Heaven

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“Hey, monkeys, I heard your great-grandpa died. How are you feeling about that?”

My sons, now J (age 9) and and A (age 6), thought about it briefly.

A set down the toy crocodile he’d been playing with. “I’m sad. But he was really old, like 85, so I guess it’s okay.”

J didn’t look up from the pad of paper where he was drawing. “I’m just glad he is with great-grandma in Heaven now.”

Later that evening, I gave thought to Heaven itself. Growing up, I’d thought of it as some sort of city in the clouds with golden gates and marble spires, where everyone was white with white hair and flowing robes. For most people, Heaven was a simple construct, a nice cloudy place for the dead to keep existing and to relax forever.

But I’d been raised Mormon, a religion that taught that all of mankind existed as spirits before coming to Earth, and that in Heaven, after the judgment, those who were worthy would get to live forever in their resurrected bodies. But there also some kind of in between life, which Mormons called Spirit World, where the good and evil spirits were divided into paradise and prison before the final judgment. Then, after the judgment, there were various kingdoms where humans would get to live depending on their worthiness, and men could only aim for the very highest through obedience to complicated rules. Married heterosexual couples who were worthy would stay married and would be bonded to their children and their parents, and on and on forward and backward, creating a family chain from beginning to end. The unworthy were severed from these bonds, yet they still had their own version of the afterlife, just a little less nice, a shack instead of a mansion, or a mansion instead of a planet. In the end, the most worthy would get to live on Earth again, which would be made paradise and its own version of Heaven.

All of that, with afterlife and varying levels of worth and reward, suddenly made Heaven very complicated. And that was before introducing the concept of Hell.

My children, in their short lives, have already seen more death than I had in my childhood. By 9, I didn’t really know anyone who died, not personally, until I was a teenager, but they have lost five of their great grandparents (the other three having died before their births). Death, to them, is something that happens to the old, as a natural part of existence. They don’t seem overly impacted, sad, or distressed, they just know that someone who was a parent to their grandparents is now gone on. To them, Heaven is still simple, a place to rest and be happy.

I’m not sure what Heaven is to me now. As a therapist, I often have spiritual discussions with my clients, helping them discover their own truths and sort out the complexities of their religious upbringings in their own lives. When asked to give a label to my own belief structure, I often tell people that I’m a “spiritual atheist” and that, while I don’t believe in God or religion, that I do believe in the human spirit and its capacity for progress and change, for peace and purpose. And while I don’t believe in cloud cities and white flowing robes anymore than I do in winged beings with harps, I also don’t believe in a great void of blackness where souls just slip away into oblivion.

It’s hard for me to sort out thoughts on Heaven without being influenced by my upbringing, where eternal rest was equated directly to obedience within a narrow set of rules. “Do as you are told, and you get to have the best afterlife” no longer sits well with me. And there are billions and billions of human souls who have come before me. In a world where millions have been killed in concentration camps or by atomic bombs and were told that they deserved it because of their heritage, where millions spent their lifetimes in the bonds of slavery and were told that they deserved it because of their skin color, or where millions were ravaged by AIDS and told that they deserved it for their lifestyle choices… what is the afterlife for them? Is it a place that white Christians have determined is primarily set up for white Christians? I can’t reconcile those untold millions into the Heaven I was raised to believe in, and so I reject that concept completely.

If my children were asking me about Heaven, I wouldn’t list any sort of merit-based system. I wouldn’t discuss a premortal existence, or God, or fire and brimstone, or higher or lower degrees. I would instead describe the very images they are likely to draw. A place where we are happy and love the people we love. And there can be clouds and trees and peace, human development in healthy relationships, free of war and pain. That’s the place I want them picturing their great-grandparents.

An uncomplicated space of love and health where every voice is heard and every person is loved.

In fact, maybe I won’t ask them to draw it, and maybe I won’t draw it for them. Maybe we can draw it together.

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All your Moose-Bucks

“Wait, why Saskatoon?”

Every Canadian who learned who were on vacation from America asked us this question with shock, in a way that showed that they loved their city but they wouldn’t understand what would bring an American there. (I think it would be like a person from Ogden, Utah wondering why a man from Australia had chosen that particularly city for vacation, it just didn’t compute.)

Even Sonja, the kind Canadian woman who worked the WestJet check-in counter at the Saskatoon Airport, wondered why. “What did you even find to do here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

We’d done lots of things. Live music, beers, nightclubs, art galleries, live theater, long drives through the lush Saskatchewan farmland, historical exploration in small resort towns, long walks and talks, exploration of local neighborhoods and universities, coffee shops, and window shopping. It was difficult to explain that we’d chosen it to see a different side of life in a different place, somewhere far away but somehow just close enough to home. And in Canada, familiar to the culture of the United States but just one parallel universe away, with customs and currency just one degree off from the familiar. A place where people spoke the same, but the vowels were just a bit longer, giving an almost Irish lilt to the accents. (Example, instead of home, they say hohme, the oh just a bit longer.)

Sonja understood. “It sounds like you just chose a city with a great and unique name. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.”

I gave her a wide smile back. “The best name. And a place I’ll probably never make it back to.”

Adapting to the culture here had been mostly easy, with just a few rare exceptions. Without WiFi accessible on the phone, due to international data plans, we’d been left to use an ancient GPS in our rental car to get us places, and in at least one case it directed us to a spot around 160 kilometers away from where we’d needed to be, keeping us in the car an extra 2 hours to get back to where we needed to be. (But we’d seen an awful lot of wheat fields, flat horizons, and farm houses along the way, even stopping for some Rum Raisin ice cream at a random business built on a field, and served by a lovely woman with terrible teeth).

One day, we’d visited Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to take some old tours of the city’s tunnels, built back in the 1920s and 30s, one about Al Capone’s alleged boot-legging business and one about the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants for decades during the construction of the local railroads and the years afterwards. The tours had been run by local actors, all short and squat, who mostly seemed bored with their jobs as they recounted fascinating history in a character voice. Yet parking in Moose Jaw had been impossible. Most places in the province had allowed us to use credit or debit cards to pay for parking, but this city only had old-fashioned parking meters, and we had to stop into several places to first get Canadian dollars, then to make change for Canadian quarters. (Now I have a collection of Canadian coins and bills, what seems like play money with pictures of British royalty on it, in my wallet, and I’m not sure what I’ll do with it).

We’d gone to the two local gay clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, to see what the local culture was like. One Friday, at Diva’s, we had been the only ones at the bar, and finally left at 11:30, baffled. But on Saturday, at Pink, the bar had been packed with men and women in flannel, all with thick bushy hair, some even in mullets, wearing styles that were reminiscent of the mid-1990s in Idaho and Utah: backwards ball caps, cigarettes tucked behind ears, baggy jeans, and hoodies over untucked flannel shirts.

We’d seen a local play, a first viewing of a production written by a local gay man, one that featured gay parents struggling to raise a son with schizophrenia all while getting in touch with their own roots. It had been moving and wonderful.

We’d watched a local band, the Royal Foundry, a husband-and-wife pop/folk duo whose songs are newly gracing radio stations across Canada, give an incredible concert for a group of 30 people in a small jazz club. The singers’ parents and grandparents had been in attendance, and we’d clapped and tapped our feet to their incredible energy and music, sipping on Old Fashioned drinks and continually commenting on how amazing the band was.

On Sunday, I’d taken hours to walk through the rain through the local University of Saskatchewan, weaving in and out of buildings, watching students study and write in quiet corners of the library and classroom buildings. I read the placards about local Nobel Peace Prize winners, and had admired the “collegiate gothic” style of the buildings. It had been beautiful, and filled me with a longing for my academic days.

We’d been picked up and dropped off by a Vietnamese immigrant, whose car we had rented for the week through a phone app. Nguyen, as he’d asked to be called, talked about this Christian family in Viet Nam, black-listed in their home town for being Catholic. His parents had worked for years to afford a Western education for their son, and now he was here working on a PhD in business, in his sixth year of school. He discussed his “maybe girlfriend” who lived hundreds of kilometers away, a girl he was interested in because he had met her at a college Bible camp years before.

So why Saskatoon? For all of those reasons. These random encounters. The music and art and theater, the rain, the buildings, the farmland and history, the never-ending niceness of the locals, and the wonder that we’d had this weekend to explore and be parts of these things.

When we first landed, my best friend Tyler and I had laughed that we didn’t understand local currency, and I’d joked that they must use Moose-Bucks.

Now that we were leaving, Tyler asked if ‘d wade the experiences in, if I wished we had gone somewhere different instead.

“I wouldn’t trade them,” I said with conviction. “Not for all my Moose-Bucks.”

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Building an Art Gallery

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“It’s like Andy Warhol doing Picasso,” I noted out loud as I looked at the lined Picasso impressions lined up on the walls in different neon colors, like that famous Marilyn Monroe piece that Warhol did.

“It’s nice. But I think this is my least favorite room in the gallery,” my best friend Tyler replied, and I agreed with him. The films we’d watched had been particularly inspiring for me, as I love the film-making medium, and he had adored the modern art room. One piece, a filmstrip on a constant reel just showing a blank filmstrip on rotation, had left me feeling inspired, like our days in life just rushing through over and over, one indistinguishable from the next at a certain point. Every person there was being made to feel, looking at particular pieces that evoke particular emotions, and that in itself was art.

I turned and looked at the fork in the South Saskatchewan River outside. The gallery and been placed her purposefully, I’d read, to show the juxtaposition of the old and the new, with the farmlands of Saskatchewan (called the Wheat Province) in the distance, and the more modern downtown life of Saskatoon behind us. It was raining outside and drab, but still beautiful.

“Hey, the guys from Utah! You made it!”

I turned to see Tracey, the woman from the Tourism office, behind us smiling. She was in her mid-30s and sort of looked like a Canadian Tina Fey, shoulder length brown hair with thick glasses and a charming smile. The day before, on our walk through the city, we had stopped by her office and she’d told us about the opening of the art gallery here, then had opened her purse to offer us two free tickets of her own, as two of her family members  weren’t going to be able to make it. We had chatted with her for thirty minutes at the time and had made fast, casual friends with her.

“Tracey, hi!” We shook her hand and commented a bit on the rainy weather, then she turned toward the gallery walls.

“So what do you guys think?”

“It’s really nice!” Tyler, himself an artist with artist friends and a history of promoting events, commented on the building’s layout and architecture as we stepped back into the hallway, gabbing.

My mind drifted toward the live performance art piece, and I had thoughts of the book I’d read by Marina Abramovic, all about live performance art. Here, two lithe and lean artists were dressed in floral prints and snug jeans and black shoes and they were laying contorted on the ground in positions that looked almost like they had fallen from a building. They slowly moved, painstakingly flexing an ankle, rolling a shoulder, craning a neck, raising a hip, twisting into new positions over minutes at a time, and I’d read on the board that they would continue doing this for a full four hours. I couldn’t imagine the strain that would put on their bodies.

On the drive to the gallery, I’d heard a radio commentator describing the gallery like she was talking to friends in her living room. “You guys, you have to come and check out the Remai Modern, I mean, it’s amazing, truly. It’s like a little piece of New York City right here in downtown Saskatoon! If you don’t make it down, you’ll be soar-y!”

Tyler and Tracey continued talking, this time about the development of the gallery itself, and how difficult it is to get a venture like this going. Tyler has the rare ability to engage with practically anyone on practically any topic.

“A place like this needed to happen,” Tracey was agreeing. “Much of the community stood against it. It required construction into a resource that a lot of people weren’t sure they wanted, and many still aren’t sure. But I think that just shows it needed to happen, to push more boundaries. Saskatoon has lots of different cultures in it. One of my favorite places is the Bassment, and on Friday nights there are free jazz shows, and older citizens will come in and get drinks and complain about the young crowd in the back who talk during the music. It’s not easy to bring everyone on the same page always. But it’s a really accepting place too.”

Tyler asked questions about the funding of the building, the construction of it, the selection of the board of directors, and the fight that they had over a period of several years to get the gallery built. There were empty spaces on some of the walls, and he estimated that the challenge now would be to keep tourism up so that staff and security could be afforded, and the place could become a community staple, a featured space for locals to gather and support. The truth of the space would be told over the following years.

“Back in Salt Lake,” Tyler was saying, “many complain about the local art community, saying it isn’t very vibrant. But there are galleries, art walks, and a museum, and none of those who complain about it seem to be the ones supporting art itself.”

The models on the floor were in new positions. The male had his legs bent back behind him, his hands on the floor, his back arched and his head dropped back, his chest raising toward the ceiling. The woman lay on her side in much the same position, her arms and legs both bent back behind her and touching at a point. It was painful and beautiful. It was art, much like the building itself. Yet each moment with these artists in the live piece was a new painting, something that could only be experienced in that particular moment, and one that would move on, one that would change for each viewer as they walked by, some moments perhaps captured by no one at all.

We bid Tracey farewell and walked along the river for a bit, and I thought of the complexities of having a dream, and then navigating the political realities of making it happen. Actresses who dealt with sexual harassment to get a role, playwrights who pushed through rich snobby boards to get their works put on a community theater docket, and, in my case, documentary film makers who search and search for funding to try to make a life-changing film, navigating through an insular movie-making community in a small town.

Then I turned back and saw the building on the river, filled with people looking at art. I thought of the artists contorting their bodies on the floor of the museum as patrons watched them, and knew they did what they did because they loved it and wanted it to be seen, just like the people who dreamed up this gallery in the first place. And now that it was built, after the dream, and after the struggle, now the struggle for survival started, and the space would likely transform in the following years, as all spaces do, into something that the dreamer hadn’t dreamed in the first place. But still, it had been built, and how many dreams weren’t ever built?

If they can do it, so can I, I thought, and turned back to watch the river flow.

Saskatoon Shines!

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Years ago, I learned to find peace when I traveled, respite from life. Parts of me would come alive when I left my home in Utah and stepped into a new and unfamiliar place, where I could place my feet upon new streets and breathe new air. Travel became crucial for me and for my development, and my soul cried out for it. I traveled to survive.

Now I travel simply because I enjoy it. I like frequent getaways to new places. I enjoy walking and seeing what I can discover.

Saskatoon snuck up on me. It was a word that merely escaped my lips after a stressful day at work, and suddenly I had booked plane tickets for a few months later. And now I’m here, looking out at the expanse of the flat Canadian prairie country and farmland around me. I’m staying on the 21st floor of a tall building, and my view overlooks the river and a few bridges, into the distance and over the city. The skies are grey and I can see the Earth curve on the far horizon.

There is something about being somewhere I haven’t been before, and with a place like Saskatoon it is likely a place I will never be again. The city isn’t particularly magical. It’s drab, all browns and greens and grey and blues that seem muted, like Kansas in the Wizard of Oz. The people are kind, and funny, and go out of their way to be helpful. The architecture is normal. A cold breeze blows across the river. It feels like a normal metropolitan western city, with many of the same restaurants and department stores that I would find back in America.

But for me, it isn’t about the city, it’s about the experiences.

It’s wandering into a city government building to explore and having a long conversation with the security guard about canola farming and the changing temperatures of the northern farm land and the tax incentives for farmers who are looking out for their families’ well-beings generations down the line.

It’s stopping in the tourism office and chatting with a delightful potato bug of a person named Debbie about her passion and love for the city.

It’s stepping into a random restaurant and having a friendly Asian man with much too long fingernails serve you thick noodles in vegetable broth with freshly sliced mushrooms, eggplant, and cabbage, and talking about how good life is with your best friend.

It’s seeing Canadian geese on a Canadian river in Canada.

It’s sitting down and clutching a cup of coffee for warmth as two women loudly cackle while another man rushes into the place looking like he forgot where the bathroom was, and then realizing that look never quite leaves his face.

It’s going out to a nightclub in the late evening and hoping to interact with locals and then leaving two hours later, having been the only ones in the establishment.

It’s repeating a joke to a Canadian woman: “I heard that in Saskatchewan you can watch your dog run away for three full miles.”

And hearing her take it far too seriously: “Well, I suppose, but that is more in southern Saskatchewan, we get a few hills here and there up here.”

It’s complimenting a woman on her niceness, and indeed the seeming niceness of all Canadians, and having her respond, “Well, we are nice, yes, but we are sarcastic too!”

Travel sings to my soul. It takes me to a spiritual place in my own head where I can be anonymous in a crowd and just absorb. I didn’t travel, much, until just a few years ago, and now the memories I can capture in my journal or blog or just in my own head resound within me constantly on a playlist. Ocean Beach and Provincetown and Missoula and Reno and Fillmore and Little Armenia and the Castro and Pike Market. The list extends, and each place brings a smile to my face, though nothing note-worthy happened in any of those places except for long walks and life on my own terms. Community theater, vegan restaurants, saloons, beaches, live music, coffee shops, book stores, and strangers.

Travel releases me. It puts me in tune with myself. It gives me voice. It sings to my soul and through my fingertips. It slows me down and brings me back into my own self.

Yet travel also exposes me. It strips me bare. My insecurities, fears, doubts, shames, regrets, and worries work themselves out of me. At some point on every trip, I feel small and scared. I worry about insurmountable tasks. I think of my children and get tears on my cheeks. I grieve for losses. I think of the unfinished: the book, the documentary, the fitness goals. I shift to gratitude and I wonder if I’ll lose all I’ve gained. But even these parts of me are valid, vital, crucial. They are always within me, the bones upon which I build myself, and it is freeing to feel them there and let them breathe.

When we landed in Saskatoon, the welcome sign said “Saskatoon Shines!” But I haven’t seen the sun yet here. On the first night, the sun was setting, and pinks and oranges blended in with the grey clouds.

“It’s beautiful,” I muttered, and a woman nearby took notice.

“Oh, that is pretty, yes, but we get much better sunsets than that one. That one is just okay. Sorry ’bout that. Keep watching, no worries.”

She apologized for the quality of the sunset. And somehow that single moment captures the essence of this trip for me.

As I type this, the sky is still grey, and river still flowing, the colors still drab.

And the Earth is still curving, and me with it.

Saskatoon may not shine much, but it shines for me.

Losing my lube in Canada

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“Everyone here is no nice!”

I had only been to Canada a few times before, once to Victoria, Vancouver Island as a teenager on a brief family vacation, and a few times to British Columbia during my married Mormon years. Yet now I was on my way for an epic (well, epic on my own terms) five day vacation to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a city I had kind of chosen at random a few months before when I wanted to plan a trip to look forward to.

“They are nice!” Tyler said back, and I thought of the dozens of South Park and How I Met Your Mother episodes I had seen making fun of Canadian niceness.

My best friend Tyler and I had arrived at the airport in Salt Lake City in plenty of time, and we’d been surprisingly moved to the “premier” section of the small plane, a watered down version of first class, with drinks delivered in glass containers with ice, a small pillow and blanket, and a bit more leg room. The flight attendants and many people on the plane were clearly Canadian and proud of it, many wearing maple leaves on their clothing or apparel showing off their favorite Canadian sports teams.

We heard plenty of “Oh, sorry!” and “Hey, no worries” in our interactions. When Tyler accidentally spilled some of his complimentary water on himself, the flight attendant, adorable in a black skirt and white top and with her hair in pigtails, handed him napkins. “Here you go, sorry about that, no worries, no worries.” And he and I had laughed.

“Maybe you’ve finally found your people!” Tyler joked.

I have a weird way of pronouncing certain words. I grew up in south-western Missouri, where they have thick hillbilly drawls, and then spent my teenage years in eastern Idaho potato farming country, where the locals talk more like farmers and hicks, with long vowels and lazy consonants. I have a nice strong baritone voice, but I give those long vowels to certain words, and I have a bit of a drawl sometimes, so I tend to say a few words funny, like “soar-y” instead of “sorry” and “to-moar-ow” instead of tomorrow. I’ve been asked many times before if I’m from Canada. The flight attendant had said ‘soar-y’ and ‘no woar-ies’, causing us both to giggle.

“Maybe I have found my people!” I laughed back, just as we heard a woman from somewhere behind us yell “Oh my Goad!”, and we giggled even harder.

We walked off the plane into the Calgary Airport for our layover, and noticed beautiful artwork along the walls, much of it celebrating local wildlife, like geese and moose. We checked out handsome men in flannel and kept bantering back and forth.

I jabbed Tyler with an elbow. “Is it safe for you to enter the country again? Weren’t you on the Canadian Mounties Ten Most Wanted list years ago? If they catch you, I don’t have nearly enough Moose Bucks to bail you out.”

If anyone was annoyed with the giggling American gay male thirty-somethings, we didn’t notice, just excited to be in a new space. We lugged our luggage down the long line toward customs, our declaration forms and passports in hand, and some very polite agents, one a brown-skinned man with a thick beard and a turban, ushered us through quickly and without incident.

Then we made our way back toward the security line to re-enter the airport for our connecting flight. I slipped off my shoes, unpacked my laptop into its own bin, removed my coat, and then hefted my large carry-on bag up onto the conveyor belt. A nice man ushered me through the metal detector, but then something in my bag raised concern on the X-Ray machine.

“Excuse me, sir, is this your bag?” The Canadian TSA agent (although I’m not sure that it is called the TSA in Canada) was a short man in his early 30s with thick glasses and a large bald spot. “Please step this way.”

He led me to the end of the row as people continued passing through security. He informed me he had to look for something in my bag. “Do you have anything sharp, hazardous, or liquid in the bag?”

“Nothing sharp or hazardous. I do have some liquids in my toiletry bag. But I had this bag on my flight from Salt Lake City to Calgary and everything was fine.” I did a mental inventory of the contents of the bag as he unzipped it. Toothpaste, moisturizer, deodorant. And then I remembered I had packed a bottle of lube. The boyfriend and I keep a large 8 fluid ounce bottle of lube, that cost about fifty dollars, next to the bed, but it was more than half empty. I had packed it for… well… personal reasons (come on, my mother reads this blog) thinking that it was empty enough to be safe.

Sure enough, the man with the bald spot opened my toiletry bag and held up the bottle of lube in front of his face. Then he held it up in the air a bit, as if to show his fellow employees. He turned to me, a bit too loudly, and said, “Well, sir, your personal lubricant exceeds the maximum number of allowed milliliters.” My brain seized a bit, having no idea how to compute milliliters.

“I, um, it was fine on the last flight.”

“It’s against federal regulations.”  He continued holding it up in the air, and I felt my cheeks start to turn scarlet. “You have three options. You can be escorted out through security and recheck your bag, because this personal lubricant is not allowed on the flight, then come back through security. You can choose to have me discard this after you surrender it to me. Or I can give you a mailing package and you can mail the lubricant to yourself.”

Flummoxed and stuttering, embarrassed at the idea of mailing a bottle of lube to myself, I instructed him to simply throw it away, and he placed it in a container behin him as I repacked my bag and wanted to get away from there as soon as possible. He just stood there watching. This particular Canadian had no intention of saying Soar-y.

As we walked away, Tyler kept giggling, teasing me, but I was red faced and wanted to be out of there. I pictured the security technicians watching on their cameras at the American tourist with the giant bottle of lube.

Then Tyler tapped me on the shoulder. “You realize that man back there is totally going to take that lube home and–”

“No! No! Enough!” And finally I giggled again, ready for a weekend of new experiences in the land of nice.

the Garden of Eat’n

 

Bev loomed over the table, hands on hips. “Ready to order?”

I did one last quick scan of the menu. “I’ll take the ‘Paradise Veggie Burger. Can I get it on wheat bread instead of a bun? And is a side of cottage cheese possible?”

She moved her tongue against the inside of her cheek and nodded. “Yup. Lettuce, tomato, pickle okay?”

“Yes, thank you.” I handed her my menu as she took the orders from Jason and Dave, my colleagues there on a work trip for me. Without another word, Bev turned back toward the kitchen to place our orders. She was a large woman, in black pants and a white shirt that was likely supposed to be tucked in. She had on heavy foundation but no blush or lipstick, and her dyed-red hair was slicked back. She was probably 50 years old, and had a wedding ring on her finger.

We made small talk as we waited for our order, and I recounted some of the stranger happenings during the day there in Fillmore, Utah, a small town just off the freeway in the center of the state. Earlier in the day, I’d stopped at a grocery store called Duane’s, one that still had a video check out counter, where the cashier had nearly fallen asleep while ringing up small purchases. After that, needing some electronic supplies, we had entered the local Radio Shack only to find some sort of craft store within. When we’d asked the woman working about it, she’d informed us that “Radio Shack went belly up years ago. We just haven’t taken the sign down yet.” Instead, we’d found our electronic supplies at a little home business that advertised computer repair, except the sign out front called it ‘Computor Repair,” making all of us chuckle.

Bev soon returned our plates of food. I placed my requested vegetables on top of the veggie patty and tucked the slices of bread around it, taking a hearty bite, and it was good if not great. We were at the only sit down, non-fast food restaurant in town, the Garden of Eat’n, and when we entered, Dave made the joke that the owners must be Adam and Eve, to which I responded that Adam and Steve were more likely. The place was nearly empty, except for a few older cowboys, and the four employees we had seen, including Bev, all looked as if they would rather be any place but here.

We continued chatting as we ate, then I took a spoonful of cottage cheese and placed it in my mouth. It… bubbled. It tasted carbonated, almost like it had been soaked in Sprite for a bit. It was odd, a bit sour, and popping. I set my spoon down, disconcerted.

“Oh, something is wrong with this.”

Jason leaned over and took a small bite of the cottage cheese from his fork. “Oh, yeah, that’s bad. That’s expired.”

I’d already swallowed the bite I had taken, which caused me worry as we had hours of work still ahead. I raised my hand into the air, signaling Bev.

“What is it?” she asked without smiling.

“I, um, I think the cottage cheese has gone bad.”

She reached down and plucked the bowl of my plate. “Yeah, I thought that might be the case.” Then she turned toward the kitchen to return it.

Jason and I made eye contact and he immediately started laughing.

“Wait, did she just admit she knew the cottage cheese was bad but she served it to me anyway? What–why would she–did she think I wouldn’t notice?”

Bev returned with a dish of cole slaw, one that was mediocre but I ate it all more out of necessity than hunger at this point. And soon she brought our check, plopping it down on the table without asking how our meal was or if we enjoyed our service.

I took the receipt up to the checkout counter where Rose, a skinny raven-haired 20-something took it from my hands, and asked, without inflection, how everything was.

“Um, it was fine, except I was served expired cottage cheese. Except I think she knew it was expired and served it anyway.”

Rose didn’t look up, processing the transaction. “I’m real sorry about that, want to leave a tip on the card?”

I had nothing to say to that, so I simply walked out, ignoring the jibes of my colleagues, though I was laughing myself. I nodded at them, telling them I was going to grab a cup of coffee before meeting them back at the station.

I walked across from the Garden of Eat’n to a gas station, where I found four pots of coffee inside. I found the attendant unloading boxes in one of the aisles and gave him a smile.

“Hey there, which one of these coffee pots is the freshest?”

The man’s expression shifted from a smile to a look that could only be described as “I-just-ran-over-your-dog-and-I-don’t-know-how-to-tell-you”. I grimaced, and he gave a grimace back, and I decided that maybe i didn’t need coffee after all.

As I walked out of the gas station, a woman walked in, and I heard the man enthusiastically greet her. “Hey, Lorraine, don’t forget Relief Society is tonight!”

And I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, somehow charmed by this bizarre life in a small town. Then I tasted the cottage cheese again and my smile left.

“Yeah, I thought that might be the case.”

Eatn

Pokemon Shaming

Poke Ball

“Your son is a beautiful child. He’s just so emotionally young, the youngest in his class by far.”

Mrs. Barnes pulled out a folder A, my 6 year old son, had made, and placed it on the table. It was full of his artwork and assignments.

“We instructed each child to draw a cover for their personal folders. Many children drew their families or farm animals or a picture of Earth. But look at what your son drew here.”

I looked at the cover and saw a huge green dragon, covered in spike, breathing fire. The dragon had a fierce expression on its face and its wings were spread wide. A had drawn it in crayon.

“It’s a dragon!” I said, with a hint of excitement in my voice. “One of his best, I’d say. He’s practiced hard.”

Mrs. Barnes nodded. “Well, yes, but we don’t really do dragons in this school. We try to stick to realism. All of the children are asked not to wear cartoons on their shirts and to not have screen time during the week, no television or video games. I know you are doing your best to abide by that, but everything for A must be an adventure, an epic quest. Everything is story-telling to him.”

I nodded, struggling to understand the concerns. “A is my storyteller. He’s brilliant. He remembers details and puts together elaborate adventures. He loves when small creatures save the day, Lord of the Rings style. He is also a bit like Hagrid in Harry Potter in that he has particular affection for the most ferocious of creatures. I do understand that he is emotionally young. He hates transitioning from one thing to the next, he hates eating vegetables, he hates coloring within the lines. But he only turned 6 in July, and school started in September. Many of the kids in his classroom turned six several months or even almost a full year before him. He’s the smallest guy in the classroom, and he’s obsessed with everything being fair and balanced.”

Mrs. Barnes smiled, nodding and taking a few notes. “You certainly know your child well. Here at the charter school, we try many activities that focus on the five senses, healthy play, and physical movement, while putting them through the education. It is a wonderful method of learning. Here, the children plant plants in gardens, they learn about animals and mythology, language skills, hand-eye coordination, plants and culture.”

“I love your methods here. I have loved it for my sons and they love it also,” I said honestly.

“But A is really struggling. He takes a longer time to adapt than the other kids. Particularly in the afternoons, and especially during transitions. It takes a long time to get him to focus on tasks that he isn’t already good at. He takes a lot more attention than the other kids. And that’s okay, because we want to individualize the educational process for each child. But that is why we called this meeting, so we could strategize ways to help your child succeed.”

An older woman sat to the left of Mrs. Barnes, likely in her mid-60s. She was thin and wore a blue skirt and a dark blue top, both of which fit her well but were somehow billowy at the same time. Her hair was gray. She had discerning eyes and had been listening to every word carefully.

“Chad, I’m Meadow,” she said, extending a hand. “I haven’t actually met your son, but I’m one of the founders of this school.” Over the next several minutes, she analyzed A’s artwork, showing me how he was struggling with complex concepts. If he was shown a coloring technique, like say making a tree trunk with a broad stroke using a chalk-like crayon, he would instead take a regular crayon and draw the outline of the tree, then shade it in. She reviewed many of these concepts, and talked about methods in the classroom to help him, and ways we could practice techniques at home to reinforce expectations.

“He is a beautiful child, like all children are beautiful. Why don’t you tell me about these adventures A loves? Where does he get these concepts?”

I proceeded to tell her about a typical afternoon with my sons. “They will choose to be some kind of animal or creature, and we go on epic quests all around the park, or swimming pool, or neighborhood. They have to collect pine cones on the hill, solve riddles to pass the old witch, find a little girl hiding in a park, dig for rocks, and create potions to save the world. A is very focused on fights, like Batman or Spider-Man style, so I always try to incorporate physical activity. He loves pretending to have super powers, so instead of laser eyes or giant fists, I try to give him powers to change colors or grow plants or see through things, and help him use his reasoning skills to get through the quests. He adapts well. It gives us a lot of ground to work from, and it is fun quality time with him. We do things like this often.”

Meadow clicked her tongue. “So he gets his story-telling from you and your interactions?”

“I’d say so.” I was smiling.

“And yet he is obsessed with adventures.”

“Well, growing up, he has had a healthy diet of kids’ cartoons. He loves super heroes. He loves Pokemon.”

“See? That.” Meadow had a disappointed look on her face. “Pokemon. He needs less Pokemon and more time outdoors. Children his age need to milk cows and slop pigs. They need to count sticks and smell pine trees and dip their toes in the water. They need to jump over rocks and learn how to catch themselves if they fall. They need what children in previous generations had.”

I was nodding, enthusiastic. “I love all of these ideas. And I’m definitely open to them.”

Prairie looked me right in the eyes. “And yet someone introduced him to Pokemon in the first place.”

There was a heavy silence in the room, filled with awkward tension, and I felt she had just told me that I’m abusing my child. She kept eye contact with me as I felt ashamed briefly. My brow furrowed in confusion. Suddenly, I was angry, but I kept it tightly contained. What kind of name was Meadow anyway?

The meeting continued and we discussed strategies to keep A invested in the classroom, to practice skill-sets at home, and particularly to help him with transition times in the classroom.

Mrs. Barnes turned toward me just at the end of the meeting. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you. A isn’t eating the school lunches. I’ve tried but we just can’t get him to eat. He just kind of picks at his food. I meant to send you an Email weeks ago, but I’ve been busy with work and family. Maybe you should pack him a lunch from now on.”

And then I was furious. “He’s been telling me that he’s been eating. But if he isn’t eating, no wonder he is struggling! When he doesn’t eat, he acts more like a young 4 year old than a child his age.  His cheeks get red and he can’t focus! He needs food! He’s been super hungry when he gets home but I thought that was normal!”

Mrs. Barnes placated me. “Yes, well, let’s have you pack a lunch for him from now on and see if that makes a difference. Pick foods that he likes that can sustain him.”

I walked away from the meeting, a mixture of determination, embarrassment, gratitude, and rage. A woman who had never met my child clearly had very strong feelings about Pokemon, and another who knew him well had failed to mention that my child wasn’t eating, and failed to connect that to his struggles.

The next day, I packed A a lunch, and when I picked him up from school, Mrs. Barnes commended him on how well he had done with transitions that day. Then A and I went home and played. We jumped in the backyard, we smelled leaves, we gathered sticks, we climbed a hill, we watched the sun and clouds.

Then we went home and watched Pokemon.

Intro to Gender Studies

Gender-studies

“I’m not saying the rape was her fault,” I posited after the teacher called on me for my opinion, “but I always want to take a look at both sides of the equation. If she was going to go out drinking at a bar on a school night, then maybe she should have dressed more modestly, and maybe she should have taken some friends with her to watch her back. If she’d been more careful, she probably wouldn’t have been raped.”

As an actively Mormon closeted gay male student in my third year of college, I thought my insights on these matters might be appreciated by the liberal class of female students. After all, the course was Gender Studies, and there were only two men in the room with a couple dozen women, and I felt the need to speak up to share the male perspective.

The teacher, Melissa, had just told a story about a college campus date rape, about a young woman who had dressed nicely in a skirt and tank top and who had accepted a drink at a bar from a man, not knowing he had put something in it. She’d woken up later, naked, at his home with no memory of having been taken there. He’d tried convincing her that the sex between them was consensual, but even if she had said yes, she’d been to impaired from drugs she hadn’t chosen to mean yes. Later, she’d been unable to prove anything in a court system that treated her terribly, so ultimately the case had been lost.

Before I spoke, the women in the the room had been expressing their outrage about a justice system that is stacked against victims of rape, about a patriarchal society that uses sexism and discrimination in its policies, and about the extent of the influence of rape culture in America, particularly on college campuses. Some of the students had even shared stories of their own assaults, prompting Melissa to share that one in four women experience a sexual assault in their lifetimes.

And I, being the only white guy in the room, had felt like they were attacking me, in a weird way, like all men were being pushed into one category. Deep inside, I’d been ashamed, although I’d never assaulted anyone and would never have stood in defense of someone who had. But I felt like they hated men, and somewhere inside me that scared me more than anything.

“And besides,” I continued, “we have to have laws for prosecuting things like this. It might be horrible, but she could have just been making it up. What if the sex was consensual and then she just got mad at him afterward? Or what if someone else had put the roofie in her drink and then she started flirting with that guy who took her home and that guy didn’t know? I can certainly understand her being upset, but maybe the guy thought it was okay, or maybe she led him on, or maybe she just didn’t remember that she said yes and not no, because it’s not technically rape if she didn’t say no. It’s not like he forced her, based on this story. There’s no proof. And he shouldn’t have his life ruined over something she couldn’t prove.”

I kept my eyes locked on Melissa’s. Her eyes were kind and patient, but I could feel the daggers in the room that were being directed at me from every eye. There was a pregnant tension in the room after I spoke. Without meaning to, I’d disagreed with every statement that had been made before mine. I’d opened up, repeating things I’d heard at home, at church, in school, and on every source of media for my entire lifetime, and they were the only arguments that made sense to me in that moment.

Melissa stood there patiently, her hands folded at her abdomen. She had short brown hair and light makeup. She was unapologetically feminist, and she referred to her husband as her partner, intentionally choosing a term that would leave people wondering about his gender. She had a string of college degrees and she ran groups on campus that provided safe places for rape victims in addition to her research work and her teaching schedule. I respected her a lot, even when I disagreed with her.

“Well, Chad, I can certainly understand your viewpoints. It is important for the criminal justice system to have fairly balanced protocols in place. But I would ask you to consider if those protocols fairly treat victims of crimes, specifically women of sexual assault? And while it is important, certainly, to make smart decisions in choosing what to wear and who to spend time with, or who to accept a drink from, I find your argument falls into a category of what we call victim-blaming. The patriarchal society seems interested in making arguments that those in minority groups who are hurt perhaps willingly participated, consented, or even asked for it. It’s the argument that says that slaves should have fought back if they didn’t want to be slaves, although there was an entire system of oppression that would have left them beaten, sold away from their families, raped, or killed if they did fight back. In this case, this young woman went out for a drink and ended up getting assaulted, and no amount of justifying the circumstances can make that okay.”

Melissa had a way of getting her points across that made me feel safe. She challenged my neophyte understandings and my religious upbringing without shaming me or embarrassing me. In previous class periods or through class papers, when I had offered my strong religious views on the male gender of God, on God being behind most of the world’s wars to teach mankind a lesson, on overpopulation not being a real issue for the world, on abortion being one of the greatest problems to face modern humanity, and even on women’s primary roles as mothers in the home, Melissa would talk things through with me, in conversation or with Emailed feedback. She engaged with me because I was willing to be open-minded and and to hear feedback. She listened and responded, despite the fact that my somewhat arrogant professions of facts went against nearly everything she believed in. Melissa was there to be an educator, not just for the students with like minds, but also for the students who needed an education from the ground up. And slowly and surely, my eyes began to open and my views began to change.

Class ended, and I rushed out of there, avoiding the angry stares. Later, in an online forum about the class discussion, several female students expressed outrage at the content of the class. Without naming me by name, they said things like ‘I can’t believe we are wasting precious class time on certain students. Anyone who would blame someone for their own rape doesn’t deserve the effort it takes to teach them how to be a decent human’ and ‘I’ve been exposed to misogyny my entire life, and I hate that I have to keep facing it in classrooms that are supposed to be safe zones’ and ‘It’s just like men to stand up for other horrible men’.

But Melissa somehow understood that I was only 23 years old, and that I had grown up in a Mormon household and that I had spent the past four years in intensive Mormon environments, two of them as a Mormon missionary and two of them on a Mormon-oriented college campus. She understood that it would take me a few years to come around to new ways of thinking. But because of her careful listening and educated responses, she started me on a journey that would shape the rest of my career as a firm advocate of social justice. And in my writings, presentations, teaching engagements, and therapy sessions ever since, I’ve attempted to adopt her approach in starting where the person in front of me is and helping them to see my side, which is no longer the side of oppression, bigotry, and excuse-making, but instead the side of women, equality, change, growth, and hope.

Because of Melissa, I use one more word to describe my very truth. Alongside writer, helper, teacher, and father is the word Feminist.

the Lion of the Lord

lion.jpg

“Welcome to the Beehive and Lion House. Hopefully you all had a chance to try one of our delicious, famous rolls with honey butter next door. Now, if you will all follow us, the tour is about to begin.”

The two sister missionaries led the crowd of 15 people through a narrow passage and up a flight of stairs, where we gathered in a room filled with a dining room table and chairs. Pictures of old bearded white men lined the walls, with Brigham Young’s being the first.

The two missionaries were pleasant-looking in colorful skirts and shirts, sweaters on their shoulders to keep them warm. One was slightly shorter with brown hair, and she had a tag that read ‘Sister Miller, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ on it, with an American flag fastened beneath it. The other sister, blonde with longer hair, had a similar tag, except her name read ‘Sister Bellows’, and her flag was Canadian. The both held a copy of the Book of Mormon in their hands as they guided the tour in this historical building.

Over the next few minutes, the sisters recounted how the Mormon pioneers had settled into the Salt Lake Valley and how Brigham Young had become prophet, and the first elected governor of the territory. This home, they explained, was where he conducted his business, as he spoke for the Lord in his day-to-day dealings, calling 12 apostles to serve along with him and run Christ’s church. (Thus the other pictures on the wall).

Sister Miller’s voice was low and it droned on a bit, like a college professor reading from a textbook for an afternoon class as sun poured in the window. She kept a false smile plastered on her face as she spoke in a voice without enthusiasm.

“And just as Brigham Young was a prophet, so was Joseph Smith, the man to whom the true Church of God was restored upon the Earth.” She then proceeded to give a full account of the First Vision, when God and Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith in a grove of trees. I could recite her entire speech verbatim from my own days as a missionary 20 years before.

As she spoke, I saw a few of the tour group give each other looks, confused. One man muttered to his wife, “What does this have to do with the tour?” and another mentioned something about “propaganda.”

When Sister Miller finished, Sister Bellows mentioned how Brigham Young, no matter how busy he was, would always make sure to be home with his family every night for dinner.

“Family was very important to him. His was a forever family. What do you all enjoy doing with your families?”

After an awkward silence, a few muttered answers cleared the air. “Watch television.” “Travel.” “Play games.”

Then someone interjected with a question. “You mentioned Brigham Young’s family. Isn’t it true he had dozens of wives?”

Sister Bellows smiled, showing no teeth. “I haven’t really looked into that. But in another room you can see a painting of the wife who lived here with her children.”

The tour shuffled into another room, then another, and in each the sister missionaries gave a small historical blurb, then shared more information about the church they belonged to. Their voices maintained a lack of enthusiasm, and they sounded almost bored sometimes.

“Did you know that Brigham Young served 12 different missions? I am happy to just be serving one, here and now, so I can share my testimony of the truth of the gospel with everyone.”

“In this painting, you can see one of Brigham’s daughters who died. But as Saints, Mormons get the chance to be reunited with their forever families in the next life, just as all who believe can be reunited with their families. I’m grateful for my forever family.”

In the final room, the confused crowd asked a few last questions, the answers only increasing their perplexed looks.

“And, um, how did Brigham Young die?”

“He died of old age!” she said, finally, bizarrely, enthusiastic.

“And what about Joseph Smith, didn’t he die in his 30s?”

“Yes, he died in Illinois, a victim of an angry mob of people who had painted their faces black.”

“Ma’am, is it true that the original Latter-day Saints were, according to your beliefs, the actual Native Americans, and they believed in Christ even though they hadn’t met him?”

Sister Bellows nodded, slowly. “Yes, that is true. The Book of Mormon is an account of their ancient history, between 600 BC and 400 AD, and Christ visited them after his death because they believed in him like I do.”

“”I heard from a friend that the Church of Mormons actually owns the mall across the street, is that right?”

Sister Miller didn’t even look at the man. “Yes. Well, if you will all look over here, you will see Brigham Young’s actual desk. Over there are some dishes he ordered but never got to use because he died first. And over here, you will see a picture of a lion. The lion is there because Brigham Young’s nickname was the Lion of the Lord. He was called that because he was never afraid to share his testimony. In his honor, I’d like to share my testimony now.”

She looked straight forward, not at anyone, just through us all. “I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I believe there are prophets who walk the earth today and who give us new scripture, like that in the Book of Mormon. I believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ. If any of you feel nice feelings of peace in your heart and would like to learn more about the church, we could gladly give you a free copy of the Book of Mormon on your way out. Now please, follow me out the front door of the house here and feel free to come back anytime.”

As I walked out of the tour, I was laughing on the inside. The friend who attended with me, the one I had been showing around Salt Lake City, looked at me with wide eyes.

“What. Was. That. Like what actually was that?”

And I could only laugh because, although this was all very familiar to me, a manifestation of the culture I had grown up in, I still had no idea how to answer him. I could only think of how differently I would have seen all of this ten years before.

So instead, I turned to him, put a false smile on my face, stared out into nothing, and said, “Welcome to Salt Lake City. Would you like to learn about my church?”

Making Gnocchi

Gnocchi

“Everyone else here is Mormon,” I realized as the instructor oriented us into the cooking class.

My boyfriend and I took positions at the end of the counter, white aprons tied around our waists and necks. A bored assistant stood callously off to the side as the chef explained we would be making three different kinds of gnocchi and sauces, and that we would be given instructions and recipes to take home with us, with a ten per cent discount if we wanted to purchase any supplies while we were there.

I surveyed the room as he spoke. Mike and I were the only gay people in the room (well, so far as I knew). To our right stood a blonde and smiling couple in their mid-20s, and to our left a family unit of great-grandmother (in her 60s), grandmother (in her 40s), and two blonde moms (in their young 20s), one of them with a newborn infant wrapped tightly against her chest. The multi-generational Mormon women made conversation about how they could make delicious gnocchi for Sunday dinner the following week, and muttered about how impressed their husbands would be. The younger couple made eyes at each other from time to time, clearly in love. I kept waiting to see if any of them would give us errant glances for, well, for being gay, but they barely seemed to take notice of us, and I started to relax.

I become hyper-aware in situations like this. Something as simple as walking down the  street holding hands with my boyfriend, I’m never quite sure how civilians and pedestrians will treat us, and it can get more uncomfortable in contained situations like this.

“Which one of you does the cooking?” the chef asked the Mormon couple, and the wife raised her hand with a smile. “And how about for you two?” he indicated to us, and Mike rose his hand. This question definitely made it apparent that we were a couple, but again no one seemed to react, positively or negatively. We were just two people in the class, nothing making us stand out. It felt nice to just blend into the surroundings.

As the chef helped us carefully mix, set, and roll out our three different gnocchi noodles (one standard potato, one a semolina flour base, and one a ricotta base), teaching us how to roll them into ridged noodles and cut them into pieces, we all made small talk. All four of the female relatives were housewives whose husbands worked, and they were all Mormon, and the young couple were both students in med school with no children. I admired the 6-week old baby (with the adorable name of Florence) and talked about my children. We asked the couples how they met, and they asked how we met, and how long we had been together.

Soon we broke into teams, half of the group cooking the various types of gnocchi while the other half made the sauces. Some noodles went into the oven to be baked while the others were dropped into hot water, cooked only for 2-3 minutes until the noodles rose to the top of the water. Pans were coated with oil, goat cheese was blended, butter was browned and mixed with chopped sage, olives were chopped, shallots and garlic were minced and blended, and then three kinds of sauces were blended with three different noodles, and soon all eight of us stood around with full places of heavy, salty, starchy pastas, all with buttery, thick, oily, salty sauces. We moaned over the deliciousness of it all, and complained about how full we were, and then went back for more food and moaned some more.

When the class ended, we left with handshakes and ‘hope to see you again at another class sometime’s, and well wishes, and everyone had smiles on their faces. Baby Florence was packed up, we all bought gnocchi-making utensils, and everyone walked their separate ways.

As I walked away, my belly far too full with rich food at 9 pm at night, I anticipated late night stomach aches and a world where I would no longer automatically expect people to be ugly about me being gay and in a gay relationship. It all felt as difficult and complicated as, well, carefully making gnocchi. It was delicate and tender, but in the end, it tasted rich and delicious.