Pulse

pulse

What is happening today will be the history we talk of tomorrow.

Truthfully, America’s history of full of brutal attacks, so many that we can barely remember some that happened only weeks ago, no less ones that happened years ago. But some are so terrible, so bloody, or so unique that they find a way of imprinting on our long-term community consciousness.

You may not remember Ruby Ridge, or the Washington DC sniper, or Haun’s Mill, or Fort Hood, or the Green River serial killer, or Andersonville, or even Trayvon Martin, but you do remember…

9/11.

Pearl Harbor.

Matthew Shephard.

The Challenger explosion.

Stonewall.

Sandy Hook.

Added to that list, those events which will imprint upon our community consciousness I believe, will be the Pulse.

With all of the horrible mass shootings that keep taking place, with it being almost commonplace, we just grow accustomed somehow to the terrible. It isn’t that we don’t care, it isn’t that we don’t feel, it’s that it is too much. It is too much for our brains to process.

Picture your day-to-day routine. Pick any place. In line at the grocery store, with your children at a public park, dropping your daughter off at school, at the movies, sitting at a table waiting for the food you ordered at your favorite restaurant. In any of these places, a man with a gun could walk in, his only intent is to kill as many people as he can. He ignores cries for help or people cowering in corners begging not to be seen, he just shoots and shoots and shoots.

We watch violent movies all the time. That violence is okay to our minds generally because we know it is fake. We know it is makeup and special effects. In a situation like this, though, there is blood and brain and bone and body.

Those lives that were cut short. Boyfriends holding hands, sons texting their mothers goodbye, people rushing for every exit. This is the world we live in right now.

Gun violence is happening in every corner of this country. California, South Carolina, Florida, the northeast and southwest and every place in between. It is horrifying. It is terrifying.

It’s only been about 60 hours since the Pulse shootings. We’ve attended vigils. We learned about the attacker. We’ve seen the names of the victims. We hugged our friends and shed some tears and lost some sleep.

But this time, this time something must change. How could we have let this continue after Virginia Tech? And Fort Hood? And Sandy Hook? How can we have let all this happen without changing things?

The country seems divided politically, as it always does. One side is crying out for stricter immigration reform, going so far as to suggest a ban all Muslims from American soil. The other side is calling for gun reform; not for taking guns away but for making mandatory background checks, mental health evaluations, and perhaps waiting periods before gun purchases.

I don’t understand why things aren’t changing. I can’t comprehend it.

In Salt Lake City, I work as an on-call crisis responder. Since the Pulse shooting, I have been called out twice, in my own city, to respond to the scenes of robberies where guns have been drawn and lives have been threatened. Twice. Since the Pulse. Angry men pointed guns at innocent people and made demands. No one was killed, but in both of these cases, the victims went home with deep emotional scars that may take years to recover from.

As I type this, several survivors of the Pulse shootings are fighting for their lives in hospital beds. Mothers are going to their sons’ apartments and cleaning up their belongings: their laptops with unfinished projects, their journals which now have a last entry written in them. Bosses are cleaning off the desks of their dead employees, putting their family photographs and coffee mugs into a cardboard box. Funeral directors are preparing coffins and urns, and memorial halls are being booked out.

It’s Tuesday and tomorrow is Wednesday and my heart still hurts and I don’t know what to do to make sure this never happens again.

When Worlds Collide

Collide

“Chad, I hope you don’t mind terribly, but may I ask you a personal question?”

Art, my Airbnb houseguest, looked uncomfortable as stood near the kitchen table. He was wearing a white button down shirt, blue and red patriotic suspenders, black pants, a stringy western tie, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat. He took his hat off and held it in one hand, avoiding eye contact. His hair was wispy, stringy, combed over from one side to the other to make it look as if he had more hair than he did, and it was a bright startling white. His face was wrinkled, his hands knobby and covered in liver spots. But he was surprisingly spry for 85, here in town to compete in a square dancing competition. I had immediately liked him when I met him a few days before.

“Sure, Art, go ahead. I’m a pretty open book.” I was sitting at the table writing, with soft music playing, an apple ale cracked open as my fingers clacked on the keyboard. I was in a tanktop and sweatpants, and had the windows open behind me to let in the fresh rainy summer air.

“Well, it’s just, well, you’re single, right?”

“Mm-hmm.” I nodded once taking a sip of the ale.

“And–well, I don’t think you told me this, so I hope it isn’t intrusive, but your profile said you are gay, right?”

I smiled. He still hadn’t made eye contact. “Yes, I’m gay.”

“So you date men. But you aren’t in a relationship.”

“That’s correct.” I wondered why he was so nervous, and I wondered briefly if he was flirting. He was a perfectly nice man, but 85 was a little past my dating age range.

“Well, uh–“, he finally looked up at me. “Well, when I was using the kitchen earlier, I noticed that you had some drawings on your fridge by, uh, they look to be done by kids. And then I saw that you have some children’s toys over in the corner there, like a doll and some dinosaurs and such. I just wondered, uh, why you have those things here.”

I smiled again. “Well, Art, that’s because I have children. Two sons, ages 7 and almost 5.”

His eyes widened in genuine surprise.”You’re gay and you have children?” His voice was shocked and his face went a little pale.

“Yes, that’s correct. They live here part of the time.”

He held his cowboy hat in his hands. “Well, my goodness. Worlds collide.”

I tilted my head curiously. “What do you mean, worlds collide?”

He looked up, thinking before he spoke. “You just have to understand, I grew up in a different age. Back then, it’s just–well, you didn’t get to be gay and have kids both. Gay people hid. Or they moved to big cities to be around other gay people, where they wouldn’t be harassed. Seeing a man say he’s gay who also has kids, that’s what I mean. Two worlds colliding.”

I thought a moment. “I bet you knew a lot more gay parents than you thought you did. A lot of gay men and women married the opposite sex in order to have families, or to hide, or because they didn’t think they had any other choice.”

He seemed a bit frustrated and clutched his hat tighter. “Well, yes, but those ones might have liked men, but they weren’t gay. They weren’t walking around talking about being gay.”

“Yeah, I suppose that’s fair. It is different now, though. A lot of people still hide being gay. But gay people can get married now. I have a sister who has a wife. And I have gay friends who adopt kids and are foster parents, all of that. The world is changing.”

Art looked at the floor, sad for a moment, then looked back up to me. “Well, you are a lucky man. Thank you for answering my questions. I thought maybe you just liked playing with children’s toys. I’ll be leaving early tomorrow morning. Good night, Chad.”

He turned to head back down to his rented space downstairs. “Good night, Art.”

Worlds collide, I thought. Such a dramatic turn of phrase. And I turned back to my keyboard.

the transgender boy and the kindegarten bathroom

transbathroom.png

When Sally was two years old, he found things he could stick between his legs to represent a penis. While he didn’t have the words to describe it, he was distressed by the lack of a penis there, something he noticed his brother had, and he tried to convey that to his parents with grunts and cries, but they simply didn’t understand, as much as they loved him.

Sally’s mother would lovingly comb his long hair each morning. When she pulled Sally’s hair back into a braid or a ponytail, Sally would tug the hair free until it hung loose on his shoulders. Sally’s mom stopped trying to style his hair.

Sally’s father would help dress Sally every morning, in white tights and a pink dress perhaps. Sally would cry and fidget until the tights were off, and would clutch and pull at the dress with his little fingers. Finally they would dress him in shorts or jeans and a T-shirt instead.

Sally’s parents assumed they had a very willful daughter.

When Sally turned 4, his distress grew worse. At home, he was allowed to play with trucks and blocks and tools. He hated the sight of a Barbie doll or a makeup kit or a fairy princess. At home, he could use the bathroom just fine, but in public, he refused to enter the women’s restroom, instead marching into the men’s. His dad was fine with that, but that only worked when Sally was out in public with dad; when he was with mom, she would have to take Sally into the women’s, and Sally would fidget and cry and scream and wail.

When Sally turned 5, he was spending more and more time frustrated, crying, and angry. His parents attempted to put him in daycare, but he couldn’t go, he would cry and scream and throw tantrums all day. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Sally began getting angry whenever they used the name Sally to address him, so they tried out nicknames. He hated ‘sis’ and ‘princess’, so they tried out Sam. He liked Sam just fine.

A few months after his fifth birthday, Sam went into the kitchen medicine cabinet and found a bottle of extra strength Tylenol. He took it to his mom and asked her to open it. When his mother asked him why, he said it was because he wanted the pain to go away. She found him holding the bottle again a few days later. And Sam’s parents realized it was time to get him help.

It took the therapist only two sessions to realize that Sam was a boy. The mental health diagnosis is Gender Dysphoria, a condition in which a person shows significant distress with their assigned gender. Simply put, Sam was a boy trapped in a girl’s body.

Over the next few months, the parents learned everything they could about transgender kids. They cut Sam’s hair. They let Sam dress like he chose, in jeans, in ball caps. They continued to let him use his own toys. And they started using HE instead of SHE to describe him. And almost immediately, Sam’s emotional and behavioral problems went away. Sam started smiling, and playing with other kids, and being sweeter to his parents, and getting along with his brother. When he was upset, his behavior was within normal reactions, a short cry or a stern word, but at vastly reduced levels compared to his previous behavior.

Sam was soon enrolled in kindergarten. The parents were extremely nervous and they had a long conversation with the principal and the teacher about Sam and his condition. The faculty was surprisingly supportive. Although they had to enroll “Sally” in the classroom, they introduced him as Sam, and a boy, and Sam made friends quickly. He continued working in therapy and he began to understand what being transgender is.

Sam used the boy’s bathroom at the school until one of the other teachers learned he was transgender. She demanded Sam use the girl’s bathroom, and the school felt they had to comply given the complaint. Sam cried every time he used the girl’s bathroom. He began just holding it all day, to the point he felt ill, but it was easier for him to be sick than to be called a girl. He looked like a boy, and the other kids were confused when he went in the girl’s bathroom. And that was when the teasing started.

Sometimes Sam’s older brother called him Sally, or called him a girl, in order to antagonize his little brother at home. But he learned quickly that whenever he did, Sam seemed overcome with anger and sadness and would rush to his room crying. So he stopped doing that. He loved his little brother.

Working with the parents, the school started letting Sam use the teacher’s bathroom instead of the girls’. That helped a little, but it was uncomfortable. He was the only kid in class who used the teacher’s bathroom. He didn’t want to feel different from the other kids, even though he was. He wanted to fit in with the other boys like he had before.

Sam’s parents kept fighting the school on this, but they felt their hands were tied. They considered home-schooling Sam, but knew he needed the social interaction, and they felt he deserved the right to have an education with his peers. He was only five and he had already been through so much.

_____________________________________________________

Though I have changed the name and left out identifying details, Sam is a kid that I know. Not every transgender person experiences such gender distress at such a young age, but many do. And while some kids have passing phases, where they want to be more masculine or feminine for a brief period of time, Sam is an example of a child who is most definitely transgender.

When we see the transgender bathroom issues being debated on the news and on social media, I want you to think of Sam. Every kid in every class deserves to belong and to feel safe. It’s a much bigger deal than you think.

transgender stick figures

trans

J, my seven year old is growing, and quickly. He’s a brilliant child, full of imagination and love for life. His hair is long in the center and combed over to the side, the sides shaved down a bit, making him look more grown up. He has a dusting of freckles on his cheeks, and both his front teeth are loose. Just last week, he graduated first grade and got a certificate for his achievements in math. He can be a little bit shy, but he’s also bold and very sweet. He will walk up to strangers and offer his hand, ask their name and introduce himself, with first, middle, and last names. He likes baby bunnies and feels bad that they get eaten by eagles and foxes. He draws pictures endlessly. He names his toys and creates stories with them nonstop. He dances, moving his entire body around the room, just because. He sings in front of crowds, into a microphone, without fear. He is an incredible child.

My sons live with their mother most of the time, and with me a few days per week. She’s dating someone seriously now, and the boys are spending more and more time with him and his two children.

Last night, as I made dinner, J came in to the kitchen to talk.

“Hi, dad, I have a question.”

“All right, monkey, what is it?” I stirred the spaghetti sauce in the pan.

“Well, if mom gets married, I’ll have a step-dad.”

I smiled, nodding. I genuinely like the guy, so that helps, but it is jarring to add another parent into the mix. “Yes, that’s right. And you would have a step-brother and step-sister who would live with you every other weekend.”

He moved around the room without looking at me while he talked. “Yeah. I like them. So I would have a mom and a dad and a step-dad. That sounds fun.”

I laughed. Ever the optimist, this one. “Yes, that does sound fun.”

“And if you got married, then I would have two step-dads.”

“Yes, that’s right, too.”

He crinkled his nose, like he does when he is thinking. “I would have three dads and one mom. Are there kids that have three moms and one dad?”

“Absolutely. Some kids have one mom. Some kids have four moms. Some kids have three dads and two moms. There is every kind of family out there.”

He grinned again. “Yeah, that’s cool.”

“It is cool, isn’t it?”

“Are some kids in my class gay, do you think?”

“I bet there are. But they are probably too little to know. Boys and girls who are gay sometimes figure it out when they grow up. It’s the same for transgender people.”

J tried the word out. “Transgender. What does that mean?”

A few minutes later, I had the food finished, and I sat down with J at the table with loose leaf paper and a pen. I drew four stick figures, a small depiction of our family, three boys and a girl.

“Okay, here is me. My body is a boy. How do we know a body is a boy body?”

“It has a penis.”

“Right. I’m a boy on the outside, and I’m also a boy on the inside. My spirit is a boy. I’m gay, which mean I like to date other boys. Now here is Mom. She has a girl body, and girls have a vagina. And she is also a girl on the inside. She’s straight because she likes to date boys.  And here are you and your brother.”

J smiled, catching on. “We are both boys on the outside and on the inside.”

“That’s right, monkey. Okay, now look at this.”

I drew another little stick figure. “This is my friend Jamie. When Jamie was born, she had a boy body.”

J crinkled his brow. “You said she.”

I grinned. “Yes I did. Even though Jamie was a boy on the outside, she was a girl on the inside.  Her spirit was a girl. So when she was little, she thought she was a boy for a while, but when she got older she realized she was really a girl. So now she is a grown up. She uses a girl’s name, Mary, and she wears dresses and has long hair and she likes makeup and she is a girl.”

J looked at the images for a minute. “So she still has a boy body?”

“Well, that part doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if she has a penis or a vagina. It just matters that she is a girl and we treat her like a girl. And sometimes there are people who are born with girl bodies who are really boys on the inside.”

“Like maybe a baby girl named Sue growed up and became a boy named Sam instead?”

“Yeah, kind of like that.”

J looked at the drawings for a few seconds. “That’s cool,” he repeated. “Can I go show my brother this?”

“Of course, monkey. Go ahead.”

J grabbed the paper and went skipping out of the room. “A! Come here! I want to show you transgender!”

wind

 

Wind1
i spread my arms to you today
and was met head on with your power
more than breeze
more than gust
sheer wind meets me, unafraid
your coldness, brisk against my skin
shirt tugging against me in an effort to be free
i long for exposure
“thank you” I whisper, as you fill my lungs
and you soften briefly
surprising me with an answer
showing me that tender breath can be more effective
than tornado or hurricane
now you push again, consistent
trees dance wildly against the sky
and i look up at your unseeable wonder
and shout a simple “YES!”
into you, your green and blue
invisible, intangible, ethereal
yet supreme and jagged and precise and unbearable
i only see what you move against
never you
i only feel you when you move,
without me
within me
were you the god i grew up believing in
dwelling within each of us
yet all over the earth
everywhere and nowhere?
you surround me now
“thank you” i whisper again
as i gather you within
to strengthen my strength

Blood Atonement

blood1

At age 24, as a junior in college in a Social Work Policy class, I was instructed to work on a team with five women on writing a 20 page opinion paper on the Death Penalty. We studied for weeks, required to review cases in Idaho and on national statistics, to read scholarly reviews on opinions both for and against it, and to conduct a few interviews. After dozens of hours writing and perfecting the paper, we reached a consensus that the death penalty was unjust. We learned a few basic facts: it is cheaper to keep someone in prison for life than it is to kill them (seriously, look it up); that each life has value, even when that life is spent behind bars; and that the justice system can be insanely corrupt, convoluted, and inconsistest.

An example of the last: Joe Hill was executed by firing squad after he was convicted on circumstantial evidence for shooting a man in a grocery store; it is widely believed he is innocent. Meanwhile, the Green River serial killer, who brutally murdered nearly 100 victims, was given life in prison; Charles Manson was not only not given a death sentence, he was up for parole a few times.

I’m currently working on an intensive research project that intersects the complicated history of murders, trials, and death penalty convictions in Utah. Many of my thoughts on these matters will be saved for now as I continue my research, but I want to share a few here. Over and over in these trials, the concept of Blood Atonement comes up, mentioned thousands of times in the courts. I’m not exaggerating, thousands upon thousands.

It’s a relatively complicated doctrine that boils down to some relatively simple premises. 1. Brigham Young, who settled the Mormons in Utah and acted both as their prophet and governor, is revered by Mormons. They believe his words to be the commands of God directly.

2. Brigham Young taught about Blood Atonement, basically certain sins committed by believing Mormons can only be forgiven when the sinner has his blood shed in recompense. In other words, if you commit a certain sin, it is God’s command that you be killed. Sins listed by Brigham Young in association with Blood Atonement include: MISCEGENATION (a white person sleeping with a person of another race and having children), APOSTASY (rebelling against the church), THEFT, MURDER, FORNICATION (having sex outside of wedlock), and ADULTERY (having sex with someone besides your spouse). When you combine all of this with POLYGAMY (Brigham Young himself had over 50 wives), RACISM (teachings by Young that show people who are non-white are cursed, evil, and degenerate), and MISOGYNY (a system that often treated women as property and taught their station was as wives and mothers), Utah in the 1800s  becomes a VERY complicated place). Young taught that ideally sinners would take their own lives, and that in the case of executions, they should be done with love and kindness.

3. The Church no longer teaches Blood Atonement. And, honestly, many of its members have no idea what it is. But when you are calling upon Mormons to serve as jurors in Death Penalty cases, you have to ask them about it. Because it was taught by Brigham Young, so it must be of God. And it is ingrained in the cultural history of Utah.

4. There are many examples in Utah’s history where believing Mormons took the doctrine of Blood Atonement in their own hands and saw members of the church murdered for sinning (the most famous examples are related to the Danites). In addition, many murders have been committed by people affiliated with Mormonism where they use Blood Atonement in their own defense, i.e. “I killed that woman because she was sinning, and I’m innocent because it is part of my religious beliefs.”

5. In the early days of the Church, the Mormon endowment ritual contained a graphic covenant in which members vowed to have their throats slit, their tongues cut out, and their chests ripped open if they ever divulged the sacred endowments to Gentiles, or those not of the faith. This covenant existed in some form until just a few decades ago, when it was changed.

For those who are shocked by this doctrine and think I’m overplaying my words here, I invite you to consider one of the most beloved Mormon stories from the Book of Mormon. Nephi is sent by God into the city to obtain the scriptural record. Laban refuses to give them up. God commands Nephi to murder Laban by beheading him in order to get the scriptures. The premise: it is better for this man, a sinner, to die so that you can have your beliefs. And if God commands it, it is okay. This idea is ingrained into every Mormon story, that beliefs trump government, that beliefs are more important than human life.

For my Mormon friends, imagine the prophet standing up and saying that any sinners should be murdered, decapitated, their throats cut and their bodies tossed in the river (all based on quotes by Young). Imagine the moral conflict that would cause. In 1858, when Alfred Cumming took over as Utah’s second governor (a change which had to take place after President James Buchanon sent out an army to force the Mormons to comply with federal edict), talk of Blood Atonement quieted at the governmental level, but every murder trial in Utah since then has had to reference this doctrine in some form ever since.

Pride

pride-flag-meaning

The year I was born, the first Pride flag flew. It had eight colors on it, each representing an inclusion of human character and history.

Pink represented Sexuality.

Red represented Life.

Orange represented Healing.

Yellow represented Sunlight.

Green represented Nature.

Turquoise represented Magic and Art.

Blue represented Serenity.

Violet represented Spirit.

The flag was commissioned by Harvey Milk, an elected official in San Francisco who served as an openly gay candidate after decades of political activism. He had a large following in his local neighborhood of the Castro, where he legitimized gay relationships and fought tirelessly for equality. The original flag was designed by Gilbert Baker, who drew inspiration from a number of sources.

The flag was first displayed in San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade that year. LGBT people marched in celebration of their lives, the rainbow representing safety and inclusion, sex and love, equality and peace. And then, just a few months later, Harvey Milk was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone. Orders for the flag sky-rocketed and in time it became a natural symbol for gay Pride.

While LGBT people are not the only group in the world to have suffered simply for being who they are, their struggles can not be overlooked. Over the centuries, they have been hidden, dishonorably discharged, imprisoned, put to death, denied health care, forcibly sterilized, disowned, fired, denied rights, electro-shocked, disenfranchised, ignored, condemned, beaten, murdered, and looked over simply for being attracted to the same gender or for having a different gender identity.

The rainbow flag now shows six stripes (hot pink and turquoise having been removed years ago, primarily due to the availability of the fabric at the time). It is hung in windows throughout in businesses and homes around the world, it is placed on the bumpers of cars, it is hung from flagpoles in public buildings, and it sends a message, quietly and colorfully, that all are welcome within, that LGBT people are celebrated instead of just being tolerated, that equality is a guiding principle of that home or building or community. A simple message, and profound.

This weekend in Salt Lake City, is the Pride festival. The rainbow flag can be seen everywhere. A festival occupies a major section of the city, where booths filled with food and advertisements, political endorsements and inclusive religious communities, free hugs from gay Mormons and free condoms from sexually affirming clinics, will be on display for families. Tomorrow morning, an hours-long parade will march through the streets, with businesses and organizations, clubs and churches, will march and sing and ride on floats, all with messages of love and inclusion. It isn’t about “gay agendas” or “gay lifestyles” or “religious tolerance and discrimination”. It isn’t about overt public sexual expressions or loose and scandalous morals. It is about respect for individuals who have a history that dates back to the beginnings of the world and factors into every society, every community, every family and culture.

Gay Pride is about Sexuality. And Life. And Healing. And Sunlight. And Nature. And Magic. And Serenity. And Spirit.

For me, Gay Pride is about loving who I am exactly as I am. It is about my first kiss with a man at age 32 and feeling my heart and spirit come alive. It is about holding the hands of my sons in a public park, where we will play catch and hide-and-seek, and them knowing that I am gay. It is about the tears I used to shed during my evening prayers, asking God for a cure. It is about hundreds of gay fathers marching in the streets of Seattle while thousands of people cheered for us in every direction. It is about standing tall and proud, not broken, and being lost in a see of humanity, shades of every color and aspects of every gender in each and every person. It is about dancing, arms spread wide, while music resonates within me and light washes over me. It is about learning where I have come from, and barely understanding where I am going. It is about falling in love, and having my heart broken, and standing back up again. It is about joining with my brothers and sisters, cis- and transgender, and standing tall, hand in hand, united despite our differences.

A stranger asked me yesterday, in kindness, how I would define my “gay lifestyle.” I smiled because I’ve been asked that question before, far too many times. And my answer was simple.

“My gay lifestyle is a lot like your straight lifestyle. I get up and brew my coffee. I exercise. I go to my office where I try to help others. I write and read in my spare time. I watch movies. I travel. I spend time with my friends. I raise my children to be happy and healthy and well-adjusted young men. I pay my bills. And I date men.”

The man sat back, surprised for moment, and then made eye contact with me and nodded.

“We really aren’t that different, are we?”

 

Men comparing women and dogs over coffee and noodles

coffee

“My dog died the other day. I’ll tell you, I’ve never cried over a woman like I’ve cried over that dog.”

The man pushed his glasses up on his nose, then used his fingers to smooth the wispy mop of hair across his balding head again, tucking a few strands behind his right ear.

His friend, of the same age but with much darker skin and a thick grey moustache, took a bite of the spicy noodles he had brought into the coffee shop in a Styrofoam container, wrapping the noodles around his plastic form ineffectively and then cramming the bite into his mouth. A large chunk of noodle fell back into the container. He made his friend wait several seconds while he chewed, then talked with his mouth full.

“Well, fuck women, that’s what I always say.”

I set aside the project I’m working on one table over, unable to focus, a silent witness to these two old friends meeting to discuss women and dogs over coffee and noodles. My pen began moving over my paper, taking notes, and they never seemed to notice me.

The man in glasses laughed a bit, then sat in silence for a bit longer. He looked at the table when he finally spoke.

“I mean, she was a good girl. Faithful. Always at my side. None of my wives ever did that.”

The man with noodles smoothed a napkin over his lips and moustache, pulling it away to reveal pink remnants from the noodle sauce.

“How many times were you married again?”

“Three. The first one was the longest. Three kids. We were together 20 years. I’m still not sure what happened to that one. She just said she didn’t love me any more and then she was gone. That next one, that was the love of my life. I was about ten years older and she had a kid, but we were animals together. The sex, the fights, everything with her was just passion. That one took me a lot longer to get over. She was just everything. And then she met some younger guy. I can’t blame her. I have a lot of miles on me.”

“That’s when you got Millie, right?”

“Oh yeah, I got Millie during my single years. I a lot of women in those years, I’ll tell you, but Millie was the one that stayed by my side. It about killed me when she got hit by that truck.”

“And that’s when Mary came along, right”, the second man spat through his noodles.

“Yep. Mary was a good old gal. She had miles on her, too. Met her at that bar. Not a lot of passion, but we just kind of fit. We needed each other. She was my third, I was her fourth. I wasn’t working anymore. We got married quick. It was nice, but kind of boring. We watched TV a lot, drank a lot. But then she just kind of up and moved on. I guess we’re still married technically.”

The men sit in silence, sipping coffee and munching noodles. A full minute passes, before the noodle-eater speaks again.

“Well, like I said, dogs are better than women anyway. I’ve had, what, two, three dogs at once and they are always glad to see me. Doesn’t matter if I’m drunk, if I’ve showered, if I have a beer belly, whether I shaved. Long as they are fed and petted, they will curl up right next to me. Three at once. Name a woman that will do that.”

Another sip. “I just can’t believe I lost another one.”

A hearty, awkward laugh through a bite of noodles. “Another what? Woman or dog?”

The two men make eye contact. “Both of ’em, I guess!”

“But who needs ’em! Either one of them!”

“I hear you there, brother. The older I get, the more I learn about that there particular piece of wisdom.”

Both men laugh for a moment, then slip into more silence.

The man closes his now empty noodle container. “Well, brother, we’ll find you another one. A dog, I mean. Then maybe the dog will bring you a woman.”

“Oh, that’ll be the day!”

The men clear the empty cups and containers off of their table, scoot their chairs in, and stand near the garbage, where I can still hear them.

“Bitches for bitches,” the noodle man says.

Both men walk out of the shop, laughing heartily, one’s arm around the other shoulder.

the Deep End

Deepend1

I hurt someone recently.

It wasn’t intentional. I just wasn’t ready for something that he was ready for. Relationships are complicated, and, given my work as a therapist, I am sometimes a bit too therapeutic for my own good.

I take things in careful measure, careful balance. When things feel out of balance, for me they feel unsafe. I spend a lot of time helping my clients get their lives in balance, so for me to be out of balance, well, not only does it feel unsafe, it feels hypocritical, like a person teaching others how not to smoke while he has a bad drinking habit, or a preacher espousing family values from the pulpit while cheating on his wife on the side.

I’ve referenced this in my writing before, but I have come up with a rubric for helping clients measure satisfaction in their primary romantic relationships. I will have clients take a close look at their satisfaction levels in relationships in six different categories. I’ll have them take a look at the present, not the past or future, not how things could be or how they used to be, but how they are right now (a key component to living for today, something I strive to do). I’ll have them rank each category with an A+ down to an F-, a standard grading scale. An A+ indicates that things are perfect for today, they couldn’t possibly get any better. An F- means things are so bad they couldn’t possibly get any worse. A C indicates an average grade, something securely in the middle.

Here are the six categories, with a brief description after each:

COMMUNICATION: feeling heard and validated, able to talk about difficult issues, able to resolve conflicts successfully without extreme measures (silent treatments, yelling, violence, storming out)

BEST FRIENDS: enjoy each other’s company, lots of mutual interests, ability to spend time together laughing and having fun and dating on a regular basis

INTIMACY: high levels of attraction on both sides, sexual compatibility and diversity and interest, emotional attraction and safety

CO-PARENTING (if applicable): mutual goals and good communication regarding raising, rearing, and discipline of children

FINANCES: adequate money to cover needs, compatibility in spending and budgeting

and, last, FUTURE PLANNING: moving in the same direction in life, compatible plans for big life plans (schooling, job, location, home-buying, family planning, retirement, etc)

While the individual applications for couples are unique to each situation, there are common trends for many couples. Joe and Sally have incredible sex and love spending time together, but money is causing so much stress that they can’t stop fighting. Mark and John have good sexual chemistry and really love each other, but their careers are taking them in different directions. Jan and Susan are best friends who feel secure together, but they are having sex less and less and are growing distant. Amy and Adam have good attraction and communication, but he really doesn’t want children and now they fight a lot.

Relationships are complicated. It can be so easy to fall into a space where one compromises parts of self in order to make something work. And I see it happen over and over again in human experiences, where we quiet parts of ourselves in an effort to be happy even while we deny ourselves happiness. Ultimately, this proves to be one of the greatest errors that humans make. We make excuses for ourselves, compromise ourselves, and then spend years wondering what happened.

Simply put, we all deserve happiness. We all deserve the right to have high grades in all six of the categories. Sex shouldn’t be sacrificed for financial security, laughter shouldn’t be compromised for good communication, a desire for children shouldn’t be set aside for emotional safety.

We all need love and fulfillment in not just some of the areas, but in all of them. We all need to love and be loved in ways that are ultimate for us.

This person that I hurt, he was in the deep end of the pool, treading water to the point of exhaustion, hoping that I would jump in and join him. Yet I stood on the steps of the pool, getting my toes wet and warm, then my ankles, then my knees. The water felt tenuous, confusing, out of balance. When I asked for patience and time, he hoped that I would be able to just dive in.

And there is nothing wrong with a leap of faith, a compromise, a grand move toward happiness. And there is nothing wrong with slow and careful measures, a strong sense of self and taking time. Ultimately both of us deserve happiness and love and fulfillment in not one, but all categories. All of us deserve these things. To feel desirable, to be cherished, to have laughter and light and love.

The best relationships, in my therapeutic and personal opinion, come from two separate individuals who are both on firm solid balanced ground, with brilliant foundations, who then choose to join those foundations together. Relationships can never be used to fill a void in self, to stave off loneliness, or to give a sense of security, not when there wasn’t a strong foundation to begin with.

And so these final words are for anyone reading this, for anyone I care about, for the man I hurt, and for myself:

I hope you can love yourself, can measure out the places that need love and attention and time and balance, that you can find happiness and security and love inwardly and then outwardly. Life must be lived day by day, in the present, with peace and strength, and it must begin within before we can ever find it without.

To every one who has ever broken a heart or who has had their heart broken, may you be able to take the plunge into the deep end of the pool. But dive in for yourself before you begin to look for others there. Once you are used to the water, then you may find someone who is there to swim at your side.

Deepend2

 

“Daddy, am I going to Hell?”

Hell

“Daddy, am I going to Hell?”

I looked up to the rearview mirror in shock, my eyes open wide. I looked at my four year old son, A, in the backseat, his hair tousled from a hard day of play at school, a jelly stain on his beloved shark shirt. His eyes are so blue.

“A, of course you aren’t going to Hell! Why would you ask that?”

My eyes flashed over to J, my 7 year old, on the other side of the backseat, strapped into his booster seat. He looked over at his little brother, ever the supporter. “Yeah, A, y would you ask that?” He must have noticed the touch of concern in my voice.

A shrugged, not disturbed, just curious. “Well, Heavenly Father created Heaven for good people and Hell for bad people.”

I grimaced internally but didn’t show it on my face. Now more of an atheist, I was raised an active Mormon, and remembered growing up with the vision of sunlight and clouds for the angels, and torture and fire and brimstone with the evil laughing devil over them for the bad guys. I try hard to instill in my children a wide world view of living happy lives and understanding all religions. They attend the Unitarian Church with their mother now, but they still visit their grandparents regularly, their grandparents being active Mormons who pray and still teach them about Heavenly Father and Jesus and Heaven and Hell. And they naturally have questions.

“A, you are definitely a good person. You are a great kid.”

J chipped in, still concerned. “Yeah, A. And you have a good family who loves you.”

A was looking out the window. “Well, I know why there is a devil.”

“Yeah? Why is that, A?”

“Well, cause Heavenly Father created one. And he lives in Hell. He’s a really really mean bad guy. He’s more mean than the Joker or Loki or Green Goblin. But he’s kind of like the Joker.”

“How is he like the Joker?”

“He likes to joke! And they are mean jokes!”

I made eye contact with him in the mirror and suppressed a laugh. A has the most serious little look on his face when he’s being dramatic like this, talking about sharks or super villains.

“Yeah, he is definitely a mean guy.” J interjected, looking up at me to back him up.

Before I could respond, A switched topics. “How come there aren’t dinosaurs anymore?”

I smiled, keeping my eyes on the road. “Well, dinosaurs lived a long, long time ago and they all died.”

A talked right over me. “They were born even before Grandma. And Heavenly Father created them, too. But I wish they were still alive. Then I could fight a T-Rex. I’m faster and they have tiny little arms.”

The boys chattered on for a minute, hilarious and random as they usually are, as I thought silently. When there was a lull in conversation, I went back to the concerning topic.

“A, how come you asked if you are going to Hell?”

He looked at me this time, in the mirror. “I was just wondering.”

I gave him my intense dad look, conveying seriousness and pride and silliness all at once, my eyebrows knit down and my eyes on his. “Well listen up, little man. There is no way you are going to Hell. And even if you did, you know what I would do?”

“What?” He asked in wonder.

“I would get all of my friends and everyone who loves you and I would lead them down there and we would rescue you. We would fight the devil and everyone and I would win. Then I would put you on my back, piggy-back, and I would carry you back to Earth.”

He had an expression of adventure on his face. “You could fight dragons! And–and dinosaurs!”

“Yes! I’ll fight them all because I love you! And J would help me! He would use all of his super powers and his super brain and we would rescue you!”

A sat up taller. “Yeah, and after you get me out of my Hell cage I could fight with you, too! I’ll punch the devil right in the face cause I’m so strong!”

J joined in now, sitting up taller as well. “Yeah, and I will dance and run all over and so fast! We will save you, A!”

A few hours later, after a pancake with peanut butter dinner and pretending we are sharks in a swimming pool and bath time and pajamas, I cuddled my boys, one on each arm, and made up stories to tell them about giant frogs and fairy princesses and sabretooth tigers. I sang them their favorite lullabies and tucked them in to sleep. I walked in a while later and looked at them sleeping. J lay in the shorts and tank top he had chosen to sleep in, underneath the three blankets he had pulled around his frame. A lay in thick wool pajamas he had chosen, with no blankets, flipped upside down with his feet on the pillow. I listened to their breathing and wondered about their dreams. But I hoped that if they dreamed of monsters or villains or devils, that perhaps I appeared in some form as their ally, as their dad, as their rescuer.

Because they have certainly rescued me.