the xanax diary

love, loss, healing and humor (in no particular order)

Archive for the category “Memories”

Dear Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers


TO: Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers
CC: Oscar Goldman, Director, Office of Scientific Intelligence, Dr. Rudy Wells

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

You might not remember me, but we worked together for a while back in the 70s (see photo). Though I wasn’t quite as well known as you two were, I held my own in areas specific to espionage, Big Foot hunting and Fembot control.

I was the youngest agent in Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) history, if you’ll recall. Yes, my friend-and-sometimes-co-agent Chris was the same age, but I was 3 months younger. And he didn’t last very long in the Agency before shipping out after third grade to an “unknown assignment.” Without him, I was on my own.

You probably won’t remember any of our adventures together. I’m sure you had your fill with other young agents at the time, though none possessing my acute abilities in running in slow motion and making a wide array of bionic sound effects–from bionic limbs activating for super speed or strength or my right bionic eye zooming in on a target across the playground to the trill of my bionic ear filtering whispers throughout the lunch room. My skills were mad. And I can’t blame you for being just a little bit jealous.

It was a simple time back then, eh? We were heroes. The good guys. Doing work for a good and just government, using our abilities and gifts to the detriment of only those who would do us harm. Sure there was the occasional double agent–hell, sometimes it was even us! But it was for the best. We were always on the side of right. And there was never any doubt about it.

Sure, we all had unlimited expense accounts, government-funded sports cars and A-list wardrobes, but for cryin’ out loud, we were in constant and unending danger! It was the least our country could do for us. We could go to sleep in our horse stable lofts in Ojai one night, and be shipped off to East Berlin the next morning (remember when there were two Berlins??!)

I wonder if you miss those days as much as I do. Running around in bell bottoms and knits, hanging out at Callahan’s desk outside Oscar’s office while he finished a call with “Mr. Secretary,” cross stitching or creating macramé while Steve wailed and played the guitar with that sad mustache he tried for a while. Good times, my friends. Good goddamn times.

Wouldn’t it be fun for the three of us to get together sometime for cocktails and catch up? We could throw a few cars around and teach some cocky deserving misanthropes (e.g. Starbucks line cutters or people on the train who don’t give up their seat for the elderly) a lesson or two in kindness with some slowmo badass moves.

I would love to see you two again and rehash old times. Living in a world filled with so much gray, makes me long for the times of childhood-colored black and white. Sure, it may have been a more naive time. Or maybe the world was the same as it is now, just presented differently. No email. No 24 hour news cycle. No computers—except for the one Oscar would reference upon occasion. (Did you guys ever know what he was talking about?)

Drop me a line sometime and let me know.

Watch your back,

Agent Stempkowski

Falling in Love

Ron Stempkowski:

I considered writing something on this very topic. But my friend Matthew has (unshockingly) done a much more effective job at it than I could have.

Originally posted on gaydinosaurtales:

Two men holding hands  Spring finally arrived in New England just midway into April. We’d begun to doubt we would ever feel the sun’s warmth again. It was a brutal winter that took hold in December and simply would not let go. I was beginning to blame the fact that I am in the autumn of my years, which made it so especially nasty. But that was the general consensus even among the young. We have enjoyed some glorious days lately, putting a lilt into our walk and a grin on the sourest of faces. Everyone is in a better mood. Science may try to tell us it is merely the effect of the vernal equinox and some nonsense about the tilt of the planet on its axis. We all know the reality is Proserpina or Persephone, (depending on whether you follow the Roman or Greek religions), has been released from her six months…

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Closing Time…

Good bye, Door Witch.

Good bye, Door Witch.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” are lyrics to a song I always found profoundly deep (and from which I took the name of this blog). There was a time when I had the blind luxury of pondering its meaning as I sang along in the car, but discovering I was living it during Ken’s illness and death was a true FML moment. For a while I found the song–and these lyrics–taunting, reminding me of something so painful and obvious. Now, I just find them indifferently factual.

On Friday I dropped off the keys to my apartment–the last home I shared with Ken. It was ours together for 5 incredible years that linger constantly in my day dreams, and mine alone the last 3–which are more like a blur than anything else. Part of me feels like a traitor–abandoning the final remnants of a shared life that is over. And that’s exactly what I am. I have to be. I had no choice.

I haven’t been able to grasp many words that describe what it feels like to move away from the last home Ken and I physically shared together. From a place which I experienced some of the highest highs of my life, and–without a doubt–the lowest lows I hope to ever have. Having the keys to the old place for almost two months after moving gave me plenty of time for visits back to an address that will forever retain a tiny fraction of my heart. Because there it knew great love and nurtured a marriage. And there it was fractured. And it was there it mourned and cursed the universe. And it was there it began to heal…with the help of the tiniest puff of black fluff.

Going back there to collect the few things I have left was a little sad. It’s only a hull now. All signs of what a cozy home, filled with love, it was are gone. Though each room stood stark in its emptiness, for me each one brimmed with memories Ken and Quantum and our friends. To think a stranger could walk into the apartment and not know the love and the lives that occupied it makes me sad, and even a little angry.

As much as I thought I’d made peace with moving, this week reminded me of the ever-changing learning curve of the grieving process. I’ve had times when I was cranky and out of sorts. And it wasn’t until I verbalized it (well, texted it) to a friend that I figured out it was because this week punctuated the time I spent on Cuyler Avenue; that it was coming to an undeniable level of ending. There is no going back. Ever. As much healing as I’ve done, moving has certainly scraped up some well-scabbed wounds.


On my final visit on Friday afternoon I followed the suggestion of my friend and fellow blogger Matthew (his blog is one of my favorites) when we last spoke. He recalled the last episode of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and how I would have to do something similar, walking around and turning off all the lights. I liked the ceremony of it. And it seemed like it would offer some closure. And it did, as much as anything else.

It’s time for me to turn the page–to see what happens next. And it feels like the right time. Along with my belongings, I packed up all the memories–the good and the not-so-good–and brought them with me. The new chapter I’ve begun–living in my new place–is filled with friendship, laughter, fun…and always Ken, embedded in my brain and my heart and urging me forward.

There seems to be a force of gravity, pulling me–not just away from my old life–but toward a new one.

Bring it.

The Emotional Rub

As stated in my previous blog, the place I’m buying is smaller than my current apartment. I haven’t really packed much yet. It’s been a lot of going through things and deciding what will/will not be making the journey to the place/my new life with me.

And therein lies the chafing emotional rub.

Early in the process of looking at condos and deciding on one to put an offer on, I knew I needed to thin things out. Early attempts resulted in short circuits and overloads ending in project abandonment. When things got serious, and I knew I’d–in fact–be moving, I knew I had to psych myself up for this ardent task. I had the luxury for the past two-and-a-half years to have the room not to have to think about downsizing. And I’m certain two-and-a-half years ago I was incapable of tackling this kind of task at all. That time is swiftly coming to an end. And I’m ready for it.

I won’t allow myself to move myself into a new place, packed to the gills with boxes and keepsakes and things I have an emotional entanglement with if they don’t make sense for me to have. It’s time for new beginnings. But that begs larger issues for me about mementos. What’s the point of having boxes of things I never look at out a sense of responsibility to Ken and our life together? To simply possess them doesn’t seem meaningful enough. And seems almost to be insulting to both in my mind.

What I’m learning is there are some keepsakes that are untouchable. Certainly. Absolutely. But so many others are things I feel a sense of duty to retain. Out of guilt. Horrible guilt. And history. And habit. It can feel like I’m throwing my old life away. Intellectualizing to the rescue! I consider the fact he doesn’t truly care what happens to his one-time belongings. I consider the fact that were the situation reversed, I certainly wouldn’t. I consider the fact that were he still here we would probably change things up and unload some of the stuff we currently have to make room for the new stuff we’d collect. And I try to consider the fact the most important mementos ares remaining and of those, the most impregnably precious ones are in my head and in my heart. And both of those are moving to the new place with me and Kallie.

I have a never-ending ritual of self-forgiveness as I decide to give away, donate or get rid of things that aren’t donatable, releasing myself from them. I even have a little incantation of sorts that I say to verbalize and distract myself to unbind me from these inanimate things. These things that are not Ken. Or my love for him or our life together. They are things that were important to him or us at some point. The page must be turned. And room must be made for new things, new memories, new stories, new adventures. All the while coddling the old ones.

When I try to look at this situation as a sociologist might, I marvel at the connections we have to things that we feel represent something important. In the wake of the death of a loved one, I think those connections are magnified and multiplied. Letting go of things has never been terribly difficult for me. My things, anything. But many of these things were Ken’s, and pre-date me and our life together. I try to wonder what he’d want me to do with them; what should come next for these treasures.

Letting go of what I decide to let go of is the only decision I can make. What happens to them next is up to fate–and out of my hands. I’m released from them. I’d like to think some handsome young actor will pick an item or two up at the charity shop and take them home to his eclectic abode–like the last handsome young actor did–and eventually share them with his boyfriend when they build a life together.

Also, distracting myself with stories like that really helps.

Moving day, here I come!

Full Steam Ahead

I’m moving.

Aside from the Christmas cheer in the air there is also one of excitement. For change. And an equal measure of dread for the same. The normal dread of change. As well as the other kind: the kind that finds me packing up and purging things from my life with Ken in the apartment where we lived together the longest. Saying goodbye to the place where we said goodbye. Not an easy task.

I remind myself of lots of things. Constantly. This isn’t–in fact–the place where we said goodbye to each other. That is a timeless, placeless place that is forever galvanized in my memory. It’s protected. It’s part of me–not this apartment. It’s in my DNA.

My apartment is bigger than my new place. So I’ve begun purging before I commence to packing for the move in January. As a collector, Ken saw value and art and beauty in many things…in a way that I don’t. Part of yin and yang. I remind myself that these things aren’t Ken. And giving them way or donating them doesn’t diminish him, his memory or my love for him.

I remind myself that I’m saying goodbye to this apartment for the best of reasons. As a long-time renter, I’m purchasing my first place. And it’s just two blocks away in the neighborhood I love so much. I’ve loved it since I first moved here as a bachelor  in 1999. It’s the neighborhood as much as my apartment that are filled with memories of Ken and even my life before him.

I try to remind myself how excited Ken would be that I’m buying a place, and know that he would love the place I picked: a beautiful timber loft with lots of light in an old converted factory that built the first movie cameras used in Hollywood’s early days. As an actor, I think he’d particularly appreciate that.

Today I was going through some bookshelves to thin them out. He was a collector of books, as well. I can’t remember the last time I’d looked through any of them. As I sat on the guest room floor (a luxury I won’t have in the new place) with Kallie lying nearby keeping an eye on me, I made a stack of “keep” and “donate”. And I ran across a couple of gems.

I'd completely forgotten I'd given Ken a book for his birthday about "It's a Wonderful Life" (one of his favorite movies).

I’d completely forgotten I’d given Ken a book for his birthday about “It’s a Wonderful Life” (one of his favorite movies).

A book titled "Courage" from a neighbor on the block when he had his below-knee amputation in 1982. I think people have always been drawn to him.

A book titled “Courage” from a neighbor on the block when he had his below-knee amputation in 1982. I think people have always been drawn to him.

Valentine's gift from Aunt Anita when Ken was two-and-a-half. I just received a Christmas card from her and Uncle Don last week.

Valentine’s gift from Aunt Anita when Ken was two-and-a-half. I just received a Christmas card from her and Uncle Don last week.

I found several books with inscriptions. They are indeed treasures and will remain on my bookshelf.

In spite of all my reminders, I’ve surrendered to the fact that going through some of these treasures–and leaving this place–is difficult. And it has been at times. But it’s also been joyful. The good memories far outweigh the bad. The happiness trumps the sadness. And there is a pervasive feeling of “I don’t belong here anymore”. In this place. It’s time for a new one. A new chapter.

Ken was all about the journey, and I’ve heard him rooting for me constantly since I embarked upon this one.

I’m moving…forward.

My Third Blogiversary

I can’t believe it’s only been three years I’ve been pouring my heart out into the ether of the internet. It seems like I’ve always been blogging. It certainly saved my sanity during the insanity of the last few years. But it also has served as a venue for sharing my brand of humor. I’ve linked a couple of my favorite blogs below to mark the occasion.

The Dime Store of Broken Dreams

If You Build It, They Will Come (like it or not)

The Unflattering History of Sports (and me)

Thanks for reading.

His Foot Left, But the Show Went On

I was going through a book case earlier this week and ran across this:

The bible I painstakingly created to use for running the light and sound for Ken's one-man show "My Foot Left."

The bible I painstakingly created to use for running the light and sound for Ken’s one-man show “My Foot Left.”

The very first time I met Ken in January of 2001, one of the random things we shared in common was our improv training–though his was far deeper than mine and really just a component of a much broader acting arsenal. But it was unique and bonding nonetheless. As I learned more about him and his acting credits, he would reference “my show” from time to time. I would ask “what show?” and he’d reply matter-of-factly, “my one man show.” It was about his then-thirty-year journey with cancer, beginning with his below-knee amputation at age 15 of his left leg. He talked about it with such fervor, commitment and frequency, I thought it was something he’d put together and performed already. But that wasn’t the case. It hadn’t been performed yet.

I’d long entertained dreams of getting the gang together and putting on a show in the old barn, and began asking him questions like “what needs to happen to get this going?” He would tell me, and we’d talk it out and figure out next steps. He enlisted many friends in his creative orbit who helped him move his one-man show closer to being a reality. He asked a few of my friends to lend their voices for some voice over spots in the show. I didn’t escape the fun either. Ken asked me to run the lighting and sound board in the little theater on Halsted where the show would be performed. And so I did, wanting to be the kind of boyfriend who supported (shitting my pants each and every week for two hours including intermission, running something that looked like it could launch space shuttles.)

Eye-catching and a little dark, I loved the fliers that were made to advertise the show. I still have several in the back of my bible.

Eye-catching and a little dark, I loved the fliers that were made to advertise the show. I still have several in the back of my bible.

Hearing Ozzy Osborne’s “Crazy Train” blasting out of the Jimmy John’s in my office building’s lobby recently took me back to that tiny little theater in summer of 2002. The song played during a pivotal and memorable moment in the show. And while I had no idea what I was doing in the booth, so much was riding on my not messing up. Ken’s was such an important story to be told.

Terrified or not, it was exciting to be a part of such a creative collaboration. It was the first time of many Ken lovingly pushed me out of my comfort zone, leaving his own performance in potential jeopardy. Years later during the months he was home for hospice, I was so far away from my comfort zone, I couldn’t even find it with Google Maps. But there was great worth in each experience, and none more profound than those last months we spent together, defining our own “normal.” And none more fun than helping him bring his one-man show to fruition.

My love of organizing and office supplies saved my ass.

My love of organizing and office supplies saved my ass. I also cross-referenced the lighting and sound cues with a spreadsheet I created.

And for four Sundays in August of 2002–our last month in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles for four years–“My Foot Left” starring kenan derson (Ken’s stage and eventual Screen Actors Guild name) was performed in front of packed and eager houses. I can still feel the urgency, excitement and anticipation when I think about those weekends of workshops and tech rehearsals. The performances were a nerve-racking two hours that seemed to move in fast forward motion. Watching him tell–show–his story made me gush with pride and love for him. He was a doer and a teacher, and it was never more clear to me than during these performances.

Collaboration was something that came easy to us. And something we did often for the ten years we were together. The sense of pride I feel in helping with this production is probably unparalleled thus far in my life. And it’s an experience I think back so fondly on. One of the aspects I treasure the most is working with our friends to put the show together. He depended upon us. And we delivered.

Below is an abridged video (~one hour) of one of the performances from that summer in 2002.

My Mom’s Personal Brand of Scariness

Ron Stempkowski:

Sharing this again from last year.

Originally posted on the xanax diary:

Every year my mom sends us kids and her grandkids this Halloween poem she made up when I as just a kid (so around 40 years this poem has been around). I remember we had an assignment in third grade to write a Halloween poem, so I saved the time for TV watching and handed hers in instead. (Sorry, Miss Gick!)

This wasn’t a terrifying poem, but Mom recited it with such conviction that you couldn’t help but wonder what her coven designation was–as she was most certainly speaking from experience. Although at the part where the cackle begins is when she’d tickle me silly. Enjoy.

Happy Halloween!








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Merry-Go-Round of Neighbors

Change can be difficult for most everyone. I don’t love it. Ken was adept at handling change, and instrumental in my process of dealing with it. I’ve learned to manage it on my own–out of necessity–though old habits of inflexibility appear from time to time. Thinking of how he would handle any given situation is equal parts helpful and frustrating–because I have never possessed the kind of patience he had, and I so miss his myriad talents for caressing my soul.

The annual change that has always rattled me is the inevitable change-up of neighbors in the three-flat in which I reside. My apartment is the bottom floor/garden apartment (not a basement, to be clear.) Ken came to Chicago in early 2006 to find a place for us to live when we moved back from LA. He–along with my best friend–Kathy scoured the north side until they found this little gem.

It’s always been a special place to me. We made it our home. Ken tamed the overgrown garden and added his creative touch to the interior. It became the venue for our annual Christmas party and for countless friends and family over the years, and the single address we called home together longer than any other. It’s the first apartment I’ve ever painted, when Ken and I painted our kitchen cabinets from the drab brown wood grain to yellow cabinets with orange doors not long after moving in. Most significantly, this is the place where Ken spent the last two months of his life in hospice, and solemnly–where he died. But make no mistake, the waterfall of tears that have been shed within these walls will forever be outnumbered by the mirth and laughter shared here.

Each year about this time we both marveled at the comings and goings of the neighbors, never understanding who wouldn’t want to stay tucked away on our quiet street, a block from the L, in the heart of the north side. Of course, there have been neighbors we were happy to see go–many. As the bottom unit, noise has always been an issue, but you have complain strategically, otherwise your home life can easily be rendered a hell of clomps and stomps.

I created a spreadsheet of building residents by year. Each of the three units has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Each of the units above mine has usually been occupied by three college or post-college roommates (never ideal), save for the top unit which has been occupied by two young married couples sequentially. In the seven years I’ve lived in this apartment, above have passed 29 people. 29 people! Which has left me less and less interested in getting to know any of them in recent years. However, this group of fleeing tenants and I were all pretty simpatico. They were all very easy neighbors to get along with.

This annual change up probably distressed me the most the summer after Ken died. Too much jarring change had already punctured my life. I’ve always been the kind of person who needed a serene home base. Even spats between Ken and me weren’t allowed to last long. I couldn’t settle for coming home from a long day at work to anywhere but a haven. And that’s what every home with Ken has been. And after a short transition when the thought of coming home from work filled me with dread and tears, my apartment continues to be: my haven.

The thought of “training” new neighbors exhausts and terrifies me. I hate that they could be nightmares, and maybe even more that they don’t know I once had a completely different life. The couple on the top floor lived here for four years, so they knew Ken. We were always casually friendly, and I was reassured having some connection outside myself to my old life.

But I my old life is exactly that. Old. Former. In the past. Not the memories or feelings or the part it I will always carry forward with me. It’s forever current. And who knows? Maybe my new neighbors will be awesome…er…nice.

But really I’ll settle for quiet.

Our First Home


Writing my previous blog and looking at the photos I inserted into the post reminded me of our first year in LA. And of the first home Ken and I ever shared together. We didn’t live together in Chicago for the year-and-a-half before we moved West (thinking of now makes me wonder how I could stand not waking up next to him every day), but it’s something we were both looking forward to. Having access by default to each was a concept we both were very interested in. No more bring a few items of clothes and toiletries when staying at the other’s apartment. No running home because you forgot something you needed. Just us. Together.

So after our 9-day cross-country trip in the Fall of 2002, we arrived in front of his brother Craig and wife Katie’s home, situated in a large section of the San Fernando Valley we termed “deep valley.” And tucked behind their house, and across from the garage was a tiny guest house that would be our home: Ken’s, mine and Quantum’s for the foreseeable future until we got on our feet–or foot–as Ken would have assuredly pointed out.

I think the size of the guest house was something like 150-ish square feet (give or take). With a main room, a kitchen off to the right, and a bathroom behind that with a sink, toilet and shower, it had everything we needed. Well, most everything we needed, as it took weeks to locate the moving truck or determine what storage facility our belongings would be dropped off to after its own long trip following us from Chicago. During our first year in LA, living in the guest house, we made many trips to visit our stuff at the Public Storage facility in Northridge–like visiting some friends in the local penitentiary. Leaving them each time was bittersweet.

We spent so much of our time outside, enjoying the gifts of the Southern California sun–mostly on the patio of the “big house,” which is what we affectionately called the main house. Though half the size of their current home, it dwarfed the guest house a couple of times and forever remains “the big house.” The patio was big and made of recycled materials. The yard was small, yet expansive at the same time. Around a looming palm tree, a tree fort had been constructed for the boys to play in.

Living in my brother- and sister-in-law’s backyard was an incomparable way to get to know them and Ken’s and my nephews. I’d only met them once the year before on a vacation we took to LA. They embraced me immediately, and “family” just seemed like a word that always applied. We relished each other’s company mostly in the back yard between the two houses: watching the boys (ages 2 and 6 when we moved into the compound) frolic and play, barbecuing or sipping cocktails. Most of my memories from that first year are attached to somewhere within the compound, and most definitely the guest house. In the last line of a blog post of Ken’s writing, his last line was “I love that my home was in my brother’s backyard.”

I’ll never forget that cozy little home that we came home to day after day, only to be greeted by wagging dogs and boisterous little boys, eager to show us whatever they were doing, easily melting away the tensions of the day. It’s not only a piece of my heart, but also of Ken’s–which I am the keeper of as well.

Ken and I knew our first home together was significant, and just the very beginning of an intimate collaboration that was fraught with blinding possibilities for both of us. And one–though not without its struggles and challenges in those early years–was so easy for us in the rightest of ways. We also knew living for the first time together in such a small space without intermittent urges to kill each other, meant we were destined to be.

And we were. For as long as we could be.

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