Porn: the Public Health Crisis?

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Within the past few days, the Utah legislature passed a bill that declared pornography a public health crisis.

This is so painfully ironic on so many levels.

Point 1: No other state in our country has ever made an initiative like this.

Point 2: This year, the Utah legislature voted down a hate crimes bill (you know, hate crimes, where people are attacked, beat, stabbed, raped, or killed for being gay or transgender or handicapped or Muslim or Colombian or anything else that sets them apart from the majority).

Point 3: This year, the Utah legislature also voted down a medical marijuana bill, leaving those suffering from cancer, major depression, chronic pain, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and other painful conditions the same options to use major addictive pain killers that provide little relief, and ignoring the fact that medical marijuana has been proven in research to have positive impact on every level for these patients.

Point 4: Utah’s sex education plans are almost non-existant. Mixed in with this abstience only approach, where kids don’t learn about sex and then are thrown into marriage relationships early on… well… that leads to other topics entirely.

Point 5: Utah is among the states with the highest depression rates, and anti-depressant use, in the country. Go ahead, look it up. Utah also ranks among the highest for suicides.

Point 6: Utah has the highest rate of pornography subscriptions in the country. Seriously. Even though porn on the Internet is free, Utahans are number one in the nation for people who PAY and SUBSCRIBE to porn. It has jokingly been called the porn capital of America.

So… a public health crisis? Look at this quote from Mormon leader Jeffrey Holland just a few days ago. “Society must see this evil like the epidemic it is. This ought to be seen like a public health crisis, like a war, like an infectious fatal epidemic, like a moral plague on the body politic that is maiming the lives of our citizens… We do need to see this (pornography) like avian flu, cholera, diphtheria or polio. It needs to be eradicated.”

Now I grew up Mormon, though not in Utah. As a young Priesthood holder, it was beat into our brains that pornography was the worst. That once you saw a pornographic image, it was melded into your mind, a permanent image you could never get rid of. That it gave unrealistic expectations for sex, and it ruined relationships, that it wiped out the spirit of God in the home.

If anything, all that talk about porn made me more curious about porn. I mean, I was a gay kid not allowed to look at or think about boys, no less date them, and I wasn’t allowed to watch them on the Internet either or my sole would be destroyed.

Is it like polio or avian flu? Is it killing people, wiping out generations, leaving people permanently damaged? There are entire mental health clinics set up here in Utah set up to treat sex and pornography addiction. And they do well in business. Parents catch their teens watching porn and take them in for sex addiction treatment.

When I was 12, a bishop asked me if I masturbated. I had to ask what that was, and he told me, so I went home and tried it. What curious kid wouldn’t?

When I was 16, an older man at church taught the boys about chastity. And I quote, “Gentlemen, we all know it feels good to touch our peckers. But we mustn’t for it isn’t of God.” Then he taught us how wet dreams were normal and natural, and not to feel guilty as long as we didn’t “interfere” with ourselves. Meanwhile, my sister was taught to protect her virtue for an already chewed piece of gum is less valuable than a fresh piece.

I avoided pornography like the plague growing up, just knowing it was evil and dark. But you can only fight off such drives and curiosities for so long. My hormones would build, and the computer and keyboard were right there. I remember wondering why a God would make boys go through puberty  and give them such powerful drives, only to teach them that those very drives were evil and wrong.

Now, I think porn is fun. A safe, easy way to explore fantasies and options. There are a million kinds of them out there. And I’ve done some research into sex. So many research studies show that sex education leads to better decisions regarding sex including abstinence, that masturbation is healthy for the body, and that pornography is only considered an addiction when the individual feels compelled to watch it for hours and hours in one sitting, a drive that is often fostered by religious shame issues.

So if you are one of those people who think that watching a couple have sex is sort of like being infected with malaria, and that cancer patients should have to cry themselves to sleep, and that lesbian teenagers who are attacked for being gay don’t deserve extra protections… well, come on over to Utah.

Like they say, this is the place… for crazy.

Poz: my first encounter with AIDS

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In 1999, I was a Mormon missionary in inner city Philadelphia. At that time, the Mormon Church ran ads on television stations, advertising free copies of the Book of Mormon or Bible, or free videos about forever families. A person who called the phone number would request a copy of the free merchandise and give their name and address, and then a “media referral” would be passed on to the missionaries who were closest to that person geographically. We would grab the merchandise, walk over to the individual’s house, and deliver it, while offering to teach them about the Church in the hopes of converting them. At the end of each week, we would call the local leader and report how many media referrals we responded to, how many doors we knocked on, how many lessons we taught, and the data was collated and sent back up the chain to the presidency of the Church in Utah.

And this was how I met Vincent.

Now keep in mind, I was a 20 year old white kid in the inner city, and I looked like I was 16 at best. I was skinny in worn out shoes, a faded shirt and a thrift shop tie, with a bad haircut. I sported a backpack full of supplies every day, stuffed full of Mormon merchandise I hoped to pass out. At the time, I had a strong testimony of the Mormon faith and I went to no small effort to share that testimony with whoever would listen. And I was constantly praying to God that my efforts would prove to him that I could be cured from being gay; I went the entire two years hoping that if I baptized enough people, my homosexuality would go away and I could like girls like a “normal” guy.

When my companion (my fellow missionary, who I had to stay in sight of 24/7) and I knocked on Vincent’s door to deliver his Bible, we could immediately tell something was wrong with him. He was very ill and looked like he was likely in the last stages of cancer or another terminal illness. He was probably only in his mid 30s, but he looked 60. He was tall, about 6’5”, and had a thin gaunt face. He wore a large pair of glasses, a black beret, and was in very baggy sweat pants and a sweatshirt, a scarf around his neck. He was sweating slightly from shivering, a feverish sweat. He had a few sores on his face, including one on his lip that was distracting, hard to take my eyes off of.

Vincent invited us in. He was very effeminate, yet very kind. We pulled up two chairs next to the hospital bed he had in his small apartment. I remember feeling nervous, like whatever he had I might catch it. He climbed back into his bed and drew the covers up around him.

Vincent quietly explained that he was dying. He said he had been watching television a few days before and that he had seen the ad for the free Bible. He didn’t think he had long left to live, and he wanted to make things right with God before he passed.

I was young and knew very little of the world, and I asked Vincent what he was dying of, very little compassion in my voice.

He was unapologetic as he explained that he had AIDS. He told me he had grown up in a religious family in central Pennsylvania, that he had been kicked out as a teen for coming out as gay, and that he had been with the same man for years before a sad breakup. He said he made a few choices a few years back, and got HIV, and that he couldn’t afford to take care of himself, and now he was dying. He wanted to be baptized and to make himself clean.

We were kind to Vincent, but truthfully, we had no experience with anything like this. We were two very young men from rural Idaho, and this man was looking for absolution. We promised to come back and see Vincent the next day. That night at home, I called up my Priesthood leaders and explained the situation, and we were told that we were not allowed to teach a gay man by ourselves. We explained that Vincent wanted to be baptized, to be forgiven of his sins, and we were told that given his condition it was very unlikely that baptism could be approved, that Vincent would have to meet with local Priesthood leaders first and be interviewed.

The next day we visited Vincent, and he seemed sad and dejected. He said he had spent the evening researching our church and he realized that gay people didn’t have a place in it. He politely declined our invitation to teach him about the Church and said he would seek forgiveness elsewhere. He kindly asked us to leave.

I tried to visit Vincent a few weeks later, when I had a new companion. He didn’t answer the door. I can’t imagine he lived much longer.

Vincent crossed my mind yesterday for the first time in years. It’s nearly 20 years since I knew him so briefly, and I don’t even remember his last name. He was among the first gay people I knew, and the first with AIDS that I had met. Since coming out five years ago, I have met many people who have HIV, some of them are my very closest friends. They are incredible men with healthy lives, jobs, and routines. Technology and medical procedures have come so far, giving amazing quality of life.

Yet since its inception, HIV and AIDS has infected an estimated 78 million people and taken an estimated 39 million lives, wiping out entire generations in some countries.

I’ll have more to write about all of this soon, but for now, I want to honor my memory of Vincent, that quiet man who wanted peace with God before he died, but who was unable to find it with two 20 year old Idaho boys, one of them gay himself.

 

when you’ve stopped looking

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Because I’m me, and you’re you, and we are perfectly different from each other and exactly the same.

At times, I grow weary of the human capacity, and I end up sitting down at a blank keyboard and typing existential thoughts about human existence and human experience and human sacrifice and human vulnerability and human trust.

When I get in these moods, I know that I have had too much work lately, too much dwelling upon the pains of others as a therapist, and too little time for self-care or adventure. And this week would qualify as such.

And thus my opening statement. I have a whole human universe within me, and everyone has the same capacities in them. If I sat and made a list of the issues that have afflicted my family during my 37 year old lifetime, it very likely wouldn’t look that much different from yours.

abuse, divorce, drug addiction, religious shame issues, coming out of the closet, communication issues, parenting stress, passive aggressiveness, depression, anxiety, diabetes, aging, loneliness

I could keep the list going for pages as we all could. I take a wider look at my family as they exist right now, and I think of how much we have all changed in ten years, five years, one, even just a few months. My mom now has been watching her husband, in his early 80s, get dizzy and fall, while dealing with her own chronic headaches. My sister is balancing out the deadlines of her college assignments with her work responsibilities, all while trying to find time for exercise and her wife. My nephew, after dating unsuccessfully for a few years and putting himself through school, is suddenly planning a wedding to a beautiful girl. Another sister, who spent years with no children and who has now adopted three, is chasing three boys around, running herself ragged in an attempt to keep up and provide a happy home for her busy boys. My son, well-adjusted in his school, homework coming easy to him, reading and learning and exploring and asserting his independence, yet still struggling a bit with anxiety and finding his place in the world.

And me, in a great place in my life, building and building, incrementally, over time, changing and growing and ascending, yet never quite settled, never quite satisfied, learning to embrace the hunger and drive that are parts of me. I’m lonely lately, and bored, even as I’m feeling powerful and accomplished. I’m pushing myself back into history and forward into potential all at once. I’m exercising, and slowly getting out of debt. I have wonderful friends, my sons are thriving, I have important family relationships. And yet, I still seek and yearn.

I have to remind my clients sometimes, after they have come through a crisis, that the problems they are facing now are normal and typical. After all the car crashes and custody trials and funerals and suicide attempts and bankruptcies, what a relief and honor to feel basic sadness, discomfort, anger, and pain.

And I’m supremely grateful for the good things in my life, I am. Yet with all of that, I still grieve and strive and push.

I’ve been out of the closet five years now. In past years, I have celebrated. But this year, I let the anniversary pass quietly by. I worked, and wrote, and exercised, and poured myself a glass of wine and watched House of Cards and went to bed by 9. I was content and bored and satisfied and hungry and lonely and confident and impatient and settled all at once.

I had a friend tell me recently, in a discussion about a few unexpected heartbreaks I went through this past year, that I’ll probably find a relationship now that I’ve stopped looking for one. I’ve been told this before, but this statement bothered me this time. When people say that, ‘now that you’ve stopped looking’, what do they really mean? Now that you have contented yourself? Now that you’ve been hurt enough times that you don’t want to risk getting hurt anymore? Now that you’ve stopped being romantic or spontaneous or asking anyone else out? Now that you have stopped having expectations of anyone you meet, and you generally expect that they will flake out or lie or be inconsistent after a date or two? Now that you are turning all of your energy toward yourself instead and have grown content with the idea that you will likely not be partnered for some time?

And that’s sad to me somehow. I mean, I’m stronger and more resolved, but I’ve lost my naivete a little bit as well, that’s what happens when the heart scars over a few times I suppose. I’m proud of myself. I don’t see a relationship as an accomplishment, or something to be acquired. In fact, my accomplishments are in the smiles and smarts of my children, and in the professional world I’ve created for myself, and in the cultivation of my talents. That said, it is still hard to be the single guy in a room full of couples. It’s difficult to look at the miracle of my sons playing together and to not have someone to share it with. It’s difficult to think of the dozens of dates, and the few times I’ve been in love, and to still be here on my own.

And all of that brings us to this simple moment. 4:24 pm, where I sit in a coffee shop with a half empty cup of coffee and a full glass of water, strangers all around me, classical music playing, two nicks stinging on my chin from where I cut myself shaving earlier, my back aching from sitting too long, my head and heart as complicated as they ever are, typing this stream-of-consciousness blog on a white screen. I will soon post it and no one will read it, or a handful of strangers will read it, or loved ones will read it, or hundreds will read it, and some will be sad and some bored and some annoyed and some inspired.

And soon I’ll leave here and step back into my life, the one that is still the same, yet different from ten minutes ago, as I am always the same and ever changing.

Because I’m me, and you’re you, and we are perfectly different from each other and exactly the same.

Gusher

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It’s four am and I’m listening to NPR as I’m driving down a dark windy road in north-eastern Utah. I’m sure the terrain all around me is absolutely beautiful, given the signs I’m seeing telling me I’m in a national forest, but it’s pitch black outside. My headlights illuminate the windy roads around me, and I navigate them with speed. I rarely see other headlights, not at this time of day. When another driver comes toward me, we both courteously dim our headlights from bright to standard, then turn them back to bright as we pass each other.

I’m appalled by the roadkill. I have seen at least a few dead deer, a porcupine, three rabbits, and two skunks, their obnoxious and cloying odors stretching a full mile around their tiny corpses. In addition, I have slowed my car at least four times in the last hour, once for some large bird, twice for rabbits, and once for another skunk, animals that scampered across the road at fast speeds. I roll my eyes at each of them silently, wondering if it wouldn’t be easier for them to just wait the ten seconds for my car to pass and then to cross, cause it ain’t like there is any other traffic out here.

I haven’t spent much time in this part of Utah, though it isn’t far from where I live, only a few hours drive. The whole state is packed with mountains and bodies of water, so I don’t have to look hard for beautiful places to visit. I know there are lots of camping areas here, several reservoirs, and a ton of hiking, but the towns are small.

The reporter on the NPR station I’m listening to is interviewing a woman in Canada, who is sharing her opinion on American politics. I can’t remember her exact words, but she says something like “American politics is the best reality show I’ve ever seen, only much more horrific. I’m on the edge of my seat wondering what they will do next. America is rather like the crazy neighbor who lives next door. Mostly I leave them alone, but on occasion, I have to peep over the fence to see what shocking thing they are doing next.” She voices her support for Bernie Sanders first, Hilly Clinton second, and then admits that Canada is mostly a nation of Democrats. She talks about Prime Minister Trudeau’s state visit with President Obama, and outlines some of the complicated trade history between the two countries. I navigate the turns with a smile on my face.

My eyes flash to the bright screen of my phone, showing the map of the area I’m driving through, and a few of the names of small Utah towns, some of them unincorporated, some just groupings of farms and houses, others cute little towns. I’ve never heard of most of these. Duschene (pronounced Du-shane). Strawberry. Myton. Ouray. Altonah. Neola. Randlett. Tabiona. And then Gusher. Gusher? There is a town called Gusher, Utah? A few houses, fences, barns, and cows are visible in the dark, then I’m already past it.

I think back to the history of this region, how it was settled by Native American tribes for hundreds of years until the fur trappers and gold miners moved through here. Then the Mormons came in the 1800s and settled in the Salt Lake valley. Brigham Young sent members of the Mormon church all over the region, for hundreds of miles, creating farming communities, mining industries, trade posts, and settlements. I’m not a big fan of Brigham Young, but I have to admit that his settlement of the state of the Utah at the time was absolutely impressive.

Later, during my long work shift, I look up some of the communities that I’ve driven through. I look into the origins of their names, some after Native American chiefs, some after early settlers, some after rocks or crops. But I am most fascinated by Gusher itself. About ten miles outside of Roosevelt (a much larger town for the area), it’s described as a “roadside settlement” rather than a town. I learn that when it was first settled, it was jokingly called Sober City, a name given by the locals, making fun of the town’s habit for getting drunk. They later renamed the town Moffat, after David Moffat, a railroad magnate, but the town wasn’t successful and it shut down for decades until, in 1922, a man named Robert Wood moved to the area and named the town Gusher, hoping to make a successful oil business there, though that never happened.

I think of the farmers that have lived there likely for generations, the same families there since the beginning. The demographics for the area list the residents as, literally, 97.99 % white, and well over 90 % Mormon.

Later, as I leave the city of Vernal, I take the same road back to Salt Lake City. This time, I can see the small houses, the barns and cows, the fences, the rolling hills and trees, the snow-capped mountains, and, yes, the roadkill. Gusher looks nearly the same in the daylight as it did in the dark, an eyeblink of small town Utah farms where families have built their homes and lives.

I pull my car over at one of the reservoirs and look out over the beautiful mix of rock and water, and I think of my grandmother, who spent over 90 years in a town in southeastern Idaho with a population of less than 500 people. And from her little space there, she had five children and dozens of grandchildren and even more great-grandchildren. She worked as a schoolteacher. And from her little spot on the globe, she made the world a better place and impacted hundreds of lives.

I turn back from my spot on the road, from which I can’t see another human in any direction, and I wonder about my grandmother, and about Gusher, and about history, then I get back in my car and drive toward a different kind of civilization.

Aging Rock Star

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The line to the bathroom is out of control. It was only a four mile drive to the local amphitheater, where my best friend Cole had scored free tickets to the Def Leppard concert, and, always one for a spontaneous adventure, of course I had said yes. I had significantly underestimated the traffic, however, so instead of taking ten minutes to arrive, it had taken over an hour, then another twenty minute walk from the parking lot to the venue. I am feeling like a ten year old child who should have used the facilities before the family road trip. My eyeballs are beginning to swim as the line moved forward one person at a time.

Finally I am able to stand in the restroom itself, though there are still six men in front of me. There must be 20 separate stalls in the room and I’m beginning to dance while I wait for my turn. Suddenly I feel an elbow in my back.

“Excuse me! You all don’t mind if I sneak in do you?”

I turn to see a woman of about 20 rushing into the men’s room. She is easily six inches shorter than me, her black hair cut in a bob. She has red lipstick, blue eye shadow, and glitter that sparkles on her cheeks. She’s in a black half shirt that exposes her slim stomach and a thigh-length skirt with tennis shoes.

“The girl’s line is just so long! So, I mean, eff it! I don’t care if I use the boys, and you guys don’t mind since I’m hot! Thanks!” She pushes her way into the stall that just opened up and keeps talking from behind the closed door. “You all are so nice, thank you, I’ll be quick!”

Several minutes later, finally free of the oppressive control of my bladder, I rejoin Cole outside and we make our way through the crowd to a hilltop, where there is open seating. There is a haze of smoke floating over the entire crowd, an obnoxious combination of tarmac, tobacco, and marijuana; it sticks to the insides of my eyelids, the roof of my mouth, and inside my ears and I realize I’m in a literal fog. It doesn’t take long for my head to start aching.

My attention is pulled in every direction by the people. Aged men in tie dye, sleeveless shirts, tight tank tops, and jeans with holes cut through the knees by a pair of scissors. Long jagged Mick Jagger and Axl Rose wigs in blonde, brown, rainbow, and red over thick sunglasses, even though it is night. Women in tight jeans or skirts, frilly tops that expose cleavage and navels and shoulders, crimped hair. Plastic cups of beer in every hand, plates heaping with nachos or fries, joints or cigarettes in many hands. A sea of lights shines across the hilltop as every third person clicks messages on their phones instead of watching the live music happening right in front of them. There is nothing quite so intolerable as being the sober one in a crowd full of drunk people, especially on a Monday night.

Cole and I find a spot to lay out the blanket and for the next two hours we listen to the classic songs of the aging rock stars. The crowd around us dances, flips their hair back and forth, grinds their pelvises together. The men’s eyes wander while the women dance in place like the characters from Peanuts, as if Schroeder was up their rocking out instead of a classic band.

Def Leppard sounds fantastic given their age. First formed in 1977 in the United Kingdom, the band had multiple chart toppers in the 1980s and early 1990s. Their lyrics and guitar riffs bring back nostalgic memories from my childhood.

Love bites, love bleeds, it’s bringing me to my knees.

Blue jean, baby queen. Prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.

Hey kids, rock’n’roll, rock on, lose control.

And the seminal Pour some sugar on me!… I’m hot, sticky sweet, from my head to my feet.

Despite the haze in my brain, I’m having a genuinely good time. After a while, I let myself sink back on the blanket and think about the band for a few minutes. These men must be in their late fifties at least, and more likely in their late sixties. They hit their hey-day literally decades ago, before the Internet, before cell phones, before Desert Storm even. Now here there are performing the same ballads for crowds of enthusiasts, ticket sales for this one venue likely well above 75,000 dollars total. I picture the lead singer kissing his wife goodbye, stopping off to visit his grown children and his teenage grandchildren, picking up his arthritis medicine, then heading to the airport to board a flight for the United States, where he has a pending concert in Utah of all places. He turns down the in-flight meal because his doctor has told him to watch his cholesterol. He naps against the window, snoring loudly. Upon arrival, he stretches, feeling his bones crack and pop and he thinks about how he isn’t what he used to be. At show time, he uses elastic bands to pull back the hard lines on his face, covers his face in foundation, dons an 80s rock wig and a set of clothing just like what he wore back on the Pyromaniatour back in 1985. He does some vocal warm-ups and worries he won’t be able to hit those high notes like he used to. He stretches a bit, warms up with the band, pumps himself up, then performs for a packed crowd who sings along to every word he has sang ten thousand times before, all while he gyrates his hips in ways that will leave him aching for days. After the show, he winds down with a glass of Ovaltine, calls his wife overseas, and heads back to the hotel where he hopes his aching knee will let him rest.

Cole and I leave a bit before the encore, and as we fight the line of cars out of the parking lot, I think about the status of American celebrity, where we will still pay money to see Chubby Checker twist, Cyndi Lauper just have fun, and Madonna pretend to be a virgin. And then I think how, even though Def Leppard makes it sound sexy, if I were really hot and sticky sweet from my head down to my feet, I would really just want a shower, and I realize that maybe I’m the one getting too old for this even if the band isn’t.

Among the ducks

I could stay for hours among the ducks, viewing their careful observations of the passersby as they wonder if each can be trusted.

The woman who dips the toes of her infant daughter in the cool water.

The couple crying on the bench, she looking to him for signs of life, he looking coldly toward the setting sun.

The laughing ladies who let their dogs loose to scatter the flock.

The old Hispanic woman at the table, who seemed sad at first, then only wise.

And me, hair mussed from a long swim, heart steady and strong, seeing the mud and the shit and the grass and the feathers and the light on the water and the tickling red bug on my arm with the same eyes.

What do the ducks think of me when they look back?

And then the people leave one by one as the sun goes down and the clamoring quacks grow quiet as the ducks leave the water, flutter their feathers to dry, claim their spots on the grass, tuck their heads under their wings, and sleep.

The world has changed, and I with it.sleeping-ducks

Sing out loud, sing out strong

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I’ve always loved singing. My Mom wrote a cantata when I was an infant, something she worked on for a few years, about the life of Jesus Christ. When I grew older, she told me the story of how she was rocking me to sleep one night and the melody for a lullaby came into her mind. She pictured Mary rocking the Christ-child, and the ways in which a mother watches a son grow over the years.

Rock your little son, Mary. Kiss your precious one, Mary. Hold him closely now, Mary, Mary, mother of a King.

Watch him grow now, Mary. Let him go now, Mary. He must know now, Mary, what it means to be a King.

Written for a high soprano with a beautiful piano arrangement behind it, I grew up believing this was my song, Mary’s Lullaby, the one written for me. And though I am no longer Christian, still I sang this sang this song to my sons as I rocked them to sleep in their early years, and still I sing it to them now when, at ages six and four, the climb on top of me, cuddling tight as they prepare for bed, one of my three favorite songs to sing to them. (Note: I am definitely not a high soprano).

My sons are the only ones who hear me sing nowadays. Maybe an occasional friend as I sing along with the lyrics of the song on the radio, oblivious to botched lyrics and harmonizing, something I’ve done with music since I was a child. I have a jukebox of a brain. An errant word, a feeling, a scent memory, and suddenly a song is playing in my brain, often exiting my lips unbidden. Back in college, when I did improv comedy, we played a warm up game called Hot Box; someone would begin singing a song, any song, in the center of the circle, and someone else would tag them out and begin singing another song that was inspired by the first one, and on and on until the game was over; we could begin with Battle Hymn of the Republic and end with Macy Grey. This is how my brain processes music most of the time.

I’m not much of a shower singer. In the car, that’s another story. I can blast an old familiar CD from my book, songs filled with nostalgia and memory, and sing every word and every tune. I harmonize with the vocalists, drum my fingers on the steering wheel, and bop my head back and forth to Gorillaz; I sit and soak in my own feelings, tearing up or clenching my teeth to Damien Rice; I ululate and syncopate with Tori Amos.

But it has been a long time since I have sung in a crowd, loving it, feeling confident and inspiring emotion. I was 7 the first time I sang a solo in church, a small little number for the people in my congregation, and I remember the feeling of pride I got when I got the words right and saw the people smiling back at me. At age 11, I tried out for the community production of Oliver, hoping for a supporting chorus role, and got the lead; I sang in front of hundreds during performances, my pure soprano voice asking Where is Love over and over again. After the awkward years of voice changes, I dropped to a high tenor, then a low tenor, and eventually a baritone, but I kept my pitch and I loved music.

I sang all through high school, in the choirs at school and church. I tried out for several plays, in the school and in the community, and had chances to sing as characters, loving the experience every time. In college, I sang my heart out. I joined the Mens’ Choir, traveling the region to sing in performances; I sang on stage in musical theater productions; I even started an A cappella group and made a little CD.

Around the time I turned 23, something changed. I threw myself into school, then work, then my marriage, all in efforts to implement major changes in my life, and I lost my voice along the way.

And now I’m 36, and it’s a Sunday night, and I’m out in a club with my best friend, Cole. We’ve both had a drink and decided to go out to the local club, and I’m determined to sing a karaoke song tonight because it has been far too long since I have sang in front of people, far too long since I have had anyone to sing for.

There are only ten people in the club, and no one is looking at anyone else. The karaoke man sings a song, then the bartender. I try convincing a few folks to sing with me, but no one wants to, and I’m determined to do it. I screw my courage to the sticking place, choose a song, and put my name on the list. This is it.

Except they call an older man up next, and his rendition of Honestly I Love You, a sad downer of a song by Olivia Newton John, in a bar on a Sunday night, as he moves his left foot out a step then back, then his right foot and back, and his off-key flat monotone and I drift off.

I will myself awake as they call out the next performer, who sits on the stage to perform Jewel’s You Were Meant For Me, her ballcap pulled down over her eyes, her voice a strange feminine baritone, off-key. She seems to be singing to her girlfriend at the table, who I gather dated the karaoke guy a few months before based on the errant glances he keeps stealing.

And finally it’s my turn. I’m confident, with butterflies, as I walk to the stage, prepared to sing a song I can rock out in my car like nobody’s business. I take a seat on the stage and survey my crowd: the karaoke guy, the bartender, the two lesbians, and Kole, who is looking up at me encouragingly like a best friend should. The music starts, and it is about four keys lower than my recorded version is. The irony that I’m singing Uninvited by Alanis Morissette dons on me now.

Like anyone would be, I am flattered by your fascination with me.

I’m out of my range. No one is looking up. And I suddenly want nothing more than to be making my exit from the stage.

The song blissfully ends after three gruelingly long minutes, and the karaoke guy callously thanks me before walking up to do another number himself, because ain’t nobody else there.

As I leave, I think how much I want to be performing again, and then think maybe it is just a matter of having the right audience as I picture a night a few months ago when my six year old gave me a huge hug on his way to bed.

“Thanks, daddy, for singing to us tonight. I love your voice. Good night.”

the Grilled Cheese War

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“Dad, come turn on the TV for us!”

“A, I’m making lunch! Turn it on yourself!”

“But I can’t find the remote!”

“It’s next to the couch!”

“But I looked and it isn’t there!”

“Yes it is!”

“No it isn’t! If you love us, you will turn on the TV for us!”

I grit my teeth as I set six freshly buttered slices of bread on three individual plates, and I turn the stove down so the oil doesn’t heat too fast. I walk into the living room, where both my sons are looking at their small computer screens, sitting against the far wall. I look at the couch, where the remote control is sitting on the arm.

“A!” I rarely get frustrated with them, but today has been one of those parenting days. “The remote is right there!”

He doesn’t look up. I yell louder.

“A!”

“What?” He says, nonchalant.

“You just called me in here to turn on the TV!”

“Yeah, thanks, dad.”

“The remote is right there!”

“Okay. I’m playing my computer.”

“It’s right there! You said you couldn’t find it! It’s right there!”

“Okay.”

I walk out of the room in a huff and return to making lunch, laying out freshly sliced turkey, cheddar cheese, and Miracle Whip on the bred, then closing them to make sandwiches. I grill them one at a time, flipping them over in the pan so the edges will be perfectly brown and the cheese softly melted. I cut them into four triangles and arrange them on each plate around a handful of Cheetos, next to a small cup of applesauce, and pour a half cup of milk for each boy. I set the table, ignoring the multiple shouts over a few minutes of tattling “Dad! J looked at me!”, impatient protests “Dad! Why isn’t lunch ready!”, and mindless reports “Dad! The cat on my computer ate a treat!”, and then call the boys in for lunch.

My four year old, A, is adorable, a small tank of a child with a love of all things fanged and ferocious, but he has a very delicate palette lately. He basically has four food groups: cheese pizza, McNuggets, pancakes or waffles with thick syrup, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Oh, and anything chocolate or doughnuts. He’s a bottomless pit with an endless appetite but only for those things. Anything else takes extreme effort to get him to eat.

And so, no matter what I make… chicken and rice, ham and mashed potatoes, eggs and bacon, lasagna and French bread… he scoffs at it with disgust and derision, and then picks at it for an hour, taking bites the size of a comma on a piece of paper, until he finally concedes and eats the meal without complaint. It is an exhausting prospect, and I’ve been working with him for weeks at being gracious instead of difficult. But today, we are already frustrated with each other when he sits down at the table.

A takes one look at the plate in front of him, surveying it like it’s roadkill, then looks up at me. “Yuck.”

J, his seven year old brother, who is sweet and a bit overly sensitive, already knows this will be a disaster. “C’mon, A, it’s a yummy lunch and Daddy worked really hard on it for us. Try some, you’ll like it.”

“Well, I don’t like it.”

I breathe out both nostrils. “A, you do this every meal. Eat your food.”

“I’ll eat the Cheetos. That’s it. The rest is gross.”

“Do you like bread?”

“Yes.”

“Do you like turkey?”

“Sometimes.”

“Do you like cheese?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, well, that is turkey, cheese, and bread.”

“It’s gross.”

“Eat your lunch, A.”

“Only the Cheetos.”

He gives me a stare down, that defiant look in his eye that says he is prepared for all out war. Fifteen minutes pass, and I tell him he can’t have more Cheetos until he eats some of his sandwich.

“I don’t like it.”

“You haven’t tried it.”

“Well, I don’t like it. I like Mom’s cooking better. Yours is gross.”

“A, you’re being very rude right now. Eat your sandwich.”

He picks it up and takes the merest morsel of a bite, literally a crumb of the bread.

“Buddy, you need to start eating or we won’t be able to go to the aquarium this afternoon like we planned.”

“I don’t care, the aquarium is stupid, everything is stupid.”

I give a deep sigh and stand up, then walk around the table. There is a tension in the room, and J tries one last time to get his brother to have the bite.

“Come on, A, try it! It’s yummy!”

I kneel down next to him and give him an ‘I’m sorry for what is about to happen’ look, then reach over and break off a small portion of one of the sandwich fourths, about the size of my thumb. His brother has already finished his plate, as have I.

“Listen, A, you need to eat this part of your sandwich. Right now.”

“I don’t like it.”

“You haven’t tried it.” I can feel my frustration building. I’ve been out of patience for two hours now. “You will eat it. Now.”

“I’ll just eat the bread.”

“Nope.”

“I don’t want it.”

“I don’t care. Eat it.”

“It’s too big.”

“You can either eat this small bite, or the entire sandwich.”

“I don’t want it.”

I pick the small bite up and move it toward his mouth which is now wedged closed. “Open your mouth, A.”

“I don’t want it!”

While his mouth is open, I place the small bite between his teeth.

“No!”

I push it back on his tongue, barely a morsel.

“Now chew it.”

“No, I don’t want it!”

“A, it’s been nearly 30 minutes. You will eat this bite. You will not spit it out. Now chew.”

“I don’t want it!” He yells, and I can see the bread from the sandwich start to dissolve on his tongue, showing the turkey and cheese underneath.

“Come on, A, eat it, it’s good!” J steps in, trying to encourage.

“J, why don’t you go into the other room and watch a show. This is going to take awhile. Now listen, A, you will sit in that chair until that bite is eaten, do you understand me?”

He clamps his jaw shut and gives me that stare down look, prepared for the battle of wills ahead.

“I can stay here all day, buddy.”

And for the next 20 minutes, it is full on war. A kicks, he screams, sandwich saliva runs down his chin as he calls me mean, yells for mommy, says he wants pancakes or a doughnut instead. And for the entire 20 minutes, he holds that dissolved bite of cheese and turkey and bread on his tongue, refusing to chew it. I sit against the wall calmly, asserting over and over that he must eat the bite.

And the finally, he opens his jaw wide and screams, the scream of the hell hounds, shrill and ear-splitting, as he kicks his legs in a full on tantrum.

And I clench my hands at my sides, press my back against the wall where I’m sitting, kick me feet against the kitchen floor, and look him in the eyes, and scream back, loud, at the top of my lungs, a true show of dominance at the four year old level. When the grizzly bear roars, you roar back louder.

A appears to be in shock. His eyes widen, his legs relax against the chair, and he closes his jaws and slowly begins to chew, never breaking eye contact. He swallows the soggy mass in his mouth. Still looking at him, I reach over to the plate and grab another bite of food, handing it to him. He takes it from my hand, puts it in his mouth, and eats. And within seconds, he is grabbing bites of sandwich off his plate, taking big bites, muttering how good it tastes and how he likes turkey. I think perhaps he is frightened of not liking it, but I know he actually does like it or I wouldn’t have cooked it in the first place.

A few minutes later, it is all over. The sandwich is gone, the tantrum is over, and A asks permission to get up from the chair. He gets up, hugs me tight around the neck, and squeezes.

“I’m sorry, daddy. That was a good lunch. You’re a good dad. Is it time for naps now?”

And a few minutes later, the kids are sleeping soundly, the table is cleared, and my hands are in the dishwater, wondering how much I’m screwing up my kids and if I’m fighting the right battles and pondering about how much work parenting is, but how it pays off in the end.

It’s then I decide I’ll probably make pancakes for dinner, and maybe I can sneak something healthy into the batter unseen, because I don’t have another fight in me today and I know he does.

We live in a world…

It is far easier to go through life focusing on the beautiful things on this planet, and there are oh so many beautiful things. Sunrises and sunsets, jagged peaks and rolling hills, cloud formations, rainforests, and waterfalls. Human accomplishments in art, paint, sculpture, science, and music. A new mother holding a child, an act of human kindness, a miraculous recovery. Wonder after wonder, and miracle after miracle.Each being is their own world of genetics, shaped experiences, accomplishments, struggles, pains, and powers.

And yet we also live in a world where an unexpected tsunami of water can kill hundreds of thousands of people in the blink of an eye and where an incurable virus can wipe out entire generations of people and infect entire countries. We live in a world of earthquakes, droughts, famines, volcanic eruptions, and blizzards.

Humans are incredible things, yet we are so fragile, so small, so subject to the conditions of the world around us.

And far worse are the things we do to each other.

We live in a world of mass shootings, torture, and war. We live in a world where 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are sexually assaulted during their life time, where hundreds of thousands of women and children vanish in human trafficking circles, where entire races and tribes of people are sold into slavery, where entire sub-groups of people are denied basic human rights and privileges. We live in a world of concentration camps, of child pornography, of mass graves, of genocide.

We live in a world where governments are overthrown, where political systems get weak and sociopaths like Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Tse-Tsung obtain positions of power and murder people by the millions through forced starvation programs, gas chambers, and the razing of entire villages.

We live in a world where we cannot possibly ignore our history. If we live in an earthquake zone, we must reinforce our walls and prepare for the dark times. Similarly, as humans, we cannot ignore the evidences and realities of the atrocities of history and the present all around us. We must steel ourselves up, prepare, prevent, prosecute the offender, save and empower the victim and survivor. And we must do it not in the name of one of the world’s many religions or gods, but in the sake of kindness, beauty, understanding, inclusion, history, and love. We must do it to save and preserve each other, to save and preserve ourselves.

We must strike a delicate balance of understanding the atrocities of the world, including raising awareness and implementing prevention strategies, and loving and appreciating the beauties of the world around us.

I’m up for the challenge. Are you?

Out dancing: then and now

Then: June, 2011

I can’t believe how liberating Seattle has felt so far. My life back in north Idaho feels a million miles away, a million years ago. My careful Mormon professional existence there, the one I had been living for so long, where everyone saw me but no one knew me, now feels like a distant memory.

I’ve been to Seattle before, but never like this, never as an out gay man. I suddenly have friends and feelings and I’m creating memories and it feels wonderful. Yesterday, I marched in a gay Pride parade, something I had grown up believing was immoral and disgusting. A few months ago, I connected with a group online called the Utah Gay Fathers, and I’ve made several friends through the group, though it hasn’t been until this weekend that I have met any of them in person. The group joined up with the Seattle Gay Fathers and we marched in the middle of a giant parade with banners. Some of the men had their children with them. Some were same-sex couples with kids while many, like me, had been heterosexually married before coming out and had children that way. We had marched a long distance for over an hour while throngs of people on every side of the street cheered for us, bellowing out their support for us as gay dads. Every person we passed cheered, every single one, by the thousands. Tears had streamed down my cheeks. After so long hiding who I am, suddenly I was being celebrated by tens of thousands of strangers.

Tonight, after a nice day in the city at street festivals and pot lucks with new friends right and left, I met up with a few of the other dads from Utah to go out to a gay club. I’m scared to death of this. I have images of debauchery and sin, alcohol and sex, associated with clubs, and all of these are Mormon gateways to Hell. But I trust these men that I’m with. My friend Ben tells me to wear something nice.

I show up to dinner in a pair of denim shorts and an untucked plaid shirt, long-sleeved and collared, that is about four sizes too large for me. I lost a lot of weight (about 80 pounds) last year, and most of the clothing I own is still too big for me. These look nice enough as I glance in the mirror, but when I arrive, Ben and the others give me a look that seems to say ‘oh honey, you can’t dress like that.’ Ben looks me over for a minute, then leaves, saying he’ll be back in a while.

In 30 minutes, Ben returns with a bag of clothing he picked up at a secondhand shop down the road. A pair of jeans that fits me perfectly and a few T-shirts. I try one on, a dark blue shirt with an anime character on the front, and it is tight against my shoulders, back, and chest. I walk out saying I can’t possibly wear this, and everyone in the room disagrees. You look great, they say. Trust us, they say. You’ll get lots of attention.

After dinner and drinks (none for me, I don’t drink), we make our way over to the Cuff, a gay club in Seattle that has been around for years. Within an hour, the club is packed full of people, men of every age and color and shape and size. At first, I stick close to my friends, a comfortable security blanket, then I explore a bit, walking around the perimeter of the club and observing the people. Gay men used to be so frightening to me, so foreign to my own upbringing. Now I realize they are just like anyone else. They are teachers, mechanics, social workers, lawyers, nurses. I watch the men flirt with each other, laugh together, cuddle up to their partners or boyfriends. The whole experience, this whole weekend, it’s almost spiritual as I realize how much joy there is in a world that I formerly thought was only full of pain.

It isn’t long before I start realizing different men noticing me. Not every man by any means, but many, and most of them very attractive. A wandering eye, a gentle assessment, a sly smile, a wink. A very handsome Samoan man grabs my arm as I walk by. I look over, surprised, as he says ‘You should know, you are very cute.” I stammer out a clumsy thank you. Another guy asks for my phone number and I tell him I’m from out of town. Women have told me I’m attractive before, but I’ve never believed it. To hear it from handsome men, men I am wired for… I feel 13 years old and my face keeps turning red.

Just a short time later, I find myself out on the dance floor, hand in hand with a tall, dark, and handsome man from British Columbia, a college professor who could be on a magazine cover. He tells me I’m the hottest guy in the club, and my mind is blown. The next two hours are a whirlwind, but I dance and I dance and I dance, and suddenly the crowd is thinning and the music has stopped and the club is ready to close. The professor kisses my cheek and tells me to look him up if I’m ever in BC.

I find Ben and my other friends. Ben slaps my back and comments how I seemed to have a good time tonight. I’m glowing. “I’m… handsome. I had no idea I was handsome.” The other guys laugh, and I feel so naive and young, but I feel alive, like Cinderella at the ball, and its the most wonderful feeling in the world.

Now: August, 2015

“Come down to Club Jam with me tonight, pretty please?” my best friend, Cole, says. “It’s swimsuit night. They are gonna have a foam machine! It will be a blast.” I can never say no to Cole. He’s persistent and fun and gets so excited about events like this. “Absolutely,” I agree. I put on my blue speedo under a pair of shorts and a tanktop and figure we will just see how the night goes.

After an initial drink, a delicious whiskey and Coke, at my house, Cole and I walk over to the club, making sure to get there before 10:30 so we can get in free; they will charge an entry fee after that. The club is nearly empty and won’t get busy for an hour, maybe two. Cole and I walk in in our speedos and tennis shoes, leaving our clothes in the car. Some of the bartenders are also in their swimwear, and one of them thanks us excitedly for participating.

Right from the start, the men in the bar are checking us out. And of course they are. They are clothed, and Cole and I are in swimwear. I briefly think about how a few years ago I would never have had the body confidence to do something like this. I’m not a bodybuilder by any means, but I’m muscular and getting leaner and I’m comfortable in my own skin, and it feels nice. Cole points out a few of the guys that seem to be checking me out, but I don’t even turn to look. I’m not interested in meeting a guy in a club, I just come to be with friends and dance.

As the club starts to get busier, Cole and I have one more drink from the bar then make our way out to the dance floor. I’ve danced on this floor a hundred times now, and I like the music here a lot, but I’m not usually wearing so little. I dance without a care, aware of the people around me and lost in my own world at the same time. It’s wonderful to let loose like this from time to time.

By 11:30, I realize there are about 100 people in the room, and I suddenly realize… no one else is in swimwear. And there is no foam. I walk around, getting stared at right and left, and literally no one else is in swimwear. I check the sign, and sure enough, it’s “Foam Party Saturday–wear your swimwear!” I find a bartender and he quietly informs me the foam machine is broken. I tell Cole but he just shrugs and we keep dancing.

Sometimes I can’t shut down my empathic brain. I get caught up in the feeling of the crowd and lose myself in it and it sucks my energy dry. This guy looking at that guy, those two over there so in love, that one there feeling lonely, the other lurking in the corner. I think back to how magical clubs felt a few years ago, and the vast number of changes I have gone through as a person, as a man, in that time. I think of how much more fun a club would be with one person to go with, a boyfriend to celebrate life with. Then I think back to my disastrous dating life and sigh, exhausted with it all.

Even in the noise and heat of the dance floor, Cole notices and looks at me with concern. “Are you okay?” he mouths. “I’m ready to go home,” I mutter.

As I walk out of the club, someone shouts across the parking lot. “You’re hot!” he yells. “Thanks,” I say, without turning to look. I’m ready for something more substantial than a compliment. And I’m ready for a long night’s sleep.2