Men with Two Faces

It takes a certain kind of man to lead two lives. And we all know at least a few of them.

Some men have the ability to lead one life in private and a very different life in public. Sure, women can do it too, but this is far and above a male problem.

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Take Don Draper, from the show Mad Men. In the first episode of the series, we meet a very successful advertising executive with a high rise office and a gorgeous girlfriend that he meets for an afternoon tryst. And then, at the end of the episode, Don goes home to his beautiful and faithful wife and children at their house in the suburbs. Don has the uncanny ability to carry on a long-term relationship with two separate women. It’s as if he enters the office, and sets his family on the shelf; then he returns home to pay with the kids and cuddle his wife while his work life stays in the city. And we learn, later on, that when he doesn’t have someone on the side, he actively seeks someone; it’s an obsession, a compulsion.

Those of us who aren’t Don Draper might be fascinated, confused, or outraged by this, but most of us simply don’t understand how this could happen, and how it could be sustained. What makes a man capable of both having a family and an entire other life, cheating on them on the side?

My stepfather, Kent, was a different kind of man with two sides. In public, he was a stalwart Mormon family man with a big heart, showing up at church every week with a firm handshake, a hearty laugh, and a genuine smile. Yet behind the closed doors of our home, he had a violent and explosive temper, and would use violence and words to manipulate and control the members of the household.

Perhaps the most extreme example I can think of is Dennis Rader. I read his biography a few years ago. A God-fearing, church-going family man with a wife and children and a full-time job, baseball games and barbecues and family outings. Yet he had a secret, decades-long life in which he would violently murder others as the BTK Killer, taunting police with clues along the way. When he was arrested, his family had absolutely no idea about his double life.

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I often have clients come in to my office (I’m a therapist) who have just learned about the double life of a spouse. A man married for ten years has learned his husband has been cheating on him the entire time. A woman with five children finds her husband arrested for sexual molestation of a young teenage girl down the street. A 60 year old woman finds a note in her husband’s pocket, calls the number, and learns about a five-year long affair. A young wife discovers a bank account her husband never told her about, and learns about his addiction to gambling funds on the stock market.

The first emotion is shock. Then a deep sense of betrayal. How could he do this to me? Then there is a deep pain, a combination of rage and hurt and grief and shame. How could I not have known? Why did he hurt me? Maybe I’m not meant to fall in love. I did everything for him and he betrayed me!

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Many times, the client has confronted their spouse before they come in. And it often looks something like this.

Maggie: Mark, I know about Jenny. I saw her text messages.

Mark: What? I told you not to go through my phone! I warned you!

Maggie: Don’t yell at me. I’m so angry with you. You cheated on me. 

Mark: Oh please, we were just texting. We didn’t actually do anything. 

Maggie: Mark, I know you’ve been sleeping together. I saw the content of the messages. 

Mark: I don’t know what you think you read, but you’re wrong. It’s not a big deal. 

Maggie: If it wasn’t a big deal, why didn’t you tell me about her?

Mark: Because I knew you would act like this!

Maggie: I’ve packed my bag. I’m going to my parents. 

Mark: What! Oh my god, you’re over-reacting! 

Maggie: Goodbye, Mark.

Mark: Wait! Don’t go! Okay, okay, I’m sorry, okay? Is that what you want?

Maggie: I want the truth.

Mark: Okay, okay, I slept with her. Once. But then it was over. It didn’t mean anything. Then I called it off. 

Maggie: You texted her this morning. She said you were with her last night. 

Mark: She’s lying! Nothing happened!

Maggie: Goodbye, Mark. 

Mark: Fine, go! I make one mistake! Nothing I ever do is ever good enough for you!

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There is no easy way to measure out the long-term effects of a betrayal. When you trust someone that much and build a life with them, a wide wound opens up, a rift within, when you learn about this secret life divided.

And there is no easy way to understand how someone can live these lives. It happens far too often. Small secrets and lies lead to larger and larger ones. People divide themselves into pieces and, with practice, become very good at it. It requires a certain sense of narcissism, a heavy sense of entitlement, an ability to take advantage of a person deeply loved and trusted mixed with an ability to think more is owed or deserved outside of the relationship.

For any who have been betrayed, you can live a happy and healthy life with love and passion and success. You have to allow your wounds time to heal, you have to learn to put your needs up to the surface, to prioritize and to take care of your self and obligations. It’s a long process, and you’ll come out the other side stronger as the wounds heal.

And for any who have done the betraying, it is likely you’ll hurt another person without help. The compulsion to have your cake and eat it too, or to have the two separate lives you want… it isn’t sustainable, it isn’t something you can keep doing over time without consistently hurting the ones you love. You have to learn to be accountable and empathetic, to sacrifice your needs and compulsions in order to have the stable and happy family life you want and crave. And you have to want to stop hurting the people you care about.

No man can easily wear two faces. Not for long. And not without hurting everyone he loves.

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Dr. Phil and the Critics

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“I was watching television one day, Dr. Phil was on, and I saw one of those advertisements. ‘If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, call the Dr. Phil Show now, we want to hear your story.’ And I thought, ‘well, my husband is abusive’ and so I called. They took down a bit of my story, and a few days later a really nice lady calls me back, her name is Stephanie. She’s sweet and supportive. She asks me a lot of questions about me and my family and situation. And she checks on me a few times, saying that at some point she would like to get me one of their shows for a special about abused women.”

My friend Liz look sat me from across the table, taking a sip of her bowl of soup. We are in a small town diner, just a few miles from where she lives. A few minutes ago, a woman had walked up to her and, with a look of disgust, said “I hate what women like you stand for” and then walked away. I had, of course, asked why the woman had said that. Now Liz was explaining.

“So eventually they scheduled a time for me to go out there. They offered me a free plane ticket, a stay in a nice hotel. I mean, it’s New York City, how could I turn that down? I had a nice meal, explored the city a bit, got my hair and makeup done, and then they took me over to the Dr. Phil stage. Stephanie greeted me, gave me some instructions, and I was shown on the stage in front of a live audience. There were a few other women there. Dr. Phil came out. He hadn’t even met me before. And he was a huge jerk. He was disrespectful. He read some stuff off of cue cards about me, asked me a few really personal questions, and made a comment about how ‘women like you’, about how we let ourselves and our kids get abused. The audience clapped sometimes, booed sometimes. Then it was over. They sent me on a plane back home.”

I nodded, listening to her story with fascination. I had, of course, seen daytime television shows, but had never given much thought to the people or production behind them.

“So the show aired a few months later. And my town went nuts. I got mean letters in the mail, dirty looks, nasty notes left on my front door from some. From others, I would get hugs from strangers, random advice, disgusting looks of sympathy. After a few months, though, I just became the person people would whisper about. I’d walk into a room and people would be like ‘there is that lady who was on Dr. Phil’ and someone would walk up to me and say horrible things like ‘I bet you like it’ or ‘you need a real man’ or ‘how could you go on television and be disrespectful to your husband like that’. It was terrible. There were several months where I didn’t even go out.”

My stomach felt ill for her. “Liz, geez, that’s terrible. How long has this been going on?”

Her skin went pale and she pursed her lips in disgust. “Six years. I should probably just move at this point.”

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I have thought about Liz a lot of times over the years. Everyone is a critic. Every time we read a news story or a Facebook status or hear a headline, we form opinions. As a society, we talk about it and discuss it. I have a lot of opinions, and when the opinions of a person don’t match my opinions, I have opinions about that.

We share, and opine, and criticize, and confront, and lambaste strangers over the most sensitive of topics. In recent headlines, for example, women’s right to health care, immigration, gay marriage and religious freedom are topics that are thrown around right and left. People insult blindly, support blindly, and use hard words. Rarely, however, am I at the center of all of this.

Yesterday, I wrote an open letter/blog post called “Dear Mormon Leaders” and posted it on my Facebook page. I expected the post to reach a few hundred people. Some of my blog posts, even those I’m most proud of, only get a few dozen reads. This one, for some reason, has been widely shared and re-shared, with over 7500 reads in 24 hours. I have had dozens of Email, Twitter, and Facebook messages. At the last view, the majority of the readers were based in the United States, Canada, and north-western Europe, but isolated hits in smaller countries began showing up, from Israel to Barbados, Kenya to Antigua. My  mind was spinning in all of this.

And then private messages started showing up in my inbox, dozens of them, strangers with opinions acting as critics. I thought of my friend Liz as I read through them.

Many were positive:

“Chad, thank you for your words. I have a transgender teenager that I have been very hard on. Reading this helps me see things from a new perspective.”

and “I’m a gay Mormon in an isolated place. I’m not out. I felt like I was alone. These words give me strength.”

and “Your words echo my feelings. If only the leaders I believe in could be just a little bit kinder.”

And many were sheer ugly:

“No matter how many hateful words you spout about the chosen leaders of God, you will never convince the church to accept sinners into its ranks. God’s policies do not change, and if you can’t follow the commandments of God, you are a sinner. You had your chance to accept God’s truth, and you only get one. You’ll see on the judgment day.”

and “So you had an abusive father. Now you think everyone is abusive. Way to be a grown up.”

and “Making up unsubstantiated rumors about teenager suicides is disgusting. Rumors are just that: rumors. The truth of God is unchanging.”

And then there were the private ones. “I have considered taking my life recently” and “my son killed himself years ago. If only I had known” and “I attempted suicide in November. Thank God I lived.”

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Meanwhile, I’m going about my day. I drank coffee, read a book, and played with my sons.

And in my head, on a loop, are the lyrics to Anna Nalick’s song, Breathe. 

2 AM and I’m still awake, writing a song
If I get it all down on paper, it’s no longer inside of me,
Threatening the life it belongs to
And I feel like I’m naked in front of the crowd
Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud
And I know that you’ll use them, however you want to

 

 

Dear Mormon leaders,

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I don’t plan to send this letter, but I’m writing it just the same. I won’t send it, because I already know what your response will be: no response at all.

I spent my childhood, adolescence, and much of my adult life believing that you had my best interests at heart. I have the same story that you must have heard hundreds of thousands of times by now. I knew I was different from other boys from the time I was five years old, I knew to hide it by seven, and I started getting teased about it at 10. While all of you were (presumably) learning how to like girls and what that meant for you, I was learning how NOT to like boys, how to form a part of myself deep down inside that no one could know about.

I don’t blame you for any of that, of course, that is just how society treats gay people. But here’s the part where you are to blame, where you hurt me: you created and backed up church policies that taught the contradictory doctrine that God loves his children and creates them in His image, yet he doesn’t create gay or transgender people. You published books that taught me that being gay was being selfish, was not trying hard enough, was a crime against nature, was an abomination, was wrong. You taught me how to be ashamed of who I am in God’s eyes, and perhaps worse, you taught me that I could cure it, if I just tried and kept trying.

And so I spent days in prayer and fasting, nights and mornings on my knees pleading, wasted energy in public service. I asked for blessings, I served in every calling, I was faithful and true, I served a mission, I was unfaltering in my resolve. And every General Conference, I would tune in with open heart and ears, hoping beyond hope that there would be guidance from God on how I could live with myself, hoping I would finally fit in and belong, feel that God loved me.

What I didn’t know is that my story is the story of hundreds of thousands of other gay and lesbian Mormons, and it is even harder out there for the transgender Mormons, the ones whose spirits don’t match their bodies, and the ones who are made to believe they can’t even exist. No answers came, not ever. And worse, no compassion. Only calls to repentance.

Because I was raised this way, because I was made to believe I was broken, I never held hands with or kissed another person until I was 26 years old. I married a woman and we had children. I went to therapy. I did everything I was told, and I was a shell of a person, empty and broken and bleeding and pleading. My entire life.

And there was no light from God, no compassion, no love. I began to hear of other gay Mormons out there, excommunicated for being homosexual, being told to marry someone of the opposite gender, being sent to reparative therapy camps where they would be abused. I heard about the Proclamation on the Family, Church’s stance in Proposition 8, and I heard about the suicides that resulted after both. Dozens upon dozens of bodies that were broken and bleeding like me until they couldn’t do it any longer. A mass grave of God’s LGBT children, dead because of the words you spoke.

And now, I am no longer a member of your organization.  I finally accepted myself for who I am. It was like coming up for air after years of holding my breath. I finally felt what it meant to kiss someone, to hold hands, to feel whole. I finally understood that God loved me, once I realized the words you speak are not the truth. I was, quite literally, born again, my baptism and rebirth made possible only through leaving your organization.

I now reside in Salt Lake City, just blocks from where you meet, from where you make decisions and policies that impact the lives of my loved ones and community and family. Though I am not a member of your church, I see and feel the pain you cause in the hearts of LGBT members around the world, and the wedges you drive into families. Every few weeks, there is some cold and painful new announcement from your mouths, or from your offices, that sends furious winds across the lands, and every time there are those who are like I was, silently suffering and hoping beyond hope that you will show your love instead of your disdain.

I grew up with an abusive step-father. Much of the time, he would just ignore the fact that I existed. Then he would get violent, with flung fists and objects, ugly and painful words. And then, on rare occasions, every once in a while, he would do something just a tiny bit kind, and I would light up and think that he loved me again. Days later, the cycle of ignoring and abuse would start all over again.

And it dawns on me, that this is you. This is how you treat your LGBT members. You ignore them most of the time, then you are cruel and spiteful and mean. You use penalties and punishments, lay out impossible expectations, give poor counsel, and throw around harsh words like apostate and sinner and abomination. And then, from time to time, you will say or do something just a tiny bit kind and everyone will hope beyond hope that at last you are changing, at last you will show love. Then the cycle of ignoring and abuse starts all over again.

And yet the thing that makes me most furious? Only the merest shred of kindness on your parts is needed to save lives. No dramatic change or reversal in policy is necessary, no temple acceptance. All it would take for you to save lives would be just a few words of kindness.

Elder Nelson or Elder Oaks or President Monson, any of you, standing up and saying, “My dear brothers and sisters, those of you who are gay and lesbian and bisexual and especially transgender, we want you to know that God loves you and he wants you to be happy. You are welcome in our wards and worship services. We love you and we want you to be part of us. We are so sorry for any pain our actions have caused. Please, never never think of harming yourselves. We love you and are here to help.”

A few words and hearts would heal. Lives would be saved. Families would be reunited.

Men, there is blood on your hands. Every time a Mormon mother throws out her lesbian teenage daughter into the streets, it is on your hands. Every time a young transgender boy cries himself to sleep, praying for God to make him a girl inside, it is on your hands. Every time a gay man takes a woman to the temple, promising to love her forever yet knowing he can’t, it’s on your hands. Every time a council of men gathers to excommunicate a member of their ward for daring to find love in the arms of someone of the same gender, it’s on your hands.

And every time a 15 year old child wraps a rope around his neck and hangs himself from a closet rod because he believes God didn’t love him enough, it is on your heads.

You claim to speak for God, and you deliver words of hatred. If you could look your own children and grandchildren in the eyes as they sob, and tell them, “I speak for God. You are broken. He loves you, just try harder to change. Anything else is a sin. Try harder.” If you can do that… well, I can’t imagine how the spirit of God you strive for could possibly dwell in you.

I could never look into the eyes of my sons and see anything but a miracle. Not something to be fixed or amended, but a perfect child who deserves every ounce of happiness in the world.

You who are men. White, elderly men. You who are retired fathers and grandfathers, men who wait for years for seniority appointments into the roles of apostles and prophets. You who speak in the name of God to millions of his children here on the Earth. You who say that you don’t, you can’t make mistakes; and that if you do, they are the mistakes of men, not of God. You who hold the powers of life and death in your hands.

If you see dead teenagers and broken marriages and parents disowning their children and pain in the hearts of your LGBT Saints as acceptable collateral damage in your quest to enforce your views of the laws of God, well, then, I want no part of the God you believe in. The God I believe in is one of love.

I won’t send you this letter because I know it will be met with silence.

A few words of kindness and compassion from you is all it would take.

Brethren, people are dying. Children are dying. And it’s on you. The blood of children is on your hands.

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the Shiny Show Pig

With 30 minutes to kill before my movie started, I looked around outside. It was biting cold, so I headed into the nearest store, right next door to the movie theater and in the same parking lot of the city mall in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Some sort of wholesale ranch and rodeo supply store. This place was huge! Being in Wyoming felt like being in a foreign land. I started making my way through the store with curiosity and fascination.

Rows and rows of cowboy boots. Aisles and aisles of ropes and lassos. Shelves and shelves of belts and buckles. It felt like a Wal-Mart, full of rodeo stuff.

In the book section, my eyes widened at the array.

Goats: Small-Scale Herding Book

Chick Days: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Raising Chicken

Homegrown Honey Bees: Beekeeping: Your First Year, from Hiving to Honey Harvest

I moved over to the Dog Food section and started looking at the various pricing, arrangements, and labels. So many flavors! It was someone’s job to come up with and market all of these!

Salmon and Chicken Grill. Red Meat Dinner. Hearty Beef Stew. Lamb Dinner. 

And as the prices went up, the flavors got weirder.

Mom’s Chicken Pie. Backyard BBQ. Turkey Day Feast. Savory Stew with Chicken and Vegetables. 

I thought of every dog I have ever known. They rush to their food, particularly the wet clumpy stuff, and inhale it. In three slurps. What did they care how fancy it was?

Fish and Sweet Potato. Beef, Bacon, and Cheese. Chicken and Rice. Turducken. 

Turducken! Turducken! For dogs!

And for cats, it was somehow worse.

Chicken and Egg. Chicken, Pasta, and Spinach. Hairball Remedy with Real Salmon.

Okay, I gagged a bit at that one. And, as I have a natural revulsion to fish, the next flavors kept the ill look on my face.

Salmon, Tuna, and Rice. Sole and Spinach. Trout and Pasta. Beef and Cheese. Chicken and Liver: Long Coat Formula. Salmon and Ocean Fish Medley for Sensitive Skin. Sensitive Stomach Lamb. 

And then it got fancy, like reading a menu at a fancy restaurant.

Taste of the Wild Rocky Mountain Feline Formula with Roasted Venison and Smoked Salmon. Feline Greenies Dental Treats: Oven-Roasted Chicken. 

It only got more baffling in the food for various farm animals.

Rooster Booster Multi-Wormer Triple Action Type B Medicated Feed Concentrate. Happy Hen Treats: Meal Worm Frenzy. Premium Wild Energy Wild Bird Suet. Lamb Milk Replacer. 

I moved through the rest of the store with wonder, a delighted smile on my face. These products were sheer entertainment. With glee, I got out a pen and paper and began jotting down product names at random. Following are several of my favorites:

The Cowboy Living Western Buckle Slotted Spatula. 

The Original Mane n’ Tail Detangler: Spray-on with Friction Free Slip. 

The Equestrian Hoof Pick. 

Bovine Rhinotracheitis-Virus Diarrhea Parainfluenza 3 Respiratory Syncytial Virus Vaccine: Modified Live Virus Version. 

Leather Now Easy-Polishing Glycerine Saddle Soap. 

Excalibur Sheath and Udder Cleaner for Horses. 

Pink Lady Wound Dressing.

War Paint Insecticidal Paste.

Apple-Flavored Equistrength Paste. (Also came in Triple-Berry, and Oats and Honey).

Purina Premium Poultry Supplement Flock Block for Free-Ranging Poultry and Game Birds.

Y-Tex All-America 2-Pierce Ear-Tag System for Livestock Identification. 

Molemax Mole and Vole Repellant (which also works on gophers, armadillos, skunks, rabbits, ground squirrels, and other burrowing mammals).

Goat and Sheep Nutri-Drench. 

Liquid SpectoGard Scour-Chek Oral Solution for Pig Scours. 

Python Dust Livestock Insecticide. 

Purina Berry Good Artificial Raspberry Flavor Senior Horse Treats. 

Nature Wise Feather Fixer. 

Bird-B-Gone Plastic Bird Spikes.

And then I came across perhaps the most fantastic product label of all time. A giant-white bucket with a purple label and white lettering read Sunglo Bling Show Pig Supplement next to a drawing of a pig made out of shiny sequins. That was one fabulous pig.

I glanced at my watch, realizing the movie was starting, and took off with a rush. As the movie began, I was left with three thoughts.

  • I love how much wonder I have at the world around me, even in a rodeo store. It made those products downright entertaining.
  • Thank heavens I don’t live in Wyoming.
  • Someone get me some bacon.

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Why-oh-Wyoming

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“Now remember, just because he has a mustache, it doesn’t mean he’s 21. Make sure to card before selling alcohol. The risks are just too big.”

As the public service announcement ended and more country music came back on the radio, I looked across the vast stretching snow-swept plains that extended in every direction, rolling black and brown peaks in the distance, a few rocky outcroppings stretching into the sky. The sun was just coming up over the peaks and I could finally see the terrain, after a few hours of driving in the early morning darkness. Gusts of wind blew light drifts of snow across the road.

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I pulled into Rock Springs, Wyoming a brief time later, here for a work shift for a few days. As I stepped out of the car, the wind cascaded across me, biting and much colder than I had anticipated. January in Wyoming was a bitch, clearly.

I shivered and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck, nestling into my coat, and stepped into the nearby gas station, a local place with the god-awful name of the Loaf ‘n Jug, it’s sister station the Cum n’ Go right across the road. Yes, spelled just like that.

Half of the gas station/convenience store was devoted to the sale of liquor. I looked around, hearing more country twang from the loudspeakers, and saw several shelves full of booze. Hey, the locals needed something to keep them warm. Several dead animal heads hung on the walls over the shelves, deer and elk and a mountain goat or two. My eyes fell on one of the bottles of liquor, a cinnamon red of Fireball Whiskey, with a handwritten sign over it that said “Buy two bottles of Fireball, get a free fishing lure! Inquire at the desk!”

As I munched on my trail mix and sipped on my hot, and terrible, gas station coffee in the car, I realized I had thirty minutes before my shift began. I grabbed my phone and Googled Rock Springs, Wyoming, figuring I may as well learn about the city I was in.

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I read about how, in 1885, the Union Pacific Coal Department was able to hire Chinese workers at a lower wage than White workers, so they, of course, hired more Chinese. The White workers rioted in an explosion of racial tension, burned down 75 homes, and killed dozens of Chinese. I didn’t see a single report of a White person killed. I read how the local newspapers at the time had sympathized with the White man’s plight, and how 16 men had been arrested for the murders, but all were acquitted one month later, met by the cheers of their loved ones for their heroic actions. It was with a pit in my stomach that I thought of recent anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic content in the media, in the current presidential campaign, and I wonder, for the one millionth time in my life, if we have evolved as a species at all.

I read about local industries and businesses and politics, about forms of entertainment (shooting ranges and the rodeo), about the long history of the state. And before long, it’s time to step outside the car, back into the biting wind, and to prepare for another day of work, this time in a strange and faraway place.

Later, I check into my hotel, and the kindly front desk attendant informs me that I’m just in time for happy hour. I shrug. It’s a week night, and only 5 pm, “But the drinks are free!” she exclaims. “One hour only!”

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And so 30 minutes later, a grandmotherly bartender mixes me a rather strong Rum and Coke. I take a few sips and make eye contact with the severed moose head hanging on the wall in front of me.

“He’s a beauty, ain’t he?”

I look over and see a woman behind me that I hadn’t noticed before. She looks as though she just woke up, her hair disheveled and in her nightgown, a large pink muumuu that drowns her. She takes a large handful of Lays potato chips from a bag she is holding and somehow fits the entire handful of chips in her mouth, cramming them in and not missing a crumb. She has no teeth, so she makes large gumming noises as she munches down on them loudly.

“Um, the moose?” I look back at his marble eyes. “Yup, a real beauty.”

The woman finishes gumming her bite and takes a swallow of the pink alcoholic mixture from the cup in front of her. “I bet he’s been dead fifty years.”

I look at her as she takes another handful, and realize I have nothing to say except, “Yup.”

And this is my life right now, I think. Me and this woman and a moose head at 5 on a week night, drinking free alcohol in a hotel bar in frozen Wyoming.

I give myself a little mental toast and take another sip.

 

the Frenchman and the American

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So what is it the Americans think of the French?

That’s a rather broad question.

Yes, but I mean traditionally. Culturally. There must be some existing stereotypes. 

Okay, sure. There is a tendency among American comedies to make fun of the French for being, well, cowards. They called them frogs was back when. I think it dates back to World War II.

Oh, that is nothing. That is actually a world-wide stereotype. I lived in Ireland for work for a few years, and was teased about that all the time. I think it is rather funny, actually. 

And there is a perception about the French that they love their wine and love their women. In the 1950s, the country seemed enamored of France. There were a bunch of musicals about Paris, all the Maurice Chevalier type, an older man constantly drinking wine and champagne and lusting after women.

Well, there is truth to that as well. We do love a fine wine or a strong drink. And we French men, we definitely love our women. It’s rather funny, many Americans expect me to be an expert on wine, but I am not. But because I have a French accent, they expect that I do. I throw a few fancy words around and everyone thinks I have a very educated opinion. ‘Ooh, this wine, it’s from 2013? That was a very good year for red wines in oak barrels. This is delicious.’ I have no idea what I’m talking about, but suddenly everyone is ooo-ing and aah-ing over the wine. 

The same with cheeses and breads?

Of course.

Growing up, I based my knowledge of France off of that chef character from the Little Mermaid, chopping up all the fish and crabs. Sacre bleu, what is zis, how on Earth could I miss such a sweet little succulent crab?

Oh my, you must stop singing. 

Clearly I need more wine.

The funny part of the Little Mermaid is it sends such a terrible example for children, and for women. It seems to suggest that 16 year old girls should defy their fathers and give up everything for some boy. Give up your legs, give up your voice, give up your life for the boy. Beauty and the Beast is the one that is actually based in France.

Oh my god! The candlestick! Flirting over the feather duster the whole show! That’s you!

I’m hardly the candlestick. 

So I went up to Park City today. It’s the Sundance film festival right now, so the city is packed with people in jackets and hats, bustling down the street in a rush everywhere with full cups of coffee in hand. I pass these two men, both of them clearly French, and very snobbish. They are sauntering down the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes, blocking traffic, as they talk in their French accents about how awful the last movie was. It’s like the were critiquing a cuisine.

Well, they sound very French, except for the sauntering part. They must not have been Parisians. Everyone there is in a hurry.

Okay, so the same question back to you. What do the French think of Americans?

Well, to be honest, not just the French, but most of the world, at least the places I have been, they think of Americans as idiots. Very boastful idiots. Always going on and on about how America is the best country in the world. But when asked why, Americans say because of Freedom. It is so annoying. Much of the world has freedom, yet America has the highest prison populations, the most gun violence. Not that France is perfect, we definitely have a lot of racism there, but America takes racism to another level. I don’t see what everyone is bragging over. 

Well, fair enough. There is some truth to that as well.

I think the stereotype exists, but more in very religious communities in the south. In Texas and Alabama perhaps. French stereotypes exist as well, but only in various parts of the country. 

People from any country only need to see one Donald Trump rally or Sarah Palin speech to realize we have a lot of gun-toting idiots in this country.

And the gun violence. My god, so many mass shootings. It seems like every few months or weeksDon’t get me wrong, there are many things I love about America. I did choose to live here for the next few years. 

You definitely picked an interesting city to live in. Salt Lake City is fascinating.

It really is! I researched a lot before I moved here. But I am regularly surprised by it. 

Well, Utah is a state that formed outside of the United States government. Brigham Young led hundreds of thousands of people out here and basically became the emperor of the land, settling the whole place in the name of their God. So when the government came along, Young was elected the first governor. It is literally the Mormon holy-land.

Yes, but the city does not feel so Mormon.

Well, down the road is literally the headquarters of the Mormon church. Yet we have a lesbian mayor, a fairly Democratic government, and a huge LGBT population.

It is a fascinating place. There is much going on in the city, from live music to bars on every corner. I think I will like it here. 

Come on, you’re doing fine. You’re already meeting girls on Tinder.

Yes, yes, I have met one girl. That must make me quite the ladies’ man, as you say. 

Ha, shut up and drink your wine, Frenchie.

After you, American.

 

 

Boys will be boys

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“Boys will be boys,” parents say, to excuse skinned knees, black eyes, broken windows, and bad smells.

“Boys will be boys,” school officials say, to explain absences, aggressive behavior, and drug and alcohol use.

“Boys will be boys,” wives say, to quiet doubts about late evenings at work, lipstick smudges, raised voices, and household budgets.

“Boys will be boys,” the courts say, to dismiss drug offenses, sexual assaults, and domestic violence.

And in this boy-loving culture, where boys fill the seats of court stands, elected offices, church leadership positions, and chief executive officers, the boys are excused, the bad behavior overlooked and shrugged off. Because, after all, boys couldn’t possibly help their very nature. They are driven toward aggression, sex, and conquest, and it simply can’t be avoided. In fact, boys who aren’t driven toward those things are aberrant and less valuable.

And thus, the politicians go to war over oil and debt and revenge, and millions are killed, while human atrocities are ignored, rape and famine seen as the natural consequences of male behavior. And the fathers smile at their sons, pat them on the back, tell them “I’m so proud of you.”

And this was the world in which Stu Ungar was raised in. Stu, often called “the Kid” affectionately, lived from 1953 to 1998. Stu’s father, Ido, had a wife and a child when he started his bookie business, paying off all those he needed to to keep the cops and the mafia off his back. Ido soon left his wife for one of his mistresses, Fay, a beautiful socialite who liked a lot of attention. But that’s okay for Ido, because boys will be boys.

Fay had two children, and the oldest, Stuey, had an aptitude early on for cards, realizing that a mix of skill in the game and a capability of reading people lead to victory every time. Using contacts from his father’s business, Stuey played a lot of cards and won a lot of money, shirking school to do so, because boys will be boys.

After Ido died, Fay sunk into drugs and depression, and Stuey found a new mentor in Victor Romano, a made mafia man, one who had memorized the entire dictionary during his lengthy prison sentence. Romano got Stuey involved in mafia-led card games of Pinochle, Poker, and Gin Rummy, giving him protection and women and money for as long as he kept winning for them, because boys will be boys.

And as Stuey watched men around him die and disappear in mafia hits, he racked up debts, more than he could pay off, so he ran to Las Vegas to try and make more money. Without a drivers license or a Social Security card, and having never worked for a wage, Stuey drifted from game to game, winning vast sums then losing every dollar within hours, over and over and over, for years, because boys will be boys.

And then Stuey started cheating on his wife, leaving her home with his daughter and stepson and using drugs, disappearing for weeks at a time. But he was great at poker and began winning world championships, and he was celebrated, lauded, and honored, because boys will be boys.

And when Stuey’s stepson committed suicide by hanging himself at a construction site, Stuey grieved by gambling and snorting cocaine, until his nasal cavity finally collapsed in on itself, because boys will be boys.

And when Stuey was found dead at 45, in a hotel room, from a drug overdose, everyone shrugged at the sadness, because boys will be boys.

 

Mr. Scrumptious

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“Well, aren’t you just Mister Scrumptious?”

The older man had followed me into the dry sauna, where I had taken a seat on the upper bench, arranging my towel to cover myself comfortably. My skin broke out in a blissfully hot sweat right away in the scorching heat. I took a swig from my water bottle.

“You really are very scrumptious.”

I hadn’t even had time to acknowledge the first statement before he spoke again. This time I looked over, and nodded, muttering a thank you. He was likely in his late 60s, thin white hair brushed over his scalp. Wearing only a towel, the man was barely 5 feet 5 inches, his skin a bit sallow and spotted. He had on a pair of thick glasses that were fogged up, and I realized there was no way he could see me nod, so I said thank you a bit louder, then settled back against the wall, closing my eyes.

I breathed the hot air into my lungs, then held it there for a moment, clearing my head of the world outside. I was facing some big decisions in my life soon and it felt wonderful just to shut my brain off.

“Do you mind if I touch you a bit, Mister Scrumptious?”

I tilted my head slightly, curious and confused at this particular combination of words I had never expected to be spoken aloud. I kept my eyes closed. “Um, no thank you. But thank you for the offer.”

“What, you don’t like to be touched?” His voice was a mix of determination and frustration.

“Everyone likes to be touched sometimes. But I don’t want to be touched right now.” I felt my stomach contort with a laugh.

“Well, then, what are you looking for?” Now he sounded annoyed.

“I’m not looking for anything. Just relaxation. I’m here with some friends.”

The man paused, quiet for a moment, and he lowered his voice to an almost whisper. “Well, your friends aren’t here now, but I am, Mister Scrumptious.”

This time I laughed out loud. He was certainly persistent. “I think my friends are out in the hot tub. Thank you again, but I’m just here to relax.”

“Oh come on, who comes to a bath house just to relax. Everyone here is looking for something.” His voice took on a whiny pout now.

I sat up and faced the man, who still had his fogged glasses on. He had his arms folded and one leg crossed over the other. What was I doing here, I wondered. I was here in Denver on a road trip with a few friends from Salt Lake City, all of us formerly Mormon, all of us fathers through our previous marriages to women. Despite being in our 30s and 40s, we were still learning about gay culture, being gay, and how the gay community interacts. We had been sitting in our hotel room. Someone had mentioned a bathhouse and we had all curiously agreed that going to one would be a learning experience. After all, there are thousands of bath houses across the world, in every major city.

It was a Sunday afternoon when we found the facility, tucked into a back residential neighborhood, a single sign discreetly placed revealing its location. We had parked our car in the parking lot, which was tucked away from view, and entered the main room, a dark small space with a front desk attendant tucked behind a security glass window. The man had explained that only members could enter the bath house, and that we could purchase an annual membership for 25 dollars, plus a mandatory locker rental fee each time we used the facility. We paid for memberships, rented a locker, and were given a single key to an assigned locker along with a plain white towel.

We had entered the locker room, all of us curious about the new experience, stripped down, and put on our towels. I wandered through the building, exploring. The main floor had vending machines for snacks, coffee, and water. Down a long hallway, there were individual rooms that could be rented (higher priced than the lockers), each small with an individual bed and television (used for pornography). A few of the rooms had the doors slightly ajar and I could see men inside, their doors left open on purpose as they clearly hoped for some company. A small swimming pool and two hot tubs were available, one indoors and one out on a patio over a small grassy yard, as well as three separate saunas, dry and wet. A room sat off to one side with benches, and pornography played on a large screen.

A long stairway went down to the lower level, a basement where long darkened hallways twisted and turned in a maze-like pattern that was intentionally disorienting, leaning toward men being able to meet anonymously for sex. Various rooms were set up with bunks, benches, slings, and holes in walls. A few men stood in their towels in darkened corners, hoping to meet someone.

Outside in the hot tub, I had ruminated with my friends about the history of gay men. Millions of men who grew up in secret, telling no one about their attraction to other men. Connections to other men, including through sex, had to be carefully protected, discreet and anonymous, to protect families and careers. For decades, men had only met other men in public parks designated as gay meet-up spaces, at bars, or at bathhouses. Now, post-2010, being out as a gay man was much easier. Meeting other gay men through phone apps, dating sites, or public events was commonplace. Yet clearly there was still an appeal, a fascination for bath houses, the potential for anonymous sex away from prying eyes.

“Men do like their sex,” I had said. “In fact, if women enjoyed bath houses, straight men would be in these places all the time. Straight men use coercion and violence in the name of sexual gratification, yet places like this inspire such discomfort to others, hidden in plain site.”

We had had a long discussion about our former lives and where we were now.

And then I had walked to the sauna. I looked back at the older man with the fogged glasses, there waiting for me to show interest in him. I certainly wasn’t looking for random sex with an older man in a sauna, much as that might frustrate him.

“Honestly, sir, I really just here to relax.”

He got the flirtatious tone back in his voice, not missing a beat. “Well, I can help with that.”

My word. “Sir, really, you’re very nice but I’m not interested in that right now. We can have a conversation if you like, but I’m not looking for a hook-up.”

The man got up, tightened his towel around his waist, and headed toward the sauna exit. “Well, all right, Mister Scrumptious. But if you change your mind, I’ll be downstairs. You’ll know where to find me.”

I thought of the man in the basement maze below and laughed to myself again as I leaned my head against the wall, thinking of humans and their history, and my place in all of it.

 

Stepping on Cracks

crack in pavement

As a child, I carefully measured my sidewalk steps, making sure to avoid the cracks,

Knowing inwardly that the cracks were there to test me,

And that a single misstep would break my mother’s back, or worse.

I focused so closely on each crack that I lost track of the world around me.

As a child, I knew nothing of concrete cohesion or molecular expansion, the very reasons the cracks were set down in the first place.

Now, when I walk or run or skip or dance, I don’t notice the cracks,

For who would choose to stare at the sidewalk while missing trees and sun and birdsong, love and laughter, lungs full to bursting then empty of breath?

And despite all my worry of years gone by, my mother’s back is fine, and I realize I had little to do with it.

How to Dress on South Beach

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“Amanda, listen, that is a work dress, not a South Beach dress. Trust me.”

I sat at the airport gate with an hour to go before my flight. The woman behind me wore a red knee-length skirt, a pleasant floral top—yellow with a white floral pattern, and sunglasses. Her obviously dyed red hair looked a bit more orange to me. Her arms and legs were perfectly tan, her feet slipped sockless into a pair of fashionable white pumps. She was clearly a careful dresser, and clearly wanted her daughter to pick up on this trait of hers as she loudly instructed her over her cell phone in front of a group of assembled strangers.

“Amanda, sweetie, listen, if you think you can get away with a dress like that, you’ve got deep psychological issues. You know what, never mind, it is clear you have psychological issues. A dress like that is like your best winter woolen. You wear it to a place like South Beach, and you are clearly going to embarrass yourself. No one cares if you embarrass yourself at work, but in South Beach, trust me, honey, they are going to care.”

The woman barely moves as she speaks. I would expect her to be gesturing animatedly with her hands, or flipping her pump on her foot, or picking at her nails, but this process of yelling at her daughter seems to be something routine, something so common that she doesn’t even move.

“Wait, he’s wearing what? Oh, sweetie, you can’t be seen with him if he is going to wear something like that to South Beach. No, no, no. You tell him, get a nice pastel colored shirt and a pair of white pants. That is what they want at South Beach. It won’t go with your dress, but then nothing would, not if you insist on wearing that one. On South Beach, they are looking for a particular type of thing. If he wears that, they’ll be looking for him. They still won’t be looking for you.”

I look around the people nearby, wondering if anyone is finding either amusement or cruelty in this overheard conversation, but no one seems to be reacting at all, just reading or talking or playing cards or texting. I think about mothers and the pressures they put on their daughters to be a certain way. Growing up in a Mormon household, I watched my mom raise five daughters, teaching them to dress modestly and wear only light makeup and to have only one pair of earrings in their ears. Never did I hear my mom go on a critical tirade like this. Then I wonder, what if it isn’t her daughter? What if it’s a co-worker, a sister, or a friend. I kind of wish I could hear the other end of the conversation, but mostly I’m glad that I can’t. I continue listening, fascinated.

“No, you may not wear one of my dresses. No. No! That one is one of my favorites and you would sweat in it. Frankly I don’t want to pay to have it cleaned. No, not that one either. The last time you wore that dress, you got a stain on it.. You shouldn’t be so sloppy. No. You’ll just have to wear—oh, honey, not the purple-black. Maybe the black-black. That could at least qualify as a South Beach. Try that. Wear the black-black. Now look, I’m tired of this conversation. I only have an hour before I bored, I need some peace. Mm-hmm, love you, honey. Go have some fun.”

The woman clicked her phone closed, packed it into her red leather purse, slipped her shoes back on her feet tightly, and walked away. I smiled, curious at this small glimpse I’d gotten into this woman’s life, and felt satisfied that, while I never wanted to go to South Beach, at least if I did I knew what to wear.