Picked Last

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Like many, if not most, gay young men, I grew up very uncomfortable with competitive sports. I constantly felt on guard around other boys, worried that they would notice that I wasn’t quite like them. I felt this way from my very earliest days, long before I knew how to verbalize I was gay, I only knew I was different.

I grew up in a community and society that expects young men to be competitive, to show few feelings, to be great at sports, and to sexualize women. And so, even young groups of boys, four and five, learn to tease other boys for not being man enough or strong enough or masculine enough. I remember being in kindergarten when boys in my class started bragging about kissing girls in the class, when they began teasing kids for being different with words like ‘fag’ or ‘sissy’, and then school systems started expecting kids to compete in sports.

Early on, it was simple contact sports. Kickball competitions at recess. Boys who weren’t great at it were told they ‘played like a girl’ or were called names. In organized sports, all the kids would gather in a crowd and two popular kids would be elected leaders. They would take turns hand-picking people to be on their team. They would start with the most athletic and popular boys, then the less athletic boys, then the athletic or cutest girls, then the less athletic boys, the overweight kids, and the nerds would get picked last. While no one ever spoke of it, getting picked last was a public shaming incident, the one thing that no one wanted to happen. And many times in elementary school, I was the kid who was picked last. I grew up thinking that the most masculine boys, the ones picked first, were not only the best, but that they had more value than me and that I had less than them.

It didn’t take me long as a kid to realize that I didn’t enjoy contact sports, so I found ways to shy away from them. I would offer to be scorekeeper, find a reason to stay inside, or pick another activity to work on. There were a very few occasions in my adolescence when I would find a sport I was slightly good at, and when I was able to compete and do well, I would sometimes join in on the teasing of other less athletic kids, not because I didn’t like them but because I desperately wanted to fit in with the more masculine guys.

Honestly, I think most American gay kids have some of the same stories.

I was terrible at competitive sports as a kid. I didn’t like measuring myself up against others. I remember my best friend in fourth grade, the year before he became one of the popular kids and didn’t want to be friends with me anymore, I remember him standing me on the basketball court at the free throw line and telling me that I was going to stand there and shoot basketballs until I finally made a basket. And I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 12.

As an adult, I still tend to do things on my own terms. I enjoy competition and sports, but I don’t like competing in sports. I swim on a swim team, but I choose a lower, slower lane and never compete in the competitions. I will throw a Frisbee, work out in the gym, and play light and friendly sports so long as there is safety in the competition and camaraderie among the players.

This past weekend, I went camping by myself among a group of mostly partnered gay men. There was a lot of laughter, drinks, hikes, games, and meals, and it was a fantastic to sit back and feel like one of the guys.

As part of the weekend, we had a sports competition. We divided into teams and played a game whose name I can’t remember, throwing blocks of wood at other blocks of wood to knock them over. There were penalties and victory dances. There was teasing and cajoling on either side. There was laughter, patience, relaxed spirits, even mooning the other team to tease. I took my turns, laughed a lot, had fun, and didn’t make most of the shots. During the competition, I sat back and realized that I wasn’t feeling any fear or discomfort. I was just one of the guys. And it felt amazing.

We played two rounds of the game, which lasted about four hours in total. After reaching a certain point in the game, a winning shot had to be scored by knocking down a pin in the middle of the field. In the first game, I scored the winning shot. And in the second game, I scored the winning shot again. It was a powerful victory for young adolescent Chad within me.

I sat in my tent at the evening a strange mix of content and bored and restless and exhausted and wound up. I laid back on my sleeping bag in my blue tent, listening to hooting owls and ululating roosters outside, and I pondered on manhood and adolescence and being gay and finding ourselves. I missed my sons for a moment, like I always do when they aren’t with me, and I vowed once again to raise them as best I can to feel loved and confident and powerful. And as I closed my eyes, I found myself grateful that although it took me a few decades longer, I feel, with myself, loved and confident and powerful as well.

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Surviving Trauma: learning from Elizabeth Smart

When Elizabeth Smart was 14 years old, an evil man who called himself the prophet Emmanuel found an open window in her home, sliced open the screen, climbed inside her bedroom, and took her away from her family whispering threats in her ears. He marched her up to a high hilltop in the mountains above Salt Lake City where he raped her, as his wife watched. Over the next nine months, he systematically raped her, abused her, starved her, forced her to drink alcohol, kept her in isolation, and threatened her and her family again and again and again. At times, he and his wife paraded her in public in a white veil, threatening her if she spoke up or ran away. After months on the mountain in Utah, he took her to southern California, and on their journey back months later she was finally rescued by the police and returned to her family, the man and his wife going to jail (I simply refuse to use the kidnappers names in this entry).

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Before her kidnapping, Elizabeth was an innocent and spiritual Mormon teenager, who played the harp and loved her family. And after her rescue, Elizabeth took a bath, hugged her family, slept in her own bed, and woke the next morning ready to live. Using horseback riding as her therapy, as well as her belief in God and family, she has gone on to be an advocate for girls and women rescued from captivity, and she is speaking out against the “rape culture”, where systems are set in place that increase sexual assaults against women by doing things like teaching abstinence only in schools or teaching children to follow spiritual leaders at all costs. Now a wife and a mother, Elizabeth has written a about her kidnapping, and she details how she never gave up hope, how she healed, and how she has moved forward.

Toward the end of her book, Elizabeth discusses how she has much to be grateful for. She survived and returned to her family after only months; her kidnapper was a stranger and not someone in her family, someone whose photo hangs on the wall of her home to be looked at every day; her kidnapper was apprehended and locked away; her family surrounded her with love and hope and support and optimism.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited children, roughly 800,000 American children are reported every year; that is about 2000 per day. The majority of these are runaways or family abductions, with nonfamily or stranger abductions happening far less frequently. While I can’t personally verify these statistics, it is safe to estimate that hundreds of thousands of people go missing every year, and most of them we never hear about. That means there are hundreds of thousands of families every year who sit there in pain, wondering, hoping, going on with their lives feeling broken and empty with no answers. It is hard to sit back and realize the vast extent of things like child pornography, kidnapping, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking, but all of these are alive and well in our country and the numbers are much more vast than we can simply comprehend.

Many of my clients come in to therapy because they have undergone a trauma. Trauma is a difficult thing to describe or quantify. Three women may get into a minor car accident: one may walk away completely fine and never think of it again, one may walk away and have nightmares for a few weeks, and the last may walk away feeling fine only to realize later she has panic attacks when she tries to get into the car again. We can understand each of these reactions, and we recognize that trauma impacts each person differently at different times in their lives.

In my therapy office, I see so many examples of trauma, all of them sad and devastating. A woman who saw her mother murdered by her father, a man who had a gun put in his mouth in a bank robbery, a teenager disowned by her parents for being transgender and kicked out into the streets, a woman who was hit in the eye by her husband when she found out he had been cheating on her, a woman whose husband and only child were killed by a drunk driver while they walked to the park, a young child whose parents were both killed in a car accident, a college girl who was sexually assaulted by her best friend. On and on and on.

We all have some traumas in our lives. Sometimes we rebound quickly, and sometimes it takes a much longer time. And at times, traumas change us forever, alter us into a different person. Yet traumas don’t have to ruin us or break us, even when they change us. A man who loses both his legs in combat can have a happy healthy life with full relationships, but he is altered and changed from who he was before. A woman whose 16 year old son takes his own life can heal and embrace life even as she forever aches for her lost son. A woman who experiences a double mastectomy in order to survive breast cancer can go on to be healthy and happy with healthy relationships and confidence and sex appeal though she is forever different.

Some traumas completely heal in a brief time. When I was 20, I was pretty violently mugged and knocked unconscious (I’ll have to tell that story here sometime). For a few months, I was scared and in pain. But in time, I was completely healed, both physically and emotionally. Growing up in a religion that promised a cure for my homosexuality has taken me much longer to overcome; it tainted my self-esteem for decades and impacted all of my relationships through childhood, adolescence, and college, and through my early adult life. That trauma changed me, yet I still have a happy, healthy, and well-adjusted life.

Elizabeth Smart is a hero of mine. It takes a special person to tell her trauma to others, to stand up and fight back, to raise awareness, to save lives. I can think of other heroes, Judy Shephard and Dave Pelzer come to mind. But Elizabeth tops that list for me. She is a courageous and powerful force for good in this world.

People sometimes tell me that they believe things happen for a reason, that God allowed a trauma to happen to them so that they might learn. Personally, I can’t line myself up with this premise, that a God allows rape, kidnappings, murders, wars, and suicides in order to teach small personal lessons. I think sometimes things just happen, sometimes as a result of our life choices and sometimes as a result of the choices of others, but they happen nonetheless. I do believe in resilience, however. I believe that no matter what a person goes through, they can rebound and learn and grow and come out stronger.

Elizabeth Smart assuredly has.

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Enough

Enough

I have a serious hate relationship with the word ENOUGH.

When will I be good enough, smart enough, penitent enough, strong enough, fit enough, loved enough, rich enough.

We humans take the very experience of existence, a waxing and waning of needs being met and unmet (hungry/full, tired/slept, lonely/tired of people, hot/cold) and measure our worth in accordance to our experience with the word Enough. We create these picture perfect ideas of what it is that will make us happy, what will finally bring contentment.

But here’s the thing: we are never content. It will never be enough.

Make your million, then struggle with sadness because you are lonely. Find the love of your life, then realize you are bored at your job. Find the perfect job, then realize you hate the city you live in. Get in that perfect shape, then realize you are poor.

This is humanity. A constant state of searching and exploring and needing and wanting.

It will never be enough. You will never be enough.

Except that you are. In the very act of needing and wanting, in the very act of being human, in the very act of being a work in progress, you are indeed enough, not based on what you have or acquire or complete, not in a measure of anything except in being at peace with your very humanity.

And because we are so uncomfortable looking inward, we look outward. We see others who have things that we want, and then we measure ourselves against them. She has more sex, he has more money, she has more love, he is in better shape, her children love her more, he has more friends, he has his own company, she owns her own home. We look at all the ways people are better/more than we are.

And then we turn it around, we start measuring the ways in which we are better/more than others. I finished college, I work harder, I am in better shape, I am a better communicator, I am a better lover/cook/friend/parent.

I spent a lot of years measuring myself. Humans constructed a God that I was raised to believe in, one who wrote a list of rules for me to follow: the more rules I followed, the more righteous I was, the more I didn’t, the bigger a sinner I was. Judgment lied at the end: heaven or hell, the ultimate measure of worth.

It is only in the last few years where I have found peace with my own humanity, my own process of being a person with changes and needs and wants, with head and heart and gut, with spirit and intellect and feeling and form, all in careful measure. I am me. I like me. I am no better than or worse than any other, yet my only experiences are mine.

This peace within self, it is integrity. It is authenticity. It is strength.

Sometimes others who aren’t at peace with themselves, at least in my eyes, measure my worth against theirs. “I love you more than you love me.” “I work harder than you do.” “I care more about others than you do.” “I’m sicker, I’ve been through more, I feel more.” And ultimately, the message, “I need you to be different than you are so I can be more comfortable within myself.”

The very idea of this rankles me. It’s been a difficult quest to find peace. And yet, here I type about this experience, perhaps not as at peace as I had hoped I was, perhaps measuring my own authenticity against theirs and growing angry at the comparison.

And yet this is all I have, this control and centering over myself. Careful measures, open heart, balanced spirit, willing to change and grow and adapt over time, but not willing to be criticized for the person I am. Slow change over time.

Someone told me recently that I have walls up and I can’t let them go. And upon self-reflection, walls are things we put in place to protect things. And I have a wall or two that refuse to let me be actively dissatisfied with the person that I am, to be made to feel less, to be more or less than what I am now in order to find worth.

It will never be enough.

And in that, I am enough.

Enough is enough.

This me, the one that exists now in the here, this is what I have. And that’s enough.

Dance Dad

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“These girls think they are good.” I leaned over to Cole, my friend, and muttered. “Here’s the problem. They are going to spend all these years in dance classes and then graduate high school thinking they are really good. But those that want to be dancers, man, it’s a cutthroat world. They go to college and realize there are a million other dancers out there and most of them are better.”

The girls on the stage swirled around in obnoxious pink and sparkles, swirling and pointing and flexing and bending to various musical arrangements blared loudly over the speaker. They all, every one of them, seemed unsure of themselves, and kept looking off-stage to where their teacher was giving them cues to their next moves. None of them seemed to be having fun or smiling, and they were completely out of sync. Somehow it was forgivable for little tiny children, but for the adolescents I was much less patient.

Then again, my bad attitude probably had a lot to do with the fact that there were 33 dance routines in a row. 33! For an audience filled with family members of the children performing on the stage, the minutes ticked by excruciatingly slow. Number after number, all poorly executed. Tap, jazz, ballet, modern, tap, ballet, country western, jazz, modern, ballet, and on and on and on. 3 year old girls, 5 year old girls, 7, 9, 12, 15 year old girls.

They all rushed on to the stage in their obnoxious get-ups, sparkly pink tu-tus and ruffled tops, pink jean jackets and cowgirl hats, pink evening gowns with fairy princess hats. Pink on pink with pink accessories.

I scanned the girls, looking for some talent and conviction. There were a half dozen solo routines, girls who had clearly worked their keisters off for hours at a time with their solo instructors. A few of them had decent technical skill, their bodies going through the right motions, but they had no conviction, no smiles on their faces. They were moving their bodies, but they weren’t dancing.

One girl wore thick glasses. She clearly loved to dance, but she was clumsy and awkward in her movements, and her face kept getting ‘whoops’ looks on it. I immediately found myself rooting for her.

“Cole!” I whispered. “She’s like Anne Hathaway’s character on the Princess Diaries, when she is all nerdy and endearing.”

“Oh my god,” she is!” We chuckled, but in a nice way, suddenly wanting this girl to be as amazing as she believed she was.

I thought about the little dance studio I dropped my boys off every Monday for 45 minutes. They had fun learning little routines, then came home. It cost about $80 per month. I had no idea there were this many students. I gave up trying to add up how much the teacher was making, but it was clearly an ample amount given her small town dancing skill. I wondered how many of these girls thought they were getting a good dance education, then I realized it wasn’t about that at all, not for most of them. For most the kids, it was just an opportunity to dance with other kids, and suddenly this all seemed okay. These kids were dancing for their parents and I needed to smile instead of rolling my eyes.

Throughout the concert, the sweet grandmother next to me kept narrating loudly to me about her six grandchildren up on the stage, every time they came one, which ones were most talented, which ones were working the hardest, which ones had been dancing for the longest. I must have responded with 75 “mm-hmm”‘s and “that’s nice”‘s as she talked and talked.

About halfway through the numbers, it was finally time for my sons to dance in their two small routines. I counted only five boys total in all of the age groups, and my sons were two of them. J, my seven year old, looked adorable in his little bow tie and dance shoes, and A, my four year old, somehow even cuter in his sailor hat. J moved with perceived grace, long arms and legs, conviction behind his movements, a large smile on his face, radiating pure joy, as he stumbled around the stage. The girls behind him were subtle, barely moving at times, always several notes behind. I cheered from behind my cell phone recording of his every move.

A didn’t really dance the steps at all, but boy could he move. He put his hands on his shoulders and shimmied and shook his hips, threw his arms in the air, shook his butt at the audience, down to his knees and back up. He had looks on his face like the guys at the guy who lift weights that are a bit too heavy. In fact, A flexed his little arms a few times, jumping and shaking around. He got just as many cheers, mixed with my laughs.

During the final number, two and one half hours after it had started, they announced the final number. Every student gathered on the stage in one mass and were told to freestyle. A got a little scared and looked around the room in confusion, seeing me in the audience. He found the stairs to the stage and came rushing down them to me.

“Dad! Dad!” I gathered him in my arms and asked what was wrong. He thought for a moment, getting creative. “Um, my thumb hurts. Kiss it better.”

I kissed his thumb and he went rushing back up on the stage, where J took his hand and the two boys jumped all over the stage, having a blast while most of the girls just kind of stood around, shimmying in place.

“Boy, your boys sure do have fun!” said the grandmother next to me.

I smiled, ear to ear. “Yeah, they definitely make life fun. Even events like this.”

She and I both laughed.

One Lonely Rainbow

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Well, your friends know what’s right, and your friends know what’s wrong

and your friends all know sometimes it’s hard to choose

I stood in front of my high school Seminary class, my knees involuntarily knocking together as I sang. I was looking down at the floor instead of into their faces directly. Why was I so nervous?

But the friend who helps you see where the choices will lead

is the kind of friend you never want to lose.

My voice was a high baritone. I had been singing in church functions for years, in sacrament meetings and Relief Society lessons, but doing this here, in front of my peers, this was a new experience.

I was 16 and this was my second year in the Seminary program. One hour of school each day was reserved for Seminary in my predominantly Mormon high school. There was a church-dedicated building right across the street from the school where each faithful Mormon student took one hour away from regular classes to come over here and learn about the scriptures. I had chemistry just before this, and band just after. Seminary felt like a regular school class, except we started with a prayer and a hymn, and our text books were the Mormon scriptures: the Old and New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. We studied the words of God and the prophets, and then would head back across the street to high school when the bell rang.

It’s the friend that leads with love, doesn’t push, doesn’t shove

Just reminds you of the truth you’ve always known

Then does more than just talk, takes your hand and starts to walk

by your side along the road that leads back home. 

I put my full intent into Seminary classes each day. I read my scriptures nightly and offered heartfelt prayers. I played Mormon Tabernacle Choir music to fall asleep to every night and kept paintings of Jesus on my walls. I paid ten per cent of my earnings to the Church. I attended three hour services every Sunday, and went to youth activities every Tuesday night. I reached out to people who were struggling, offering them support and love. I offered to teach my friends who weren’t Mormon all about the Church. I was all in, one hundred per cent Mormon, true blue through and through.

And this friend seems to see all the great things you’ll be

Even when some things you do would prove him wrong.

Despite my efforts, though, I felt hidden. Shy. Quiet. I was afraid of letting anyone get to know me because I was afraid they would learn my terrible secret, that I was attracted to other boys. Same-sex attracted, I was told to call it, not gay. That word was dangerous. It was only a few months ago I went to my Mormon leader, our Mormon bishop, a close family friend, and I told him that I had sinned. I had stayed up late at night and watched a television show that had shirtless men in it, and I had had impure thoughts. I had never told anyone before. He had reacted with kindness and compassion, and he had reminded me that Heavenly Father loves me very. He had given me a Priesthood blessing, his hands on my head, reminding me what a stalwart son of God I was, and then he had given me a book to help me have a greater understanding of things. A book written by a prophet just a few decades ago, called the Miracle of Forgiveness.

But he always believes that the real you he sees

Is a champion he’s simply cheering on.

I had read the book front to back multiple times now, especially focusing on the parts on homosexuality. It let me know how dangerous associating with other people was, how it could destroy my spirit and lead me to the devil. It taught me that masturbation can cause homosexuality, and most importantly, that homosexuality, even though it was abominable and evil, could be cured with enough effort. I just had to try harder, be more faithful, press onward ever onward.

And the love that you feel from a friend that’s this real

Is as powerful as anything on Earth.

At this point, I finally looked up at my peers and saw them looking back. I could tell my voice sounded good, even though my leg was shaking. I was doing this, singing for my peers, in an effort to challenge myself spiritually, to show God that I loved him. I paid careful attention to not looking at any of the boys in the room, especially not the handsome ones. They could never know I found some of them attractive.

For it lifts and it grows and it strengthens and it flows

It’s what allows a soul to feel just what they’re worth.

Even as I sang about true friendship, I realized the irony. I didn’t have any friends. I was doing in my life just what the song requested, just what it asked. I was surrounding myself with peers who were good Mormons, who made good choices. But I didn’t let anyone of them know me, because if they knew me, they would know my secret, and that would be not only embarrassing, it would be sinning. No one could know, not even my family. They would be so ashamed.

So many lonely souls are calling, and our brightest stars would not be falling

if only they had a friend, a real friend.

I was singing the song “Be That Friend” by Michael McLean, a church singer who put out CDs for youth, catchy lyrics and tunes that brought the spirit, reminding Mormon youth that they weren’t alone, that their friendships would last into the eternities, that Christ understood and loved them, that they were special. I listened to McLean’s music all the time. I wouldn’t learn until many years later that around this time, he had a son coming out of the closet, coming forward as gay, and that his own family was being pushed to the limits as they tried to figure out this unsolvable problem in their own home.

Everyone hopes to find one true friend who’s the kind

They can count on for forever and a day.

I firmly believed that with enough effort, I could conquer this, I could will myself to be straight if I could prove myself to God. I knew it. And I knew my options for the future, even if I couldn’t find the cure: marry a girl and trust in God, or just be celibate my entire life and then I could get married to a girl in the next life, in Heaven. Those were my choices.

Be that friend, be that kind, that you prayed you might find

And you’ll always have a best friend, come what may.

I finished the song and sat down in the silent room. It was considered irreverent to clap in church functions, but many of my peers gave me nods and silent congratulations. After class, one of the popular girls in school told me I had a nice voice and invited me to audition for Show Choir next year, which I did. It felt good to be seen. I was so used to hiding in plain sight, I guessed it was okay to be seen, just a little, just so long as no one looked too closely.

 

**lyrics to Be That Friend by Michael McLean

 

 

 

Patriarchy in Provo

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“So, when are you gonna make an honest woman out of that girlfriend of yours?”

The young blonde guy with the bright smile took a sip of his ice water and looked at his friend across the table, a tall guy with thick black hair and broad shoulders. Both of them were handsome and had that returned missionary look that is so common in Utah, clean-cut, short hair, shaved faces, bright smiles. I automatically dubbed them Smiley and Shoulders in my mind as they continued their conversation.

“Well,” Shoulders pointed with a finger at Smiley as he spoke, a mindless gesture that he likely used in every conversation, “we’ve only been dating for a couple of months. And the fact that she is a non-member is a huge red flag. I mean, she’s hot, but she has to have the same values as me. She started taking the discussions from the missionaries and now she’s praying about the Book of Mormon. She’s telling me she is getting a testimony, but I want to give it a couple of months and see if she’s sincere. If she can stick with it, well, then she’ll be a lucky woman. I’ll baptize her, marry her, then take here through the temple a year later.”

Smiley reached over to high-five him across the table. “Score!”

I felt a look of disgust cross my face, unbidden. There was so much wrong with this conversation. I understand this culture and mindset. I grew up in it. But the sheer arrogance of it all, the sheer patriarchy…

First of all, I had to realize I was in Utah County, home of vast majorities of Mormons and Mormon families, and home to Brigham Young University, the famous Mormon school. Nearly everyone is white here. These two young men were likely 20 or 21 years old. They had likely been raised in Mormon families where they had a very clear timeline for their futures set up: graduate high school, go immediately on a two year missionary service wherever the Church sends you, come home and enroll in college, and then quickly marry a worthy and modest young woman over the age of 18 and start a family.

Provo is eerie that way. Loads of white smiling young men and blonde smiling young women, many with wedding rings on their fingers, many with babies in carriages as they walk down the road, waving at passersby. It has a very Stepford Wives feel.

I looked at Smiley and Shoulders high-fiving, and I had to sit back in my chair and reason out what it was about this image that bothered me so much. First of all, it was the way he was talking about this girl. He wasn’t listing her talents or personality quirks that he loved. He was basing her entire value, at least in this conversation, on how attractive she was and what her potential for being a faithful Mormon was. He saw her as having more value, rather like a commodity, if she could prove herself to him by adopting his values and beliefs. And then, he saw himself as her reward. The sheer arrogance…

But then I thought back to my own days as a Mormon missionary, where I would knock on people’s doors, teach them, befriend them, and invite them to be baptized… IF. IF they gave up coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol. IF they agreed to pay ten per cent of their income to the church. IF they agreed to stop having sex outside of marriage; either marry your sexual partner or stop having sex. IF they weren’t gay. We accept you, we love you, we want you in our church, IF…

Then I remembered a news story from a years ago. A young Mormon girl sat in the BYU library studying. A young man she didn’t know walked over to her and handed her a note, then walked away. The handwritten note said something like “I’m trying to be a good Priesthood holder, but when you wear such tight clothing it is distracting. I invite you to be a better daughter of God and dress more modestly so I can keep my thoughts pure.” The young woman later posted a photo of her outfit on social media, and it was tasteful, conservative, and nice, in no way revealing. The whole encounter left me nauseous.

I pictured this girl that Shoulders was dating. I assumed she was pretty and young and freshly moved to Utah, maybe from some place like California. She meets an attractive, muscular, strong man with a killer smile, and he seems interested in her, IF she can join his church and marry his straight out. I wondered if she realized what she was getting into.

Smiley took another sip off his water while Shoulders warmed his hands on his hot chocolate. They had been quiet for a second.

Smiley grinned again. “Well, man, she is a lucky girl. Me, I’m just playing the field for a bit.”

Shoulders laughed, stretching his spine against the back of his chair. “Well, don’t you worry, buddy. Hold strong. You’ll catch one soon enough.”

The two young men left shortly after that, and I sat thinking about a culture that still values men over women, putting pressure on them to be successful under certain terms, to be virile, to be providers, to be strong and non-emotional. And a culture that tells young women to accept their station in life, to get an education as a back-up in case their plans to be wives and mothers doesn’t work out, to be beautiful and to just want one man to nurture and please for the rest of their lives. A culture that tells both sides to be content in their station and to turn it all over to God. It all felt very 1940s to me.

I left Utah County a few hours later. As I drove down the freeway, the businesses and billboards flashed by my windows as blurs. I thought of all the Mormons and all the smiles and waves, all the weddings and babies and prayers on knees. And I thought of the statistics here, of depression and pornography addiction and suicide and divorces and sexual assaults. I thought of my own upbringing as a Mormon, and my living here as a non-Mormon now, of my family, of my clients and friends, and soon it was all spinning and whirling just like the view of the road from my car.

And I realized that perhaps that is the only way to look at this place, to combine all of its complexities in one snow globe and then to shake it up and see what falls to the ground and sticks.

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Airbnb hosting

A little over a year ago, I decided to try my hand at hosting Airbnb guests in my apartment. A nice easy way to make a bit of extra cash, I thought, and I like meeting people.

I was part of the online Couchsurfing community years back, when I tried my hand at visiting some cities to promote my new comic book ideas, long before I was published, and I hadn’t had any bad experiences.

So I set up a room in my basement, a nice cool space with a queen size bed and another twin, memory foam mattresses with plenty of blankets, a private bathroom, free wifi, and full use of the kitchen and dining room areas. Little things make a big difference in pricing on Airbnb. Having a private entrance that locks, for example, and having variable check-in and check-out times.

I live in an older space, so the recommended pricing on my apartment is generally between 25 and 45 per night, sleeping up to three people. A pretty decent deal, when nearby hotel rooms with similar amenities but no kitchen run double or triple the price. But hosting isn’t always so easy. I work a lot, so accommodating people’s arrival and departure times isn’t easy. Some guests check out at 4 am, some at 11 am (the latest check out time), and others want late check outs. Some guests arrive hours early, some at 5 pm, and some in the middle of the night. And I have guests nearly every day, so I have to find time to be home between guests to clean the basement up: changing bedding, doing laundry, cleaning the bathroom, changing the garbage, and vacuuming, plus making sure the rest of the house is presentable. And it’s preferred to be there when the guests arrive and depart, but I often just have to leave a key out for them, or have them leave the key and lock the door behind them.

Despite all of this, I have had mostly good experiences in hosting. I have had guests from all over the world: Colorado, New England, Florida, New Brunswick, Mexico City, Tehran, Dublin, Paris, Rome, New York City, Addis Ababa, Moscow, Osaka, Shanghai, Bombay. By and large, people are pleasant, kind, good communicators, respectful, and clean.

But every 7th guest or so, I’ll have a slightly negative experience, something that makes it feel not worth it at all.

The guest who sends passive aggressive text messages at midnight about some random complaint.

The guest who is pleasant in person, but then leaves a passive-aggressive comment about something online, rather like an errant Yelp review, about how the place was filthy when it wasn’t, or how I stomped on the floor above them all night when I didn’t.

The guest who uses my groceries without asking.

The guest who hangs out in the living room all day, seemingly traveling halfway around the world to plop himself on my couch and never leave.

The guest who expects excessive amenities with his 25 dollar room rate, like free laundry detergent, surround sound, and a foot massage.

The guest who comes to get away and drink or drug out in my basement, making little effort to clean up after himself afterwards. Also, the guest who makes way too much noise late at night.

The guest who cooks the stinkiest fish I have ever smelled at 1 am, leaving the aroma to assault me in my sleep one floor up.

And the guest who leaves the surprising messes behind, unflushed human waste or a pile of sand spread over the carpet.

Overall, I suppose it is rather like the hotel industry, you never quite know who is arriving to stay in your room and you have to try to be accommodating. The difference being, of course, that this is my home. When I stay in other people’s homes as an Airbnb guest, I work hard to be respectful, quiet, clean, forthright, and understanding, yet not everyone has the same value systems as me.

I’ve met a lot of very cool people through Airbnb. The man from Tibet who brought me an orchid as a thank you for letting him stay, the young musicians newly married traveling around to launch their careers, the elderly parents from Japan here to see their only daughter married to an American, the young Frenchman who stayed for three months and turned out to be a great friend, the two Saudi brothers who made me laughing uproariously at their jokes on Muslim culture.

I sit back and marvel at the new innovations in industry happening in the world. People are launching their own home businesses by selling items they pick up at garage sales on Ebay, by doing magic tricks on YouTube stations, by using their car as a taxi and their home as a hotel. The world has never been more connected as we draw in to each other around the world over the Internet, yet never disconnected as we stare at our big and little screens.

Overall, I do Airbnb for one simple reason: it helps pay the bills. Having an extra (on average) 30 dollars per day is a small amount that builds up, because 30 days of that in a row makes up 900 dollars.

And that’s the face of American life more than any other: we do what it takes to pay the bills.

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Reconciling God

God.jpgMy thoughts have turned to God lately.

Everyone has their own individual experience of God in their lives.

To some, he is an ever present listener, hearing consistent loving petitions about problems, struggles, and hopes, granting blessings when he sees fit, when he sees it best for the person praying.

To some, he is a great punisher, delving out vengeance to enemies and sinners, punishing with swift and mighty judgment.

To some, he is absent, sitting on high, having forgotten Earth, leaving man to his wars and violence, illnesses and vulnerability.

To some, he is a father, loving, forgiving, giving sound advice with a strong arm and a soft heart.

He can fill any role for any person. He’s God.

And in truth, he is all of those things, a collective being with billions of children who each see him differently. He is constant only in that he is unknowable. And while hey may or may not exist in physical form, he exists powerfully on Earth in the hearts and minds of the humans. His name is the most used name. He’s in nearly every text, tome, and poem. He influences every relationship and interaction. He wields the passing of laws and the execution of justice. He sets morals and guidelines. He gives and he takes.

In my experience, in my small and humble station, God loomed large, a product of my own consciousness and mortality. A being of contradictions who gave directions like “be perfect, even though you can never be perfect” and “repent constantly for forgiveness, even though you are a sinner just for being born.” My view of God was so often influenced by the words of white older men who I considered inspired, men who had a specific plan for me, and that plan did not involve being gay.

And that rift within my view of God became a rift within myself, one that lasted decades. The idea that God created me, innocent and without blemish, and yet he didn’t create gay people; he loved me, but he didn’t want me to sin, but I had to sin and I needed to ask forgiveness but even if I didn’t he loved me he was just disappointed and I should feel bad but not so bad that I would grow distant from him because that would be a sin too and I would need to repent because I was perfect just as I was and I also needed to change that for him. I saw myself as perfect, and broken; desperate for a cure for homosexuality, but selfish for wanting a cure and even more selfish for not wanting one. It was an impossible space to dwell within, as impossible to define or comprehend as God himself.

I learned to live outside myself, which is ironic because that is also where God dwelled, outside myself, a great collective, made up of my experience of him and the experiences of every other person who ever lived.

My best friend recently died. It was abrupt, sudden. He was there, and then he wasn’t. I can still feel him sometimes. He once sat in that chair, he once occupied that space, his laughter once filled my ears, he once hugged me tight, he once cared with his whole heart. And I can still feel all of those things, a spirit, an echo, a presence, a ghost. He’s there, but he isn’t. But he still exists within and without me, conjured by my memories and experiences, and by the memories and experiences of all those who loved him.

And that, it dawns on me, is how I now see God. I no longer believe in a tangible, defined God whose traits are classified by older men I have never met. I see him where he touched me, where he forgot me, where he denied me, where he made false promises, where he gave me comfort and where he took it away. And I can still feel all of those things, a spirit, an echo, a presence, a ghost. He’s there, but he isn’t. But he still exists within and without me, conjured by my memories and experiences, and by the memories and experiences of all those who loved him.

I don’t pray any longer. I don’t address God aloud or even silently. But I experience him still. He influences me and he influences the world around me. He is the very essence of my origins, the very concept of my early developing sense of self.

He’s there, and he isn’t.

And I’m here, until I’m not.

Self-Checkout Hell

Selfcheckout

Thank you for using the self-automated check-out at your local grocery store!

To begin, please scan your 1-2-3 shopper’s reward card or enter your alternate id.

You have chosen to enter your alternate id. Please do so on the keypad on the right.

I’m sorry, I don’t recognize that number. Please try again.

I’m sorry, I don’t recognize that number. Please try again.

There you go! Welcome, valued customer! Please scan your first item and place it in the bagging area.

Did you place the item in the bagging area?

Please place the item in the bagging area.

Thank you. Please remove the item from the bagging area.

Thank you. Please place the item in the bagging area.

Now scan your next item and place it in the bagging area.

Thank you. Do you have any other items to scan?

No bar code detected. Please place the item on the scale and enter the corresponding ID number.

Thank you. ID number received. ID number accurate. Customer service associate has been notified to assist you.

Customer service associate has entered the same ID number you did. You may now proceed.

Please place the item in the bagging area.

Thank you. Please remove the item from the bagging area.

Thank you. Please place the item in the bagging area.

Do you have any other items to scan?

Please enter yes or no.

You entered no.

If you are prepared to proceed to check-out, please indicate so by pressing the corresponding button.

Do you bring in your own bags, or would you like to purchase bags from us?

You indicate you brought in your own bags. I think you’re lying.

Customer service associate has been notified to assist you.

Customer service associate has verified that you brought in your own bags.

I’m sorry for accusing you of lying. It’s been a hard day. I see all kinds of people. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.

Do you have any coupons? Please indicate.

You indicated you do not have any coupons. Are you sure? I could notify the customer service associate to assist you if you like. Just kidding.

It looks like you are ready to pay now. Please indicate your method of payment.

You indicated you are using a card. Is this a debit or credit card?

You indicated you are using a debit card. Is that correct? Please indicate so on the keypad.

Okay, debit card. Please swipe your card to the right.

I see you swiped your card. Now please push the debit card button again.

Now please enter your pin number.

Now please enter your pin number again for verification.

Now please enter your card sideways into the chip reader.

Thank you. Now please wait several seconds.

Card has been verified. Now please verify your zip code.

That is the incorrect zip code. Please try again.

Thank you. Now please enter the last four digits of your Social Security number.

Thank you. Now please enter your blood type.

That is incorrect. Aren’t you O negative?

Yes, that’s better. Now please indicate if this is the correct amount on the screen.

Do you want any cashback?

You indicated no, is that correct?

Do you want to donate money to the local children’s hospital?

You indicated no, is that correct?

Are you sure? I saw how much you have in your bank account. You can afford at least one dollar. If everyone pitched in one dollar, we could change the world.

You still indicated no, is that correct?

Last chance. Still no?

Okay. But I would like to remind you about karma.

Okay, it looks like we are ready to proceed. Please check your cart to make sure there are no more items. Please indicate so.

You indicated no.

Customer service associate has been notified to assist you.

Customer service associate has indicated that you do not have any additional items in your cart.

Thank you for your honesty. You are a good person even if you don’t donate to children’s hospitals.

Okay, valued customer! You are all ready to check-out! Please take your bags and receipt, and put your cart back where it goes, and drive safely.

I hope the 25 minutes that we spent together were as wonderful for you as they were for me! I hope you have the most wonderful day!

Sir? Sir, why are you cursing?

Sir?

Are you there?

Let me take a selfie

I blog. Obviously.

There have been times over the last few years of my blogging that men will flirt with me or chat with me a bit. I’ll invite them out for coffee, and they’ll respond with a ‘no thank you. I saw your blog, and I don’t want to be someone that you write about later.’

This is absolutely hilarious to me. I share of lot of myself on my blog, but anyone who thinks they know me well by reading things that I’ve written, well, they will be surprised when they actually get to know me and realize I’m much more complex than some words on a screen. I write about things, and about myself, but I am much more than the things I write about.

When I write about others, I do one of two things: I change their names and a few key components of their identity, and only share things that are sanguine to a topic or that I know they would be okay with me sharing; OR I get their permission to tell stories about them. I’m not a passive-aggressive individual who vents about strangers on my blog, naming them by name and publishing for all readers to see. That would be downright cruel.

I also share openly on Facebook, and on my YouTube channel. I share things I am comfortable sharing. I try to keep my Facebook page one of positive energy, wit, and inspiring thoughts and ideas. It can at times be a delicate balance. Oversharing is uncomfortable, as is public whining.

Recently, in a conversation with a 15 year old male, I was told that Facebook was for the “older generation”. “Kids are using Snapchat now. Facebook just kind of. It’s not really for us, it’s more for your age.” I was startled by this. But as I scrolled through my Facebook feed, looking at my friends and those who posted often, it did indeed seem to be primarily those in their mid 20s to late 40s. Funny videos, random statuses, and selfies.

Now I take selfies from time to time. I might send to a friend or two or I might post one on my Facebook wall in an attempt to, again, be either inspiring, witty, or funny. I’ll make a thoughtful face, snap the shot, post, and write some sort of line underneath.

In thinking about selfies, I realize there is a certain amount of ego involved in taking and posting them. There is an assumption that if I take a selfie, I not only like my face, I assume that other people will want to see it also, and that they are interested in what I have to say and show. I suppose there is some desire for validation and reciprocity.

Honestly, that’s a lot of the reason I blog. I have something to say and I assume people will want to read my words and share in my experiences.

Today, I made myself black coffee and, as I drink it shirtless, I snapped a selfie, contemplating how such a delicious drink is zero calories. Yesterday, I had a flat tire. While I waited for the tow truck, I snapped a selfie of my frowning by the tire. A few days ago, I snapped a selfie of me cuddling with my four year old. The day before that, I asked a woman to take one of me with my children in the swimming pool.

There is no hidden agenda when I post a photo of myself. Just like anyone on Facebook, I enjoy getting ‘likes’ and comments on my photos. It’s fun to have the ego stroked a bit. But the fact of the matter is, I have no idea if other people want to see my face, if they don’t want to see my face, if they are ambivalent to my face, if they are tired of my face, or if they wish my face was on their Facebook feed more often.

Again, I like the validation. But I post the selfies, well, for me. Which is another turn of ego I suppose.

I’ve written on Ego before, but I see it as a pretty healthy thing. I spent a bulk of my life kind of hiding in plain sight. So to be at a point in my life when I like who I am, when I like how I look, when I like how I present myself… well, I’m pretty damn okay with that.

So it turns out, at nearly 40, I might just be a “millenial”, one of that dreaded generation who texts too much, has too many apps, and is glued to their phones, posting statuses and Emojis and images of themselves on social media. I hashtag things. I share, comment, like, view, Tweet, Imessage, Snapchat, and download apps. It isn’t so complicated, it’s just this new generation, and I’m fully a part of that.

So as I engage in social media expression, at age 37, as a dad and a social worker and a writer, I’ll keep sharing what I choose to share when I choose to share it, and I’ll be just fine with having a bit of ego about it.

But first, let me take a selfie.

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