the shark tooth necklace

I’ve always had a babyface.

When I was 17 and a senior in high school, I looked 12. When I was 20 and on a Mormon mission, I looked 15. When I was 25 and launching my career, doing marriage counseling for couples who had been together 40 years, I looked 20. And now, I’m 37 and look 30.

It isn’t such a bad thing now that I’m a bit older. I have a dusting of grey at my temples. I lost all of my weight years ago and I’m getting in great shape for the first time in my life, a slow and steady process over the past few years. I look old enough to have some basic respect in my field, though I have much more experience than many think at this point.

Growing up a gay Mormon kid (I know I mention it all the time, but it is my origin story), I was relatively accustomed to never speaking up for myself or taking care of myself. I was firmly in the service to others mold most of my life, trying very hard to cure something. I never thought of myself as handsome or attractive.

At 17, I took a trip to Hawaii with my high school band, a venture we had saved up for for 2 years prior to going. It was an epic week of playing band concerts and getting to see a place outside of southeast Idaho for the first time. Though there were chaperones, and though nearly every kid in the group was Mormon, I was away from all of the craziness going on in my house for the first time, and I remember feeling an epic sense of freedom, the first lesson I had that when things are crazy at home they can still be peace in the world outside.

I remember walking through a giant flea market, I think they called it a swap meet, where local vendors sold cheap T-shirts, art of sand and seashells, cheap hand-crafted clocks, fresh pineapple juice, and hundreds of other items. We were encouraged to barter with the vendors, talking them down from $8 to $7 and feeling powerful for having done so, not knowing the item only cost 50 cents to make. I bought items for my family back home, a coconut shell Tiki head, a little Hula girl doll, a swimsuit calendar full of men for my sister (who upon opening it later found a guy who looked bizarrely like me, except, you know, not 12 and in much better shape).

My friend Jen,a gorgeous girl with short hair that everyone in the school had a crush on, linked arms with me and told me it was time to get something nice for myself. (Many of my friends later told me they knew I was gay. I imagine Jen did also, though I’ve never asked her). She walked me over to a T-shirt vendor and picked out a tanktop for me. She made me try on a pair of sunglasses until she found one that I liked. Then, to top off the ensemble, she picked out a simple shark tooth on a necklace and placed it around my neck. All finished, she had me stand up and she looked me over.

“Chad! You look hot!”, she exclaimed.

I remember feeling a sense of elation, confidence, a burst of healthy ego. It wasn’t something I had ever experienced before. I knew she wasn’t in to me like that (and I wasn’t into her), but to have someone take the time to notice me, to compliment me genuinely… it was an amazing feeling.

Later that night, we went to a luau on the beach. I took off my shirt and sunglasses, put on a grass skirt, and kept the shark tooth necklace on. We all posed for photos on the beach.

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Fast forward 15 years to when I finally came out of the closet, and started realizing that not only was it okay to like other men, but that men, good-looking men that I found attractive… some of them also found me attractive. It was a powerful feeling, one of wonder.

Sometimes I still feel like that scrawny kid on the beach of Hawaii in a shark tooth necklace, realizing it is okay to feel just a bit selfish, to be just a little bit handsome, to enjoy the attention of others. Not only is it okay, it’s kind of crucial to healthy development.

Yesterday I went to a hot yoga class for the first time. The room was something like 80 degrees and it was packed with people. Beautiful people. Shirtless, shoeless, beautiful people. There was a moment half-way through where were were all in mountain pose, arms to the sky, everyone glistening with sweat as beautiful music played behind us. I scanned the room for a moment, seeing muscular calves, strong backs, lean stomachs, beautiful tranquil views of serenity on faces, fingers pointed toward skies. I looked at my own reflection in the mirror, strong chest and shoulders, thick arms, rooted feet. And I had a beautiful realization.

I fit.

I have always fit. With those around me. I spent so many years not fitting and it felt wonderful to fit. I too was beautiful. And not because of the size of my calves or pecs, but because I care about myself now. I take care of myself now.

I pictured the shark tooth necklace around my neck and grinned widely, showing my teeth. Then I closed my eyes and, fingers pointed toward the sky, joined the serenity.

 

Motherhood

Unborn-baby

“I can’t wait to meet him.” I repeated that over and over for months. “I just can’t wait to see who he is, what he becomes. No matter who he is, no matter what, he’s going to be beautiful.”

I remember those first moments when I realized I would be a father for the first time. There was a strong sense of responsibility mixed with wonder and a glimpse into the far future.

It was both simple and impossibly complex. Sperm had mixed with egg and now a life form was growing, the size of an insect, then an acorn, then a lemon, then an apple, steadily developing over time. A mix of everything I am and everything she is, perfectly blended in an impossibly perfect creation. Would he have my crooked jaw, her freckly arms, my creative mind, her empathy and devotion?

Every moment after that was different from every one that had come before. Before, I lived my life in days. Before, I collected things, I worked overtime, I planned vacations and adventures. After, I lived my life in years, seeing my child even before I knew him, growing day by week by year into an old and accomplished man. After, I thought of solid foundation, platforms and jumping off points, legacies and integrity.

And then that moment where the ultrasound jelly spread and that little image came up on the screen, foggy and alien. And that underwater swishing heartbeat. And the words, “It’s a boy”, distinguishable only by a tiny speck between his zygote legs.

And suddenly, “I’m a father” became “I’m having a son,” and my world turned again. Legacy again, and foundation, but also a pride, a security, a kernel of new definition in my very center.

“I’m having a son.”

And all of that, all of those feelings and transformations, how much more they must have been for Megan, with new life in her center. A growing, changing life form, half her and half me, at her core. What she ate, he ate. What she felt, he felt. What she heard, he heard.

I remember placing my hand on her stomach as she slept in those early days, and picturing my son, smaller than my very hand, growing there. Billions of births to billions of parents the world over, yet this was mine. This was now my entire world.

And everything fatherhood meant to me, motherhood must mean to her. The sacredness, the fragility, the expansion of soul and spirit and being. A literal cord connecting one life to another, the child protected only by a thin layer of liquid and form, miracle of miracles yet so vulnerable, so easily broken while so full of potential. Fragile and miraculous, the perfect recipe for life.

That moment, with my hand on her stomach as she breathed, I thought of mothers. I thought of Megan’s mother, working so hard for years to get pregnant, involving medical interventions and heartbreak after heartbreak before Megan came in to the world. And I thought of my own mother, pregnant five times before bearing me, her life changing as her marriage strained. I pictured arms wrapped around infants, the passage of milk and heartbeat, sleeplessness and worry, affection and nurturing.

My mother bore seven children. 63 months pregnant, over five years of her life as a vessel for new life. Now, in her 70s, she looks at her children grown, decades old, with children of their own, and she views them with the same love and worry, the same fragility and wonder.

Megan would bear two. Two sons, my sons and hers, with their blue eyes and tousled hair, their creative imaginations, their laughter and dancing and scrawled ‘Happy Moms Day’ messages on white paper over stick figure families.

What worlds we have created, what gods we have become in making these little men. From our mothers and fathers to us, from us to them. What purpose they give us. And as they change and grow and expand and become, we watch them, changing and growing and expanding and becoming ourselves as our mothers and fathers watch us, in turn changing and growing and expanding and becoming.

My heart is full as I think of the mothers in my life, the one who gave me life and the one that created new life with me.

And then my thoughts turn to my most sacred space, standing in sunlight, two small hands firmly in each of mine, looking forward to the horizon.

Hollywoodland

hollywoodland

While I walked the streets of Los Angeles a few weeks ago, I automatically pictured myself living there and wondered what it might be like. I learned major lessons about myself when I moved to Seattle briefly, the primary lesson being that me in another place is still just me, just in another place. I think people romanticize ideas about themselves with fresh starts, that if they were in a different home, a different job, a different situation, that with just the right opportunity they would thrive, be happy, find love, be powerful, have success.

And as far as opportunity goes, Los Angeles has it in spades. Entire companies looking for writers and actors and producers and cameramen. Start-up companies, production studios, agents in every direction. And literally millions of people seeking to make successes of themselves. The city must be rampant with ego and heartbreak, rejection and depression, a never-ending thirst to find the next best thing, and constant compromises to sacrifice some ideas for others in order to find new chances and hopes.

I pictured myself seizing my own opportunity, my own ego and desire for success, and transplanting myself here. I pictured getting some room in a crowded place and filling it with cheap furniture, knowing I would swiftly tire of my roommates. I pictured myself finding some day job to support myself while I waited for my social work license to activate in California so I could do therapy on some corner, subletting from someone. I pictured myself getting a lot of date requests initially, being new blood in town, but not being able to ever go out because child support and living expenses and daily bills, and then those interest levels dying down after I had been in town a few weeks. I pictured myself finding local coffee shops to write in, streets to walk, parks to read in. I pictured myself finding a new routine, a gym, a grocery store, a favorite divey restaurant.

I pictured myself traveling back to Salt Lake City every month, at no small expense, renting cars and finding hotels or friends to stay with while I spent powerful moments with my sons, my lights and life. I pictured sunlight and beaches and palm trees and lots of thinking. I pictured writing and writing and writing as I watched the people and had new experiences, and then talking to others over and over about how I want to do so much with my life, write a book, have my blog and my LGBT Snapshots Channel on YouTube be incredible successes. I pictured moving to a new apartment, then another, trying to find my feet as I made new friends.

I pictured the seasons passing quickly. Valentines Day, Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and then a New Year, all while my sons age and grow and me in daily contact but not there with them. I pictured that new year, my energies still pooling toward shifting ideas of success but just not quite grasping it on my terms, and having to make the inevitable decision of trying to keep knocking on doors for more and more opportunity, or changing my very idea of success itself.

I pictured waking up and looking at that famous Hollywood sign on the hill, longing somehow for the days when it said Hollywoodland, and then realizing one day that it was just big letters on a big hill.

All these thoughts in my head, I sat down on a bus stop bench and felt the sunlight soak into my skin. A young black teenager with saggy jeans and a hoodie, scruffy facial hair and sunglasses, sat next to me and struck up a conversation.

“Hey, man, do you mind if I play you one of my tracks?”

I turned, not surprised somehow, though I should have been. “I would love that.”

He pulled a discman out of his backpack and set it on the bench, then began to play a remixed Reggae soundtrack, explaining how he was trying to find a new and unique sound, telling me how he loved music, especially Electronica, and how he just wanted people to hear how he heard. I told him I loved the music and asked him how old he was, and he smiled, a big bright full smile, and told me he was 16.

I told him he was an amazing talent, and to keep it up. He vowed he would.

Then he asked me, “What are your talents, man?”

Again, somehow unsurprised, I tilted my head slightly, thinking about my answer.

“Well, I have a lot I’m bad at, but a few things I’m great at.”

He laughed, “I know how that is!”

“I’m good at helping people. I’m a writer. I’m a teacher. I love the human story. But more than all of that, I’m a dad.”

The young man nodded a few times. “I can respect that.” And then his bus came, and he shook my hand and boarded.

I looked back at the Hollywood sign, thinking of ambition and dreams and the ground beneath my feet, then I called my sons.

the Death Desk

On the day my best friend died, his family was hundreds of miles away. His fiancee, Elias, was upstairs in a hospital bed with a bruised liver, a broken nose, a concussion, and Kurt had no next-of-kin in the hospital.

It took us a long time to sort out what happened, and I’m still not sure we have all the details. There was a minor accident on a windy road on a Sunday afternoon. Kurt had been driving, and he was a good driver. We still don’t know what happened. The car went off the road and stopped in a ditch, the airbags deployed, and cars stopped to get help. The ambulances came and rushed both men to the hospital. And when they arrived, Kurt was pronounced dead. As I understand it now, the impact of the seatbelt triggered some internal bleeding and by the time they realized what was happening, it was too late to make a difference. Kurt died peacefully they told me.

But that Sunday of the accident, no one knew what was going on. The hallways were full of Kurt and Elias’s loved ones, mostly friends, who were all waiting to hear what had happened. I tried asking a few of the nurses on the hospital floor, but they really didn’t have any idea. One nurse acted like she knew things, telling me that Kurt was actually still alive on another floor before realizing she had mixed her cases up. But Kurt didn’t have anyone with him and I wanted to see him if I could.

I was instructed to walk down to the morgue, several floors lower. It was a Sunday afternoon and although the hospital was busy, it was much quieter than it would be during business hours. Kurt was down there by himself, and his parents, siblings, and children were all several hundred miles away.

I was directed to an isolated door in a lonely hallway, where a sign told me to push a bell and wait. For some strange reason, I thought of the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her friends approach the Emerald City and ring the doorbell, the man in green with the long red whiskers leaning through the door to deny them admittance. I laughed to myself, knowing Kurt would love that association right now.

OZ

A kind social worker came to the door. She’d probably been back there watching YouTube videos on her phone or perhaps playing Solitaire. I quietly explained that my best friend had been killed in a car accident just a few hours before and I wondered where he was, if there was a report on what had happened, and if I might see him.

The woman closed the door while she looked into the case, and was gone for just a few minutes. She came back and looked sad. “Kurt’s body was here just a few minutes ago, but the medical examiner took him to another building for examination. Although they probably won’t work on him until tomorrow, he will stay there tonight, and there isn’t any way for you to get in to see him. It’s against state law. Immediate family could have seen him here, but we were told they wouldn’t arrive for a few days. You might have been able to see him before, but probably not since you aren’t direct kin. I’m so sorry.”

I clutched my hands nervously, fighting back a wave of grief. “Is there someone I could instruct the family to call to ask questions?”

She nodded, placing a consoling hand on my arm. “Of course. Just have them call the Death Desk.”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “Pardon?”

She smiled, awkward. “I forget how weird that is, but that’s what we call it. The Death Desk. There is a really nice woman who works there during business hours. It’s her job to answer questions to family members. There is a weekend helper as well, but they might want to wait for the main woman to get back tomorrow. She’s really good.”

I laughed, in spite of myself. “The Death Desk? You couldn’t call it the Information Desk, or the Family Resource Line, or the Bereavement Department… you call it the Death Desk? That’s terrible!”

She shrugged. “Yeah, that’s just what they call it. Look, I don’t mean to overstep my bounds, but do you need a hug?”

I walked away from the isolated morgue door and walked down the hall, bewildered and amused somehow. The Death Desk, honestly. I had a sticky note in my house with the words “Death Desk” followed by a phone number for the family to call.

I stopped in the hallway, reflecting on the massive loss in my life without Kurt in it. We texted constantly. I would have pulled out my phone right now and sent him this story and he would have laughed in that fantastic full body laugh of his, and said something witty in response. God, but this loss was staggering.

I sat down in the quiet hallway, flourescent lights buzzing over my head, and just breathed for a minute. I wondered where Kurt was now. Not his body, but Kurt, all the things that made him him. His brashness, his laughter, his directness, his passion for life. Growing up Mormon, I believed in an afterlife, a continuation of the spirit into a Heavenly existence surrounded by love. And despite the loss of my faith, I tend to still lean that direction in my thoughts. The soul is energy and energy transforms to new forms, it doesn’t just expire. Water freezes or evaporates, but it continues to exist in some form. Kurt, he must be out there, somewhere, in some capacity, all his amazingness present.

Perhaps he stood at the bedside of Elias, perhaps he was checking on his sons, perhaps he was on his favorite mountaintop looking at the expanses of Earth around him, perhaps he stood next to me in this very hallway laughing with me about the inanity of a Death Desk.