the massage guy

George-Massage

I had a few free hours and my shoulders were sore. I had heard about a local massage school that was easy to schedule with at the last minute, and had heard that it was affordable, so I thought why not. I jumped on my laptop, found the school’s website, and clicked the link that instructed me to book online.
The first box asked ‘How many guests?’ and I clicked the ‘Just Me’ link, then I selected ‘Massage’ from the drop down list of services that also included Facials, Body Services, and Hydrotherapy. Then a long list of styles of massage popped down and I had to select the type I wanted. Swedish? Craniosacral? Deep Tissue? Hot Stone? Japanese Shiatsu? Lomi Lomi? Lymphatic? Mineral Foot, back and Reflex Scrub? PEDI massage? Prenatal massage? Thai Yoga massage? The comprehensive drop down menu had different time increments on these as well as a choice between a student and a licensed therapist, all with various prices associated.
Choosing a style from the lest felt vaguely like taking a multiple choice test. This was a school. Were these people really trained in all of these various styles? I pictured a group of students sitting in the backroom acting bored as they waited to get their certification hours filled. A red light clicks on as the principal calls out, “Jennifer, you have a Thai Yoga waiting in room 2.” Jennifer rolls her eyes. “Another Thai Yoga! That’s my third one this week! Why don’t I ever get a Craniosacral?” The red light clicks on again, “Jordan, a Lomi Lomi in Room 12.” Jordan enthusiastically fist bumps his neighbor. “Yes! My forearms are saved!”I click deep tissue, then another drop down box has me answer ‘With Whom’ I want the massage, a male therapist, a female therapist, or anyone?
Now it has nothing to do with being gay, but I have always preferred male massage therapists. Then again, maybe it is a gay thing. Or maybe it’s a guy thing. Most straight guys I know would prefer a female massage therapist—if a straight guy is going to be touched by someone, they don’t want it to be a dude! Gross! They’d prefer an attractive female. (The exception being, perhaps, a straight guy who is married to a woman who doesn’t want another woman touching her husband; these straight guys likely just avoid massages). In a similar vein, I would rather be touched by a guy. And, men being men, we generally want the most attractive person to be the one touching us. Women, be they gay or straight, likely prefer female therapists. Come to think of it, male massage therapists have a rough gig—are gay guys really the only ones who seek them out? Hm. Regardless, I also tend to prefer male massage therapists because they have a stronger touch, a deeper pressure, when doing the massage. If I’m going in, I want to feel the work being done, and I definitely prefer the stronger touch.
So I select the male therapist button, and the prompt instructs me to choose the therapist I want from the following selections. But then there is only one selection. I’m sure there are more students, but in this case there must be only one male working at the time I am getting the massage. A first name flashes on the screen, and I get a look on my face like I just took a sip of curdled milk.
BERNIE.
Bernie? Do I want to get a massage from a guy named Bernie? I picture an overweight moustached man with an extra chin. I imagine he has terrible pepperoni breath that I won’t be able to escape from during the massage, and I imagine beads of sweat forming as he works on me, dripping down his nose and onto my neck. I give a little shudder. Bernie? I try to reason with myself. I know nothing about this person. Maybe he is a perfectly good massage therapist. But who would choose to go by that name? If my name was Bernard, I would go by Bernard. If my name was Barnaby, I’d go by Barnaby. Or maybe I would just use my middle name instead. Then again, maybe his given name IS Bernie. And maybe he doesn’t have a middle name, or his middle name is something worse, like Orville or Seymour. What parents out there would do that to a child? Who would name their son Bernie Seymour? Poor massage therapist probably had no choice, and he couldn’t afford to change his name because here he is in massage school, paying tuition. I feel bad for the poor guy.
Which, despite all my justifications, is the exact reason I can’t select him. He may not have pepperoni breath and maybe he is perfectly nice, but I feel bad for him already, and I’m here to relax, not do therapy. When people find out that I’m a therapist, they automatically feel some sort of duty or obligation to tell me the deepest darkest secrets of their lives, whether we are on a plane, in a grocery checkout line, or the next table over in a restaurant. It has happened to me even while being massaged. As the person spreads oil over my shoulders, they give little speeches. “It wasn’t my daughter’s fault her dad left. What can I do to get him to want to have a relationship with her?” Or “Oh, you do drug counseling? I have a stripper friend who is addicted to Oxycodeine. How can I help her?” Or “I attempted suicide once when I was 12, bet you wouldn’t have guessed that.” This is the life of a therapist. Maybe math teachers get asked about long division and lawyers are consulted about custody trials, but therapists? Man, people will tell them anything.
But no, I’m here to relax, and so there is no way I can pick Bernie because now I automatically feel bad for him. So I choose a female therapist instead. A list of 25 names drop down. I’m shocked at how many more girls there are available. Alicia, Zooey, Jackie, Cheryl. I choose Alicia just cause she’s first and I hope the odds are in my favor.
When it’s time for my massage, I go to the clinic and sign in. I fill out a ‘where does it hurt’ paper, an information and medical history sheet, and a consent form that bizarrely includes the question of how I like my buttocks worked on: not at all, through the sheet, with the sheet folded, or under the sheet. (I picked under the sheet. I got no shame). Alicia comes to get me, a small 4’11’’ bit of fluff. I undress and lay on the table and she starts working on me. She asks what I do for a living, and I think about lying, but instead I tell the truth, and she, right on command, launches into her sad story about how she had a messed up childhood and always wanted to be a social worker herself so she could figure out why bad things happen to people. I’m not quite sure if she is touching me or not. Her pressure is so light that it may be that she actually just has her fingers a few centimeters over my skin and is moving her hands around. I give her a few requests to deepen her pressure, and my skin feels the resulting force of a cotton swab for a few seconds before Alicia forgets and goes back to her non-touch. She seems to have a memorized routine of some kind, like she has choreographed a massage number that can’t be interrupted, but it just isn’t good. One-and-two-and-barely-touch-and-three-and-rub-and-circle-up-now. While she rehearses her amateur number, she tells me about how she moved here to get away from her abusive boyfriend. I do my best to will myself into unconsciousness until the massage is over.
After my 50 minutes, I dress, leave, tell the attendant that the massage was just what I paid for, then drive home. I wonder if maybe I was all wrong. I’m sure Bernie would have had pepperoni breath, but maybe he had a great childhood.

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The Misogynistic Merry Widow

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The colors were astounding.

As Lolo, Dodo, Jou-jou, Clo-clo, Margot, and Frou-frou exposed their ankles, lifted their frilly skirts, shook their bosoms, and danced gaily around the stage, I was most astounded by the colors of the set. At the evening performance of the Merry Widow, an opera with a full symphony, I sat in the center balcony absorbing the music and color, the very spectacle of the impressive show.

I tend to rate productions in multiple categories, my internal critic going down the checklist. It makes it easier for me to sort it out. A movie, for example, may be brilliantly filmed yet have terrible actors, or may have beautiful imagery and a terrible story.

I surveyed the Merry Widow carefully. The costumes and sets were stunning. The actors were top notch, selling their characters with full commitment, silliness and seriousness, lust and love, and I had laughed out loud many times. The vocal performances and the symphony took my breath and raised gooseflesh on my arms and neck; a few of the soft high notes in the operatic solos left me gasping, my hand on my heart in pure fulfillment. And the show itself, written over a hundred years ago, was, frankly, hilarious and relevant, for the most part. This was a top-notch production, and I was having a blast.

I sat next to my colleague and friend, Kara, and we made comments throughout the show, poking fun at the roles of the women in the show. It was written in a different time, when women were seen as acquisitions, annoyances, or trophies. So when Valencienne sings about being a virtuous wife even as she cheats on her husband, it’s easy to smile and laugh. And when the dancing girls strut about the stage, singing of how they can woo married men away from their wives, it was easy to laugh.

But I had to grimace in discomfort when a group of male characters sang about women in politics, and how men generously gave them the right to vote yet women still grew discontent and had opinions. I still laughed, but I grew a bit more uncomfortable.

And then came the song about women directly. A group of male characters (all hilarious) step on the stage to discuss the problem of women in their lives.

“It’s a problem how to manage willful women when the bloom of youth is gone”, one sings. Then, in song, the men pontificate on all of the different ways women can be impossible. One likes fashion too much, another is too focused on romance, another is too moody and inconsistent, another frigid and opinionated. After they finish classifying the women in derogatory categories, the men decide, as a group, that they can never do enough to possibly satisfy a woman, but that women have enough assets to be worth the aggravation.

The production ends when (warning: 100 year old spoilers!) the wealthy widow, Hanna Glawari, who has an untold fortune left to her by her deceased husband, finds true love with Danilo Danilovitsch, a whiny drunkard statesman who has spent the entire production espousing his philosophy of making love to many, proposing to some, but marrying none. And although Danilo likes Lolo, Dodo, Jou-jou, Clo-clo, Margot, and Frou-frou all very much, he decides to marry the widow. But wait! The dead husband’s will states Margot loses her entire fortune if she marries another. Oh well, they will marry anyway, because she needs to be with a man more than she needs riches.

Kara turned to me, shock on her face. “Wait. Why couldn’t they have just lived together and shared the money?”

We shared a good laugh as we walked out of the show, delighted with the production and yet disgusted with the utter patriarchy of it all. “Wow, that was awfully… misogynistic.” I said. My mind raced to early Disney movie productions, where each princess finds love in the arms of a man before her destiny is fulfilled and happy ending written. More modern Disney productions feature women a bit more liberated and complex.

Then I thought of watching the old 1950s musical movie, Gigi, with friends a few weeks ago, when Maurice Chevalier, then an older man with a cane, walks around a promenade looking at little girls and singing about how they will all grow up to be beautiful and complicated women.

I wonder how many songs have been written over the years about how aggravating, impossible, and difficult women are, only to decide in the end that they are beautiful enough to be worth it. There must be dozens.

Kara and I had a good laugh, then headed our respective ways. Later, I told a friend about the production.

“How did you like it?” he asked.

I smiled, the music still playing in my head. “It was fantastic, but perhaps slightly mistitled. Maybe they should call it the Misogynistic Merry Widow.

 

 

Tantric

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“No! You’ll make me laugh!”

Cole gave me a look of impatience. “It’s a room full of strangers! It would be awkward to do it with anyone else.”

I sighed and looked around the room at the people there. Several dozen people stood, gazing around the room for a potential partner. Most of them were couples all ready, and mostly heterosexual ones at that. This was actually a very cool crowd of people, sort of an older group of hippies. Older women with flame-red hair and fur-lined boots, horn-rim glasses and purple scarves, tassels on coats and sequins on gloves.

I’m always looking for new adventures in town, and my best friend Cole is generally willing to accompany me. Amateur comedy nights, independent film screenings, live musicians. And tonight, a mutual friend was hosting an education event called the 7 Secrets of Spiritual Sex. And I thought, why not?

In preparation for the evening, I looked up a bit about Tantric sex, something I’ve heard of many times but never looked into. The word Tantric itself is beautiful, Sanskrit word meaning ‘woven together.’ The concept is rather simple, the idea of using methods of connecting to a partner, unifying and sharing on a deeper level.

We had just listened to a surprisingly entertaining evening, spent discussing deeper emotional connections, full body orgasms, and the prolonging of pleasure for both men and women, topics that had been addressed in a mature, fun, and professional way. The crowd had been all smiles and insight, mature learners on a topic that would have made me blush five years ago. (It took me until my  mid-30s to realize that sex is actually quite fun).

And now, at the close of the evening, we had been asked to find a partner to face and maintain eye contact with for several minutes, forming a spiritual connection and bond while hands were held. I know Cole, and how easily he makes me laugh, and I knew this was a terrible idea.

“Cole, it would seriously be easier with a stranger.”

“No, please, come on. You’re the only person I know here.”

I sighed and nodded my consent. I looked over to see a cute older couple join hands and face each other. Another woman, who had revealed she was a “famous porn star” (“Hi, I’m a famous porn star,” she had said. “I want out of the industry because there is no emotional connection anymore.”) partnered with a woman next to her. An older couple of gay men joined hands nearby. I felt safe in this room, all these different kinds of people just accepting of one another.

The evening had started with some sort of tuning fork cleansing, vibrations moved around the body. A woman had been seated within three circles of individuals joining hands, then we had all directed “blue energy” toward her struggling thyroid. A woman had prayed in Hawaiian and the energy in the room had been intense. (It had strangely reminded me of my experiences in the Mormon temple, the ritual and joined energy of strangers). We had even practiced an intense body breathing exercise that left my heart pounding like I had just run a mile, just before a sustained meditation.

Now we were instructed to hold our hands out in front of us, left palm facing up and right palm facing down, and then to touch palms with our partner. We were told to focus our attention to the left eye of the person in front of us (easier to make eye contact with one eye than both, especially for a sustained period). And then the music had begun.

Flutes and trills and bells in the song, mixed with my eyeballs locked on Cole’s, had me fighting off laughter even before the woman began to sing. The song, Divine Lover by Leraine Horstmanshoff, is absolutely lovely, but my adolescent 12 year old brain kicked in, the one that used to laugh in fourth grade whenever the teacher would say ‘do it’ or the ‘plug it in, plug it in’ commercials would come on.

The woman sings the phrase Divine Lover over and over and my face contorts up, cheekbones rising, nostrils flaring, lips pursing, as I fight off laughter. She sings of nectar and breezes and trees and a guttural laugh escapes my throat. And when I start laughing, Cole starts laughing, and the energy feeds and every time I try to stop laughing he starts, and every time he tries to stop, I start. The song goes on and on and we have six full minutes of silent giggles, all nose breath and furrowed foreheads, and when it finally, blissfully ends, I’m exhausted.

I look around the room and see all the couples hugging, tears streaming down faces, muttering about how special that was, how wonderful the energy felt, and I elbow Cole. “I told you! I told you that was a bad idea!”

We shake a few hands, offer a few hugs, and step out into the cold January air. A friend texts me: How was the symposium?

I think briefly and laugh as I respond.

Tantric.

 

the Problem with Monogamy

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The truth is, most humans are boiling pots of unmet needs.

As a therapist, I constantly see people come in whose lives are out of balance. I help them list and recognize their needs by using a Medicine Wheel, a Native American spiritual construct that divides Needs into four areas: Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual.

Physical represents sleep, fitness, nutrition, hydration, and health.

Mental represents being challenged, achieving things, and making progress (including areas related to work and money).

Emotional represents basic human feelings and complex human relationships.

Spiritual represents purpose, inner connection, and involvement that brings balance and peace internally. (Spirituality is separate from religion).

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When all the needs are met, the four quadrants of the wheel are in perfect balance and all the same size. When one is out of balance, it negatively skews the capacity of the other three. Picture four balloons tied at the center that share a limited supply of air; they are only balanced when the air is perfectly and evenly distributed, yet the air is always shifting as needs are met and then unmet.

For example, if you have a poor night’s sleep (Physical), you are at less capacity to do work tasks (Mental). If you are feeling dissatisfied with yourself (Spiritual), you may find yourself withdrawing from your best friend (Emotional).

Small needs are relatively easy to meet and amend. Feeling stiff and sore, then stretch and work out: Physical balance restored. Feeling bored and uninteresting, then select a simple task and achieve it, something easy like washing the dishes or reading a chapter of a book: Mental balance restored. Feeling lonely on a Saturday afternoon, invite a friend to go on a walk: Emotional balance restored. Feeling conflict and confusion within yourself, go outside and soak in the sunlight: Spiritual balance restored.

Moderate needs take more time to meet and lengthier amounts of amendments and self-care. Losing 15 pounds (Physical), surviving a difficult semester at college (Mental), working through some coping mechanisms that have stopped you from recognizing your anger (Emotional), or realizing that your prayers have felt empty lately and you feel far from God (Spiritual).

And Major needs require much longer as we do our best to maintain balance during those times of major difficulty. Recovering from a surgery (Physical), trying to reduce $50,000 in credit card debt (Mental), learning a spouse has been unfaithful (Emotional), or realizing that you no longer believe in the religion you were raised with (Spiritual).

The greatest lesson I have ever learned in my lifetime, after doing therapy for others for over a decade, is that I have to take care of my own needs, and I can’t expect any other person, situation, job, status, or religion to do it for me.

Most humans (particularly Americans) began using “If… then” statements regarding their own happiness and balance.

IF I could fall in love, THEN I would be happy.

IF my spouse would pay more attention to me, THEN I would feel like he loves me.

IF my boss would show me more appreciation, THEN I would start to like my job.

IF I pray every day, THEN I will feel God’s love more readily in my life.

IF I could get pregnant, THEN I would find purpose.

All of these statements set us up for failure, because as humans we fail to recognize that we will ALWAYS have needs. The second we find satisfaction, we have something else we are dissatisfied with. That’s the very nature of humanity: we eat, we get hungry; we have sex, we get horny; we feel connected to our Higher Power, we feel distant again; we learn something fascinating, we get bored.

And so we fall into situations where we stay desperately and painfully out of balance for years at a time. People stay in abusive or loveless relationships, desperately hoping day after day that something will change. People gain forty pounds, then fifty, then one hundred, and they wait for something that will inspire them to change. People continue the same faith practices they have found unfulfilling, feeling selfish and unworthy for even feeling dissatisfied, and hoping they will change. People go to the same job day after day, miserable every night they come home, feeling like there is no hope of change.

They get stuck… and they stay there.

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And this is the problem with Monogamy. Or, frankly, any system that we believe should be the ideal. People develop this idea that they will meet one single person that will rock their world, charge their system, take away all their pain and struggle and that it will last forever. Wanting to be in a monogamous relationship is no problem; expecting a monogamous relationship to meet your every need is a big problem. (Replace “monogamous relationship” with any system in the previous sentence and apply it to you. Example: Wanting to be in shape is no problem; expecting being in shape to meet your every need is a big problem.)

I recognize that choosing Monogamy as the title topic here is controversial, but it’s meant to grab your attention. Did it work?

So Janie meets Charlie when they turn 25 and they have a whirlwind romance. The first year is wonderful. But she finds that sometimes, she wants to go out with friends and Charlie doesn’t like that, and she feels selfish for wanting time for herself with other people. And then Janie has a baby and she is a bundle of nerves and exhaustion for several months, so she and Charlie aren’t connecting and aren’t having sex, and she doesn’t feel beautiful. And a few years later, Charlie starts hating his job and Janie realizes there isn’t a lot she can do to help. And Janie is sometimes attracted to other people and feels terrible about herself, even though she has never cheated. And on and on.

People change over time, and their needs change over time. And the simple idea that one person (or job or religion or status or relationship) can meet every need a person has and can or will restore and maintain permanent balance does an extreme amount of damage, and it hurts all four of the medicine wheel areas.

Individuals who believe solely in a system (like monogamy or religion) tend to see these systems as ideal and the only paths for happiness. They develop the mindset that not achieving that status, within themselves or within others, means a person can’t be happy.

I grew up in a very religious household in the Mormon faith. I grew up believing that there was only one path to happiness: a man married to a woman, active in the Mormon faith, with children. And I grew up believing that wanting or needing anything else was selfish and against God’s will. I was permanently out of balance and I didn’t even see it, but constantly feeling dissatisfied.

And so it is that I share two great lessons with you here.

One: No one person, or system, or belief structure can bring you ultimate fulfillment and balance. You are a complicated universe of needs that require careful balancing and negotiation, day by day and moment by moment.

Two: You have to take care of you.

Maya Angelou once said, profoundly: “I do not trust people who don’t love themselves and yet tell me ‘I love you.’ There is an African saying, which is Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.

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And so, it is up to each of us to draw out our own Medicine Wheels and to, bravely and courageously, determine what it is we are missing from our lives. Are we out of balance in small, moderate, or major ways, and what will it take to restore balance and peace? Do you need more hopes and dreams? More friend connections? More sex and intimacy? More excitement and adventure? More achievement? And are you at peace with the recognition that what you need today will not be what you need tomorrow?

You are not selfish, or shameful, or broken, or unworthy, or damaged, or hopeless, or evil for wanting or needing more from your life than what you currently have in it. You are a complicated human with complicated needs. The alternative to recognizing and addressing needs is remaining out of balance and dissatisfied in life.

The best kinds of relationships are those in which two healthy balanced individuals who take care of themselves choose to be together. Whether you are monogamous or polyamorous, single or married, surrounded by friends or relatively isolated, Christian or athieist… you can be happy so long as you are taking care of you. And if these two healthy people want to be Monogamous, then they work on it and the relationship can be healthy. Systems can only work when they are carefully chosen, in line with values, and worked toward as beings change over time.

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And yet, all that said, cheating, on yourself or someone else, is never okay. Needs must be met that are in accordance to our personal values, morals, and agreements. Lying to your partner about having sex with someone else is cheating. Convincing yourself you aren’t angry, then lashing out at another person with mean words and excusing your behavior is cheating. Setting physical goals for yourself, then shutting your brain down while you eat an entire pizza later is cheating. Judging others for “sinning” and then excusing your own “sins” is cheating.

Inner balance comes from careful, consistent negotiations and measurements. It is a difficult, and worthy quest. And the alternative is a steady and consistent unhappiness that can last years, decades, or even a lifetime. And life is too short to be unhappy.

I’m worth it. And I think you’re worth it. But then, you have to decide that for you.

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Women in Hot Water

“A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she’s in hot water.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

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Christopher Columbus sailed around the world with a ship full of men, and hundreds of thousands of men followed, each seeking to stake a claim in a new land. America was founded on the principles of a fresh start, escaping poverty and oppression and building a new life in a new world. Civilization spread over the next two hundred years from coast to coast. Men came, men conquered.

And eventually, an organized civilization formed in the name of revolution. Wanting freedom from other men, these men declared war and, in time, won, declaring independence. These men formalized a government, wrote a Constitution, elected a president, put a court system in place, and began to govern the people. America was a nation of immigrants, unified in the cause of governance.

The land of the free, they called it. The home of the brave, they said, where all men were created equal. Except for the Native Americans, slaughtered, given diseases, and eventually shoved onto small pockets of land to contain them. Except for blacks, gathered on ships and stolen from their homes, then forced into slave labor for generations. Except for Mexicans, killed and manipulated in the need for acquisition of more land. And except for women, who were expected to bear children, serve in the home, and not participate in governance.

It took ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ until 1920 to give women the right to vote. Around 135 years after the formation of the country on the premise that all are created equal, the other fifty per cent of our citizens got their most basic right. (Keeping in mind, this was after we went to war to end slavery, decades before the Civil Rights movement, and nearly 100 years before same-sex couples would be granted the right to marry).

In 2016, population wise, there are more women than men by several million. Men make up most of the prison population, commit nearly all of the violent and sexual crimes (including, obviously, rape and murder). Men run most of the American businesses (around 85 per cent) and are paid more than women in nearly every position, often including fields where women dominate the work place (like social work and nursing). Men run most of the religious organizations in the country, almost exclusively.

And perhaps most shocking, men dominate in nearly every category of elected officials in the United States. A recent study showed that the United States ranks number 69 in the rankings of the world’s democracies in elected positions for women. In fact, Afghanistan has more women in government than the US. As does Pakistan. And Uganda.

In our presidential running this year for the Republican and Democratic primaries, we saw a bit more racial diversity among the candidates, though it was still dominated by white men (though some of them had racially diverse spouses), and one female candidate on each side. One. Carly Fiorina for the Republican party, and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic.

I, personally, am saddened and a bit horrified at the idea that we are still so far from having equal representation in our government. Men have been making mistakes in our government for  a very long time. And the only way women can break in is by playing by the men’s rules in the men’s systems, with men as their peers. And the country is still, by and large, very patriarchal and misogynistic, and makes it very hard for a woman to succeed.

It is with this awareness of history and focus on social justice that I went about researching Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton. Clinton was raised in Chicago by a hard-working father who taught her self-reliance, and a courageous mother who had been abandoned by her parents and abused by her grandparents before staking out life on her own terms. Hillary’s mother raised her to believe in herself, treating Hillary and her two brothers as capable in every capacity. Hillary was raised with an awareness of privilege and social justice, and knew very young that she would make something of herself someday.

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Hillary married the handsome young Bill Clinton and moved to Arkansas, building a life for herself there as a successful attorney as Bill ran for various government positions. Hillary is now nearly 70 years old. During her life span, she has been the First Lady of Arkansas for nearly 15 years, the First Lady of the United States for 8 years, a Senator in New York for 8 years, and the Secretary of State for 4 years. That is a total of 35 years in public, over half of her life. She has also run two Presidential campaigns. She has championed education, women’s rights, children’s rights, LGBT rights, free information rights, and health care. She has survived public scandals and inquisitions, media feeding frenzies, and decades in the public spotlight. She has shown up time and again with courage, clarity, and strength in the face of opposition at every turn. And in my opinion, she has done so with grace, strength, and openness.

As Secretary of State, Hillary traveled the world, interfacing with male world leaders, many times as the only woman in the room. She negotiated with men who weren’t allowed to shake her hand because she was a woman, due to their own customs. She was courageous and strategic in each instance, and she stood for social justice in each encounter. She has a deep sense of history, change, initiative, and responsibility.

I don’t thank that any presidential candidate is spotless. But Hillary Clinton has my vote for three primary reasons: 1. She is simply the most qualified candidate up there. 2. She knows, first hand, what being president entails. She has, quite literally, lived it. 3. It is long past time we had a female in office.

Centuries past time.

It’s time to put more women in hot water so we can see how strong they are. z47

Mormon wedding night

June 17, 2006

My cell phone alarm goes off at 5:30 am promptly, giving off a soft pleasant beep with a low vibration that rattles the phone against the nightstand. I sit up suddenly, stretch my arms wide, and feel my back pop. I twist this way and that, adjusting, yawning, moving my body from sleep to wake. I slept better than I thought I would, considering the significance of today.

Today I’m getting married.

It’s maybe the most significant day of my life thus far. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tend to mark spiritual milestones as the most life-altering and noteworthy events in life. Baby blessing, baptism, confirmation, ordination, patriarchal blessing, endowment, temple sealing. It is more than just a wedding. There is a commitment, a legal signing, and an exchange of rings still, but it is a special event that takes place in God’s holy temple. A holy man has the couple dress in white, kneel across the altar from each other, and, surrounded by family and friends who are worthy to be there, join hands to be married for all time and sealed together for all eternity. It is a beautiful ceremony, so sacred and enduring. Every religion has special rites, passages, and ceremonies, but this one is the big one if you are LDS.

As I make my way down to the continental breakfast in the time-share where I’ve been staying with my family for the past few days in Salt Lake City, I think about how different my life is going to be from here forward. That was my last night sleeping in a bed alone. And tonight means not only sharing a bed and starting a new marriage and no longer being single, it means… sex. When the word comes into my mind, I can hardly take another bite of my cereal. I’m so nervous!

Mormon kids aren’t taught about sex. They are only taught not to have it. There are long lists of Do Nots. Don’t date before you are 16. Don’t date other people who aren’t Mormon. Don’t kiss frequently and don’t make out, and it’s okay if you never kiss until you marry. Don’t dance too close. Don’t “heavy pet.” Don’t dress immodestly. Don’t touch any private parts, your own or others. Don’t engage in any form of sexual activity prior to marriage. And the biggest don’t of all: don’t be attracted to someone from your own gender and definitely don’t act on it if you are.

I can still remember when I was 15 and the group of boys in my ward were taken in for a talk about chastity. The man in his 60s looked at the group of us and, trying to level with us, said, “Boys, I know how good it can feel at times when you touch your pecker.” I’d been shocked and confused as he explained how our bodies are temples and need to be treated carefully and in accordance with God’s commandments. I’d had dozens of moments like this as a young man, as a missionary, and as an adult where parameters are taught and set up. Some indiscretions are excused while others are responded to very seriously. But I’m not worried about that because even though I haven’t been able to rid myself of same-sex attraction, I have saved myself for marriage, and Megan is the only girl I’ve kissed. Our physical relationship has stayed safe; small kisses, hand holds, and back massages, but always very tame.

But then suddenly, when you do get married, not only is sex permissible, it is expected. And with no education in a highly conservative religious culture that doesn’t talk about sex, newly married couples are supposed to know what to do, and when, and to what, and for how long, and are supposed to want to do it often. Birth control is somewhat frowned upon. Intercourse is allowed and other sexual stuff, like oral or other things, are never really taught about on the don’ts list so it seems to be up to the husband and wife to decide.

I’ve been nervous about the wedding night for weeks. I’m worried for a lot of reasons. I find Megan to be absolutely beautiful, inside and out. But even though I’m excited about sex in some ways—I mean it is my first time in 26 years!—I just don’t feel the same drive and passion and lust toward women that I hear my friends talk about with their wives. Where they feel aroused and excited, I feel scared and a strange sense of duty. It makes me feel like something is wrong with me. And I can’t shed my own attractions to men, but I know those aren’t natural or right. Once I’m married, I just know things will work themselves out. Things will finally be right in me, and I’ll be right in the sight of God.

A few weeks ago, in a panic, I’d called up my old friend and roommate Jesse, who’s been married a couple of years, to ask him about the expectations and details about sex. Does it hurt the girl the first time? Do I need any supplies or, like, sexy underwear or anything? I asked frightening questions about female anatomy and felt both confused and ill-at-ease as he’d explained the answers. He’d discussed male and female arousal, emotional connections, and foreplay. In another conversation, my brother-in-law had compared women to an electric stove that takes time to heat up and cool down, and men to a gas stove that heats up quickly and go out right away. I’d wondered how I was supposed to know all of these things, and if it was a sin to know now, and what other things I should know but didn’t.

After making a bit of small talk with various family members, I get dressed and head over to the temple by myself. Megan will be there in moments with her parents, who I adore, but I have just a few minutes to reflect on the beauty of this building and this place. So much sacrifice and symbolism went into its construction. So much heritage and love and pride mixed into this landmark, this Mormon Mecca. The grounds and the building itself are beautiful. The weather is perfect. It feels right that it is here that my life will change.

I turn and see Megan walk up. She’s radiant. She’s glowing in a way that can only come to a bride on her wedding day. Her parents look so proud and happy. We go through the next several hours in sacred temple ceremonies and we are soon married and sealed together in a simple and beautiful ceremony with our loved ones all around us. Mirrors on opposite walls reflect each other a thousand times, showing the eternal nature of our newly formed family. Then it is the reception, where we are greeted by all the eager well-wishers in long lines to congratulate us. Gifts, cakes, a string quartet, hours of photographs. And Megan looks so beautiful in her wedding dress, a red sash down the back adding flair to the sequined white. This all in conjunction with the festivities, events, and dinners of the past few days have made this a truly amazing week for us.

I don’t get nervous until we are in the horse-and-buggy ride on our way to the Romeo and Juliet honeymoon suite. Tomorrow we’ll leave for ten days in Canada, but this is where we’ll spend our first night together. I think about what this must mean to Megan: her first night with her new husband. She wants, needs, and deserves to be desired, loved, held, and cherished. Her first time should be gentle, full of love and heat and desire, free from physical and emotional pain and doubt. And I think about what this means for me: my first night with my new wife. A chance to show Megan that I love her, and how much. A chance to finally be a man, to work through all my doubts and fears and just do what is expected of me. A chance to finally prove to God that all my unholy desires can be taken away and I can be right in his sight.

The night goes well, I think. Even though I am really nervous, I do my best to try and keep my focus on her and I try to make it as special as possible. There are times when it feels really good and I am able to just be in the moment and focus on the emotional and physical connection and pleasure. There are times when I feel dirty, like what we are doing is wrong, all these things that are on the don’t lists. And there are times when I feel… unnatural. Like this just isn’t how it is supposed to be or how I am supposed to feel. Still, it’s fun and I do love Megan.

That night, I feel grateful for this amazing woman, I feel exhausted from the day’s lengthy festivities, and I feel confused about myself. We fall asleep to a movie and leave the lights on. It is so strange having someone else in my bed. Just like that, I’m no longer a virgin. I think about all the torture I’ve put myself through over my own sexuality and decide again, in that moment, that this is the right thing. I’m married now. I made the right choice. I did what God wanted, what I know is right, and I hope to be blessed for it.

And oh how I love this woman next to me.

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Boozed

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My brother vomited on me when I was 7.

He came into the room drunk, at age 15, and vomited sticky alcohol on my bed, where I’d been sleeping. When I jumped out of bed, I landed in more of it, slipping in it and landing on the floor.

Twenty years later, I was working as a substance abuse professional  in a drug and alcohol treatment center on a reservation, primarily treating Native American clients. Despite having never tasted alcohol or drugs in any form, I assessed my clients on their alcohol struggles, pretending I was an expert. Teaching my group of adolescent males one evening, I assigned them to draw a picture of their first experience with alcohol, using markers, crayons, and colored pencils. On my blank sheet of paper, I drew a childlike image of my seven-year old self being vomited on.

During my time as a substance abuse professional, I saw some of the worst consequences of drug and alcohol dependency. Men who violently harmed others while using. Drunk driving related accidents that resulted in death. Children taken away by Child Protective Services due to parents using drugs in front of them. Sexual assaults. Prison sentences. And I saw the injustices of the system, stacked against the offender who has no money, endless lists of court requirements to accomplish that make holding a job and having family responsibilities impossible.

These experiences shaped my religious and cultural beliefs: that alcohol was bad, bad, bad. Growing up Mormon, I learned about the Word of Wisdom, a religious teaching that teaches Church members to avoid alcohol, drugs, and coffee. The teaching was pretty direct, but the culture that formed around it was one of distaste, disgust, and condemnation. I saw those who chose to drink alcohol, or worse, do drugs, as selfish, poor decision makers with little self-control who needed to make better choices and be called to repentance.

And then it was suddenly Christmas Day, 2011, and I tried my first sip of alcohol, a frothy taste of spiked egg nog. I was 33 years old. The drink was good, tasty, and I remember getting a feeling of anticlimactic awareness afterwards; I drank and everything in the world was still fine. A few weeks later, I tried my first vodka-cranberry, and a few weeks after that my first rum-and-coke. They were delicious and made me feel happy, comfortable, and relaxed. It took me longer to try beer and wine, hard alcohol and various mixed drinks. And I learned a very simple lesson: drinking alcohol is fun so long as you drink smart and responsibly.

I’ve come to love that loose relaxed feeling a drink can bring, like all the little wires of stress in my brain unravel and I just want to smile. It’s like slipping into a hot bath tub, that initial rush. Yet many make that fatal mistake of drinking more and more to prolong the result, but more leads to dizziness, muddled thoughts, electric brain and poor equilibrium and decision-making.

I’m 37 now and I still approach the world with a certain amount of naivete and innocence, but I do take care of myself. Last night, I went out dancing with a few friends. I had two drinks during the course of the evening, and smiled and relaxed and danced. And then I was done drinking and had water instead. I watched as some of the people around me started to get sloppy, slouching against walls, unable to stand up straight or walk well. I watched some get flirtatious with others, making their dates or spouses jealous. One man flirted with me aggressively until I rebuffed him, and I saw him ten minutes later drunk and asleep on a corner floor.

Many members of my family still have a very negative reaction to the idea of drinking. A beer in the fridge or a public mention of an alcoholic beverage elicits a sad, ashamed face, like the ones I give when I hear about some sort of deep offense or betrayal.

In most areas of my life, I dwell comfortably in the middle, on my own terms. I like alcohol, carefully paced and planned for, and enjoy the relaxation and sunny outlook it can bring. I prepare before I drink, making sure I’m hydrated and fed, and that I’ve exercised earlier in the day. Yet I get weary of those who drink too much or who don’t take care of themselves. Drinking responsibly means self-care before and after and arranging rides home.

My relationship with alcohol has changed a lot over the years. It can literally destroy. But a drink now and then is nothing to be ashamed over.

Save Yourself

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When the storm is raging or the river is wild,
When you scream hysterics (damn that inner child),
When your hidden desires stack too high on your shelf,
Grab an oar, daughter. Save yourself.

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If you need his love or you just might die,
If you look in the mirror and have to cry,
If your unfinished list inspires a yell,
Pick up a pail, son, and save yourself.

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Life has a way of laying you prone.
Life may strip you of all you own.
Life makes you question your own mental health.
Use a pen, dad, and save yourself.

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Ever the weight stacks up on your shoulders.
Ever you dodge insurmountable boulders.
Ever the day comes that feels like hell.
Dial that phone, mother. Save yourself.

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Too often you forget it’s not meant to be easy.
Too often you leave home your coat when it’s freezing.
Too often you need me to open your cell.
Here is the key, child. Save yourself.

Comic Book Nerds

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“So, you work for Marvel Comics?”

I nod. “Yeah. Well, I used to.”

The girl is heavyset, wearing a Cookie Monster hoodie. She has acne, and she looks at me suspiciously as she takes bites of a pretzel. A few crumbs scatter off of it, landing on the books set up on my vendor table. “I bet I could beat you in a trivia contest.”

I give a small smile, but I’m annoyed. I would expect her to be excited by the Marvel connection, most are at least mildly impressed. “Well, please don’t eat over the books here. But go ahead, I’ll try out some trivia.”

She shoves the rest of the pretzel into her mouth. “I bet you can’t tell me what Northstar’s real name is.”

A few other customers walk up to the table, casually looking. I greet them. “Sure I can. Jean-Paul Beaubier.”

Her eyes narrow. I’ve made her angry. “Well, what super hero team was he on?”

I laugh. “Alpha Flight.”

She steps back, arms folded over her chest. “Okay, fine, well, which character besides Steve Rogers has been Captain America?”

I cock my head to the right. She was being downright obstinate. “There have been many. The Patriot. The Spirit of 76. Bucky. USAgent. Roscoe–”

“Okay, okay. Geez.” She turns and starts walking away.

“Thanks for stopping by!”

I love comic book conventions. They have this visceral energy about them, this ‘let your freak flag fly’ mentality. Fans will pay 20 to 50 dollars just to get in, then they will wander among the hundreds of tables, looking for their favorite books and artists, ready to spend hundreds of dollars on the things that they love. Conventions are often divided up into various sections, representing movies, television shows, video games, books, anime, action figures, and comic books. Hundreds of vendors and artists will print up materials featuring favorite characters, none of it authorized by the official companies, and fans will go nuts, paying cash to pick up their favorites. T-shirts, posters, sketches, small toys, and prints of every character that comes to mind from Deadpool to My Little Pony to Ninja Turtles to He-Man to Batman to Adventure Time.

I’m set up at my little booth in the middle of a row, my table covered with merchandise. Half of the contents on my table are Marvel books I worked on, back during my college years, Official Handbooks and Files of various kinds, as well as trade paperbacks that I was in on the planning process for. On the other half is my original comic book, the Mushroom Murders, a book I’m hugely proud of, that I planned and organized myself, working with an amazing art team. The Marvel works bring people to the table, but it’s my book that I’m there to promote first and foremost.

“Excuse me, did you write all these books?” I look up and my eyes widen at the woman in front of me. She’s dressed like a slutty version of Jessie from Toy Story. She must be fifty years old, with thick make-up and a whole lot of cleavage showing.

I smile. “I did, yes.”

She picks up my graphic novel. “What’s it about?”

I give my practiced sales pitch. “It’s rather like Law & Order meets Army of Darkness. It’s a detective story with supernatural elements and a lot of twists and turns.”

She gives a broad smile. “I’ll take one if I can get an autograph of the handsome author and a photograph with you.”

I sign the book, she takes the picture, kisses my cheek, and hands me the cash before walking away with a wave.

I love the people at conventions. So many of them dress-up, some in costumes they have worked on for ages. Bearded men in Wonder Woman costumes, super fit Superman, Deadpool in a business suit, baby Mystique, toddler Aquaman. Groups of friends will coordinate costumes, so that six members of the Justice League will be roaming together. Some costumes are so elaborate, they must cost several hundred to make. A man walks by dressed as a real looking Galactus, holding the planet Earth in his hands; a mechanized Sentinel walks by; an R2-D2 constructed of Legos stops to beep at my table, his owner behind him. I am constantly snapping photographs.

A 20 year old Asian young man stops back by the table, his smile wide and infectious. He had stopped by yesterday to chat for an hour before buying my book and rushing off. “Chad, hey!”

I stand and shake his hand. “Hi, Allan, welcome back.”

“You remembered me! That’s so cool!” He pulls open his backpack and pulls my book out. “I have to get an autograph! I finished the book and it was so amazing! I want to get an extra copy for my mom!”

These brief encounters at conventions make the whole thing worth it. Conventions are exhausting. It feels like three straight days of McDonalds’ rush hour in a row, working these. Constant smiles, handshakes, sales pitches, greetings, all while sitting in one hard back chair, grabbing food or bathroom breaks whenever possible. Most fans wander around a bit suspicious, browsing the merchandise but feeling like everyone is trying to get their money and attention (which in fact they are). Many are waiting to see their favorite writers, artists, or celebrities on various panels or for autographs. Some celebrities go from Con to Con, living off their fame. Lou Ferrigno charges 40 dollars per autograph, characters who were on the original Power Rangers or Star Trek, thirty years and forty pounds later, still find fans to greet.

But these brief encounters, like the one with Allan, make it all worth it, seeing someone enjoy the book I worked so hard on.

I look down the aisle at the other vendors. The man to my left draws beautiful sketches for 15 or 20 dollars each, commissioning specific pieces for those who pay him. The woman to my right has a table full of steampunk jewelry she has hand-crafted. The man across from me has his original art splayed over colorful T-shirts.

Allan rushes off, promising to bring his mom back later just as a woman with pink hair steps up to the table, dripping the ice cream she is eating on to one of my books. As I clean it up, I look up at the clock, realizing there are six hours left today. I sigh, a bit sleepy, just as a family (father, mother, and three kids) walk by, dressed as the characters from the Thundercats, the baby dressed as Snarf, and then I’m grinning again.

I love comic book nerds, and I fit right in.

Another Broken Heart

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December, 2001

The show was a big success! As I walk my date, Erica, across the parking lot to her apartment, she tells me how much she enjoyed watching me in the production, and thanks me for inviting her. It felt great having a beautiful girl there watching me. It felt good to show off to the other cast members and to my roommates that I could date a beautiful girl. Before the play, we’d had a fun dinner at my house and played some games with my roommate and his date. And this is actually the fourth date I’ve been on with Erica. She’s an amazing girl. Talented, plays the violin, has a beautiful voice, and has a solid testimony. She even took me to meet her family over the Thanksgiving break, and they were wonderful people. I can tell she really likes me, and I like her back. I feel like we’ve really got something here.

Plays and productions are a really big deal in Rexburg, Idaho. BYU-I prides itself on talent and on stellar performances, and I’ve carved a niche for myself in it the last few years. Despite an extreme lack of self-confidence, I have become a talented actor, singer, and even comedian in a number of productions. I’ve made a lot of friends and have had some recognition, including my picture in the paper a few times. It feels great to be special. I’ve done a lot of story-telling to live audiences, both on and off campus, like I did tonight. I’ve performed with the choir in general conference, and got to participate in a beautiful cantata that we spent countless hours preparing for. I’ve been in plays and sung solos for live audiences, and I’ve had great feedback and reviews. I even formed an a capella group and we sang live and for groups of beautiful girls.

On top of all of that, I’ve worked hard at staying out of debt through college. Loans have taken care of tuition and books, but I have paid for all my food, housing, and insurance with paychecks. When money has gotten tight, I’ve donated plasma to get extra cash. I’ve been a stellar student, active and organized, and I’ve flown through school with a high GPA, enjoying each of my classes.

All that said, though, I’ve become an expert on walling off my emotions. Everyone feels that they know me, but I have this secret self that I keep hidden. My dear cousin recently said it best when, after a cast party, she told me “Chad, it’s like you are everyone’s friend, but nobody’s best friend.”

As we get closer to the apartment door, Erica grabs my hand. Four dates, and I haven’t held her hand yet. I told her on our last date, when I sensed she wanted that, that I move really slowly, and she’d told me that she was happy to take things slow. I feel anticipation from her tonight in greater waves, though. She’s expecting something. I feel that familiar pit in my stomach grow now.

I’m a great date. In high school, I pretty much always asked out girls I felt bad for. But lately, I’ve been asking out girls I’m intrigued by and interested in, girls that I could see making a good future wife. Even though I’m not physically attracted to them, I have found girls with attractive personalities, and girls I like emotionally. I’m always very attentive, funny, and fun. I plan out elaborate events and make meals and spoil my dates rotten.

We get closer to Erica’s door now and I feel my stomach pulse with anxiety. Erica, still holding my hand, turns to face me. She’s a bit shorter than me and has beautiful red hair. A few snow flakes rest lightly in her hair, and on the lashes above her beautiful blue eyes. She looks into my eyes and I can sense her heart racing, but it is for a completely different reason than mine is racing for.

“I had a wonderful time tonight.” I feel her clutch both of my hands now. She’s ready, and she’s telling me it is time now to kiss her.

I look away. I can’t meet her eyes. Can I do this? It’s just a kiss. I’m 23 years old now, and that is long enough to wait. A first kiss for me, but just a kiss. I like Erica, she likes me, it’s just a kiss. Any other guy would just lean in and kiss her right now. Do it,Chad! It’s just a kiss! A real man would maybe even make out with her. Then he’d tell all his friends about it.

“I had a nice time, too.” Did she sense the panic in my voice? Be careful, I tell myself, or she’ll know something is wrong.

Multiple times in acting roles I have hoped I can be cast as the leading man, not only so that I can prove that I’m a normal guy, but also because I want a chance to kiss the leading lady on stage, just to show I can do it. Then that bridge would be crossed and it would be easier for me to kiss a girl on a date, at least I hope.

I can’t do it, I can’t! I pull Erica in for a hug, releasing her hands and squeezing her shoulders briefly. “Thanks so much for coming out tonight.” I grab her hand in an awkward handshake, then, and begin to step back. My eyes catch hers again, and she looks shocked and saddened. She looks like I’ve rejected her. She must be feeling like she’s not desirable or something. Why can’t I desire her? I mutter another thanks and then begin walking quickly away.

I hear Erica’s door open as I move down the sidewalk. One of her roommates is waiting just inside, and I hear her excited chitter. “Did he do it, did he kiss you?” And then the door closes.

I reach my car. Erica’s response should have been, “Yes! He kissed me and it was magical!” Instead, I picture her running off to her room and crying out “No! What is wrong with me?”

I sit in the car for several minutes watching the snow fall. Rexburg is so cold in December. I hurt Erica tonight, and I didn’t mean to. I should run up to her door and tell her I’m sorry and then just kiss her. I’m going to have to do it some time if I ever want to get married, have a family, and do everything God expects of me. Why couldn’t I have just done it? I curse myself all the way home.

And I never call Erica again.

It’s months later when I get her wedding announcement.