I caught up on the latest with each other, and when I talked about living with my parents, he said, “I’m sure that has its charms and challenges.” Isn’t that a great phrase—charms and challenges?

After lunch with Ray, I showed up to therapy early, so I got to hang out for a while in a waiting room that could—quite honestly—use the help of a gay man. I mean, it looks like someone went shopping for furniture at a yard sale once a decade for the last thirty years. (My therapist knows I’m totally judgmental on this point. And to be fair, it’s a shared office space, and they recently got some new chairs that aren’t half bad. And my therapist’s office is LOVELY. Her answer to the waiting room is, “Look down.”)

Anyway, while I was waiting, I ran into a friend of mine whom I must have known in another life, since our paths seem to cross every few years, and it’s always in a different context (dance, therapy, etc.). So we hung out for a while, and it was like even more therapy, since my friend works in the field and is a good listener. Each of us shared about our lives, and we laughed a lot. We were THOSE PEOPLE in the waiting room. The whole time this was going on, there was a lady across the room that was waiting (on an ugly couch) for her therapist, her head buried in a magazine. I kept wanting to draw her into the conversation, like, So, why are YOU here? But I assumed that wouldn’t have been appropriate.

Well, therapy was great. (And we all lived happily ever after.) For the longest time, I almost always come to therapy with what we call “the list,” which is simply all the things that have happened since the last visit that I want to talk about. (Can you say, “Anal retentive?”) When I used to do a lot of construction work, “the list” was always written on a paint stick, and I called it “the paint stick of truth.” But now “the list” is on my laptop because that’s much easier. Anyway, I’ve had a number of things on “the list” that have been there for a couple of months, nothing major, but a lot of times I like to ask questions about psychology or self-help books I’ve read. For me, it’s like an educated version of Fact or Crap. So I got to do that today, and it was like my little heart went skipping barefoot through a field of pink tulips.

We also talked about the blog, which she told me before it went live that she supported, and she said the same today. (#winning) I told her my experience with it so far had been nothing but positive, that it’s helped me to figure out what I’m feeling and thinking, work toward solutions for problems, and even cry (to which she said, “Get the poison out, get the poison out.”) And then she said that the term therapists use for what I was doing was “self as instrument.” When I asked her to say more, she said that I was using the blog as a form of self-therapy, so I was using myself as an instrument of healing. (#morewinning)

After teaching a dance lesson this evening, I caught up with my friend who likes birds. (I’m assuming he wouldn’t want me to use his name, and I can’t think of a better way to describe him at the moment.) Anyway, bird friend was probably my original therapist, as we joke that he has “tell me everything” written across his forehead. I’m sure you have a friend like that—a good listener, a straight shooter, someone fundamentally kind.

Well, before I left the birdcage, my friend showed me a gift someone had given him. It was a Mickey Mouse calendar, one of those ones you have to change by hand every day. (Sounds like a lot of damn work to me.) And at the top of the calendar it said, “My, oh my, what a wonderful day!” (Doesn’t that sound like the cutest thing you’ve ever heard?) And you probably already know this, but bird friend said the quote was from the tune “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” his favorite song. He said you just can’t listen to it and stay in a bad mood. And then he started singing it, kind of moving his shoulders up and down, dancing ever so slightly around his kitchen. (He was THAT person.)

Okay, it’s been an hour, and I’m at twice my anticipated word limit. I’m not exactly sure how to wrap this up, other than to say I think we all need days like today. Ray calls them Self-Care days, those days when you only spend time with people you LOVE being around, your BEST friends. And maybe you get a massage or do something decadent. You know, stop for tacos. That’s what I did on the way home tonight. TALK ABOUT SATISFACTUAL.

my friend Paul

For as long as I’ve had a computer, I’ve saved just about everything. For almost twenty years, I’ve neatly organized thousands of photos, dance videos, promotional materials, and stories I’ve written, and before I had my estate sale last year, I put them all on an external hard drive with the intent of backing everything up online, almost four terabytes of worth of data. But before that could happen, I dropped the damn hard drive on my driveway and broke it.

I took the hard drive to a repair shop, and the guy did the best he could, but said I’d have to send it off. He said that used to, if part of a hard drive broke, you could just replace that part. But he said that companies got wise, and in order to make more money, they started assigning all the parts a code, and all the codes have to match. So he said I could probably still recover the data, but it could cost up to $1,500 in order to purchase the codes.

I’ve been in this mode lately of trying to think of my life as more mystical, more connected to the universe. And part of my having the estate sale was to demonstrate in a rather dramatic way that I was willing to let go and start a new life. So I kind of took the hard drive drop as the universe saying, “Let go more.” And although many times over the last several months I’ve had moments that looked a lot like, “Oh no, that story I wrote about my mom was on there,” I mostly have reminded myself to keep breathing. As my therapist says, “There’s nothing wrong with this moment.”

Well, I had a moment last week that I thought was definitely wrong, and it’s the moment I realized that the only photo I had of Paul was on that hard drive, and that thought made me really sad. Of all the files, I thought, it’s the only one that really mattered.

***

I met Paul Montgomery in December of 2006, a little over two months after I first opened my dance studio, Momentum Dance Concepts, in Van Buren. I was still living with Mom and Dad (like now), and I was in the kitchen when he called. He introduced himself as another dance instructor, said he lived in Fort Smith, I think, and asked if we could get together to “talk shop.”

So we met at Western Sizzlin in Fort Smith.

As it turns out, Paul had heard about me and the studio while he was eating at Firehouse Subs. Before I opened the studio, I’d taught dance at Mercy Fitness Center, and two of my students, apparently, worked at Firehouse Subs. Well, they were excited about swing dancing, and maybe they were talking about it, or maybe they were practicing behind the deli counter, and Paul asked them where they learned, and they told him about me. Random, I know.

Whenever I saw Paul, he almost always looked the same: dark pants, nothing fancy, always a mustache, sometimes a ball cap. I figured he was twenty or thirty years my senior. I was twenty-six.

I don’t remember what I ordered to eat that day at Western Sizzlin, but I remember Paul saying something like, “That sounds good, make it two,” and he bought lunch. As I recall, we talked for three hours, and although it was readily apparent that Paul’s experience in the world of ballroom dancing far surpassed mine, I never felt condescended to. Instead, I felt shared with and taught. He explained professional competitions. He drew a diagram of Line of Dance (the invisible oval that goes counterclockwise around the dance floor, used for Waltz, Foxtrot, Two-Step, etc.) on a lavender sheet of paper, pointing out how everything related to that line, the four walls of the room, and the center of the floor. For over ten years, I kept that sheet in a folder with other important dance notes at the studio.

Paul and I bonded quickly. We spent a lot of time at the studio, and he started working with me professionally, teaching me patterns and techniques in Cha Cha and Jive. He taught my friend Fern and me how to Quickstep. I remember having so much fun. When my life-long friend Malia (another dance instructor) and I were getting ready for a swing dance performance, Paul worked with us to clean things up, gave us pointers to make things sparkle. Both Malia and I kept asking all these questions—What about this?—What about that? And every time Paul just said, “I’ll take care of you.” And then he’d say it again, “I’ll take care of you.”

I know that sometimes I paid Paul for teaching me, but sometimes I didn’t. I also know that what I did give him was probably a fraction of what he charged other people, certainly a fraction of what he was worth. I mean, Paul had made a living teaching other professional teachers. And whereas I was able to offer the studio to him to teach some of his existing clients, it was still a far cry from a balanced deal.

Several years ago, I got into a conversation with my friend Justin. I think it had to do with a relationship I was in. (See “a Mexican soap opera.” It was that guy.) Anyway, Justin said, “Marc (a few people get to call me Marc), in this life there are givers and takers.” I nodded my head. And then Justin said, “You’re a taker.” Well, I’m not sure that’s true, at least all the time. Who would admit that? I think everyone is both at one point or another. But when it came to Paul, I was definitely the taker, or perhaps better stated, the recipient of his generosity.

Paul and I saw each other at least once a week. He seemed really private, rather mysterious. It was pretty obvious that he drove a beat-up car, what was once probably a lovely color of gold. And I gathered that he stayed maybe in a garage apartment with a friend who was a pastor, that he taught dance in Fort Smith, but I guess out of town too, since he sometimes went to Tulsa. For a while, I kind of wondered if he was a spy, or maybe a guardian angel of some sort, since he was so cloak-and-dagger and didn’t seem to have a phone number. I mean, he would always call me to set things up, but I never had a number to call him back.

As the weeks went by, Paul started to say more about himself. He’d been in a car accident, I think. There was maybe a lawsuit. And maybe the accident was the reason he’d stopped dancing for a while, sold all his competition clothes. And now he was getting back into it. So I started thinking he was a real person, not someone who walked through walls after we finished our mozzarella sticks at the restaurant just up the street from the studio. I remember around Christmas, Paul talked about his family, which he didn’t normally do. He said they’d all get together for the holidays, and each of his siblings would come with a talent—singing, dancing, I don’t know, magic tricks. I thought it sounded glorious, since my family didn’t do that.

In January of 2006, I attended a reunion for a summer camp I used to work at in Mississippi. I remember getting sick when I was there, starting to lose my voice. But I just kept using it because I was so excited to see my friends. Here’s a picture of a group of us that entertained the campers back in the day as The Campstreet Boys. This was taken just after we performed our comeback tour at the reunion.

When I got back from Mississippi, I remember getting together with Paul. He’d copied off a couple pages from a natural healing book or something. It was information about olive leaf extract. I don’t remember it helping, but that sort of thing was right up my alley back then, and I loved that we had that in common and that, once again, he wanted to help me.

I watched a video online today about a marketing guru. He was taking calls from people, fielding questions. And it’s just the guy’s personality, and I think he’s really smart, but he was practically shouting every answer. And it made me think that it really didn’t matter what he was saying, it sounded convincing. Well, Paul, didn’t shout, ever, but he had this way of delivering information that ensured maximum impact and memorability. Once we were standing outside in the cold, and I guess I’d thought we’d only talk for a moment, but it ended up being over an hour. So we were both shivering, and then Paul said, “Did you know that if a person is stuck in absolute freezing temperature that there’s a way he can heat his body to the point of sweating, entirely on his own?” And I was fascinated, thinking it was probably something monks or Jedis do, but Paul said just said goodnight and walked away. He never told me the answer.

In February, I remember going to IHOP with Paul. I know exactly what booth it was. It was one of our marathon conversations, and the waitress kept coming over, interrupting, asking Paul if he wanted more to drink. So finally Paul says, “Tell you what, don’t come back over here. If I want more to drink, I’ll flag you.” So she walks off, and Paul’s face breaks into this big smile, his teeth framed underneath his dark mustache.

And then this conversation happened. I can’t tell you how it started or ended, but I remember Paul saying, “You see how I’ve given to you.” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “That’s how you should give to other people.”

I think I saw him once after that. I remember us standing in the back of the studio, in the kitchen. Maybe he was there. Maybe it was just me and I was on the phone with him. The fact that I can’t remember suddenly bothers me. It feels like when you lose your favorite ring or some treasured object. But either way, I do remember standing there, and I remember Paul saying, “I’ll call you Monday.” So it was probably a Friday or Saturday, which seems right because I went to birthday party that weekend for my friend Emily. And I remember because the weather was terrible, and on the drive home from Fayetteville, the road was covered in ice. I had to stop three times to scrap ice off my windshield wipers.

Well, despite the fact that Paul always did what he said he would do, he didn’t call on Monday. I never spoke to him again.

I guess Tuesday or Wednesday, I was in the room I grew up in, sleeping in my twin bed, and it was beside the window, and my nightstand was in front of the window. And when I woke up, I looked at my phone on my nightstand, and I had a message from my friend Eugenia, who used to work for the photographer who owned the building where the dance studio was. They were downstairs, and I was upstairs. So I called Eugenia back, and she said it was in the paper. She said, “Your friend died. Your friend Paul.”

My friend.

My friend Paul.

My friend Paul died.

Even as I type this, I’m crying. Eleven years have gone by, and it feels like I just got off the phone with her. I don’t know that before she said it I’d even stopped to think about or label it. Paul was my friend.

Honestly, that part means even more now than it did then. Since starting therapy, a lot of my friendships have changed, and so many of them have ended. Now more than ever, the friends who are intelligent, loyal, kind, giving, funny, and talented are really, really hard to find, especially in the no-drama department. Yes, a good friend is everything.

As it turns out, Paul had a heart attack. He got himself to the emergency room, but he didn’t make it. The obituary said he was 59. He had three sisters and two stepbrothers. Also, there were a couple things he’d never mentioned. First, his real name was Richard Ray. Paul Montgomery was his stage name, his name in the world of dance and the performing arts. Second, he had a son who lived in another state. I’m guessing he was about my age.

That week I walked around in a fog. I remember going down to the studio alone, practicing Cha Cha steps he taught me, almost all of which I’ve forgotten, I’m sad to say. In the corner of the room, there was his boom box that he’d used to teach, since he still used a lot of tapes, and I only had a CD player. In the other corner, by the sound system, there was a small CD holder of his, full of music and some of his notes. And back by the boom box, there were his dance shoes, solid black, still shining, empty.

Maybe just the week before, my friend Megan had sent me a CD with a bunch of international music on it. The song that caught my attention was “Tengo la Camisa Negra” (“I Have a Black Shirt”) by Juanes. It’s nice for a slow Cha Cha. I listened to it over and over and over again the week that Paul died. I listened to it on the way to his funeral. Even now, I think of him every time I hear it or play it for one my students to dance to. The two are forever melted together in my mind, even though as far as I know, he never heard it.

At the funeral, I had the opportunity to speak about Paul, about the fact that he was my first-ever mentor, what a difference he made in my life, and how he taught me to give. Afterwards, his family invited me to eat with them, and they told stories about Paul, although they called him Richard, or Ray, I think. In the weeks that followed, I found out that Paul knew one of my friends, a local artist. They were in an artist group together.

And whereas I loved hearing all the stories and I would gladly welcome more, there are times that I still like to think of Paul as a guardian angel, someone a little less human than the rest of, proof that there’s something out there that sends miracles into the lives of people like me, people who need a little help, guidance, and encouragement, even if they don’t know they do.

But I’m sure the fact is that Paul was quite human. I can only assume there was probably a divorce at some point, a reason his own son was never mentioned, and maybe that had something to do with the fact that he gave so much to me and never asked anything in return. (Again, I’m just speculating.) And perhaps that’s more beautiful, the idea that any one of us, despite any flaws we may have, can rise to the status of mentor and friend in the life of another. What a beautiful thing.

When Malia and I later performed that swing dance routine, I wore Paul’s shoes. I remember they were tight, a little small for me, and the sole started to pull off. So afterwards, I had them repaired, and I never wore them again.

I wish I could remember more of the steps Paul taught me. I wish I’d recorded them. But that was before everyone had a video camera, and Paul didn’t like being recorded. Later, another dance teacher in town gave me a video from a class she’d taken with him, but he isn’t in it. It’s just his students, demonstrating his move with his voice in the background.

For a while, it scared me that I couldn’t remember patterns he’d taught me. What if I didn’t get everything I needed? But then I remembered this time that Paul was getting ready to teach a dance lesson to a new couple. And before they got there, he started playing music on his boom box. And I said, “You turn the music on before they get here?” And he just smiled and said, “You’ll learn.”

I’ve since come to see that one of the greatest gifts Paul gave me was his faith in me. Honestly, I think few dancers give that to each other because most of us are so insecure and concerned for our own that it’s hard to give to someone else, to help them come up. But that wasn’t a problem for Paul. And he was right. I had the studio for eleven years, and I learned. And everything turned out all right.

Eleven years later, the two things that continue to guide me are “I’ll take care of you” and “That’s how you should give to other people.” For a while, I thought that “I’ll take care of you” was a good way to think about God. Like, I always have a million questions, and God’s sitting up there going, “I’ve got this. Let me do my job.” But lately I’ve also been thinking that “I’ll take care of you” is a perfect motto to have for myself because there have been so many shit things that have happened over the years, so many times I didn’t know how to stand up for myself, care for myself, and love myself. So what better thing than to be able to look at the person in the mirror and let him know that I’ve always got at least one friend, and I’m not going anywhere.

Sometimes when I tell the story of Paul, I get these funny looks or responses that go like, “What would an older man want with someone your age?” And I get that, but it always pisses me off because it didn’t have anything to do with that at all. Once Paul told Malia and me, “I’m not gay, but I’m not prejudice.” And I kind of hate that I’m even including this paragraph, but I guess I am because if you’ve never been the recipient of an unconditional type of love, if you’ve never had a mentor, you’re probably going to be suspicious of things like kindness.

Last Saturday, I blogged about a fantastic night of dancing. (See “happier than a pig in a shed.”) And all I can tell you is that Paul was there. I don’t mean his literal spirit was there, although I think that’s possible. But I do mean that the spirit he passed on to me was there. I mean that he taught me to give, so that’s what I did whenever a kid would come up to me and say, “Will you teach me more?” And I can’t tell you the number of people over the years who had free or cheaper or longer dance lessons, or were simply the recipient of a more patient instructor, all because I knew Paul. And if anyone’s ever heard me say, “Don’t forget to breathe,” that came from him too.

Good news: Last week, I remembered that I saved a CD with the picture of Paul on it. It was the only disk of pictures I kept, and his was the only picture on the disk. Yesterday, I backed it up in five different locations.

Eleven weeks. That was how long Paul and I knew each other. And I can’t tell you why it all happened the way it did, why Paul happened to wander into Firehouse Subs and overhear two people who happened to be my students talking about dancing. But I’m glad it did. And whenever I start thinking that life sucks and nothing good ever happens, I just have to remember that. Miracles happen. And I hate that I didn’t know Paul longer, but I’m over-the-moon with gratitude and humility that I knew him. God, it has made the biggest difference.

[Paul, if I never said it before, thank you. Thank you for being my teacher, mentor, and friend. Thank you for being my guardian angel. Thank you for giving.]

two books and a ball cap

I’ve spent the last three hours working on a blog post that I finally admitted wasn’t working. So I told myself that I did the best I could, told the blog post, “It’s not you, it’s me,” and I started over. I mean, it’s only 4 AM, my brain stopped working two hours ago, and I don’t know what I’m going to do now. So what could go wrong?

The blog post I originally sat down to write was about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a book by Mark Haddon that I read several months ago and fell in love with, but also a Tony-award-winning Broadway play that I saw in Fayetteville at the Walton Arts Center tonight with my friend Marla. And although I’m absolutely riveted both by the book and the play, and although I cried a lot tonight (which is good because I almost never cry, even when I want to or when it would be really handy), that’s not what I want to talk about. Or to be more accurate, that’s not what wants me to talk about it.

So this is me giving into my muse, who apparently wants to discuss two books and a ball cap. (I can’t believe I just said that, but here we go.)

Last week I found an old gift card for Barnes and Noble. I can’t tell you how long I’ve had it, but long enough to not remember. It had $11.89 on it. So although I’m really not buying a lot of books these days, I decided to use it and get two books that I’ve wanted for a while now, books I haven’t been able to find at a library. Well, the books came today, and it felt like Christmas morning or that scene in Bedknobs and Broomsticks when Angela Lansbury’s witch’s broom finally arrives. I mean, I love books, but this moment at the community mailbox this afternoon was something else.

I’m sure someone’s going to ask, so I’ll just go ahead and tell you. The first book is by Gabor Mate, and it’s called In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. It’s about addictions. The second book is by P.L. Travers (the author of Mary Poppins), and it’s called What the Bee Knows. It’s about myth, symbolism, and storytelling. I really get excited about all this stuff.

But despite my interest in the book topics, I don’t think that’s what caused my excitement. I mean, even now, I’m looking at the two books on top of the television across the room, and I think they look so stately and lovely, which doesn’t make sense because they’re paperbacks. But I’m wondering in the best way if I’m going to be able to find room on my one bookshelf for them, since it feels like trying to find two good seats for two special guests you didn’t know were coming. (I have the sense that we’re going to be friends, that I’ll somehow be different after I get to know them.)

Tonight, after the show was over, I made a second stop by the merchandise table. I’d already been by at intermission to get a magnet, which is my standard and almost-always-only purchase. But the show was so stunning, and I was so emotional, and I’d also been drinking red wine from an adult sippy cup. So I ended up buying a ball cap. The cap is all black, and it has the outline of a dead dog on the front, and the name of the book/play on the back. (The story’s about a fifteen-year-old autistic boy named Christopher who finds a dead dog in his neighborhood and sets about to find out who killed it.)

Anyway, here’s the weird part—I’m so excited about this ball cap that I’m practically doing backflips at almost five in the morning. Two books and a ball cap, and I feel like a virgin on prom night. And I thought I needed a job or a husband to be happy.

And whereas I’m sure the book and the beautiful story and the play all have something to do with my excitement about the ball cap, here’s what I think has actually happened. As I may have mentioned before, several months ago, I threw away, gave away, or sold most everything I owned. This included getting rid of hundreds of books that I’d paid for and collected for close to twenty years. And it also included most of my clothes. I mean, when I got dressed for the show tonight, my choice was between three t-shirts.

And whereas I don’t regret getting rid of anything, and there are a lot of benefits living simply, there are times when it feels like something is missing, or would at least be nice to have. (Like, tonight, I could have used a belt.) Well, one of those things that I’ve thought would be nice to have is a ball cap, since I didn’t keep any of my old ones because they were so worn out. Well, you can get a ball cap anywhere, but I’m fussy, remember, so not just any old ball cap would do.

All that to say that I’m finding that owning fewer things has not only made me infinitely more appreciative of the things I do have, but it has also made me infinitely more excited about even the most ordinary of purchases—two books and a ball cap. And it seems there’s a lot of satisfaction in something you’ve been thinking about buying for a long time (those two books) or wanting for a while (that ball cap), and finally getting it. Like, they’re small things, but I’m so happy with them, I can honestly say I’m glad they didn’t show up sooner. Still, now that they’re here, I wonder where we’ll be going together, what dreams we’ll be more-patiently waiting for.

Marcus at the head of the table

For the last hour, I’ve been sitting in bed staring at a (digital) blank page, looking through all the photos on my phone, twirling a necklace around and around my finger, hoping to Sweet Jesus to be inspired to write about something worthwhile, but everything that comes to mind seems to fall flat. (Are you hooked yet?)

I recently heard the writer Kurt Vonnegut say that writers are paranoid people, always looking for meaning in everything, like, Why did they put me in room 471? Well, he says, of course, it doesn’t mean anything, but that’s what writers do, try to connect things that aren’t intrinsically connected.

(If you don’t believe him, just watch what’s about to happen.)

Since starting this blog, I spend the majority of my day thinking about nothing else, just bang, bang, banging my head against the wall, trying to shake out a decent idea. This afternoon, I went for a walk at the Van Buren City Park, and I kept noticing the turtles. There was this one tree limb that had fallen in the water, and at least a dozen turtles of all shapes and sizes were hanging out, catching some sun rays, talking about the latest gossip, whatever turtles do. And I tried to sneak close and take a picture, but turtles must be camera shy, since they all just plopped back in the water and disappeared. (Here’s a photo to prove it—not a turtle in sight.)

So I started thinking about turtles, like, maybe that’s what I’ll write about. You know, turtles take their time, slow and steady wins the race. And then I just wanted to gag because it sounded like a bunch of contrived bullshit.

When I got home from the walk, I started talking to my parents, and somehow we got on the topic of Mom’s stomach, which has been bothering her lately. So I’m just asking if the scan of her gallbladder came back, and she says it did, and it looked fine. And then before I know it, she’s talking about really personal things, using words like “constipated” and “gas” and “bloating” and “laxatives” and “straining.” And Mom’s in the living room with her back to Dad and me in the kitchen, and Dad gives me a look like, Aren’t you glad you asked? So we both kind of laugh, and Mom says, “Well, I know. I used to be a nurse, so it doesn’t bother me.”

So then I started thinking about whether or not it would be okay to write a blog about my mom’s bowels and if there was somehow a moral to be found (in the blog, not her bowels), since my friend Marla recently pointed out that all my stories have morals. (No pressure there.) Well, the only connection I could come up with was that listening to my mom talk about her bowels made me want to run away, kind of like those turtles on the log. Like, See ya later, bitches!

And then I thought that’s the same feeling I have when I watch videos of myself dancing, which I did earlier this evening in preparation for a dance class tomorrow. It’s like I look at myself, and my first instinct is to jump ship and throw the phone down because I immediately see something I’m doing “wrong,” or I think, That guy needs to drop a few pounds. Either way, I rarely end up feeling good, and instead end up feeling like eating Cookies and Crème straight from the carton.

Tonight I had a dance lesson with “the guy whose voice sounds like Darth Vader” and his fiancé. And partly because I saw a picture of myself a few days ago that I didn’t like, I was overly-focused on my posture during the lesson, so I kept looking in the mirror. (Usually I just look in the mirror because—to borrow a phrase I learned in therapy—I’m vain. And no, that’s not an apology.) Anyway, I noticed in the mirror tonight how rounded the area in between my shoulders looked, and that made me think of how I sometimes describe that part of my body as a shell because that’s what it feels like, this hard thing, guarding my heart on the other side.

For a good thirty minutes before I started down this rabbit trail of a blog, I was convinced I was going to write about my first boyfriend, R. I don’t have anything negative to say about him tonight, but maybe I will one day, so I’m just going to use one of his initials instead of his full name. We’re still on good terms, I respect his privacy, and I think the letter R is slightly warmer than “The Secret I Tried to Keep for Three Years” or “The Reason I Drank for Six Months.”

Anyway, R took the photo at the top of this blog, and I thought the head-clutching looked a lot like how I’ve been feeling all day, grasping at straws for an idea to come forth and bless us all with its good presence. I actually started writing an entire post about my relationship with R, but it really wasn’t going anywhere (kind of like our relationship wasn’t going anywhere, either). All that being said, R and I used to talk a lot about the fact that I worried about everything. I’d work up all this nervousness and anxiety about a dance lesson or a meeting with a boss, and then the thing would happen—and nothing. So I’d tell R that “everything was okay,” and he’d say, “On the next thing to dread.”

That phrase—on to the next thing to dread—is something I still use a lot. Mostly I say it to myself, but sometimes I say it to other people. Of course, they have no idea where it came from, but it still feels like an inside joke I get to use, a pleasant remnant of something that didn’t work out.

After two full years of therapy, my therapist gave me a metaphor for my thoughts that has been extremely helpful. (I kind of think it would have been helpful if she’d told me sooner, but if “ifs” and “buts” were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas.) She said that thoughts are like guests at a dinner party where you’re the host, and whereas “all thoughts are welcome,” not all thoughts get to sit down and have a meal. So she said when a self-judgmental or fearful or on-to-the-next-thing-to-dread thought comes up, it’s welcome in the room, but it’s okay to tell it to go sit in the corner. Like, thank you for being here, I understand why you came, but I don’t have room for you at the table. (No soup for you!)

So if I were to talk to my therapist about all the thoughts today that have sounded a lot like “Oh gross, Mom’s talking about gas again,” and “That guy in the video really let himself go” and “That guy in the mirror needs to stand up straighter,” she’d probably say, “And what does Marcus at the Head of the Table say?” To which I’d reply, “Marcus at the Head of the Table says, ‘I’m so glad my mom feels comfortable around me and that she’s just talking about anything at all. She was so sick for so long, that there were years when she hardly said a word. I just love the sound of her voice, and I know there will come a day when I’ll miss hearing it. And as for that guy in the video, he’s doing the best he can. And as for the guy in the mirror, of course he’s protecting himself. That’s usually what people do when they’ve been hurt. And he’s standing up so much more than he used to. Standing tall, after all, isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s something that takes time. Slow and steady wins the race.’”

[This blog post is dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut.]

don’t tell me what to do

This afternoon I went to Crystal Bridges Art Museum in Bentonville with my Aunt Terri, my cousin Dustin, and Dustin’s fiancé, Christy. (They’re all from Tulsa.) I assume the trip was something they planned before today, but I just found out about it when I woke up this morning, or as some people call it, afternoon. Since I didn’t have any plans, it was a lovely surprise.

On the drive up, I played my two current-favorite songs on repeat, and I looked at the mountains and the trees (and sometimes the road), and I thought, God, life is great.

After meeting Terri, Dustin, and Christy at Christy’s parents house, the four of us proceeded to the museum, and we decided it was more important to sit down and have coffee before checking out the exhibits. Well, everyone got a small coffee—like, honestly, they looked like shot glasses. But I got a sixteen-ounce coffee, the largest on the menu, because I have a problem with moderation. (I don’t like it.) So when we got ready to look around, I just picked up my drink and took it with me.

The first big exhibit we saw was—and I’m not making this up—a ton of hard candy (all green) on the floor in a rectangle with a light shining on it. (Later, when we saw a large canvas that was simply painted all gray except maybe a couple small dots, Christy said, “We’re in the wrong business.”) Despite the fact that it was just bunch of candy on the ground, the exhibit was really beautiful in its own way, and the deal is that you’re allowed to take a piece of it, so the art is constantly changing. Pieces of candy go out, and then more pieces come back in.

About fifteen minutes into the exhibits (after the all-gray canvas that someone probably got paid a lot of money for), a member of the museum staff came over and very nicely said, “Sir, drinks aren’t allowed in this area, but there’s a trashcan in the restroom just around that corner.” But what I heard sounded something more like, “If you don’t put that down right now, I’m calling your parents and sending you to the principal’s office.”

Maybe I should get my ears checked.

So I threw the cup away, but not before I finished drinking every last drop of the coffee because I wanted to have the last word and feel like a rebel.

Well, I really, really try not to obsess about stupid shit like this, but I’m rarely successful at it. Like, I remember being at a water park once as an adult, and some lifeguard (who probably had acne and drove a scooter to work) blew his whistle and pointed his finger like one of those angry cops in the middle of a traffic jam, telling me I was in the wrong part of the water. So I just swam away, sort of like I threw the coffee cup in the trash, and even though part of my brain understood that it’s not personal and he’s just doing his job and he doesn’t hate me, I still felt like I’d gotten my name on the blackboard.

The good news is, the incident with the cup today didn’t bother me as much as similar incidents in the past. Like once I got a parking ticket during a trip to Knoxville, and it totally ruined the dinner I was having with my friends. It was all I could think about. It’s like the people pleaser in me just wanted to jump up and invite the meter maid to join us for pizza, in hopes that I could convince her what a nice guy I am, that I’m not a bad person for parking in the wrong spot. It was a mistake. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But today wasn’t that bad.

I’ve talked to my therapist about these sorts of situations before, and a couple of things always come up. First, I don’t like authority, and therefore I don’t like being told what to do. Second, I don’t like authority, and therefore I don’t like being told what to do.

Any questions?

I always assumed my problem with authority came from the fact that Dad was arrested and sent to prison, that I actually sat in the courtroom and watched twelve jurors, one by one, say, “Guilty.” Like, I’ve got plenty of emotional reasons to not like authority and to be afraid of getting in trouble. But my therapist says there’s more. (Heads up, there’s always more.) She says that because Mom was sick when I was growing up and Dad was in prison, I pretty much raised myself (and did a damn fine job, thank you). So since I’ve spent so much time being my own authority, outside authority and I don’t mix well.

How a person can hate authority and being told what to do and still be a rule follower, someone who’s afraid of getting in trouble, I’m still figuring out. (Job security for my therapist.) Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.”

Sometime last year, I got pulled over for using my phone while driving, and I lied and told the police officer I was looking for directions, but the truth is that I was actually texting. (This is my finding out if confession really is good for the soul. I’ll get back to you on the results.) Well, I didn’t get a ticket for using the phone, but I did get a ticket for not wearing my seatbelt. (Have I mentioned I don’t like being told what to do?) When I told my therapist that I felt bad about lying to the police officer, she just said, “Fuck tha police.”

Apparently “Fuck tha police” is a rap song my therapist likes. (I didn’t know that she was such a thug, but then again, she also likes the roller derby.) Anyway, ever since then, Fuck tha Police has become the phrase we use to describe that part of my personality that has authority issues. And it’s not like she was encouraging me to break the law or do something stupid, but she said that particular part of my personality is always going to be there, and it has to be satisfied in some way, which I guess is why the lie didn’t bother her.

A lot of times after therapy, I go to lunch with my friend Ray. We call it “therapy after therapy.” Ray is honestly one of my favorite people, and I think it’s partly because he’s a priest but sometimes talks like a sailor, so I never feel like I need to clean up my act or put on a show in order to be around him. When we talked about Fuck tha Police, Ray told me that sometimes you just have to not give a shit—pig out on junk food and feel gross for a weekend—break the rules you’ve imposed on yourself—drive your car faster than the speed limit. So that day I drove home at a hundred miles an hour, maybe not the whole time, but for a while. And nothing bad happened. And Ray was right. It felt amazing.

Before we left the museum today, my aunt asked one of the ladies who worked there (whose hair looked like a bird nest, we all agreed) if she could take our picture. She said she couldn’t—they weren’t allowed. Then she added that she wished she could, which just made me mad and at the same time happy that I wasn’t the one talking to her. (As it turns out, when you have a problem with authority, you don’t like being told no. I’m working on it—I’m in therapy!)

Only somewhat dejected by not getting our picture taken, we went outside, and Christy asked another employee (whose hair did not look like a bird nest) if he could take our photo. And he didn’t even hesitate—he said sure, he’d be glad to.

YAH! A rule breaker! Fuck tha Police!

By the time I got home this evening, I noticed a definite change in mood from earlier in the day. I no longer felt like life was great. I mean, I thought it was okay. (You know, I’ve had better.) And I don’t think I can completely blame the incident with the coffee cup or being a little irritated about the lady who wouldn’t take our picture. But I think they played a part, just like I think the fact that I was tired and hungry played a part too.

I have this fantasy that one day I’ll go to therapy or read one more self-help book and wake up the next day transformed. Like I’ll never be in a bad mood again, and I won’t feel like a five-year-old when a total stranger says, “No drinks allowed.” But I get that it probably won’t happen that way. No, my experience of life is more like that exhibit of hard candy. Some days, it feels like a bunch of pieces of me are missing, and when the light hits, all I can see are the shadows. But then other days, it feels like all the missing pieces have been replenished, and when the light hits, the shadows scatter. As I see it in this moment, all of it is art, constantly changing. I, too, contain multitudes.

happier than a pig in a shed

I first started swing dancing in in 1999, and my sister was my dance partner. We were both living at home (kind of like I am now), and after class each week, we’d put music on in the living room and show Mom what we learned. I remember being really excited about it.

In 2007, I got interested in Lindy Hop, which is a more advanced form of swing dancing than the one I already knew (East Coast Swing). So my friends Greg, Rita, Krista, and I would travel each spring to a Lindy Hop convention in Houston called Lindyfest. Our little group called ourselves The Lindy Dogs, and we even had matching shoe bags—like a gang—well—a West Side Story kind of gang. I remember being so starry-eyed the first time I walked into the Melody Ballroom, into the midst of hundreds of Lindy Hoppers. There’s nothing like it. It’s magic. Even now, I can see Andy Reid doing a move in my mind’s eye that I later learned and still use and teach. (If you don’t know, Andy Reid is a big damn deal in Lindy Hop.)

I think those first two or three years at Lindyfest were the best because it was all about my love of swing dancing and time spent with my friends. I remember once when all of us Lindy Dogs were in the car together, and I said that I was “happier than a pig in shit.” Well, Greg thought I said “happier than a pig in a shed,” so that kind of became our group’s inside joke, and it still gets used ten years later.

But despite hundreds of great memories like this one, something happened over the course of the last ten years that quite frankly, sucks. Simply put, I started judging myself and comparing myself to other people on the dance floor. I imagine it all started out pretty innocently, mostly because I wanted to get better, and being a rule follower and a teacher’s pet, I wanted to do things “the right way.”

I used to watch the television show Once Upon a Time, and the character Rumpelstiltskin always said something like, “Everything comes with a price.” And whereas I’ve known for a long time that the price of judging yourself and comparing yourself to others is being less creative on the dance floor, I’ve been thinking lately the price is even higher than that—you also lose your joy—which, at least for me, was the reason I started dancing in the first place.

Tonight I taught a beginner East Coast Swing lesson to a large room full of mostly college students. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve taught the exact same material, but something was different about tonight, and I think it had to do with the fact that pretty much every single person in the room didn’t know shit about swing dancing. Basically, it was a room full of virgins. They don’t know Peter Strom from Peter Rabbit. And they were SO excited. There was a guy named Chase (wearing a shirt that said “I am the best” except “the best” was crossed out and replaced with “blessed”) who asked me to teach him the pretzel (a move where your arms get all twisted up like, well, a pretzel). I don’t think any self-respecting Lindy Hopper would be caught dead doing the pretzel, but almost all new swing dancers love the shit out of it. I remember enthusiastically asking my teacher when I could learn it. So I showed it to Chase—because it’s fun. The result?

More joy.

There was a kid named Jake there tonight, and he was happier than a pig in a shed. He had the biggest grin on his face during the entire lesson. Like, he was dripping with glee. Personally, I usually play my emotions pretty close to my vest, so later I just asked him, “Why are you so happy?” And get this shit. He said, “I’m just glad to be here.” Like, it was that simple. Nothing about self-judgment or comparing himself to others.

Since starting this blog, I’ve had a number of people tell me that they admire my courage, my honesty, and my vulnerability. I appreciate all of those comments, but it usually feels like they’re talking about someone else because I was literally shaking when this site went live, and there’s still part of me that likes to pretend that no one’s reading it.

I was telling one of my friends tonight that the primary goal for this blog was and still is for me to write on a more consistent basis. So far it’s working. But tonight I noticed an added benefit that I hadn’t anticipated. But before I can tell you what it was, I need to back up a moment.

For the longest time, I’ve only presented a certain side of myself on social media and in my dance classes. And whereas that side was honest, it wasn’t complete. As I think about it now, it felt like being a half person, a person who didn’t have a sexuality, a person who didn’t talk about feeling embarrassed or less than, and a person who didn’t say fuck. As a consequence to living that way, I am almost always nervous in social situations. Like, I’ve been comfortable as a teacher, but not as just a person who walks around and introduces himself and asks people how they’re doing or if I can help. I can only assume that was because I wasn’t really at home in myself, and I always felt like someone would discover that other half of me and judge me for it.

And it’s not that I intend to talk about every single thing in my life on this blog, but my therapist says that part of the goal of being authentic is to have as few secrets as possible. So that’s partly what’s happening here in a rather public way. It’s a place where, having been honest with myself first, I can be honest with others. I have a sexuality, sometimes I’m embarrassed and feel less than, and I say fuck (every fucking day). And I think Jesus is okay with all of that, thank you very much.

So about that added benefit. I was more relaxed and less nervous tonight than I have been in years. I felt at home in my own skin. I didn’t fiddle with my phone so I didn’t have to talk to people. I just talked to people, and I never once thought, What if they find out about that other part of me? And guess what?

More authentic joy.

I told some of my friends tonight that I envied the virgin swing dancers because their excitement and enthusiasm for swing dancing was untainted by self-judgment and imagined standards of “good enough.” But I think that if you love something, that love never goes away. It’s like you can run yourself ragged working for this standard of perfection and you can get really far away from where you started. But the good news is, that love inside that shows up as joy or enthusiasm is your authentic self, and it just sits there, patiently waiting for you to come back to it, to come back home to yourself and remember that not only are you good enough exactly as you are, but you’re also—just glad to be here.

[Special thanks to Greg, Rita, and Krista (pictured first, with me) for you authentic love of swing dancing. You’re like family. Also thanks to Sydnie Meltzer Kleinhenz, who helped me teach the virgins tonight and also provided the additional photos. You rock step like a rock star. Lastly, thanks to the NWA Swing Dance Society for a truly beautiful evening. It was magic.]

about going to therapy

This evening I went for walk and listened to a segment on NPR called The Secret History of Thoughts. The program focused on weird or dark thoughts that people have (like “I’m a loser” or “I should kill myself” or “I should kill my wife”) and whether those thoughts are normal or not. Fascinating, but the part that caught my attention was when one of the reporters said something like, “If I were going to see a therapist—not that I need to—” and then continued.

And it kind of pissed me off, and here’s why.

Since starting therapy a little over three years ago, I’ve been pretty open about it. Granted, until this blog, it’s not something I’ve posted about on Facebook—like, Hey everyone, I cried in therapy today!—but all my family and plenty of my friends know. In fact, they’re probably sick of hearing me say, “My therapist says” because I say it A LOT, to the point that even I think, Good God, Marcus, stop talking about your fucking therapist.

Not that I actually stop.

But the point is that therapy hasn’t been something I’m ashamed of. It’s actually something I’m proud of because it’s helped me so much. And whereas most of my family and friends are quite supportive, and although there are some exceptions to what I’m about to say, the feeling I get from most people who hear about my seeing a therapist is like, “I’m sorry your life sucks so bad that you have to do that.” And behind that feeling there’s another one that goes, “I’m glad I’m not as fucked up as you are.”

Now let me be clear—I’m not a mind reader. I don’t really know a hundred percent what people are feeling. But I’ve had a number of friends tell me that they thought they needed to see a therapist because they’re dating a serial cheater, or because all their friends are users, or because they got drunk and started crying in the backseat of an Uber. But they don’t go. One friend told me straight up he knew he should see a therapist, but he couldn’t go because people would think he’s crazy.

Sadly, I don’t think my friend’s alone in his perception. I think it’s why the NPR reporter qualified her statement about “if I needed to see a therapist” by saying “not that I need to,” like, “not that I’m crazy.” (By the way, my therapist says everyone is bat-shit crazy; some of us just hide it better than others.)

To be fair, I think there’s a big misperception about what therapy is. And all I can speak about is my experience with one particular therapist who approaches therapy in one particular way. I’m also very aware that just like medical doctors, dance instructors, and prostitutes, not all therapists are created equal. And a lot of it comes down to whether or not your therapist and you are a good match for each other. All that being said, it’s not lying on a couch and talking for an hour while someone else nods her head and takes notes on a scratchpad. It’s also not taking LSD, which I just read was Gloria Vanderbilt’s experience when she saw a therapist. (Apparently that used to be a thing.)

Honestly, I used to think that I didn’t need a therapist too. Knowing what I know now, it would have been helpful a LONG time ago. But I ended up in a relationship that was a big mess, and somehow was lucky enough to notice something, and here’s what it was. My grandpa always took care of my grandma, who was mentally ill. My dad has always taken care of my mom, who is mentally ill. And I was starting to take care of someone who was, quite possibly, mentally ill. So really, I was curious if I was repeating a family pattern, if I was attracted to someone largely because they felt—familiar. (Spoiler alert—the answer was yes.) On top of being curious, I was fucking miserable (because there were a lot of other issues in addition to any that related to my family history), which was a big motivator. So I made an appointment.

Before I went to therapy that first time, a friend of mine sent me a 22-minute YouTube video about psychotherapy that I can’t recommend enough. It features two psychoanalysts talking about their profession. One of the things the guy in the video says is that we all have a basic understanding of our emotions, and that’s like having a high school diploma, which is fine. You can get by with that. But going to therapy, he says, is like going to college. It’s a way to better understand your emotions, and therefore better understand yourself.

For the last three years, almost every time I have a therapy appointment, I’m excited to go. I’m almost always in a better mood when I leave than I was when I got there. It’s an hour totally about me and my well-being, I always feel listened to and supported, and I never feel judged for anything. And in the last three years, my relationships have improved, there’s way less drama in my life, and I treat myself better. I don’t mean to sound like an infomercial, but who wouldn’t want all those benefits? Who wouldn’t want to spend an hour with someone who tells you, “You’ve got to stop using Tinder because the quality of guys you’re meeting is ZERO POINT FUCKING SHIT”?

To be fair, there have been times when therapy has been really difficult. I’ve had some tough confrontations with people that I love, and I’ve seen more than one long-time friendship come to an end. (My therapist told me that at one point during her own therapy, her therapist was her only friend.) But despite all the changes, I’ve always felt like there was someone there to help me. I’ve never felt completely alone.

Caroline Myss, a spiritual teacher who’s one of my favorites, says that truth and change go hand in hand, that the reason we fear the truth, that we don’t want to admit to ourselves that our partners are cheating or that a loved one is doing drugs, is that we are afraid of change. She says you just can’t have the truth and not have change. So inevitably we end up running from the truth or any place we might find it. Change is just too scary.

So I get why people stay in bad relationships and don’t do anything about it. I get why it takes being fucking miserable, maybe hitting rock bottom, before you’re willing to go to therapy, or see a medical doctor about that lump in your breast, or go to twelve-step program. It’s probably less about what other people think, and more about the fact that it takes a lot of courage to face the truth and the change that comes with it. That’s a hard thing to do. I won’t lie and tell you it’s not. But I believe it’s worth it, and I believe we’re all courageous, and I believe that no one is alone.