Frog Circus

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Tucked into the back corner of a small city museum in Holyoke, Massachusetts sits the Frog Circus. It literally took my breath when my eyes landed on it, and not in an awed-and-inspired kind of way, more in an ‘oh-my-god-look-at-that-roadkill’ kind of way.

But I have to admit, it was pretty incredible.

Dozens of taxidermy-ed frogs were arranged in an elaborate circus style setup, in a big Amphibian Big Top, forever frozen in place like strange freaks of nature, somehow equally adorable and disturbing. Behind a glass partition in a setup the size of a large television set, the creatures performed in perpetuity, forever frozen there.

A crowd of frogs on bleachers, large parents and small children, were arranged in rows to cheer for the performers.

Awkwardly bent frogs swung on trapezes in the air, one pulling an American flag with him, one holding on to the feet of another.

A frog clutching a parasol walked a tightrope.

A frog with a stick tamed a fearsome large rodent creature, seemingly a weasel.

Frogs rode on the backs of turtles, and other frogs were pulled in carriages by teams of small mice.

An entire band of frogs playing instruments, trumpets and drums, sat off to the left, horns raised to frog lips.

The woman who worked the front desk of the gift shop seemed to cringe a little when she told us about the Frog Circus. When my sister and I learned the museum was closed to tours, we had asked if there was still anything to see in the area, and she grimaced as she mentioned the Frog Circus, a crowd favorite since it was made in the late 1920s. Apparently some man named Burlington Schurr (a super-villain name if I’ve ever heard one) made the exhibit back in 1927, one of many he curated to teach youth about animals and nature. ‘What could be more natural,’ he must have thought, ‘than dead frogs posed unnaturally.’

I pictured him staking out his local pond, killing frogs of all sizes, taking them home, and going through the process of stuffing and arranging and preserving each one. ‘A circus!’, he thought. ‘I’ll put them in a circus!’

No matter the strangeness of the display, I realized it’s been around a generation longer than my mother. Hordes of people have lined up to stare at it, to marvel, and laugh, and retch, and be curious. I stared at it for several minutes, that slightly horrified look plastered on my face. And then I stepped away, knowing instinctively the images of those frogs will be behind my eyelids when I try to sleep tonight. They won’t be moving, they’ll just be frozen there mid-act. And the thought of that makes me shudder, much as it will again tonight in sleep.

 

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Forty Whacks

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Lizzie Borden had an axe, gave her father forty whacks

When she saw what she had done, she gave her mother forty-one.

‘It’s amazing what can be lost to history,’ was my first thought on walking through the Lizzie Borden house. It’s been turned into a museum, and a bed and breakfast now. In fact, a few years ago, two of my sisters, amateur ghost-hunters, stayed in the room of Lizzie’s parents, Abby and Andrew, who were murdered in 1892 in their own home.

Lizzie Borden, their adult daughter, was put on trial for their murder, and the jury found her not guilty. But by the time the trial was over, ten months after the murders, Lizzie had become infamous, her trial being so sensationalistic that it made international news, everyone tuning in for daily updates in the newspapers.

And now, 120 years later, few know more than the fact that she was an axe murderer, knowing nothing of her life before or after.

It was gruesome and curious walking through the family home, where her father, who would have been considered a multi-millionaire in today’s terms, housed his family. His first wife had died, and his second wife Abby had raised the two girls, Emma and Lizzie (another sister had died at the age of 2) as her own. Lizzie and Emma lived in the small family home long after they became adults in Fall River, Massachusetts, staying in the same rooms that they had lived in as children. The sealed their door off from their parents, used chamber pots in the morning, and ate meals prepared by the family maid, Bridget, etching out a comfortable existence in  a small town where the father held the fortunes.

The tour guide shared theories of the murder, about the two daughters being angry against their parents for withholding their inheritance, about suspicion that Lizzie was trying to poison her parents, about Lizzie’s convenient excuses that while she had been home during the murders she hadn’t heard a sound. Was it Abby’s brother, John Morse, who had slept in the home the night before and had a convenient alibi, that killed them? Had he been having an affair with the maid? Had Lizzie been having an affair with the maid? Was an illegitimate son of Andrew’s who snuck into the home before fleeing, only to confess in a later letter?

All these years later, the truth remains unknown, but someone snuck into the house that morning and violently killed a helpless woman in her 60s, and then a few hours later killed her husband. There was no murder weapon, there were no witnesses, and there was no conviction.

And yet the infamy of Lizzie, an almost folk legend as a crazy murdering daughter that many picture as teenaged at the time of the crime, has endured in the country’s memory long past her death. Outside of the legend itself, the part that struck me as most fascinating about this story was not the story of the murders themselves, but instead the tenacity of Lizzie afterwards. She used her part of the inheritance to build a beautiful home. She changed her name to Lizbeth and she stayed right there in Fall River. She traveled and hosted parties, she donated to local charities, she paid for local women to get educated in college, she did charity work for lonely senior citizens, she wrote a book about her life, and she closed herself up in her home and avoided the public gossip and the taunts of the local children. Lizzie may have been a lesbian, but she never married, nor did her sister, and neither of them had any children.

After the tour, I walked the streets of her city for a time, and pictured the changes of the world over the past century. Then I thought a century ahead, and wondered how the streets would change again, knowing instinctively that at that time, the world would still remember her name, and still find her guilty.

a bus ride through New York

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The old man pulled a stray sweater up around his knees and gave a little shudder of cold. He didn’t speak English, but some movements, gestures, and facial expressions go beyond language, and ‘I’m cold’ is an easy one to convey.

He was likely from India, Bangladesh, or perhaps Myanmar. He must have been over 80. His clothes hung on him and he had a classy cap on his head and a small pack in his hands. After I got on the bus at the Port Authority in New York City, he had made eye contact with me, getting consent as he took the seat on the Greyhound next to mine. And as the bus droned on, his head lolled back and forth in easy motions while he slept.

Two men sat in front of me, loudly bantering back and forth about the women in their lives. They had rich chocolate skin, and one had his hair pulled tight in rows while the other had dreadlocks that reached his knees in the back. They called each other the n word and talked about being unappreciated in their homes, working all day and not getting the love they needed at night. Though I listened for several minutes, I could never determine what their jobs were.

A Hispanic woman sat behind me, her hair dyed blonde, bright red lipstick on her face. She soothed a small child, around 9 months old I guessed, rocking him back and forth on her shoulder, clutching him protectively as she whispered things like ‘Mami loves you’ in his ear.

A white woman with red hair sat across the aisle, looking heartbroken. Her clothes were disheveled and she didn’t seem to have any bags with her. Once in a while she would look up and make eye contact with someone, but she would quickly look away, seeming frightened and sad.

The Greyhound bus driver had left his comm-device off its hook, and it created an obnoxious staticy feedback over the speakers, where there should have been radio. The static grew in intensity, sounding like an alien ship landing, then would go back to gentle white noise, and everyone kept waiting for the driver to notice it, but no one said anything. The bus was mostly silent except for that. From time to time, the driver would pick up the device and speak into it, and it sounded like a barely audible whisper, as he announced intersections or stops. “Is anyone asleep?” he said over and over. “Don’t want you to miss your stop.” But I had to crane my ears up to hear him over the static.

The bus drove through several neighborhoods in New York, through the Upper West Side, and Jamaica, and the Bronx. There were seas of people walking on either side, and endless buildings with businesses on the ground floor and apartments stacked up on top of them, 27 stories high on one building I counted. I pictured all of the people crammed into these small spaces, paying high rents for rooms, signing leases, acquiring ramshackle furniture, packing bikes and groceries up and down the flights of stairs, decorating small balconies and fire escapes with plants and chairs and storage items. I imagined what is must be like to raise a child here.

My eyes took in all the logos on the businesses. An apostolic church that advertised the 12 lost tribes of Isreal as all of the non-white races on Earth, a third floor barbershop where I saw black men laughing together as their hair was trimmed, students sitting on the sidewalk with papers and cups of coffee scattered around them in sidewalk spaces in front of coffee shops, flowers sold out of carts, a chandelier shop with a practicing psychic on the floor above it, on and on, endless, buildings stretching everywhere. Rainbow flags adorned many windows, especially on small bars, with the universal message that all were welcome within.

I watched the people, the beautiful people, rushing in every direction, people of every color and hue. Deep rich cocoa to milk chocolate to sepia, beige to deep earth to caramel, creamed honey to cinnamon to sand. So different from the streets of Utah, where any of these colors stands out in the sea of Caucasian on the streets. Here, regular white bread white was the hardest to spot. Men in traditional suits with red ties, women in flowing African robes, t-shirts and shorts, sundresses. Ball caps and hijabs and turbans and yarmulkes. Men jogging with dogs, women clutching hands with their children, grandmothers waiting for busses, everyone in a hurry.

I wondered what it would be like to live here, to claim parts of the city as my own, a coffee shop, a park bench, a gym. What it would be like to find friends, a routine, to explore these streets and these people in all of their vibrancies and cultural enmeshments. To always be in a hurry.

The bus kept driving, over the river and out of the city, on through Connecticut and into Massachusetts where I would be spending my week with my sister and her wife. But I would be back in New York to explore in just a few days.

I had only been to the city once before, years ago, on a trip with two college friends. I had walked through the city, haphazard, looking at various places with casual interest, not daring to let myself be seen too much or heard to much at the time, as that was how I approached life then. I traipsed through Ellis Island and the United Nations, along Times Square and Broadway, in Greenwich Village and across Fifth Avenue. Now, I long to see it again now, now that I’m authentic and real, and to compare it to the other cities I’m learning to love: San Francisco and Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles, Portland and New Orleans, San Diego and Miami. What a rich and beautiful world it is.

But for now, it is a noisy, cozy, cold bus full of strangers, each with a story as vast and diverse and fascinating as mine.

 

Trump vs. Hillary: the Feminist Election

In Profile: 100 Years In US Presidential Races

It’s 2016, and we are facing a historical election. It’s Hillary versus Trump, and in many more ways, it is Woman versus Man.

Disagree?

In my small world in Salt Lake City, Utah, I know very few people who will actually say out loud that they are voting for Donald Trump. Instead what they are saying is that they don’t know who they will vote for. They agree, in some sense, that Trump would be a very frightening president, but they like he ‘tells it like it is’. Hillary, they say, they just don’t trust because Benghazi and corporate funding and the Email scandal.

I took time to question a friend recently about this thought pattern. I was, admittedly, passionate and a bit angry in my words and phrasing.

“How could you even consider not voting for Hillary? I understand that you don’t ‘like’ her or consider her trustworthy. I get that, completely, given the many scandals that have surrounded her name.

“But on the other side of things, look at the sheer list of offenses on Trump’s part that are not mere allegations, but are direct quotes delivered to the public directly in speeches or over social media. He has called Mexicans rapists. He has said that he is the only man who can ‘save’ our country or make it ‘great’ again. He has encouraged violence toward those who disagree with him and offered to pay the legal fees of anyone arrested. He has threatened to ban an entire religion from the country’s borders. He has referred to the size of his genitals to the public. He has sent out unflattering photos of his opponent’s wives and implied that his wife is hotter. He has referenced that a female reporter was being unreasonable due to her menstrual cycle. After 50 men and women in a gay club were shot down, he Tweeted out that ‘he was right’ rather than expressing concern and love toward the victims and their families. He has shamed the parents of a fallen soldier. And, most shockingly, he has hinted that men who wield guns should take matters into their own hands in a veiled encouragement of political assassination.

“And those are just moments from the recent presidential run. Trump’s life prior to this was fraught with marital affairs, alleged abuse, failed business dealings, and alleged financial crimes. Hillary has been in politics for decades as a first lady, a governor’s wife, a senator, and a secretary of state, and she has run a presidential campaign prior to this. Before that, she was an attorney with a successful practice, with a long marriage. Trump has been a bizarre real estate mogul who is the very epitome of the rich white man, the one per cent that Bernie Sanders was so passionate about, who has plastered his face on board games, books, and T-shirts, and is most famous for hosting a reality TV show, and who has been married multiple times… to super-models.

“In the past, entire presidential campaigns have been decimated over singular offenses, like Mitt Romney being accused of flip-flopping. And when Bill Clinton had a marital affair and lied about it, the country sought to impeach him. Trump’s offenses are far more excessive in number and in pure extremism on every level, and you are telling me that he calls it like it is and that is why you like him? What does that say about you?”

Because this conversation was with a trusted friend, it ended okay, but she let me know that my feelings on the matter were very apparent, and very passionate.

And I’m completely okay with that. Because when I reflect on this topic a bit more deeply, I realize that this is very much about America’s feelings on women. Historically, our country has treated women abysmally. As property, as targets of rape and violence, as pretty objects that should be devoted to their men and children and belong in the home. The laws have changed, somewhat, but the attitudes have not. I could recite a long list of statistics to back this up, but it can all boil down to a few simple facts, that women are mistreated in business and health care and politics, that they represent a majority of the population and a minority of leadership positions, and that the United States has still never passed a equal rights for women law. In fact, while we require other countries to pass laws regarding protections for women in order to receive our aid, we refuse to pass the same protections for women in our own country. We even refuse to sign the mandates from the United Nations that have been put in place in nearly every country around the world. The law is called CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination  of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and it has been in place since 1979, and has been signed by nearly every U.N.-affiliated country. The only U.N.-affiliated countries that have NOT signed the treaty? There are six: Palau, Somalia, Tonga, Sudan, Iran… and the United States. That means it has been signed by every other one, including China, Afghanistan, and even Iraq.

Many of the largest countries in the world have had female leaders by now, including England, India, Germany, Liberia, Central African Republic, Senegal, South Korea, Haiti, South Africa, Mozambique, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The United States is not on this list either.

And yet here in America, we have a candidate in Hillary Clinton, who was named by Barack Obama as the most qualified presidential candidate in United States history, running against Donald Trump, who has been described as the least qualified candidate in presidential history, and who has zero political experience. The most qualified? A woman. The least qualified? A man.

And if you still aren’t sure who you want to vote for, or if you are considering not voting at all, we can go extreme, and you have to ask yourself who you want with their finger on the button of the nuclear codes.

I understand if you don’t like or even trust Hillary Clinton, I get it, intellectually and emotionally. But if you can stack that up against every piece of the puzzle that makes up Donald Trump and still be not sure who you are voting for, I’m not sure I can call you anything but sexist. Take time to examine your biases and feelings about women in power, and your ability to excuse Trump and hold Hillary accountable.

And if you disagree with that, well, I suggest you do a bit more self-exploration. The fate of the country is at stake.

 

regarding Hillary’s America…

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In high school, I read a particular issue of Captain America, one during the long run by writer Mark Gruenwald. See, Cap grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, the depression era America, and then entered World War II idealistic and with a clear sense of right and wrong. After all those decades frozen in the iceberg, modern writers love taking those old school values of the American dream and measuring them up against the modern problems of today, seeing if the values hold up. Cap fights against Nazis, that’s an easier battle, but when he is put up against a corrupt American politician, or police violence, or race issues, well the moral struggles he have to go through become fascinating.

Anyway, in this particular issue, a group of Neo-Nazis based in America were putting on a rally in a public space. A deplorable cause, sure, but even Neo-Nazis have the right to peaceably assemble granted by the Constitution. Well, a group of individuals sought to attack the Nazis, and Captain America had to fight them in order to protect the Nazis, whose cause he abhorred. A true hero, that Cap, but if this were real, imagine how he would have been torn apart on Fox News, on CNN, and in the public debates by both Democrats and Republicans.

See, I like my ethics sticky like that. The idea that in order to stand for free speech, that means free speech for everyone, even those I disagree with. In fact, those I disagree with deserve protection under the law, even though their cause goes against my moral code. Thanks, Captain America, for the lesson.

And ethics are always sticky like that. Laws can be twisted and interpreted in a million little ways to benefit those who seek to benefit from them. Causes like gay marriage and equal pay for women and women’s right to determine their own health and transgender bathroom issues and Muslims being allowed to wear head coverings in school and how to handle children of illegal immigrants born in the country, all these causes and on and on and on, they have to be fought for and changed in the very courts which seem to weigh down the process and make change seem impossible. And there is corruption, yes. Change in America is slow, and painful, and sometimes incredibly unjust. It takes a lot of time.

All that said, I do believe in free speech, I do. I believe in anyone’s right to speak up and stand for their cause, even to spin the truth in their favor, to use politics and funding and promise-making to garner their own benefits.

Years ago, I remember seeing a Michael Moore film about George W. Bush. I walked out of the theater feeling passionate and moved and outraged, but soon rational thought returned, and I realized that even though I’m not a big fan of George W. Bush, that the movie was biased, it was slanted to a ridiculous degree to foster opinions against Bush. I wondered how many Liberal viewers would take the time to restore rational thought afterwards, and not get caught up in the slanted music, imagery, and spin on stories that bolstered the opinions of Michael Moore.

Well, last night, I experienced the other side, the slanted Republican side.

In the film Hillary’s America, subtitled the Secret History of the Democratic Party, filmmaker and author Dinesh D’Souza, a naturalized citizen originally from India, purports that the Democratic Party is solely responsible for nearly every terrible thing that has ever happened in America, and then proclaims that Hillary Clinton is corrupt through-and-through with no redeeming qualities. D’Souza himself had previously produced a similar film in 2012, Obama’s America, which I have never seen, that was extremely successful among conservative Americans. After that, D’Souza was indicted for making illegal political contributions.

In Hillary’s America, Dinesh puts himself in the starring role. A rather homely and uncharismatic host, he opens the film with his prison conviction, stating that Obama had to put him in jail because Dinesh was a threat to him. In truth, Dinesh lived in a halfway house for 8 months, but in the film, he is locked up with hardened criminals and he learns all about how criminals get away with their crimes, tactics that he realizes the Democratic Party (not the Republicans, mind you, just the Democrats) use to win votes.

Dinesh takes himself to a Democratic museum, where on the surface is everything the Democrats want you to know about them, but he finds the secret basement that holds all of their dark corruptions. He learns that Democrats are the ones who wanted slavery and segregation, the ones who sought to sterilize undesirable populations (which they still do through Planned Parenthood, he says), the ones that shoved Native Americans on to reservations after slaughtering them. (Strangely, the film doesn’t bring up women’s rights or LGBT rights at all). It was always the Democrats, he claims, the racist Democrats,  while the Republicans are the heroes who have fought for equal rights and sought to right wrongs all along. He goes so far as to say that only Democrats owned slaves, and that not a single Republican did.

He then moves in to attack Obama for a while again, talking about how Obamacare is meant to deny Americans choices because Obama enjoyts power, and how Democrats want to control gun sales so they can keep them out of the hands of minorities who only want to protect themselves against racist politicians.

Then Dinesh starts in on Hillary herself, claiming that as a young girl, her primary influences were men affiliated with the mob, who were swindlers and loved power and corruption. He proposes that Hillary has had a long term plan to take complete control. He states that Hillary married Bill Clinton knowing that he is a rapist, and that she has acted as his dealer all along, providing him victims to rape and then later bullying those victims into silence so that Hillary can feel more powerful. It goes on and on from there.

The movie closes with a shadowy image of an evil Hillary sitting in the Oval Office, and this direct quote. “Imagine how much worse things could get if these two depraved crooks are allowed to return to the White House.” It then switches to an innocent little white girl in a white dress singing the Star-Spangled Banner in front of a multi-racial orchestra and gospel choir with patriotic images flashing across the screen and encourages people to vote Replubican.

I sat in the theater with shifting emotions, from jaw-dropping shock at the audacity of the all-encompassing claims, them hand-over-face embarrassment at how unashamedly biased the film was, then laughing out loud at the terrible acting and dramatic music that sought to drive the points home.

But I still stand by my sticky ethics statement. I believe in the right to make a film like this, whether you are Michael Moore or Dinesh D’Souza. But while I respect their rights to make these claims, I have no respect for either man. There are certainly corrupt politicians on both sides of the political landscape, both now and across history, and to make claims that one person or one political party is responsible for every evil in the country, it is just asinine.

It is easy to spin half-truths and make dramatic claims. But it takes much more integrity and vision to honestly explore complex topics and to stand up proudly and willingly listen to all sides of an issue.

I’ll say this, Mr. D’Souza, Mr. Moore, and all the other one-sided commentators out there. You make a hell of a finished product. But at the end of the day, your films/books/shows/broadcasts are basically accomplishing the very corruptions you are accusing your targets of.

Basically, you are the Westboro Baptist Church of political commentary.

Out of the Basket of Deplorables

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“I’m telling you, we are in the wrong war on terror!”

The man leaned over, looking a bit like Doc Brown, Christopher Lloyd’s character in Back to the Future, his wispy white hair unkempt, his eyes wild and a bit mad. He was wearing black jeans and a dark black shirt with a single word printed on it in capital letters with a period: WHATEVER.

“We keep getting ourselves involved in the wars in Iran and Iraq and all those places, when they have already been at war for years! Have you ever heard of the Iranian/Iraqian war? Look it up, I’m telling you!”

He took a long sip of his coffee, an iced caramelly drink pumped full of cream and sugar, then leaned forward, speaking more loudly.

“Those ISIS guys, they are just the new version of the Taliban. And what’s the worst that could happen? They send some suicide bomber in, all crazy with some bomb in a balloon or something, and they blow up some stadium and kill, what, fifty sixty people at most. But North Korea, there is your real problem! We just keep ignoring them with all their political games! I’ve been saying this since before Obama, since before Bush, we just keep ignoring North Korea and they are gonna send a nuke to, I don’t know, Seattle or San Francisco or something and we have a couple million dead! Then they will see I was right!”

“Yup, I hear ya.” His companion, looking like a stand-in on the Duck Dynasty, had an ample stomach that stood out over his jeans. He had a long white beard, rather Santa Claus like, and a pair of dark sunglasses under a red ballcap.

“And those suicide bombers, I totally get it! They get a few seconds of anxiety and nervousness or whatever, then they blow up and they get to Heaven where they get all the virgins they want! I mean, according to them, they go out on their terms! They get to do it how they want! What’s their other alternative, to submit to, what is it, Sharia Law, and they get to get hung up in some public square with their throats slit! So, yeah, you go out on your terms and you get the reward. It’s like, kinda like, Mormons get to have all those wives in Heaven and they are just waitin’ to get there!”

Duck Dynasty laughed heartily. “Oh, I love a good Mormon joke in the mornings.”

Doc Brown took another long sip from his drink while his friend sipped his coffee. They were silent for a second before Duck Dynasty started talking, much lower and more even, leaning back in his chair comfortably and choosing his words carefully.

“The way I look at it, 90 per cent of people who are devout about their religion were born and raised in their religion. There’s a bunch of studies on that shit. And we got billions of people in the world in certain religions, and parts of them is pushing their religion to those crazy levels. That’s Mormon, that’s Muslims, that’s whatever the North Koreans are, and it turns into war wen we start killing people, but maybe the war needs to be on the religions themselves. That’s why I liked Trump better before he brought religion into it. He’s gotta get more voters and everyone is all God and Jesus in America, I know that, but I had more respect for him before he was swaying in those churches. But at least he’s not that bitch, Hillary.”

Doc Brown almost stood up he was so excited. “She thinks she is so smart, but she is so stupid! Just like all of them! All of them who think ISIS is like some world-wide problem, it’s so freaking stupid! We need, you know what we need, we need Harry Truman back in office. Or–or Porter Rockwell. We gotta dig them out of the ground and put them back in the White House to make more sense of the world, to make it look like sense again. It’s the same damn thing over and over. The Civil War, and here we are a hundred years later with the same problems. You can’t get people to change how they think and feel. People in the South would still take us to war over blacks and slavery. ISIS is the exact same thing. But I tell you one thing, Trump has a lot of things right! He stands up and says that if he was in charge, ISIS wouldn’t have the money they have to blow things up! And he isn’t gonna tell the whole world his military strategy, that’s stupid! You tell everyone what you’re gonna do like Obama did and they know what you’re gonna do and fight back! Trump is keeping it secret, that’s smart!”

“You know what I like about Trump is he’s tenacious. He’s put up Trump Towers all over, Las Vegas, Atlanta, New York, all over. He sees the whole country and he builds it up, and when he gets shot down, he gets right back up. He’s got what it takes. Clear vision. He’s the only guy we can put up to the top. And you don’t get there unless you’re a bit of a rebel.”

“Yeah, I think when history is all said and done and in the books or whatever, they are gonna chop Obama up for what he’s done in the Middle East! He’s a politician, but he isn’t no president. Besides, it isn’t the liberals we have to thank for where America is now, it’s Japan. If Japan hadn’t ever bombed Pearl Harbor in World War II, we would never have entered the war and beefed up our military and economy and become the strongest guys ever in the world. I hate when the liberals try to take credit! And that’s what we need is to draw together as a country after 911 after we did in World War II, that’s all we need.”

Duck Dynasty nodded. “Maybe that’s what we need. Someone to piss America off again. 911 happened and we got pissed and look what we did. It’s just like Japan. We get pissed enough and we stop worrying about all this stuff that keeps hitting the news. We quit talking about cyber-terrorism and mental illness and the LGBT community and all of that, and we just go about our days kicking butt.”

Doc Brown threw his arms up in the air again. “Yes! That is exactly what I’m talking about! I don’t care if you believe in Jesus or Allah or whatever you are! It’s just time for things to change! We may not be the best country in the world anymore, may not be number 1 anymore, but this country still has a lot of life left in it!”

“Yeah, it makes me damn mad. The whole thing makes me damn mad.”

“Well said, my friend. Makes me damn mad, too.”

After a few pauses, Doc Brown stood up. “Well, I gotta head in to work before the wife kills me. It was nice meeting you here. I’m Chris.” He extended a hand.

“Don. Great to meet you, too.”

The two men clicked their drinks together in a cheers and headed out of the Starbucks, where I sat at a table nearby, my fingers furiously clacking at the keyboard to capture their unbelievable words. I watched them embrace outside before heading their respective ways, viewing the world, like every other person, with their own sets of eyeballs.

Confidence overcorrection

this way, that way

 

It feels nearly impossible these days to find that sweet spot of balance between confident and vulnerable.

I’ve devoted a considerable amount of my time and effort in the past two years to finding confidence. And I’ve been very successful. I genuinely enjoy spending time with myself now. I can travel solo, spend days solo, and accept rejection at face value relatively easily. I am setting and achieving consistent goals on nearly every level: financially, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and that feels great. It’s an incredible feeling to have achieved, in many ways, what you have set out to.

Yet now I worry I’ve over-corrected a bit. In my development of confidence, I find myself needing people less. I’ve got a bit of a shield around me recently. There is some niceness about that, as I’m tougher, stronger, and more self-sufficient than I’ve ever been. And yet I appear more introverted outwardly to others, but I’m not. I’m social, I enjoy being involved, I like having things to do, I enjoy being surrounded by friends, yet I find lasting connections more difficult to come by.

In pondering why this is in my life, I look at recent circumstances, times when I have extended invites (often multiple invites) to others, and in many if not most cases they fail to answer or fail to show, and they almost always fail to reciprocate, meaning I’m doing the inviting but not receiving invitations. And inevitably, when this pattern repeats, I stop inviting, and thus I spend more time alone.

A similar trend exists for me in dating, rare though it is. I am pretty clear with my availability and expectations. I’m patient, low drama, and easy-going about most things. But I won’t allow myself to be lied to or manipulated, and when someone ultimately can’t meet me in the middle, it isn’t difficult for me to pull back into myself. Which also means more time alone. Ironically, I’ve literally been told that I’m “too date-able” by guys who say they want to date but then ultimately aren’t ready to date. And that all turns out fine because I would rather date those who want to date, and who meet in the middle, or just be single. The alternatives are ultimately too threatening to the careful sense of security.

Looking at potential remedies, I realize the course correction. It’s hard to find that balance between vulnerability and inner strength, between vulnerability and quick recovery, between available and clearly defined boundaries.

It’s tricky to be bold enough to start the conversation at the party, and resilient enough to not be bothered when that person doesn’t talk back, to be bold enough to invite the gym crush out for coffee and still centered when they say no. Rejection is terrible for all humans, and only the most resilient seem to be able to rebound with strength and tenacity.

Ultimately, I think all of us have a hard time with the difficult parts of being human. Vulnerability and pain, handling shame and guilt, grief, pain, rejection, failure, long-term goal-setting, loneliness, changing moods, depression, illness, fragility, aging, and on and on. And I suppose the very best work I’ve done on myself is to be kind and patient with myself, recognizing that I’m a changing creature over time, with all of those human conditions built in to the process. If we fight our very nature, if we are ashamed of ourselves for having needs and low moods, for not being able to freeze time in place, for sometimes being frail or sad or lonely… if we fight ourselves for our very natures, how can we ever find peace?

And I suppose that is exactly where center is, between This Way, and That Way, carefully on the intersection, willing to take a few steps in either direction so long as we know our way back to center, and finding peace with our very humanness along the way, knowing that needs tomorrow will be different than needs today and that is just fine.

So I’ll continue questing, finding peace with being me solo and with others, needing both myself at peace and to be surrounded by others (preferably others who are also at peace with themselves).

And the great human experiment continues.

walking with baby cranes

crane

“Chut-Chut-Chut!”

An adolescent squirrel chattered and chittered far too loudly on the nearby tree trunk. I pointed it out to my sons, both of whom had been wondering what that loud sound was. I dropped down to my knees so they could follow my finger, pointing up-up-up the trunk until they could see where it stood. Its legs were splayed as it held on, sideways in space, its tail moving right and left like a pendulum as it cried out.

“Why is it crying like that?” My 7 year old, J, seemed concerned.

I shrugged. “I don’t know, maybe he’s lonely.”

“Yeah, that’s probably it.”

A, my 5 year old, had already turned away, looking back to our favorite birds at the Aviary, the hornbills. Those small strange creatures, their brilliant plumage, their long eyelashes, their haunting calls, they seemed wise and misunderstood to me.

“Dad! J! Look!” A called out in alarm, and we turned quickly, just in time to see one of the small hornbills flap its wings and ascend several feet into the air to a branch halfway up one of the trees in its enclosure. “I didn’t know hornbills could fly!”

I stayed there kneeling on the ground, an arm around each of my boys, as we watched the hornbills for several seconds. We had been to the Aviary dozens of times in the past several years, season pass holders. It’s a perfect way to spend a fall afternoon on a warm day, watching the birds. But every time we come, there is always some sort of first.

The feature exhibit at the Aviary is an enormous enclosure for their decades-old Andean condor, Andy. We have seen Andy many times, and he is generally up in a tree or down on the ground, resting peacefully or basking in the sun. He’s a beautiful bird. But today, while we watched, Andy jumped up on to an enclosure and spread his wings wide, holding them there for several minutes as we watched, amazed. The wingspan must have been 11 or 12 feet, and he just sat there, stretching or drying his feathers or showing off. It was a beautiful sight to witness.

“Dad, look at that bird! What is it!” I turned to see both of my sons pointing across the field, and it was my turn to follow their fingers. It took me a moment to realize I was looking at a very tall bird out of its pen. I immediately thought perhaps it had escaped, but then I noticed a second bird, and two handlers nearby, coaxing the birds across the grass. While the Aviary has peacocks roaming freely, I had never seen a sight like this.

“What are those?” A asked in wonder.

I thought for a moment, surprised. “Well, son. I think those are cranes.”

The boys knew what cranes were already. They are relatively smart kids with good vocabularies and a decent awareness of the world around them. Not only is there a crane exhibit here at the Aviary, but we read books and watch shows that are all about wildlife.

I stood up and grabbed their hands and we walked several feet closer to the cranes, I overheard one of the handlers talking to a few patrons, explaining that the cranes had been born in California at a wildlife enclosure about six weeks prior, and how they were socializing them as they grew to be comfortable with humans, and they planned to eventually make them part of the Aviary’s bird show. They named the cranes, two females, after Disney princesses, Tiana and Jasmine. They explained how the cranes were in their curious phase, exploring everything with their beaks much like human toddlers try to put everything in their mouths.

I watched the birds more closely, grey and white and brown and black feathers, striated, all mixed together with a spread of color worked in; long elegant legs; downy feather patches along their plumage; fluffy, almost curly crowns; deep black eyes and pointed beaks. They were incredible creatures. I explained to the boys how old they were, and they marveled that the birds were as tall as they were.

We walked along behind the handlers as the cranes walked behind us, keeping pace, sometimes passing within a few inches of us. The handlers called the cranes’ names, encouraging them to keep close, being patient as they seemed to take their time exploring the area around them.

My sons bragged to the handlers as they walked, telling them their names and ages, what grade they were in in school, and offering smart observations about the cranes. The handlers, both beautiful women, listened to every word, engaged in conversation, asked questions, and charmed my sons. When A bent to pick up a small feather, they looked at it and told him it was a peacock feather from an adolescent male, then Jasmine the crane took it out of his hand with her beak, initially scaring him but then making him laugh.

A few minutes later, as we walked back to the car, I asked the boys what their favorite memory of the Aviary was this time. They brought up Andy, with his wings spread wide. They brought up the chittering squirrel. Then they talked non-stop about the cute baby cranes the rest of the ride home.

Hours later, I checked on them, my own baby cranes snug in their beds, early in their development and turning into powerful little men. The house was quiet around me and I could only hear their breathing (my very favorite sound in the world), and I thought of how at this point in my life, I had assumed I would have a partner to raise them with, and how even though that hasn’t turned out for me, how I have been so honored to create memories and to watch them grow.

I smiled, stroked each of their cheeks once, and wondered if perhaps they were dreaming of cranes.

fortune telling

crystal-ball

At 3:30 am, I woke up in a small panic with thoughts of the future.

I realized long ago how temporary I am, how finite, that my life can be visualized as simply as a piece of string hung between two walls, starting at one and ending at the other. There is no extending that string past its length. It could be two inches or one hundred and two inches, with each inch representing a year. And once the second wall is hit, that’s it, that’s all there is.

I imagined an accurate fortune teller somewhere, maybe an entire field of fortune tellers. Rather than fortune telling being some mystical, supernatural thing with crystal balls and incense, maybe it could be an entire field of industry, a college major, where women and men learn the craft of taking people through the long paths ahead. If fortune telling was available, if we could see forward to the events ahead without the ability to change them, would we do so? Of course we would.

I can picture my mother at the age of eight sitting down and asking about her future. Now, at eight, she likely would be wanting to know a very few things, about whether the boy in her class that she had a crush on liked her back, and if she would grow up to be happy with a husband and children. But the fortune teller for her would give the same messages that would be given to anyone seeking such answers.

For true fortunes would be a mix of dreadful and wonderful things.

Fortunes would talk about setbacks and successes, deep heartaches and physical ailments, the losses of loved ones, career breakthroughs, crippling debts, epic vacations, and the glimpses of happiness and joy along the way, feelings that last seconds to minutes to perhaps days.

I think fortune tellers would tell us what every wise older person has always told us. To find happiness in the little moments, to live every day like it is our last, to follow our dreams, to reach for the stars, to sing and smile and laugh and rejoice in our humanity, for humanity is fleeting and the end comes far too quickly.

At the age of 37, I sit comfortably in what I hope is the first of my middle years with several decades ahead yet. I sit in this space, typing on a laptop at the desk near my bed, a cup of coffee on one side and a glass of water on the other. The room is dark  except for the light of my computer screen, and I have an ache in my back, and I’m a strange mix of inspired and lonely. I look at the day ahead with sadness and joy, anticipating play time with my children and time to research and time at my office helping others and an evening ahead watching an old film with friends; the joy comes in the life I have created for myself one that is happy and abiding, and the sadness comes because of this blog, this recognition in the fragility of human life, the utter temporariness of it all.

A few years ago, here in Salt Lake City, I had a strong group of core friends. We saw each other often, spent time together, laughed and danced and dreamed and talked and traveled. And all of that feels so different now, just an inch down the string. Kurt died so abruptly, and among the others there are new relationships, new breakups, relocations across the country, double and triple jobs to pay the bills, crippling depressions, and newly purchased homes, and that joint space we occupied together is something that was rather than something that is.

And my sons, my amazing sons, they are expanding and shooting upward at breakneck speed. One is studying fractions in his second grade class and is learning how social hierarchies in school settings work while the other is learning how to write stories in kindergarten while struggling to learn how to manage disappointment when things don’t go just right. They dress themselves now, and they have strong opinions, and they are learning that doughnuts and marshmallows taste better than other things but aren’t ultimately healthy, and the larger lesson that pleasure is more easily obtained than sustainable results. They are hilarious and endearing and wonderful, and exhausting and expensive, and every other thing. They are my greatest joys. And they too have these futures ahead, full of the unknown, and that thrills me and frightens me with joy and dread and anticipation.

I just took a minute to take my fingers off the keys. I placed my head in my hands with my elbows on the desk, and I closed my eyes for a moment. My thoughts quieted and I breathed in, smelling coffee, hearing a car alarm go off outside, feeling the small chill in the fall air in my room. I realized my toes were cold. And I yawned, gloriously. And then I looked back up at this screen and realized I captured this moment, this morning, in this space, and I grinned widely because I won’t ever have this experience again. It has passed now, like all the others. In moments, I will click ‘publish’ on a blog that can then be read by others, and I will climb back in bed to read and doze until it is time to get up and exercise and shower and go to work.

And this complicated present tense of mine, with all these exhaustive and incredible complexities, they repeat themselves in variations each moment of my day, and that is tremendous, this capacity I, that we, have to be all of that throughout our entire timeline.

And that, I realize, is our true fortunes. Were I to visit the fortune teller, I wouldn’t want to hear a list of successes and failures. I would want to hear that I am miraculous and complicated and I will live every moment full of all of that, and that life is lived in those moments, and that the present one is always the one that we do, and must, live in.

 

Children are listening

On countless Sunday church meetings growing up, I would perk my ears and open my heart and spirit, desperately listening for Priesthood leaders to deliver counsel on how I might cure my homosexuality. They remained silent, week after week.

Every six months, at General Conference, when the inspired prophets and apostles of the Church spoke to the membership, I would fast and pray and listen, and they remained silent time after time. I was left to my own efforts.

It was all the messages that fell in between the blanks that resonated the loudest with me. Men are to marry women, men who aren’t manly enough are sissies and failures, there is only one path to happiness.

And for a long time, I felt silenced, and alone, like I was the only one who could possibly be suffering like that. It wasn’t until coming out years later that there were dozens of others around me, also quietly suffering, silent in their pain and thinking they were alone. I know at least a dozen others from my high school, dozens more from my college class, and at least 10 other missionaries from my Mormon mission. And most ironic of all, one bedroom over, my sister Sheri was struggling with the same feelings.

And now I’m raising my children, and I’m seeing dozens of clients every month who grew up with the same stories, some of them past tense and some of them present tense.

“My brothers called each other ‘fag’ all the time, and I knew I was one, and I knew that I was bad.”

“My parents wanted me to wear dresses and that just wasn’t me, and so I wasn’t as good as my sisters who were girly-girls. And the fact that I liked girls, too, forget it.”

“My mom was completely okay with me having a boyfriend. But when he and I broke up and I got a girlfriend, she just pretended we were roommates. For the next ten years.”

“My parents and my boyfriend love me as the man that I am, but I have no idea how to tell them I’m a woman. They keep saying ugly things about the transgender bathroom situation, and they have no idea that I’m right next to them, transgender myself.”

I live in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is a place of startling statistics, but a new one recently made the national news. Utah is now the only state in the country where the leading causing death for youth is SUICIDE. And many of those teen suicides are directly related to their shame over being LGBT in homes and cultures where those messages aren’t supported.

After I came out of the closet, at age 32, one of the first films I watched was Prayers for Bobby, a movie based on the lives of Bobby, a gay Christian, and his mother, Mary, a devout believer in her faith. After years of trying to not be gay, Bobby ended up taking his own life, and Mary went on to find compassion for gay people, and realized what she had done wrong in raising her son. Her words, the first time I heard them, moved me to tears, sobs, and shakes. I still get emotional when I read them. She delivered these words in a local government setting, trying to gain support for her cause, and sharing the message she had learned at much too high a cost.

“Homosexuality is a sin. Homosexuals are doomed to spend eternity in Hell. If they wanted to change, they could be healed of their evil ways. If they would turn away from temptation, they could be normal again if only they would try and try harder if it doesn’t work. These are all the things I said to my son Bobby when I found out that he was gay. When he told me he was a homosexual my world fell apart. I did everything I could to cure him of his sickness. Eight months ago my son jumped off a bridge and killed himself. I deeply regret my lack of knowledge about gay and lesbian people. I see that everything I was taught and told was bigotry and de-humanizing slander. If I had investigated beyond what I was told, if I had just listened to my son when he poured his heart out to me, I would not be standing here today with you filled with regret. I believe that God was pleased with Bobby’s kind and loving spirit. In God’s eyes kindness and love are what it’s all about. I didn’t know that each time I echoed eternal damnation for gay people, each time I referred to Bobby as sick and perverted and a danger to our children. His self esteem and sense of worth were being destroyed. And finally his spirit broke beyond repair. It was not God’s will that Bobby climbed over the side of a freeway overpass and jumped directly into the path of an eighteen-wheel truck, which killed him instantly. Bobby’s death was the direct result of his parent’s ignorance and fear of the word gay. He wanted to be a writer. His hopes and dreams should not have been taken from him but they were. There are children, like Bobby, sitting in your congregations. Unknown to you they will be listening as you echo “amen”, and that will soon silence their prayers. Their prayers to God for understanding and acceptance and for your love. But your hatred and fear and ignorance of the word gay will silence those prayers. So, before you echo “amen” in your home and place of worship, think. Think and remember, a child is listening.”

marygriffith

While these issues hit me as a professional frequently in my therapy office, they far too often hit me personally as well. A very dear friend of mine recently came out as gay to me, and another close friend told me she is transgender; both are vastly afraid to come out to their peers and family, to make painful transitions into new lives. And another dear friend of mine recently called me to tell me her son’s best friend, a well-known gay Mormon teen, had taken his life. I sat with her as she shared how much pain she was in, and how scared she was that her own son would be next.

Outside of all the statistics, outside of the war between conservative and liberal or church and state, there are human lives all around us, children and adults listening in every corner of every room, many of them suffering. Lives are at stake. Choose your words and actions carefully.

Children are listening.