Uber-involved

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This weekend I signed up to be an Uber driver. As if I’m not busy enough.

The idea is appealing. I can log on when I want to, accept the fares that I want to, and make a bit of extra cash during times when I don’t have my kids or when I’m not at work. I had to send in copies of my vehicle insurance and driver’s license, and get my car inspected, then I had to download a driver app.

And so, on Saturday night, after my plans ended, I opened up the app and clicked ‘go online’ for the first time. “Well, here we go,” I thought.

Within seconds, the app rang loudly and I pushed a button that told me the first name and the location of the person I would be drive, but there was nothing about them or where they were going. I clicked a key that gave me driving directions toward her and began working my way through the complicated downtown traffic, made much worse by a police cordon; I later learned the police had shot a young black male and people had had a small riot over it.

Soon I picked up a young woman with spiky gelled hair and a thick leather jacket. She was on the phone. She piled into my front seat, said “take me to the nearest grocery store” without actually looking at me, then returned to her phone call as I drove her a few blocks away. “Listen, mom, grandma has been a grumpy bitch for years , even before she got the cancer. But I’m telling you if there is one thing I know about it’s pot. Drive her to Colorado, get her some medical marijuana, and watch–she’s gonna cheer up and get happy, feel better, and it will cure her cancer. Trust me.”

I dropped her off, closed the fare (about $4, all sent electronically) and got another ping, soon driving to pick up a middle-aged couple who wanted to try out a new trendy bar. After driving a sad, very drunk girl home from another bar nearby, I logged off the app and went home, that was enough to start.

But seven hours later, I was back at it at 5 am. I drove a man home to his wife after he’d been out all night drinking, and he hoped his wife wasn’t angry with him. I drove a couple home from a friend’s house, where they had stayed up all night partying, and we went up and down the streets until they could find where they had parked their car. I drove three men from India to the nearest Wal-Mart… so they could get haircuts. I drove a woman from Peru to her job at an architect firm.

At 2 pm, I drove a very drunk couple back to their apartment. The woman rolled down all the windows, sang loudly to the radio, and kept calling me Chad Michael Murray as she reminded me, repeatedly, that it was “Sunday, Funday.”

I drove two teenage girls to the mall, and they hoped their mother wouldn’t find out they were going to a business on a Sunday. I drove a moustached woman all in leather to her job at a call center, and a very shy man from Pakistan to his job in a kitchen. I drove a man with a major nosebleed all the way up to Snowbird Ski Resort so he could meet some friends, then drove a couple of economics professors back from there to the Airport so they could catch their plane.

North, South, East, West, on the freeway and off, turning around in driveways, passing slowly over speedbumps, through yellow lights and stopped at greens.

Out of 25 fares, I got two tips for five dollars each, and by day’s end, I had earned about $250. Not bad for a first time driver, I thought.

I stretched heavily, my back sore from a full day in the car, my head spinning at all the people I had met, and I calculated getting out of debt and all of the things I could do then.

I went to bed exhausted, then woke in the morning, my finger already on the Uber button.

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the Bisexual Ballet

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It started with two women kissing.

One, her long flowing hair pulled back into a ponytail that fell all the way to her hips, pulled the other, her hair short and even, in by an arm, their legs flowing beautifully out to the side, and they gently kissed.

Soon, a young man joined them, in a tight white shirt and jacket over jeans. He danced with one woman, then the other, then both.

The dancers took turns in various trysts, drawing into their partners, then pushing away. He would want one, then the other, then both, then neither. He was needed by one, then the other, then both, then neither.

At various points, the dancers stood to the side, pulling out their cell phones and ignoring the others, while the other dancers sought to reclaim their attention. One dancer, frustrated, pulled the phone out of the hand of the other, then checked it, leading the other to snatch it away in frustration.

A full orchestra backed the dancers, harps and horns, strings and pianos and drums, but they somehow faded into the background behind this powerful portrayal of human need.

I was moved by the performance, caught up in the idea of this new generation realizing that one person can’t always meet your needs, nor can two people. Ultimately, each person must respond to their own needs, then join others to find fulfillment, energy, attraction, love, desire. What we need yesterday isn’t what we need now, and what we need now isn’t what we will need a few hours from now.

The dancers pulled a set piece around, revealing an intricate office space, where they continued to vie for each other’s attentions in the workplace. Another flipped around to represent the home of one of the dancer’s, as the man and the woman arrived and departed, together and apart.

As the dancers leaped and pirouetted, gave and took, flowed and formed, I thought of all the couples I know, and the constant negotiation to get their needs met through all of the chaos and distraction of day to day life. Technology, errant glances from strangers, work, emotional baggage, personal pain.

The short-haired girl pulled tightly into the man, breathing him in deeply, clutching on to him in utter fulfillment, and then moments later pushed him away, frustrated that it could not be sustained. She danced on her own for a moment, then latched on to the dancer with the ponytail, then pushed her away too.

Back and forth and in and out and up and down and around and over. I need you, I want you, leave me alone, no one understands me, you are the only one who understands me, she understands me too, it’s so wonderful, it’s too much, it feels good, it hurts, i love you, i hate you, i don’t understand you, you have never made more sense to me, hold me, let me go, why didn’t you come after me, you should know what i need even when i don’t say it, i told you what i need, how am i supposed to know what you need, why can’t you need me more, why doesn’t she miss me, i miss her, i need space, i want i need i desire i love i hurt i feel i breathe i ache i am at peace i’m so happy i may never be happy.

I looked around at the audience in the symphony hall, dressed for the symphony and ballet. The numbers before this had been beautiful also, but this one was a limit pusher, two women kissing on stage in front of a primarily Mormon crowd in a primarily Mormon place. A couple in front of me clutched their hands in their laps and gave each other a few errant glances of disapproval, as if to say we should not be seeing this; when the number ended, they refused to clap.

An older woman in a daring gown, sequinned and black and purple, seemed hauntingly fulfilled by the number, and I wondered if she was thinking back to lost loves and unfulfilled desires.

Soon the number ended, in a crescendo, with all three dancers laying on the floor in each other’s arms, him and her and her, but they were already moving again as the light’s dimmed. They had found satisfaction, and were all ready to begin searching for it again.

I stood for this one, my hands powerfully clapping at this flawless performance. I clapped for the dancers and the orchestra, but mostly I applauded the choreography.

I applauded this brassy, bold, bisexual ballet.

 

 

Like Lambs to the Slaughter: a critical exploration of children in religion

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I came across a photo recently, quite by accident, while doing a google search for “crazy lambs”, looking for a funny image to cheer a friend up with. I initially just clicked past the image, but then found myself going back and staring at it for several minutes. I found it sad, entertaining, thought-provoking, profound, and painfully true.

In it, a small girl of about five is smiling, wearing a pretty, white, frumpy church dress. The dress is modest, extending up to her neck and all the way down to her hands. She has brown curly hair, a bit messy. She has on a small necklace. She seems to be missing a tooth. In her small hands, she holds a large knife, black handle with a long silver blade, in a delicate grip. The blade of the knife is making a small incision in the neck of a large white lamb, sculpted of butter or frosting; with just a small thrust of the knife, the head of the lamb will lop off and on to the plate. The lamb is peaceful, all in white, and on a bed of frosting and flowers, seemingly unassuming, unsuspecting, his head literally about to roll. Behind the girl stands a man, presumably her father. Not much of him is seen, only his black apron and his white sleeves, with his two hands guiding the girl. One hand lies suspended above her hands, guiding her to push the knife forward, the other hand holding the plate, ready to collect the lamb’s head.

I contemplated this little girl, about to mutilate a frosting animal as her family stood around her smiling and encouraging her. I pictured this as some sort of rite of passage, something the girl dressed up for, something she will be celebrated for. Her friends have all cut the lamb’s head off, now it is her turn. She’s been waiting for this for years, and she is so proud. Her dad gently guides her, the knife is freshly sharpened, and everyone celebrates and smiles. And one day, she will grow up and have daughters and a man can show them the same ritual.

Images from my own childhood, as a young Mormon kid in Missouri, flashed into my brain. All the little rites of passage. Making my first dollar, and learning how to give ten cents of that as tithes to the church. Taking the sacrament every Sunday and praying to be forgiven of sins. Entering the waters of baptism at age 8 and pledging myself to the church. Receiving the Priesthood at age 12, then 14, then 16, then 18, with new responsibilities each time. Going to the temple and undergoing a series of rituals, involving wearing sacred holy undergarments, getting a new name to enter Heaven with, and pledging my all and my everything to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I remember being walked up to the front of the Church during fast and testimony meeting at age 5, where my mom whispered in my ear the things to say to the congregation, a chance to bear my testimony of beliefs for everyone to hear. “Brothers and sisters, I would like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I know Joseph Smith is a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon is true. I know God loves me. I’m thankful for my family. I can’t wait to go on a mission some day. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” And the crowd oohed and aahed, how cute, as the next child lined up behind, another parent whispering a testimony in their ear, just as their parents had with them years before.

I looked back at the image, and I thought of the little girl.

“But, daddy, I don’t want to chop the lamb’s head off. I like animals.”

Honey, no one likes to chop the lamb’s head off, but it is what good little boys and girls do. It’s what Jesus wants you to do. Mommy and I love you so much. I will help you and be so proud of you.”

I thought of all the terrible and bizarre stories I grew up believing.

God commanding Abraham to take Isaac up in the hills, to tie him down, and to stab him through the middle with a knife, before saying ‘just kidding, Abe. I was only testing you.’ The lesson? You do as God says, whether that means stabbing your son, or laying there to be stabbed; you don’t have to understand, just do it and don’t ask questions.

God destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, tens of thousands of his children wiped out for sinning (where in other cases, sinning souls are saved out of love). He lets Lot and his family escape and commands them not to turn back. But when Lot’s wife turns around, curious likely at the fiery destruction of her home and all her friends, she is punished and turned to salt. Lesson: God will crush you if you deserve it, and he might decide to save you as long as you do what he says, but don’t question him or he can crush you, too.

Or one from the Book of Mormon: God commands Nephi to cut off Laban’s head, wear the dead man’s clothes, and steal his treasure so that Nephi’s family could have the scriptures in the wilderness. Surely, God could have found a way for Nephi to get the scriptures (the Liahona was left outside their tent magically, for example) that didn’t require him to violently murder a man and steal his things. Lesson: God will test you and make you do terrible things to prove you love him.

I pictured then all the terrible things people teach their children in the name of religion. The little girls in polygamist compounds who are married off at 14 to 70 year old men. The little boys in Aryan gangs who see Neo-Nazi tattoos on their father’s chests and believe a White America is the best America. The kids who grow up thinking marriage is forever, and only between a man and a woman, and you stick it out no matter what it takes, no matter the abuse, the infidelity, the lovelessness.

I was 12 when I sat down with a new bishop in our ward, a man I didn’t know, and he interviewed me to see if I was worthy to receive the Priesthood. Part of our conversation went like this:

“Chad, do you obey the law of chastity?”

“Chastity? What’s that?”

“Well, do you masturbate?”

“Um, I don’t know what that is.”

“Well, masturbation is when you stimulate your penis. It feels good and you touch it until you ejaculate. But that is a sin and it shouldn’t be done.”

Later, I went home and tried it out. A 12 year old kid with a 70 year old man learning about masturbation? I can’t tell you the number of young girls and boys I know who were sexually molested by church leaders in similar circumstances, the man behind the little girl gently guiding her to hold the knife. Just do as I say, it’s what Jesus wants.

And so much of the damage happens beneath the surface. Growing up, we focused most of our lessons in Church and family about love, and sacrifice for the greater good, and the blessings of being a Mormon. But the subtext, the things that are believed but not as actively taught: Gay people can be cured and made straight. Black people exist because God cursed wicked white men with black skin, and if they live righteously, eventually they will be made white again. In Heaven, one man will marry multiple women, have and create their own planets, and become Gods themselves. The subtexts of this religion, of any religion, and the sanctions it creates for profit, for abuse, for discrimination… it’s horrifying.

The dad in this picture, he may not think that what he is doing is horrifying. He may truly believe what he is doing is right. He teaches his daughter about Biblical sanctioned murder, Christ on the cross, and the destruction of cities and sinners, and believes it is right. And then he guides his daughter in using a knife to chop the lamb’s head off. And similarly, the parents who let their children receive interviews about sex from old men, then parents who marry off their teenage daughters, the parents who send their gay teens to reparative therapy, the parents who kick their questioning children out on the streets to homelessness, the parents who raise their kids to believe in justifiable hate of minorities… in their minds, they are doing the right thing, the good thing, the thing God expects.

Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, once said, “A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents. This latter nomenclature, by the way, would be an excellent piece of consciousness-raising for the children themselves. A child who is told she is a ‘child of Muslim parents’ will immediately realize that religion is something for her to choose -or reject- when she becomes old enough to do so.”

I plan on raising my sons to be free-thinking, to love others, to have critical and searching minds. I will teach them to be moral, kind, charitable, and loving. But I will not let them hold knives to the necks of lambs.

Haunted

Ghost

I can feel you still

up in the rafters

a silent presence, watching

waiting for the perfect moment

to trail almost silent footsteps across the floor

a creaking, a longing

an evanescent revenant

You haunt me.

but not your ghost

for the only thing that perished

was your interest, your intent

sometimes the silence is louder than the screams

then you fade

back through the walls

rising away on currents of air

drifting, dimming, more transparent still

What’s Your Name Again?

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It’s 2 in the afternoon on a perfect August Monday in Salt Lake City, and I’m in my favorite coffee spot with a tall drip coffee and my journal. Down the table from me, an older man loudly lauds his career accomplishments to an unimpressed woman as two teenagers who type on their phones frantically. Across the room, three college aged men type on their computers, and a beautiful girl reads the newspaper.

Behind me, I hear a guy talking on his phone. I turn around and catch a good-looking guy, beard, likely in his early 20s , stirring his coffee as he talks to a friend on the phone.

He isn’t here. I told you he wouldn’t be here. We chatted for a few weeks, but he’s gonna be a flake like all the others… I know, I know. I gotta keep trying or I’ll be single forever. It’s just–oh wait, he’s walking in. Gottagobye.

I look curiously toward the door and see a blonde guy, early 20s, both ears pierced, cute, walking in. I see him make eye contact with the guy behind me and walk toward him. I turn back at my coffee, thinking it’s rude to eavesdrop, but what they don’t know won’t hurt them.

Hey, you made it.

Yeah, sorry I’m late. I couldn’t find parking.

No worries, I got you a coffee. Hope it isn’t cold.

Thanks, man. That’s nice.

As I jot the weekend’s events in my journal, they discuss the basics: what they do for work, some of their hobbies, where they are from, and I find myself writing less and listening more.

Yeah, I’ve only been in Utah about a year. Came here for school. I like it, though.

Oh, I hate it here. I grew up here. My family is all here. I mean, I don’t hate it-hate it, I just haven’t ever been anywhere else, except for my mission in Brazil for a couple years.

So you grew up Mormon?

Yeah, super Mormon. My whole family is Mormon. I came out like two years ago and they are going crazy with it all. They think I’m an apostate and treat being gay like I’m a drug addict or something.

Oh, that sucks. I didn’t know much about Mormons before I moved here. It’s a real thing here, though.

Oh definitely. I try not to date guys who used to be Mormon anymore. Too much drama.

What do you mean?

Oh all these shame issues. Guys who grew up totally ashamed of being gay. Family problems. Did the whole mission/BYU thing. Some guys even got married and had kids before coming out. I just get sick of the drama.

But doesn’t that–I mean, did you go to BYU?

Well, yeah. I just, I mean I don’t judge. I just get tired of the same stories.

I hear that. I don’t like drama either. But everybody’s an individual. I mean, every gay guy had to come out to their family and like take that whole journey. My family is cool now but they weren’t at first. Utah isn’t so different.

I think Utah is different. Mormons are different though. Especially in Utah. It’s like the church is the government and the families all follow it and it’s just such a big deal.

But have you ever lived anywhere else? I mean after you were out of the closet?

No. Just the mission.

Okay. Anyway, what do you do for fun?

I hear them talk about hobbies and interests for a while. One mentions his dog while the other talks about the gym. I realize I’m not even writing now, engrossed in their conversation, and thinking of the billion first dates I have been on that sound exactly like this in some form.

So what do you look for in a guy?

You kind of asked me that when we were chatting. Sense of humor. Guy who takes care of himself and can hold a conversation. Not in a hurry, but looking for a relationship ultimately.

Oh yeah, I remember. I’m all of those things. I’m one of the good ones.

Yeah, you said that in chat too. It’s been good getting to know you, John, but I probably better get back to work.

I had a good time. Would you like to get together again some time?

Yeah, that’d be cool. Text me later.

Before it gets too awkward, what was your name again?

The guy laughs, tells John to look back at his chat, and then leaves to head back to work. In seconds, I hear John get back on his phone.

Hey, he showed up. I totally screwed up and forgot his name, though… He’s cute, looks like his picture. Ugh, I’m going to be single forever. Why can’t I find a guy who wants to date me?… Yeah, I’ll call you tonight. I’m meeting a different guy from Grindr for dinner in a bit.

Two White Guys Talking About Privilege

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Hey, professor, you wanted to see me?

Yeah, Mark, close the door, let’s talk for a bit. Have a seat.

What’s up?

During class today, when we were talking about privilege, you got quiet.

That’s because I didn’t have anything to say.

I think that is unlikely. You are usually very talkative and insightful during class. And you were more than just quiet, you were uncomfortable and closed off.

Nah, I’m good.

Mark, look, you aren’t being graded on this. You showed up to class and got your work done. Grade already recorded. This is just a discussion and a check-in. What happened today?

Look, I–I just learned early on in this program that when it comes to topics like this, no one wants to know what I have to say.

And why do you feel that way?

I’m a white guy. I’m the minority here and no matter what I say is going to be wrong. And when I have tried to share things in this program, I’ve been attacked.

Okay, let’s look at the big picture here. You are working on getting a Masters degree in Social Work. You are in a cohort of primarily women, in fact about 80 per cent of the students are women, and it is safe to say that all of them are feminists.

That’s fine. I’m a feminist too.

So am I. Now why do you feel like you are attacked when you share your opinion on the topic of privilege?

I don’t feel attacked, I am attacked.

Why do you feel attacked?

Okay, okay. Look, a couple of weeks back, I tried sharing my opinion on gay marriage in a class where the topic came up. I don’t have a problem with gay people, I really don’t. I have gay friends, I believe in gay rights. I know you’re gay. And I’m not Mormon like most of the people here, but I am Christian, and it’s not so easy, you know? I see gay people at my internship and I was talking to my pastor about that once and he told me that any time I choose to provide service to gay people, then I am choosing them over God. And so I shared that in class, that I felt divided, and a bunch of the students interrupted me and got angry and told me that if I wanted to be a social worker, I would have to quit my church, and no one would listen. They attacked me for being a Christian white guy. So now I just don’t share my opinion any more.

Okay, to start, you have heard me talk about the ‘yes, and’ principle in class before. Two realities can co-exist at the same time. The sun can warm me, and it can burn me. Food can nourish me and make me gain weight. My mom can have two gay kids that she loves and supports and still not know where she stands on gay marriage. And you can be a Christian white social worker whose religious beliefs and professional beliefs don’t always line up. There is room for contradictions in all of us.

Yeah, I get that.

So I’m going to be tough on you before I am supportive. Is that okay?

Yes, I trust you and your intentions.

There is an absolute irony about you feeling attacked.

An irony? How so?

Be fair, be strengths-focused. Why do you think your comments upset the people around you?

Because they are women with strong opinions, and anything but the answer they want is the wrong answer.

I don’t think that is the case at all. Try again, why do you think they are upset.

I honestly don’t know. Help me out here.

You understand the concept of privilege, right?

Sure, those in the majority have inherent privileges in their day to day living that those in minorities don’t have to deal with.

Give me a few examples.

As a man, I can be hired and expect a fair wage, where women often get harassed and paid way less than men for doing the same job. As a white guy, I see my majority represented everywhere in American leadership, I have better access to scholarships, jobs, pay, legal representation, college opportunities, etc.

Excellent. We had a conversation about privilege on the first day of class. The more majority statuses you fall into, the greater your privilege opportunities. White, Christian, male, young, fit or thin, able-bodied, gender-defined, straight, healthy, middle class or above.

Yeah, I remember. We talk about it in all of our classes a little bit.

Since your legs work, you don’t have to worry about whether or not a wheelchair ramp is available to your second floor classes. Since you were born male, and you define as male, you get to use the men’s room without having to worry about what people think because you are transgender. Since you are young and not elderly, you can drive a car without everyone around you assuming you are slow or lacking purpose, everyone being impatient around you.

Right, I get all that.

You get it in the head, not sure you get it totally in the heart. They don’t always line up.

Okay, what does that have to do with all this.

You are in a graduate program in a field that advocates for social justice. This is one of the few programs that actually has a lot of material on privilege and its implications, one of the few programs that has a majority of women. This program actually gets you to think about and confront difficult ideas on these topics.

So what makes my experience here ironic?

Mark, when it comes to big conversations like this in the public, who do you think has the most to say? Who do you think gets the final say?

The majority. Men. White men.

Absolutely. And who feels silenced?

Women. Gay people. Everyone that falls into those non-majority categories.

Absolutely. But it is about more than feeling silenced. It’s different on almost every level. Let me give you an example. You are married, right?

Yeah.

Okay, when you go out in public, do you hold your wife’s hand?

Yeah, sure. All the time.

And do you feel watched, criticized, discriminated against?

No, why would I?

I’m a 36 year old man. I am dating a guy. A few Sundays ago, we are out walking, and we are holding hands, nothing else. Just walking, talking, and holding hands. And I hadn’t done that in a while. But everyone we walk by, I feel a nervousness creep up in my chest. I’m watching them to see if they notice us holding hands, every person we pass. And I’m expecting them to say things like ‘gross’ or ‘fags’ or ‘disgusting.’ I’m expecting someone to just look up and say ‘we don’t care what you do in your home, but do you have to do that out here?’ And I’m walking around and I’m nervous, even though I’m trying to relax.

Look, I–

Wait, I’m not done. So this guy and I, we see this couple sitting on the concrete stairs in front of us. An older white guy with a beard, and an older black woman, and both of them are in dirty clothes and look like they have probably been using drugs recently. As as we get closer, they both sit up and I’m waiting for one of them to say something rude to us. The lady, she says loudly, ‘Hey!’ and I take a step back, nervous, not sure if she is going to ask for money or say something rude to us. And I say ‘yeah?’ and she says ‘I just wanted to say, I think you two are cute.’ And I say ‘thank you’ and the guy I’m holding hands with and I both smile and laugh about this.

Okay, but–

Just a minute, I’m almost done. So I’m walking away, and I’m thinking about how terrible it is that in 2015, I have to be nervous about something as simple as holding hands with a guy that I like, and how straight people never have to think about it. And that’s privilege. And then I realize that because I’m in the middle class and I have an apartment and a bank account, I see this couple and I automatically assume they want to ask for money, and they probably think that every person who walks by them thinks they are going to ask for money. People avoid eye contact, treat them rudely, get scared when they say ‘hey’ because they assume these things about them. And they have to live with that. And this woman, she’s not only poor, she’s a woman, and she’s black, and she has all these other things in her mind. I’m worried about what people will say because I’m gay. She’s worried about sexual assault and judgments and where she is going to sleep tonight. And that is privilege. And it sucks that we live in a world based around it.

I… okay. Yeah. That sucks.

So here is the irony. You are feeling marginalized in one class by a few people who didn’t like what you had to say. You felt attacked by some students in your cohort in a program that is all about social justice.

What makes that ironic?

Well, simply put: that feeling you felt in class? Feeling silenced, disrespected, like no one around you wanted to hear what you had to say?

Yeah?

That’s how I felt all the time as a gay kid growing up. Every day. That is how many of the women in your class feel in this patriarchal world of men. That is how everyone who doesn’t fall in the majority feels all the time.

Whoa.

Yeah. And you felt it once. And so now you aren’t talking any more.

I–yeah–that–wow. Okay. So that’s what it feels like to not be privileged.

Exactly.

Okay.

Now let me give you credit. You have a good brain. An intuitive mind. You care about people. You advocate for others. You are a good student and a good social worker. And this is a ‘yes, and’ thing again. You are privileged. You are going to have to learn how to listen to others. How to feel marginalized and be okay with it. How to share your experiences and conflicts with others, and listen when they don’t agree with you, and ask questions, and learn how others feel, not just with your head but with your heart. You don’t get to shut down. You get to be uncomfortable and learn. Because…

Because that is how others feel all the time.

Exactly. So next time the conversation starts, I want you to join in, because we need your voice. It’s a good one.

Thank you, professor. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

Thank you for being willing to think about it. See you next week, Mark.

Yeah, see you next week.

Carcass

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“Body parts are nice, so long as they are attached to the body. Fingernails, hairs, a human tooth. But detach it from the body, and suddenly it’s not that okay. Hair on the bathroom floor, fingernail clippings on the counter, a tooth on the table. Suddenly they aren’t so charming.”

I had to agree with my ex-wife Megan’s observation, though she meant it in jest. Nobody wants errant body parts laying around.

Her words came back to me as I stood outside the taxidermist shop in Coalville, Utah. I had needed to get out of town for a bit, clear my head, so I drove to an unfamiliar city and walked up and down the streets, watching the locals and reading the signs. After an hour in the creepy yet impressive local museum of the courthouse, where the right combination of motion-sensor lights and blank-faced manikins had created a strangely terrifying atmosphere, I had walked a bit and found myself in front of the taxidermist shop. Right there on the main street in town, right across from a burger joint, an apparent draw for the locals.

My thoughts immediately turned to my sister Sheri, the amateur ghost hunter, whose one and only true fear is dead and stuffed animals. Sheri and my other sister, Susan, take an annual trip to a ghost house, hotels known to be haunted. Neither of them gets truly scared, and they seem to enjoy the titillating sensations of being in locations that frighten others. They have gone to Salem, home of the Witch Trials, for Halloween; they have spent the night in the room where Lizzie Borden violently murdered her parents with an ax. And yet I have only seen Sheri truly frightened a few times.

I joined Sheri and Susan one weekend in Soda Springs, Idaho, a small town locally famous for its man-made geyser and mountain springs that taste like soda water. We had checked ourselves into an old wooden hotel with barely any air-conditioning. A particular room in the hotel was said to be haunted, with a ghost who might turn on your bathroom water or hover above your face as you woke up. Sheri was excited as she walked in until she discovered the decor of the hotel: dead animals. Mounted deer and elk heads, squirrels, bobcats, rabbits, raccoons, mice, pheasants. On the ground, on counters, hanging from the ceiling. A hunter’s paradise, and Sheri’s worst nightmare. I watched her face get ashen, her hands clutch her stomach, her feet step back toward the door. “Oh, hell no,” she muttered. We teased her enough to get her inside, checked in, and up the stairs to the room. Framing the hotel room door, three dead ducks, one above it and one on each side, their wings spread as if in flight. “I don’t care if that damn ghost pokes me in my sleep, but if it puts one of these ducks in bed with me, there will be hell to pay.”

Another time, visiting Sheri in Boston, we went to a local university museum and were surprised to see dozens of glass cases filled with these animals, but these had been stuffed decades ago. There were small tears in the fur, some of the marble eyes were loose and falling out. These immortal animals were decaying in their own way. Sheri couldn’t even enter the room.

At the taxidermist’s, I found myself momentarily frozen with fascination. A strange dread crept up in my insides, like the feeling I get when I stand on the edge of a ledge, knowing I’m safe yet nervous still the same. I don’t feel like this when I see dead animals, though I wouldn’t say I enjoy the experience. But this is a place where people bring their carcasses, their hunting trophies or roadkill, and they pay a man to take a lifeless animal, empty it of blood and guts, stuff it, and stitch it back together. He places a couple black eyes in place of the originals, mounts it in some sort of action pose, and the carcass gets placed somewhere for people to see and admire. And this is the place where it all happens. A man in this building has built his career turning dead animals into… art? And I’m sure he had to get some sort of certification for this.

And the money that must go into this business. Bottom scale, a man catches a trout and wants to keep it. He throws the dead fish in a bucket, brings it in to the shop, and spends 150 to have it stuffed and mounted. On the upper end of the scale, a man shoots a water buffalo in Africa on safari, he pays to have the creature stuffed and mounted, maybe 20 thousand, and then pays another 5 grand to have it shipped to his home. (I’m guessing at the numbers here). Who would ever want to work in this business? Images of Duck Dynasty suddenly run through my head.

I am not quite sure what happens to the spirit of an animal after it leaves the body, but the body left behind, it is organic waste. It rots. The skin shrinks over the bones, the bowels loosen, the blood runs free, it smells, it literally rots and decomposes, leaving only the bones behind. Who would make that their business?

I walk to the end of the shop and look down an alley. There is an open garage back there and I can see a few animal bodies in my peripheral vision. I’m not sure what they are. I turn, my dread intensifying. I’m contemplating why I am still standing here when I hear an electric whirr, something less like a chainsaw and more like a motorized knife, like one used to carve a turkey at Thanksgiving. My mouth goes dry as I think the taxidermist must be cutting some creature open right now.

And then it hits me. The smell of death itself. Whatever odors were inside that animal come washing down the alley and hit me right in the nose. I cock my head violently to the left, coughing loud and gagging. My hands clutch my stomach and I wrinkle my face up in revulsion, quickly rushing away from the shop and down the street a bit more. I find a small park there and step into the grass, doubled over with disgust as I try to clear the sound and the smell from my psyche. Had I really been contemplating the process of taxidermy?

That’s what I get for standing outside a taxidermy shop in smalltown Utah.

Sleeping naked

Moonandstars

I’m still getting used to the space, depth, and sound of my new bedroom. The way the air fills these four walls, the darker depths of the closet doors, the worn path between the door and the desk and the bed. It’s a new bed, too. My bed is different, too. I’m higher up off the floor, the mattress is softer, and there is a set of shelves on the headboard behind me. The shelves are empty, except for  a lamp.

My laptop is laying on the mattress behind my head, the surest evidence that I am single. It’s so easy to flip it open and turn on some mindless brainless fluff to fall asleep to. I always choose things I’m interested in learning about, but sleep comes within seconds of my laying down in the night. I fall asleep soundly, quickly, heavily.

And then, almost without fail, about four hours later I wake. A sore muscle, an errant thought, a full bladder, something to disturb the slumber, and then I’m generally awake for an hour or two. I can try various tricks to get me back to sleep–a few bites of some food and a couple of Tylenol tend to do the trick sometimes, soft music others. But if I can’t fall back to sleep within thirty minutes or so, I’ll often just get up. I’ll surrender to the wakefulness and get things done. I always have things to do.

I scan my body, surveying myself. My toes are cold. I’m on my right side, a pillow tucked between my knees, another pillow clutched in my arms. My right shoulder is sore from being suspended up underneath my head, where a third pillow is wedged and folded. My right arm is straight out, hanging off the bed. My chest and shoulders are aching, sore from last night’s push-ups, and my glutes are sore from last night’s stair-climbing cardio. I’m warm and snug, in between sheets with two big blankets on top, one of them made by my grandmother before she died, and one of them knitted for me by my mother twenty years ago when I was in high school. I’m nude, and warm, and snug, and the air outside my bed feels chilly on my exposed ear and cheek.

It’s been a long time since someone shared my bed, since I could hear familiar and even breathing behind me as I lay awake, since I felt the weight and heat of another body, since I had my arms around a body instead of a pillow. I could move my cold toes over beneath his feet to warm them. I could convince myself to stay there until I fell back asleep because I wouldn’t want to disturb him. But there is no one there.

And so I rise. And stretch. My vertebrae gratefully expand and pop. My back is always sorest in the mornings. I stretch my hips, turn my neck back and forth, touch my toes, press my shoulder blades together, raise my arms in the air. My body shivers in the cold as I slide on a pair of sweatpants. The room is dark, but my eyes are adjusted and I can make out the hamper full of clothes, the stack of books on the floor, the desk and chair, the unfinished paperwork, the charging cell phone, the lamp, the laptop cords.

I stand there for a bit, my feet cold against the carpet, and I listen. I hear the gentle hiss of the air vent, but all else is silent, heavy, dark and chilled. I expand my awareness to outside, to the trees and concrete outside, and I can make out the crunchy sounds of a garbage truck down the road. It must be 3 AM.

On occasion, I do therapy sessions with my clients about the science of sleep, helping them realize how much goes in to their sleep cycles. Some sleep too long. Some, like me, fall asleep quickly but can’t stay asleep, waking quickly and abruptly. Some stay awake for hours, lying there as sleep eludes them, until they fall heavily out until the alarm blares and then they can’t wake. Some are lonely, some are stressed, some are anxious or frightened or sad or in pain or horny or numb or grieving or empty. Some struggle with weight and can’t breathe well, some with blood sugar and they keep a snack nearby.

We discuss the psychology of sleep in these sessions. The temperature of the room, how many blankets are on the bed, what is worn, when they last ate or exercised or showered or washed their sheets, what sounds are in the room, how dark it is, when they last had alcohol or caffeine, what methods they use to wind down. We discuss how they trick their brains into letting rest come. Some, like me, expect insomnia the majority of the time, and when a good night’s sleep comes, it is like heaven on a pillow. (And it is only on these nights of rest that I dream.) I do my best to help them find answers.

I don’t always practice what I preach.

I turn on the lamp and close my eyes tightly, letting them gently adjust to the garish ugly light that is now interrupting the darkness of the room. I look at my empty bed. I see the unfolded laundry and unsubmitted bills, shrug, and think why not. I use the restroom, get a glass of water, turn on a podcast, and get to work, cold toes and all.

 

 

Helping the Helpers

overworked-doctor

“Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!”

This morning, I walked across a parking lot toward my vehicle in a pair of jeans and a grey t-shirt that reads “That’s what.” –She, my backpack over my shoulder, car keys in my hand. An older woman, likely in her mid-70s, pulling an oxygen tank behind her walked toward me. She had a brunette perm, a flowered blouse, and baggy black slacks on. Her glasses slid down to the end of her nose in classic grandma fashion.

“Um, yes?”

She walked quickly across the parking lot. “What is it that you do? What are you any good at?”

“I’m sorry?” Concerned, I unlocked my car and set my backpack inside.

“I said, ‘what are you any good at?'”

“Oh, I heard you, I just didn’t really understand the question.”

She got closer to my car now, just a few feet away. “I need help!”

I looked at her with concern. “What kind of help?”

“There–there is a young girl next door,” she explained, out of breath. “She’s crying. I’ve never met her, but she’s crying, and I asked her if she is okay, and I think she said she wasn’t okay but I wasn’t sure and she’s still crying, and are you any good at that?”

I tilted my head and narrowed my eyes, suspicious. “Am I any good at what? I’m just out running an errand.”

“Son, I’m asking you what you are good at!” She stepped in closer. “She’s crying and I don’t know what to do!”

She suddenly looked angry. What in heaven’s name is going on, I wondered. “Well, if you are worried about her, maybe you should call the police.”

“She’s in a house I’ve never been in and I don’t have a phone! Please just come with me!”

“Ma’am, I’m very sorry, but I need to get going.”

She looked angry, then disappointed, then sad as I started my car, backed out, and began to pull away. A hundred scenarios flashed through my head. Was she trying to get me into the house so I could be mugged? Was she suffering from dementia and having an episode? Was there really a mystery girl next door crying in a house?

I drove past the woman and pulled out onto the small road next to the parking lot. One house down, I slowed the car. There was a girl sitting on the front porch in her early twenties, looking unkempt, in a white tank top and Capris. She had headphones in her ears and mussed hair. She looked up at me as I drove by slowly, her eyes streaked with tears, and we briefly made eye contact. She flipped me off as I drove by.

What just happened?

I pictured myself presenting to my college class later this week, as an ethical scenario. I teach social workers, all working on a masters in the field, and I enjoy presenting unorthodox scenarios and picking their brains. Was it ethically sound for me as a professional who upholds a license and a duty to help others to drive away from this old woman and crying adult? I could open the topic for discussion, but my students would already know my answer. In my office, it is my job to help those who are in front of me, but I was out on the street as a civilian. I need boundaries, and I’m not expected to put myself in potentially dangerous situations. Calling the authorities would be sufficient in the worst scenarios, and in this case I don’t have enough information to even do that.

When I first entered the field of social work, I was surprised by how often strangers and family members would solicit me for advice.

“I think my husband is cheating on me, what should I do?”

“My daughter’s friend said that her daddy touches her sometimes and I don’t know what that means, but he gives me the creeps. Should I call Child Protection? What do I do?”

“I’ve been having flashbacks to my brother’s suicide, what does that mean?”

Even worse are the date therapy sessions. Meeting a guy for the first time and having those awkward conversations about where you grew up, who is in your family, and what you do for a living.

“I’m a clinical social worker.”

“Oh, really? I have a counselor. I’ve had one for years, in fact. After my dad left when I was a kid and my mom married a guy who later went to jail, I attempted suicide and sometimes I still think about it.”

I have a tremendous amount of compassion and I like helping others, but not at the expense of myself, and not on a date. Extending too much of myself leads to a little thing called compassion fatigue, a fancy way of saying burnout. I care too much for too many and too little for myself, and suddenly instead of helping a few people a lot I only get to help a lot of people a little. And I go home exhausted.

I sometimes have friends who worry about being able to confide in me about their struggles. But that’s different. In a reciprocal friend relationship, I can rely on others just as they rely on me. If we hang out three times a month and you are having a bad day, sure, call me up and let’s chat. But if I haven’t seen you in five years and you call for advice on your estranged mother, well, I’ve got a little less to offer.

It must be worse for nurses and doctors.

“Is it normal for this to be this purple/stiff/dry/swollen? Could you take a look?”

So, to the old lady and the crying girl who randomly crossed my path this morning, I hope the help you need. You just won’t get it from me.

the Origin of My Species

MA48727

“B-9! The tumor is benign! B-9!”

I stood in the background among the trees, feeling awkward as the dozens of family members searched their small paper cards for the number that will give them the coveted Bingo, oversized red blotters in their hands, filled with dripping red ink.

“I-23! I act 23! I-23!”

The campsite is as beautiful as I remember it, though it’s been years since I have been here. Large luscious pine trees, thick foliage in varying shades of green, wildflowers and pussy willows, a gentle cool breeze, rich dark chocolate soil. The area is covered with trailers and tents. A campfire smokes and pops off to one side. Card tables littered with playing cards, Styrofoam cups, candy wrappers, and aluminum soda cans. Island Park, Idaho holds powerful memories of my childhood, my origins.

“B-4! B-4 this, we had lunch! B-4!”

I have been out of the closet for nearly five years now, yet this is my first time seeing some of these family members since my grandmother’s death, over five years ago. I look around the room and think of the extension of relations. Brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces; aunts, uncles, cousins with their spouses and kids; grandparents’ brothers and sisters and their kids and spouses and grandkids. I don’t recognize about a fifth of the people here and have no idea how I am related to them.

“O-68! Oh, to have an IQ over 68! O-68!”

My mom looks up and gives me another small wave. She’s happy to see me, I know. She’s happiest when surrounded by family and chaos, and here there is that multiplied by one thousand. A few of my sisters give me similar waves, and they are happy to see me too. But no one gets up. I arrived during Bingo, after all. Hugs will have to come later.

“N-32! ‘n my heart, I’m still 32! N-32!”

I close my eyes for a moment and just… feel. There is a growing panic in my insides, an old familiar fight or flight response. I grew up in this environment, this chaotic loving family, hidden in plain sight. A gay kid who pretended to be straight for a few decades. Being among them again after all this time, it brings back those old familiar panicked feelings, that sense of otherness, of being different. I haven’t felt like this in years.

“I-16! I’m a good Mormon, and I don’t date til I’m 16! I-16!”

Someone calls out Bingo and they get to choose a prize: either a bottle of Diet Coke or a bag of Licorice, and then the next round is announced, a version of Bingo where you have to create a giant X on the card. I take a seat in a dusty camp chair toward the back as the cards are cleared and the new game begins. A handsome young man sits next to me and it takes me several seconds to realize it is one of my cousin’s sons, a kid I haven’t seen in probably six years, when he was 12. He’s holding a book in his hand, wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

He extends a hand. “I’m not sure we’ve met. I’m Casey.”

I smile and shake his hand, such a Mormon thing to do, something I still do in my interactions, shake hands when you first see someone. “I’m Chad.”

He leans back in his chair. “I’m reading the most wonderful book.”

“Oh? What’s it about?”

The Bingo competition begins again. “N-37! ‘n 37 seconds, I’ll kiss my wife! N-37!”

He smiles and holds the book up. “It’s about a man who fell in the paths of sin. He struggled with pornography and masturbation, and eventually had sex outside of marriage. He wrote this book about his repentance process, how he obtained forgiveness from the Lord, and made his way back to the church. It contains lots of quotes from the modern prophets.”

I feign interest, looking at the book briefly. “It sounds very serious.”

“Well, yes. But I’m leaving on my mission to the Phillipines in a few weeks, and I want to read everything I can to be prepared. I only get two years as a missionary to bring souls to Christ.”

I smile, and we fall into a comfortable silence as the Bingo game continues. This kid, that was me, back in the late-1990s. Carrying my scriptures around with me constantly, keeping a constant prayer in my heart, knowing that if I worked at it hard enough, God would take away my attraction to men. I was pure, innocent. I had no idea how the world worked, what was out there. I was caught up in this simple god-fearing existence, oblivious to how much pain I was in. Two years spent completely dedicated to God while I was a missionary in the eastern United States, and I hadn’t come one lick closer to a cure.

I stood up and patted Casey on the shoulder briefly. “Congratulations, man. You’re going to be an amazing missionary.”

He thanked me as I walked away, back through the trees to the dusty trail where I’d parked my car. No one noticed me leaving, they were all focused on their Bingo cards.

“B-1! BYU is number 1! B-1!”

A few hours later, after a cup of coffee and a long walk in the glorious flowery fields near the camping lot, I returned. I had missed the family frying pan toss, the pinochle tournament, the talent show, the family crossword, birdhouse making, and horseshoes.

The next several hours were filled with conversations, awkwardness, hugs, rolled eyes, and laughter.

“Whose kid took the keys to my motorized wheelchair! Everyone stop what you are doing, the keys to my motorized wheelchair are missing! Who took them! Oh, never mind, they are here, in my bra.”

“Sorry for getting sweat on you during our hug! I guess I have become the sweaty one in the family!”

“Oh, my life is the same as ever. No one cares enough to even ask how I’m doing, so I’ll just sit back here and pretend like everything is fine. But thanks for asking.”

“Did you hear that Darrel told one of his kids to kick one of Kim’s kids in the balls because he thinks Kim is a terrible mother? Can you believe him!”

“I just want you to know that I think being gay is completely cool. I mean, I totally support gay marriage. It’s about time. And if anyone says anything against it, I’ll tell them what I think.”

“Did you hear about Darrel? I think he’s addicted to pain pills. Why else would he have said that?”

“Chad! I have a gay friend I want to set you up with. He lives a few hundred miles from you, but he’s a total sweetheart. Can I set you up?”

“Did you hear about Darrel and Kim?”

______________________________________

The next day, I head over to the campsite early and sit in the early morning next to a crackling fire. Most everyone is still asleep, except a few cousins and their kids making their way around camp in various tasks. I don’t talk to anyone, and I think about where I’ve come from, and all the memories I have here. I miss my grandparents suddenly, both gone for years, and I wonder how would feel about this expanse of dozens and dozens of lives that sprang from their simple, post-Depression love story.

In time, pancakes are being flipped and donuts are being fried. It’s a few more hours before the giant family potluck begins and I observe the spread of food, the same heaping dishes that I grew up devouring. Sugared cheese balls, potato chips, licorice, candied popcorn, instant potatoes mixed with cream cheese and sour cream and melted cheese, a heaping sugared ham. I take a step back and look at the table. There is one small bowl of green salad, ice berg lettuce with carrot shavings, a few bowls of fruit mixed in with whipped cream, and one big bowl of watermelon. Giant tubs of sugary lemonade at the end.

This… this is how I ate growing up. This is what was available. Grab as much as you can, then get more, then more. Huge meals every meal with snacks in between.

Soon the family raffle begins, a four hour long event where they call one number at a time, corresponding to a prize. Tickets are 25 cents each; some people buy five dollars worth, others buy five hundred dollars worth.

“Next up is a hand-crafted quilt! Number 252, who has number 252?”

I look around at the crowd, groupings of families sitting in lawn chairs, picking their plates clean. Kids burying themselves in dirt, babies being rocked by their mothers, men drifting off to sleep, women fanning themselves with paper plates. Every one of them will stay until every last number has been called.

The next morning, as I drive away, I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude, that I was raised in this insane and incredible family, an entire childhood that revolved around gossip, food, faith, and love.