Monday, November 24, 2014

Indictments and ‪#‎Ferguson‬

In the many prayers for peace in the St. Louis region that I’ve been seeing, hearing, reading in the days leading up to tonight’s Grand Jury decision ultimately not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, I hope that we’re all clear about why we should want peace.

We should want peace because this is the only avenue to eventual dialog, understanding, and empathy. We should want peace because we value the lives and safety of our neighbors. We should want peace because too many young African-American men have been hurt or killed, and no one, ever, should be killed on the streets of their neighborhood.

I bring this up because I have, in some posts on social media, detected an undercurrent that is disturbing. It is the entreaty to protestors to “get past it,” “move beyond it,” “let it go.” This plea usually comes from people of privilege, people who look like me, and the unspoken corollary is, “so things can get back to normal,” “so I can get back to my life,” “so I can forget all this ever happened.”

So, to my white cohorts, mostly the bros, let me be clear: WE have got to get over it. This is not going to go away. That’s the problem: It never SHOULD have been “away.” Us white guys have a nation that was just made for us – take a gander at the painting below of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, if you have any doubt – and read the Constitution, the original. No women in there, and slaves were 3/5 of a man. Three-fifths. And they were slaves.

I am lucky enough to have grown up in the 60s when three things were going on:

1) The Civil Rights Movement was in full flower and was on the CBS Evening News every weeknight.
2) The Catholic Church was in the throes of its post-Vatican II reform, calling on Catholics to serve those who needed care.
3) I was realizing I was gay.

For me the timing was perfect, and those three threads wove a tapestry that has shaped me into someone who has a calling, who has found work that helps those in need, and whose other pursuits in advocacy and the arts serve these same ends.

So I am praying for peace tonight, for all the reasons I mentioned above. But I am NOT telling people not to be angry. Because I am mad as hell, not so much at Darren Wilson or at the Grand Jury, but at a city, a nation, a society that creates these roles, these memes, these archetypes that become "Michael Brown" and "Darren Wilson," tropes almost, that will inevitably clash and immolate each other. And it pains me that so many people of privilege have written such hurtful things in spaces like this and just want it to end so they can get back to posting cute cat videos and scrumptious food pics on Facebook and planning their next vacation.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love fun stuff on Facebook. I post it all the time. And I love vacations. But we have created a world – or have been complicit in its continuance – in which vast communities do not have these luxuries because they are trying to keep body and soul and family together. And if I am angry, I am just as angry at myself as I am at any other middle-aged white guy. I was lucky enough to be made aware that, when I look in the eyes of people who seem so unlike me, I will see myself. Yet I know I can do more. We can all do more. Or in our hearts, we all face indictment.

So I pray tonight, not so much for peace as for non-violence, and I pray everyday for the souls of people in every community to be shaken out of our collective Matrix-esque torpor, to reach out, and to love our neighbor.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

#Ferguson and Kids

In the coming days no one knows what exactly is going to happen when the Grand Jury in the Darren Wilson case hands down its recommendation regarding whether he should be indicted for the killing of Mike Brown. I daresay we all hope for peace and justice, and we all hope that everyone will remain safe. 

I have been a pediatrician for just over thirty years now. I moved to Missouri in 1986 and practiced in East St. Louis for ten years. For the past eighteen years I have practiced in St. Louis at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center. I have always worked in what are euphemistically called “underserved communities.” This usually means people who are poor. This usually means people who are black. This usually means people who are both. I have seen parents endure terrible hardships to keep their families together. I have seen grandparents heroically taking on the care of children years after they thought they were done with childrearing. I have been humbled by seeing kids who have done remarkable things under circumstances that, as a kid, would have sunk me. 

Sadly, I have also seen families who have not been able to withstand the pressure of being poor, overworked, and marginalized. I have seen families fall apart. I have seen kids who have developed behavior problems because their brains have to be on high alert because of various ongoing threats in their environments. I have seen parents unable to continue to be parents because of the constant strain of wondering how they can feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads while working two or three minimum wage jobs that do not make ends meet.

I have also read posts on Timelines all over Facebook saying that these people just need to "get a job,” “calm down and go home,” “pull their pants up.” These commentators have all been white. They do not understand, and do not wish to understand, what it is like to live another reality, one where you are always, automatically suspect, one where you will not be shown houses in certain neighborhoods, one where your family had no alternative but to send you to a crappy public school. They know that they are doing better than the African-Americans who live a few miles away, and they actually believe they deserve it. They believe that their relative success is all due simply to their work ethic and their good choices. They do not believe in White Privilege, i.e., that being white in America confers certain advantages over non-white persons, because, when you have it, it is nearly invisible, and if you know you have it, your first reaction is to feel really guilty about it. So they deny it because it’s initially too painful to accept it.

But it’s true, and I know how I benefitted from it. I grew up in a safe, white, middle class suburb on Long Island, with excellent schools (our high school had a full time Russian language teacher), lovely parks and beaches, dependable pubic services, where my dad had a good-paying job as an aerospace engineer that he got as a result of a college education on the GI Bill. All that prepared me to go to an excellent college where I got scholarships and to medical school to do the work I am privileged to do today.

I could tick off, one by one, how many of those advantages are withheld from the kids who come to my office, as well as from their parents and families. The strange thing is not that Ferguson is happening; it’s that it’s taken this long to happen.

As I said above, I am a pediatrician. And in that role, I just want to make one plea to anyone who reads this about what may happen in the coming days: I would ask everyone who may be involved in public displays over the next few days to be aware of how this will affect the children in your lives. 

Children are not just small adults. As we learn more about child development, we know this to be true on every level: physical, psychological, cognitive, emotional. What children need – and the younger they are the more they need this – is stability, predictability, and a feeling of safety. As a species, humans are altricial, that is, we are born more immature than just about any other mammalian species our size. That means that babies need nurturing, caring, feeding, swaddling longer than do infants of other species. The payoff, of course, is enormous in terms of intelligence, creativity, and the ability to love. Part of that process, though, requires that children know who will be tucking them in, who will feed them, who will bathe and dress them, when that will all happen, and who will love them. They need this to be the same from day to day, as much as possible. They need all this because they are trying to figure out how the world works. As infants mature from beings who, at about two months, smile at everybody, to babies who, at around six to eight months, begin to know who loves them and to choose them over strangers, to toddlers who will run off and jump and climb and fall at the slightest provocation, children have unique needs are various stages of life. What does not change is that they always need to be supervised, and they always, always need to feel safe.

So to those who will choose to be part of a demonstration, I respectfully hope that you will choose not to bring your children. While I completely understand the desire that your children should be witnesses to history – and I have no doubt that Ferguson will be part of the litany that now includes Selma and Montgomery – young children will not remember this. Their brains are not wired to retain clear memories during the first few years of life. Everyone in St. Louis and around the world knows that the only thing we can predict about the upcoming days is that they will be unpredictable. And that is not an atmosphere that is healthy for kids. If they see their parents yelling, being yelled at, being assaulted, they will experience only fear and threat, and that is never healthy for a child. I know you love your kids, and you are doing this to make a better world for them. Please leave them with a responsible adult. Please make sure you get home to tuck them in. Please tell them the stories of these days when they are old enough to understand the sacrifices you made for them.

And to those in law enforcement, if you encounter demonstrators with kids, please be aware of how your interactions will affect these children. One thing that has amazed me, both before August 9 and since, is that when I ask African-American kids who come to visit me in my office what they want to be when they grow up, a significant plurality of the boys say, “Police.” So many of these kids already see you as people of power. Please do all you can to make sure that your interactions with them and with their parents leave them with a sense of respect for you and what you do, rather than fear.  

I truly believe that both demonstrators and law enforcement want to assure that everyone remains safe in the coming days. I truly believe that both demonstrators and law enforcement are doing what they do to make the world a better place for our children. And I truly hope that everyone will keep their kids at home where they can be safe and be best prepared for this better world to come.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Today, July 6, 2014, would have been my father’s 89th birthday. He died in 1997. He had cancer, then chemo, then a heart attack. He was getting out of the tub at my parents’ home when it happened. Aesthete that I am, I imagine the scene as Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat.” Doctor that I am, I know the scene was much more chaotic, my mom calling 911, the paramedics arriving and hustling him out to the ambulance. Son that I am… Well, there are no words.

I had gone back to Long Island, to the house in Hicksville where I grew up, to visit him and my mom, but mostly him, a few weeks before that. He had actually been doing a little better, and so I wanted to spend some time with him. So we did what he and I always did. We watched TV, we talked briefly about the rest of the family, we went out to the local diner for dinner, we watched TV some more, we hung out, him on his computer, me on mine.

At one point, I did take him out one evening after his AA meeting, just him and me. We sat at a booth in the Mid-Island Diner, and I ordered a piece of pie off the huge, laminated menu. He just had coffee. We talked about life and death, about love and work, as we had never done before and never would again. I told him I loved him, even though for many years that had been hard to do. And he, after 23 years in AA, made his amends to me and asked for my forgiveness, and told me, without hesitation, that he loved me.

It hadn’t always been that way. The only time before that when I really remember telling my father that I loved him was when I was just starting my pediatric residency at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. I had decided to leave my car, a ’78 Toyota Corolla, out on Long Island because there was no point in having a car in the city. I had done an internship at a hospital in Mineola, Long Island, and my dad drove into Manhattan with me with some boxes of my stuff in the back seat and in the trunk. After bringing all my belongings up to my third floor walkup on Second Avenue at 80th, I gave him the keys, and he got in the driver’s seat. I got in for a second on the passenger side and said, “Dad…” He looked at me. “I love you.”

He looked startled. “I…” he said, “Well, I love you too, Kenny,” sounding like he knew that this is what he should say at a time like this. We leaned awkwardly over the stickshift and hugged briefly. After a moment, he sat back, nodded, turned the key, and said, “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” I said, as I stepped out onto the street. “Take care of my car!” He smiled, and I stood there for a while, watching him drive south on Second towards the 59th Street Bridge and home before turning to walk up the two flights to my new home.

That day, though, watching my canary yellow Corolla evaporate into Manhattan traffic, I did wonder about his love for me. His response had been so stiff, so mechanical. Was I pushing too much? Should I ever bring this up again? Did he really love me? And could I really love?

This was a pertinent question for me because that apartment, at 1553 Second Avenue, was more than a place where I would be living while I was a pediatric resident. It would also be where I would be moving in with my lover, Bob. We had been together for over a year, but now, in 1981, I would actually be living with someone I loved for the first time in my life. As I climbed the stairs, I wondered how this was ever going to work. How much like my father would I be? Bob and I had been happy so far, but were there things about me that I might have inherited from my dad that would make living together with an “other half” impossible? My name is, after all, Kenneth Arthur Haller, Junior. My father was the first Ken Haller. I was his namesake, his heir. How much of him was in me?

It would be many years before I would learn and appreciate all the horrific things that my father and his family went through during the Depression, events and situations that would lead anyone to doubt love and make it seem dangerous to express. I would mourn his own lack of a real childhood and recognize the heroism that led him to faithfully go to work every day and provide for a family, even when they sometimes seemed like strangers to him. I would forgive him for being an imperfect human being who nevertheless did find the courage finally to grow and relax into receiving and giving love as a grandfather to an amazing bunch of kids.

And I did learn from and with Bob that I did know how to love, and even though we split up as lovers after four years, we remained best friends from then on.

I finally did feel the need to tell my father about the fact that I was gay when I was thirty. I was living in South Carolina at the time, working in a small town called Loris as a National Health Service Corps pediatrician, and I was visiting the family on Long Island for a few days. My dad and I were in the living room, and he would be taking me to Kennedy Airport for my flight to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, within the next half hour. (I had found, even at this age, that it was best to drop startling news on my parents just as I was heading out of town.) Dad was sitting upright in his barcalounger, eating a bowl of cereal off a TV tray, watching CNN, and reading Newsday. I was sitting on the couch, and we had been talking off and on about the family and what my siblings and cousins were up to. “Well,” he said, summing up the conversation without looking at me as he toggled between CNN and the newspaper, “I gotta say, I’m really proud of you. You’ve really made something of yourself.”

I needed a moment to take this in. I could not remember ever hearing him say this. It was wonderful, of course, but I was a man with a mission, and he had given me the perfect opening. I took a deep breath and said, “I’m glad you feel that way because I have something to share with you.” He put down the paper and turned to me, looking over his reading glasses, his expression saying, “Go on.”

“When Bob and I were together, we weren’t just friends, we weren’t just roommates. Our relationship was a love relationship, and if I have another one, it will be with a man.”

He continued to look at me silently, not staring, not glaring, just… considering. Finally, he said, “Well, I’m not surprised.”

I nodded. “I didn’t think you would be.”

A pause. Still considering. “And I’m not shocked.”

Again, I nodded. “I didn’t think you would be.”

A longer pause, his eyes narrowing. “So, are you happy?”

I paused. I could not remember him ever asking me this. His asking alone was enough for me to answer quite truthfully, “Yes, I am. I am happy.”

“Good,” he said, nodding and folding his paper. “Are you sure you wouldn't like some breakfast?”

“Uh, what have you got?” I asked. This was not the response I had expected. We went into the kitchen and toasted some Eggo waffles.

And that was it. We never really discussed it again, and on the occasions when I would introduce him and my mom to a man I was seeing, he always welcomed them. One, in fact, an aerospace engineer like my father, came to New York with me, spent hours talking to my father on their first meeting and told me on the train ride back into the city that my dad was the most brilliant guy he had ever met on the topic of computer languages. I did not know that.

After my father died, I went back to Long Island to be with the family. At the wake, I met scores of people that my dad had gotten to know through AA. In the nearly two dozen years he had been in AA, he had been there for countless people in need at meetings and as a sponsor. These are the two things I heard from his AA friends over and over at the funeral home.

- “Your father changed my life. Any time, day or night, he was always there when I needed him.”
- “You’re Kenny, the doctor? Oh, he loved you so much. He was so proud of you.”

To be honest, it was not always easy to hear. When were you there for me? I wondered. You couldn’t tell me this yourself? I accused.

And then I heard his voice, his request for forgiveness of just a few weeks before, his declaration 17 years earlier that I had made something of myself, his tortured “I love you too, Kenny” four years before that. And I realized then that his difficulty saying I love you came, not from a lack of love for me, but from his own doubts, indeed his surprise, that anyone could love him.

And so today, on his birthday, I’m proud to say that, yes, there is so much of him in me, that his growth from fear to love, from desolation to generosity, has shown me how to thrive as a man. Being who we are, my father, Kenneth Arthur Haller, and I went as far as we could during his lifetime, and he challenges me every day to go even further as a man serving others in this world.

I am proud to be Kenneth Arthur Haller, Junior.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Life in Retrograde

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with astronomy, the space program, anything to do with outer space. This was odd because, living on light-polluted Long Island, it was difficult to see much of the night sky, even with my older brother’s 40-power telescope. Nevertheless, I cut out newspaper articles about Mercury and Gemini missions and put them in a scrapbook. I read every book I could find about the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy, and beyond. I even created an admittedly short-lived Astronomy Club which I cajoled the other kids in the neighborhood to join with the promise of… a newsletter on all things astronomical! As you might guess, it didn’t last very long, but I do recall typing up five individual copies of a two-page flyer on the phases of the moon, with hand-drawn illustrations, on the manual typewriter in our basement.

I read about Galileo and Copernicus and even Aristarchus, who in the fourth century BCE was the first known Greek philosopher/astronomer to propose a heliocentric universe, one with the sun in the middle and the earth and other planets revolving around it. His insight was, of course, rejected since it was obvious that everything in the heavens circled the earth, and it would be two millennia before his ideas were accepted.

I became enthralled with the distinctions between gas giant and rocky planets (Jupiter an example of the former, earth of the latter), of Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion, of speculation on the origin of the Asteroid Belt (a destroyed planet or one never-formed?), the names and numbers of moons of each planet, how the planets and stars appeared to us on earth.

One of the quirks of planetary motion is the concept of Apparent Retrograde Motion. Each planet moves at a reliable, predictable pace in its unique elliptical orbit around the sun. Inner planets move faster than those further out just as water circling a drain moves faster the closer to the drain. We on earth see other planets moving fairly constantly through the field of background stars, but there are times when earth is lined up in its orbit with another planet in relation to the sun where earth is either passing that planet or that planet is passing earth, and it can look like that planet has reversed its motion in the background star field. This is Apparent Retrograde Motion. It’s similar to being on a highway with other cars. If you think of yourself as motionless, a car passing you will be moving forward against the background of trees, houses, and billboards on the side of the highway. However, when you pass them, they may appear to be moving backwards. Something seems reversed, out of sync.

I tell you this because recently I have been living with a very particular sensation of Retrograde. It has to do with being a gay man in his very late 50s in America who has been out his entire life. At this historical moment, life is backwards.

Just last weekend I performed a monologue called “Shadows and Light” at the Gateway Men’s Chorus concert, “The 80s Show.” I had written it a few years ago, and it recounts my first experience as an intern in 1981 having a glancing encounter with a patient – actually with his chest X-ray – of a young gay man with a new, terrifying disease with no name. The monologue covers that day and flashes forward to how this affected my professional and personal life, my sense of mission, and my duty to my community. Although I do not name the disease in the monologue because at the time of the events it had no name, it is, of course, AIDS. (If you haven’t read the piece and would like to, it's here on my blog from December 2013.)

It was a very personal and difficult piece to perform, especially at the end as I turned around and saw a projected contemporary photo of myself and Bob Corsico, my lover then, who would succumb to the disease 13 years later.

Yet what truly amazed and moved me each night as I left the theater was that people I had never met sought me out to tell me how much this my story had affected them, what memories it brought back, how these men who had died so many years ago and decades too soon would always live in their hearts.

During these same few weeks, my Facebook Newsfeed has been full of joyous announcements of weddings of male couples and female couples, people who have been together for years, decades, or just months who are now able to move forward to publicly express and to have the government officially recognize what we have always known – love knows no gender. This movement will not be stopped, and I see signs of it everywhere.

This Tuesday, for instance, mere days after I had performed my monologue at the GMC concert, I saw “27,” a world premier opera at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis about the lives of the American writer in Paris, Gertrude Stein, and her wife, Alice B. Toklas, and the many artists who visited their salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus in the early decades of the 20th century. I was intensely moved by this story of love between two women lived openly and without shame nearly a century ago and of how love endures even after death. I had the opportunity to talk to the brilliant Stephanie Blythe, who plays Gertrude Stein, after the show, and she said to me, “This is the most moving depiction of love between two people that I have ever seen in all of opera.” And I would have to agree.

To me, what is just as moving is the fact that, from my seat in the center section about halfway back, I could clearly see the faces of many audience members, especially on the sides of the thrust stage. They were enraptured, not just by the soaring score of Ricky Ian Gordon but by the palpable love between Gertrude and Alice as they held hands, gazed lovingly at one another, embraced, kissed. As the opera concluded, these mostly older (yes, even older than me), well-to-do opera fans leapt to their feet to give their thanks with thunderous, nearly unending applause. These audience members were showing their gratitude to the story of two women in love.

Well, those of you who know me know that I am a crier. I will cry at cute puppy videos on YouTube. But this went beyond that. I wept. I was so moved by this story, by this art, and by this rapturous reception from an audience in St. Louis, Missouri, in the 21st century. We will never go back. More and more, we are all part of the family.

But in this moment I paused. These women on stage openly in love, these people on Facebook setting wedding dates, these men from three decades ago gone much too soon… Life is out of order.

People should be spending their 20s going to weddings, celebrating love and the building of families and communities. Our 50s should be the absolute earliest time in our lives when we should begin to mourn our contemporaries and start letting go of those we love. For me, and for so many men who survived, the timeline is reversed. Our lives are in Retrograde.

Of course, when it comes to planets, Retrograde is an appearance, not an actual state of motion. It results from our vantage point. Planets actually move forward, as must we. And of course, this vantage point comes from things converging in unique and unusual alignments. To hear the story of love, loss, and love eternal in “27” within days of telling my own story with this same arc informs me that the alignment of events in my life is less a disruption than it is, finally, a completion. At last, there is Synchronicity.

So I tell you this because, as I hear your happy news, you may see a tear in my eye. It is for you, of course, celebrating your love and your future. But it is also there to honor those who did not live to see this day, who will not stand beside me as I attend your wedding, but who will move forward with me through Apparent Retrograde as I carry them always in my heart.