A Mystical Evening

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The goose hissed at me as I stepped out of my car, turning its head before its body and focusing. It hissed again when I closed the car door, and the other geese behind it turned as well. Then it took tentative steps toward me, spreading its wings out menacingly and sauntering forward, giving off a sound like a clown squeezing the rubber horn on his lapel.

“Whoa, whoa, okay,” I muttered as I stepped quickly away, and the geese slowed their paces, backing off. I remembered a childhood story of a kid getting bit by a goose he’d been taunting at the park, and I certainly didn’t need that experience in my life.

I looked briefly around the property of Mystic Hot Springs, on the edges of tiny Monroe, Utah. I’d never been to this section of the state before, though I have been spending more time in central and southern Utah lately during my work on the documentary. Over in this little corner were towns with names like Elsinore and Koosharem, the very definitions of small-town America, the kinds of places where one has to drive to the “city”, a population center of more than 5000 people, to get groceries and gas.

Mystic was pretty in its way. Driving in, there had been a series of run-down cabins, uninhabitable, followed by a section of RVs, a small campground, then a long row of old busses that had been converted into hotel rooms of a sort. There were several buildings scattered throughout the property and, on one side, pens for goats, alpacas, and chickens, if I remember the signs correctly. Off to the right of my car was a trail heading upward, where different pools had been arranged to collect the hot springs water. To my left was the main office, where I was to register for my room for the night. I entered, after stepping over a few peacocks.

The ad for this place on Airbnb, and in local searches, used the word ‘hippie’ multiple times, a word that the few people who lived here clearly owned. The main room of the office extended off of the owner’s homes, as I could see the kitchen off to the side and doors marking private residence entrances, but the room itself was piled with ‘hippie’ merchandise, like crystals, specially blessed bags of salt, and hand-woven scarves. Signs all over the desk advertised that members of the staff could be secured for hypnotherapy sessions, table massages, couples massages, or chair massages.

A kind woman in a flowy blouse checked me in and described the property. She took payment and told me I’d be sleeping in one of the busses, all of which had been converted to camping rooms, with a community bathroom just feed away with showers and running water. She literally called it “the Grateful Dead Hippie Bus”, and told me “You’ll be staying in the white one. It’s the Ripple Bus but it isn’t labelled. It’s the one next to the blue bus.” Shortly afterward, she offered me a chair massage, and, I mean, how could I turn that down.

For 15 minutes, I sat in a chair while she worked on my shoulders, neck, and upper and lower back. She made casual small talk about growing up as a non-Mormon in Utah and moving around the state before finding a home here. She mentioned some of the quirkier corners of the Utah wilderness, like a pond where many Mormons had died seeking a buried treasure, and the Devil’s Slide rocks near where she grew up. She had surprisingly strong hands and it felt good to let the tension go for a few minutes. January had been a busy month. She informed me that the band, the Free Peoples, would be putting on a private concert that very night in this very room, and invited me to come back at 9 pm. I heartily agreed.

I left the lodge and pulled a protein bar out of my pocket, looking around. Making sure the path was clear of geese, I walked up the short hill to the hot springs, reading the signs warning against public nudity and alcohol. A few collected pools of hot spring water were on the lower edges, and slightly higher up were bathtubs (literally bathtubs) that had been placed to collect the water for a more… unique hot springs experience. There were several different bathtubs in various groupings around the hillside. A couple sat squished together in one while three women occupied three in a row on the other side. I pictured old Western movies, where the cowboy enters the brothel and sits in the hot tub in the middle of the room while the women bustle about. I walked up a bit farther to see the hot springs themselves, trickling down the hill, and I dipped my finger in it, feeling the warmth right from the earth itself. Then one of the three women cackled and began animatedly speaking.

(Warning: graphic language follows)

“Okay, so then, I’m squeezing right, but I’m not sure he’s really into it, and I’m wondering if this guy has ever even had a hand job before, he’s just there in his truck like just looking off in the distance, like he’s, like, watching something boring on TV, but I really like him, so I, like, keep going. I’m squeezing, I’m stroking, I’m pumping, and then all of the sudden, he just, like cums but, like the tiniest bit, like you could barely tell. And he never made a sound! Like not a sound! His facial expression didn’t even change! He just, like, pulls his pants up and we, like, go to the movies. But, you guys, I really, really like him!”

I made my way back down the hillside as the women continued laughing. Still wary of geese, I grabbed my bag and walked over the Hippie Bus I’d be staying in. I entered ‘the white one’ and realized there was no key and no way to lock the door. All of the many windows in the interior of the bus had been covered by hanging blankets and shawls, and I could slide a chain lock on the bus door when I was inside, but I couldn’t lock it from the outside when I left. It was surprisingly quaint in the interior, with a queen size bed against one side piled with blankets and pillows, one the blankets being electric; yellow lights were strewn around the top edges of the room; there were a few chairs, a lamp, and a small table with a game of dominos on it. A hanging side read ‘Take only Memories, Leave only Footprints.” It was cold inside, but I switched on the small space heater and kicked off my shoes, planning on reading my book on Truman Capote for a while.

Hours later, I took myself back out into the cold and walked up the hill to one of the empty pools. It was dark outside now. One pool over, an elderly couple embraced in a shadowy corner, and I could still hear the women giggling up on the hillside. It was too dark to read, so I sat alone with my thoughts. I looked up over the brown mountain ranges to a gorgeous full moon with a wisp of cloud over it, a perfect Halloween moon in January. It was stunning. The water was perfect, not too hot or cold, and I found an edge to lean into, where I could be alone with my thoughts for a time.

I learned a few years ago that I love traveling solo. When I don’t do it, I start to get uncomfortable, itchy in my own skin, and I need short getaways like this to recharge myself. I’ve discovered that I quite like my company and can go most anywhere, trying local food, seeing community theater, sampling live music, and entering storefront museums. But whenever I travel, there is usually at least one evening for a few hours where all of my demons claw their way to the surface. For just a bit, I feel pathetic. Dissatisfied. Frustrated. Furious. I grieve my past, I mourn my lost opportunities, I rage at my hardships. I hone in on unmet goals, inconsistencies in my love life, financial burdens, or family hardships. I’ve honed the ability to feel those feelings, to let them be part of me for a bit, to give voice to them. They are part of me. They are important. I need fear, anger, sadness, guilt, grief, and pain to be part of my ongoing narrative. And then, once I feel them, I release them, into gratitude and happiness. I remember the positive and wonderful things in my life. I looked up at the moon and smiled about the happy moments during my day: the phone call from my 9-year old to tell me he missed me, the morning hug from my boyfriend, the delivery of a copy of my book to an excited friend, singing sings while driving south, and a long sit-down conversation with a sheriff about my documentary. I thought of the good people in my life, the ones who show up and who mean what they say. I swished my hands around in the water and released myself into this moment, on this hillside, and everything was okay.

Another hour later, I entered the main office again, and found a five-man band playing on the stage set up on the side. They were… good. There were drums, guitars, and a saxophone, and two of the men took turns singing. They were incredible, a nice new-age electric bluegrass tone to their music. They finished a song about ‘the best 25 dollars they ever spent’, then turned to the room and said ‘thank you, thank you very much’, and I realized I was the only person there. I looked around and realized they were recording the performance. I sank back into a chair, as I wasn’t sure they had even noticed me there, and kept listening. During a break between songs, one of the band members yelled out, “oh come on, who was that?” and the other laughed back “Sorry man, I held it as long as I could!”

I took a picture of the band and sent it to my friend Meg, explaining the circumstances. She sent back an image of the animatronic band from Chuck E. Cheese, and I realized that the Free Peoples were basically in the same formation, and I laughed out loud. Suddenly, a small Chihuahua in a sweater jumped into my lap and began licking me, and I looked over to see the woman from the chair massage standing off to the side. Shortly after that, the three women from the hot springs, the girls who’d been cackling about the hand job, entered the room, still dripping wet from the hot springs, and they stood right in front of me, dancing. After one more song, a few more Chihuahua licks, and a bit too much of the wet bathing suit bottoms wiggling in front of me, I decided my weirdness level had reached its max, and I retired for the evening.

In my bed in my bus. I texted the boyfriend good night, and he messaged back that he had mentioned the hippie bus to a friend, and she’d responded “ooh, tell Chad to take disinfectant spray. They have so much hippie sex in those things.”

“I have a weird life,” I said out loud as I clicked off the light, then I went to sleep with a smile on my face.

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Gay means happy

So let me ask you an honest question. Don’t get offended. Just think it over.

Okay, what is it?

Do you think gay people are happier than straight people?

Well, why do you ask?

It just seems to me that gay people are much more judgmental and that they have much higher rates of depression. 

Well, first you have to consider that gay people represent only a small portion of the population. But they are represented and equally distributed among all of the population, no matter the country, religion, or political affiliation. So this can only be measured per capita. 

Well, of course, of course. Still, they seem so much more unhappy to me.

That isn’t untrue. Gay people go through a lot more struggles than straight people inherently just because they are gay. 

What do you mean? That doesn’t seem fair to say. 

Let’s come back to that. Would you agree that kids who grow up in lower socio-economic homes, in poverty, or in foster care have a greater likelihood to struggle with depression and anxiety than kids who grow up in happy homes that are free of abuse and where there is plenty?

Well of course. That seems obvious.

Okay, and on the flip side, kids who grow up with hardship and then learn to rise above it, would you agree that they tend to have happier and more fulfilling lives, or at least a better sense of self, than people who just had everything handed to them? I didn’t word that well, but do you know what I mean?

Sure, if you have to fight for things, you learn to appreciate them more.

So that holds true for the gay community, on both sides. Gay kids learn very young how to hide themselves. You know my story, how I knew even at 5 years old that I didn’t fit in with the other kids. So I didn’t get healthy development. I was teased for being different, and internally I grew to hate myself for being gay, or different, for not being right. 

Yes, we’ve talked about your years growing up. 

So it’s the same. When you grow up bullied, different, set apart, or hating yourself, you are more likely to have depression, anxiety, and trauma. And again, gay people are represented in every part of humanity, so those in home with poverty or abuse, those in foster care, etc, they are even more likely to grow up with mental health issues. 

Then there is coming out. Coming out for me meant devastating consequences and changes in my relationships. That was another thing I had to survive. 

So on the flip side of all of that, you have the people who survived, who fought hard for what they have, and they tend to love themselves in greater quantities. You’ve seen that with me. You knew me back then, when I didn’t like myself, and you see how loudly I live now. I fought for it, and I’m very mentally well now. 

Still, the gay community as a whole seems so unhappy. There seems to be a hierarchy out there, you know?

There is certainly a lot of unhappiness. And I know exactly what you mean. Gay people constantly shame themselves and others. Males in particular expect perfection, emotionally stability, and fit bodies. They idolize the most masculine and successful. It’s programmed into them, just like it is in the straight community for both men and women. It’s likely very different for lesbians. 

And honestly, the strongest people I know are transgender people, who grew up with SO much more hardship than me, and have to fight SO much harder to get to where they are. I know so many that I consider heroes. 

Surely not all of them. 

Definitely not all of them. Again, trans people are cut from all fabrics. 

So you think gay people have to fight harder, that there is greater depression and anxiety, and also greater happiness after they win the fight?

I think that is fair to say. It’s the same for women over men, and people of color. 

I’m not sure I always agree, but I certainly do appreciate your insights and your way of explaining things. I think you’re pretty wonderful. 

I think you’re pretty wonderful too. And better yet? For the last few years, I like to think that I am also pretty wonderful. And it feels good to say that. After all, gay means happy, right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carnivorous, a poem

Bones

it wasn’t enough

that he pulled the fish from the water

and watched it suffocate in frozen air

for he bashed its skull 

he tore it open

he spread its life-giving organs in the dirt

where he could step upon them

he plucked out its eyes

took a blade to its skin and scales

he tore free the meat

and left the bones for the scavengers

the devouring things

the ones he felt so far above. 

and as he burnt the flesh

as he chipped away at the morsels

with jagged white teeth

as he rolled the chunks against his tongue

with wet slapping and slurping sounds

as he swallowed the remains

taking the creature’s strength and making it his own

he reasoned

with his superior intellect

that it was his divine right to survive. 

Still hungry, 

he then returned to the sea

and killed 100

to find just one more

he might

consume. 

 

Woman in Pieces

Woman

“You don’t understand! They will kill me if they find out! They might be listening to this call right now! You don’t know what they are capable of! They watch me, everywhere! They have cars on the roads, they hide in alleys, they listen to every word and every sound! They cut up my dog!”

She spoke swiftly, in a rush, as if all of her words had to be used before she ran out of time.

“They did! They did! I don’t care what you say! They cut up my dog!” She stopped to sob for a moment, taking several deep breaths as tears flowed down her face. “I don’t know! I can’t un-see it! I don’t know who they are! But they cut up my dog and I can’t ever get him back! It’s my fault!”

I curiously looked around the corner of the hospital waiting room, where the woman was sitting, speaking on a courtesy phone in the lobby. Several people around her were looking distressed as she kept speaking rapidly, every sentence out of her mouth ending in an exasperated exclamation point. People began to move away, not sure what to do or say.

“Listen to me! No, listen! They cut off my food stamps first! They can’t do it, but they did! They said they needed proof of where I live, but then they said they didn’t! They got the proof then said it was never there! They don’t want me alive! They won’t even feed me! And they cut up my do-ah-ah-g!”

She began wailing louder this time, fully histrionic, her gestures getting wilder. She was small, skinny, likely only 30 but looking much older. She wore a baggy black coat, frayed jeans, and a new-looking pair of tennis shoes. Her brown hair fell loose on her shoulders, and she wore no makeup. Her face looked lined, as if she’d had several years of hard drinking and perhaps methamphetamine use. I wondered who she was talking to so frantically.

“My dog, my dog, my dog!” Her voice grew strangely quiet with conspiracy suddenly, and she started to look around frantically. “Listen, I think they are watching now. They’ve been trying to drive me crazy for years. Years! In every different apartment. They’ve watched me, messed with me, tried to kill me.” Then she shouted again. “They tried to poison me! I don’t know what kind of poison, every kind of poison! All of them! Poison!”

The mental health professional in me starting doing an auto-diagnosis. If this woman wasn’t currently high on drugs, she was very likely an untreated paranoid schizophrenic, or was suffering some kind of psychotic break in conjunction with a medical condition. I wondered if there was even anyone on the other side of the phone. I saw a nurse, an employee across the room, dialing a phone for assistance.

Her voice went dangerously low again. “Listen, I don’t have long. They killed my dog. They killed my dog! They killed my dog. They cut him up. They want me to be next.” She yelled, then went quiet again. “I’m at a hospital. Now, I don’t know where. I don’t have food. I–I’m going to need help. Listen, you can do it. You can help me. They are after me.” And then a powerful shout once again. “They tried to poison me! They killed my dog!”

I watched the worried looks on the faces of the few people who remained in the room. My brain shifted back to years ago, when I was working with the extremely mentally ill in various hospital or drug treatment facilities. I considered walking over to the woman to ask if she needed help, or to de-escalate her, but the hospital had staff for things like this. And sure enough, a security guard walked down the hall and took a seat near the woman.

“They’re here,” she whispered, ever so softly, then hung up the phone. She immediately shifted her energy and turned toward the guard with a bright smile on her face, no sign of distress at all. “Hello, officer, how can I help you?”

The man had a kind face. He looked weary, like he was at the end of a long shift. “Hello, ma’am. You sounded pretty upset. Anything I can do to help you?”

She made her voice sugary sweet. “Oh, no. Well, I’m just going to go to the bus stop. I seem to have forgotten where I am. I just, maybe you could help me get to the right place? I’m not sure I can walk.”

“Well, I could get a wheelchair and do that, take you outside to the stop. It’s not far.”

“Oh! Sir! You’d do that for me!” She batted her eyes briefly. “That plus a sandwich and a few dollars? That would absolutely wonderful.”

“I’m afraid I can only get you to the stop, ma’am.”

“Well, fine. You just get the wheelchair and I’ll step outside for a cigarette and wait for you.”

Apparently forgetting that she couldn’t walk, she got up and walked through the double doors and I quickly lost sight of her. The nurse looked toward the security guard.

“Thank you!” she exclaimed. “I couldn’t listen to how they cut up her dog one more time!”

Within a few minutes, the hospital was back to normal. The woman never returned for her ride in the wheelchair. I wondered where she might go next, and if she still thought people were watching her. Then I realized I had been watching her. I wasn’t trying to poison her, nor had I killed her dog, but my gaze probably hadn’t helped.

I left the hospital shortly after that, and I worried after that poor woman who was in so much pain. She’d left a piece of her with me when she’d departed, I realized. She must scatter pieces of herself wherever she goes, and then wonder where she left herself later.

Drag Queen Bingo

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“Guys, tonight, we are gonna play drag queen bingo.”

“What’s a drag queen?” one son asked.

“What’s bingo?” the other asked.

I sat down on the floor to explain that bingo was a game where someone called out numbers, and that you had to watch your card to get patterns of numbers, and that the first one to get it won prizes. With a visual demonstration, they quickly understood.

Explaining drag queens was a little trickier.

“You know how some of Dad’s friends are transgender?” The boys nodded, remembering what that meant. “And you know how last Christmas, your uncle dressed like a girl for Halloween, but he isn’t transgender and he’s not really a girl, right?”

“Right, of course.”

“Well, drag queens are kind of like that. They aren’t transgender. They are men who like to dress up like women, sometimes in pretty silly costumes, so they can perform. They are more like, well, like clowns. They usually wear big, big wigs, and lots of makeup, and silly dresses. Some of them have giant bras on with, like, decorations on them. And they are really silly and funny.”

The boys asked a few questions, but they swiftly understood the concept. My 9 year old, J, remembered a recent rerun of Pokemon he’d seen where the character Jigglypuff sings and puts everyone to sleep, then draws marker all over their faces. “What if Jigglypuff put everyone in this house to sleep and then turned them into silly drag queens before they woke up?” We all shared a laugh.

A few hours later, we walked up to the church cultural hall where the bingo event was being held. Several dozen people packed in around round tables. There were hugs and greetings exchanged around the room, people purchasing snacks and cards, and coats hung on the backs of chairs. As the event began, the announcer, over a microphone, welcomed four separate drag queens out on the floor. One had a floral dress, a bright wig, and a thick mustache. The most extravagant was Petunia Papsmear, who happened to be a friend of mine, wearing a large brassiere with fluorescent tassels spilling out of each breast, a giant cartoon-like wig that looked like flames, and huge plastic spectacles. My sons watched the queens with amusement, fascination, and confusion, as they paraded around explaining charitable donations, party fouls, and complex rules.

Over the following hour, the kids learned how to monitor their own bingo cards, to find the right numbers under each letter and how to check the board for marked off numbers, and how to listen for the rules for each round, regarding bingo, blackout, center square, etc. Petunia came over behind me at one point and asked quietly if the kids might enjoy getting a party foul, and I shook my head no, at least not yet. So as the night went on, other tables were fouled, for inane reasons such as sending a text messages or having their elbows on the table. Tables with party fouls moved to the center of the room, where they put on a large and frilly hat, then grabbed a butterfly net, dancing around the music plays to collect money from the other tables. All of the money collected goes toward a local charity of some kind. The entire set-up was elaborate and adorable.

About 20 minutes into the event, A, my younger son, age 6, grew a bit bored and wanted to be entertained. I pulled out a notebook full of scrap paper and a pen, items I had brought just for this eventuality. I gave him a few different drawing assignments, and he passed his bingo card to someone else as he drew pictures titled “the War of the Gorillas”, “the Healthy Vegetable Patch”, and “Spaceships Invade Earth!” A is a prolific artist, one who focuses on delightful details, taking the assignment he is given and embellishing it with elements all his own. In “the Healthy Vegetable Patch” for example, he drew a plot of dirt with growing vegetables, then drew an entire family of spiders who lived above the patch. As he showed me the drawing, he told me each of the spiders names. The spider family included two children, one who “always gets into trouble” and one who is “very boring”. I’m constantly delighted by his art.

Growing bored again, A wanted more assignments. I looked around, then smiled, giving him the assignment to draw “Drag Queen Bingo.” Sticking his tongue out slightly, he looked around the room, examine the different drag queens, and then he began sketching them in adorable detail. He drew four figures in two rows, each with arms and legs spread out, as if performing, singing and dancing perhaps or just posing. With four separate hairstyles and appearances, and each with long eyelashes, he detailed the four queens. One had shaggy hair and a thick mustache, her toes turned inward. One had on a skirt over pants, with enormous lashes and a stacked wig on her head. One had long flowing hair, a round stomach, and a large bra with tassels hanging from the tips. The last was impossibly skinny with a tiny head and long braids. While they weren’t direct reflections of the queens present, they were close enough, and as we passed the drawing around the table, we all began laughing in delight.

During the next bingo break, I walked the drawing up to Petunia, who held the microphone, and told her about it. She began laughing, and soon she held the picture up for the assembled crowd, laughing about it and telling others that it was perhaps just a bit too accurate.

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“Can the young man who drew this picture please stand up?”

A stood up on his chair and took a small bow as instructed.

“Such realism!” Petunia said. “How accurate! Whatever inspired you to draw such a thing?”

In his husky voice, A shouted back across the crowd, heard by all. “My dad made me do it!”

As the crowd erupted in laughter, I felt my cheeks turn pink with happy embarrassment. During the final break, my sons and I stood up and got a picture with the assembled queens, and during the drive home they laughed about how much fun they’d had.

For a brief moment, I thought back to my own youth. Even a decade earlier, if I had heard of something like ‘drag queen bingo’ I would have tsked, seeing it as something frivolous, sinful, and certainly not a family activity. Yet tonight, I’d sat with my sons in a room full of people in love with life and having an incredible time. We’d been happy, laughing, and entertained. And I celebrated these new moments that I get to share with my sons, even as men in jeweled bras and wigs ran around.

the Dowels: Grown-ups Throwing Fits

Wood Dowels

“#$%^! Holy #@**! I got a– Ouch! &!(@!”

I stood there, helpless, holding my side of the large bed frame as I watched my boyfriend fall down on the jagged stone steps. His knee hit one side and it scraped, then he landed on the other. I immediately knew there would be bruises. Mike set down his side of the bed and limped off the steps and into the yard. There was at least one open cut. I stood there helplessly, supportive and in crisis mode, as I waited for his adrenaline spike to wear off.

“Babe, I’m so sorry you fell. What can I do?”

In a few minutes, he was inside rinsing out his cuts and doctoring up the wound while I finished moving the bed frames down the curvy stairs and into the backyard. Mike calmed down and bandaged up his knee, then tried helping me get the bed frames into the living room and down the hallway. The top frame was a complex piece, about 16 pieces of wood carefully assembled into frames and slats, with screws, dowels, and brackets holding it all together. A curved piece at the top of one slat made it impossible to navigate a particular corner, and a patch of paint was scraped off the wall as we tried to maneuver. I kept calm, moving the frame back into the living room and retrieving a screwdriver, allen wrench, and hammer.

For the next forty minutes, I carefully removed a dozen screws, straining my wrists as I turned the allen wrench around and around. Why were some of these wedged in so tight? I finally got all the pieces out, just to remove the one curved side, leaving the rest intact, then struggled to pull the piece off, dowels tight in the wood and not wanting to let it go free. I gave a mighty yank, a frustrated and angry “Rrrragh!” escaping my mouth, and it finally came free, with two strips of wood along the edge completely breaking off, jagged and threatening as they fell to the floor.

Now it was my turn. I let loose with a string of expletives, like the father in the Christmas Story over the broken heater.

“%&!(! It’s a %(@*ing piece of wood! Why the @+@# is this so &#)@ing hard to move around the !++( corner!”

Hot tears stung my eyes. I looked at the broken pieces on the ground and had hit my limit. Part of me wanted to start kicking the bed frame, smashing it into little pieces. Part of me wanted to grab the edges and just yank it through the wall, tearing pieces off in order to get it down the hallway and into the bedroom. Instead, I chose the less aggressive approach.

I sat down on the floor, put my head between my knees, and cried my eyes out. For about ten seconds.

Soon, the boyfriend was sitting on the floor next to me, his arm around my shoulders, muttering that it was fine, that it was just a piece of furniture. I breathed, calming myself, and snuggled in, hating that I’d lost myself for a moment over something so trivial.

Furniture assembly has never been my thing. I think it stems back to childhood. I’ve always had a more compassionate, creative brain. I liked drawing, story-telling, singing, performing, and sharing. I liked helping people feel better. But furniture assembly represents the part of me that could never measure up. I couldn’t ride a bike, climb a tree, or set up a tent. I was picked last for the kickball team, couldn’t get the basketball through the hoop, and came in last in sprint relays.

No matter how much I heal from having grown up a gay kid in a straight world, there will always be pieces of me that feel like I don’t measure up, like I’m not good enough, and that makes me furious. My rage shows up in strange moments, like this, when a piece of assembled wooden furniture can’t fit around the corner, and I’m not good at taking it apart and putting it back together.

After I calmed down, Mike grabbed the other side of the bed and, with bandaged knee, helped me maneuver it down the hall and into the bedroom. Fifteen minutes later, I had the bed reassembled, and ten minutes past that, it was all set up in the kids room, looking perfect. I couldn’t even see the small jagged pieces that had broken off.

I had a major headache after that, leftover stress from my small fit on the floor. I popped some Tylenol, took a ten minute siesta, and then felt completely better. I sat up on the couch, my head clear, and began to laugh. It was suddenly hilarious that a grown man, a father of two, a man who just published a book and who spends hours in therapy each week teaching others how to have healthy communication patterns, was ready to smash a piece of furniture apart. Where had my self-care skills gone?

I looked over at Mike, realizing we had both lost our cool that day, and yet we had both been there for each other. And suddenly it felt so safe and nice to just be human. And being human sometimes means being weak, irrational, and ugly, and it sometimes means having a tantrum.

Fireworks at Christmas

snowbird

The snow drizzled down in wet dollops, and I wondered if it was fake, being shot out of a machine from a hilltop nearby. But it kept falling, heavier, collecting around my feet and settling on the trees. By morning, there would be a few feet of powdery, wet snow.

I stood facing the mountain, bundled up in a heavy coat, a snow cap pulled down over my ears. I clutched A, my 6-year old, close, to keep him both warm and safe. Next to me stood my boyfriend, Mike, his hands in his pockets. At his side was my nine-year old, J. We huddled together in front of a campfire, one built in a circular tin. There were hundreds of people on the platform, all in coats, scarves, and hats, many with young children. Some wore festive gear, like light-up Rudolph noses, Santa beards, or elf hats, and many clutched plastic cups of white wine or champagne in their gloved hands.

The night wasn’t going exactly as I’d hoped. When I booked the expensive room at Snowbird resort, I’d been planning a romantic getaway for Mike and I, one with wine, a nice suite, a hot tub, and a fancy dinner. It was Christmas Eve, after all. But the ex-wife had crossed wires a wrong way, so suddenly, there we were, my sons with us on our evening out. Santa had already visited that morning, on Christmas Eve, a regular occurrence for my sons who have two Christmases in two homes. Thus, with a mantra of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”, playing in my head, I just packed the kids up to the resort with us.

When the fireworks started, a teenage girl nearby began jumping up and down in obnoxious excitement, putting on a show for her friends. “Oh my god, you guys, the fireworks are starting, yay!” Her jostling knocked me backward a bit, and I had a mental vision of knocking my son into the tin can fire. I spoke up loudly.

“Hey, please don’t jump! There’s a fire here!”, and the girl looked as if I’d punched her in the face.

“I–I wasn’t trying to–I wouldn’t have–”

“You’re fine. I’m not mad. Just please don’t jump around. There’s a lot of people here, and little kids.”

“I would never hurt a kid!” she said, defensively.

Her friend, a burly teenage boy, put a hand on her shoulder, turning her toward him. “Hey, come on, it’s not worth it. It’s Christmas.” They turned away, acting as if I had just started a fight, and I could do nothing but role my eyes, and console my son, who always grew worried when there were angry tones.

The fireworks flashed in the sky. I bent down to whisper to my son, “I bet you’ve never seen fireworks in the snow!” before realizing he was plugging his ears to avoid the sounds. I looked at the other son, whose face was bright red as he shivered.

Soon, a string of red lights began appearing at the top of the mountain, slowing winding into a long line as the fireworks blasted overhead. Skiers had headed to the mountain top and were headed down the mountain in a procession, holding red electric torches, forming a gorgeous, bold, crimson line that arced into a short zigzag toward us. The snow continued falling, and then Santa’s sleigh, bedecked in green and red lights, began flying down toward us, a modified version of the ski lift. I excitedly pointed up to the kids, showing them that if they squinted they could see his red suit and waving arm, but they were too cold to enjoy it.

The show lasted ten minutes. Santa landed and handed out candy canes. The skiers put out their torches. And the fireworks finished with a beautiful booming resonance, leaving evanescent plumes hanging in the dark, snowy air. Both kids were begging to go inside.

Thirty minutes later, the four of us squished in around a wooden table in a fancy restaurant. Old timey Christmas songs played on the loudspeaker. The kids drew Pokemon on the backs of the menus with broken crayons, soon ordering macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets, at $18 per tiny plate. Mike and I ordered delicious red wine. He got crab and steak while I ordered the only vegetarian option on the menu, some savory mushroom concoction that left me hungry. Dinner took nearly two hours, and the kids, though well-behaved, began to almost pass out in their seats.

Coats and hats back on, we trudged up the hill back to our hotel. We’d been downgraded from the fancy suite to a standard room because of the kids. We slipped and sloshed up the hill, which was covered in inches of snow, and the kids began crying with exhaustion and cold, but in no time we made it. We collapsed into the bed of our substandard rooms, and I contemplated the dual reality that I was thrilled to have my sons with me, anytime and always, yet how very different this Christmas Eve night without them might have been.

The next morning, as we waited for the plow to come and pave a way out of the parking lot for us, I contemplated the hotel’s terrible coffee and how badly I needed a nap. One kid had a small anxiety attack about never getting out of the snow while the other consoled him. I held my boyfriend’s hand, remembering fireworks, red torch lights, wet snow, tin campfires, and jumping drunk girls, then compared it to the previous Christmas, when I had slept and awakened alone.

As we drove down the mountain, taking turns choosing Christmas carols to sing, I thought how maybe this wasn’t such a bad Christmas after all.

A Mermaid in the Shark Tunnel

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“Chad, it’s Meg. Look, you know how I was getting married next summer? Turns out I’m getting married next Friday night. At the aquarium. And no, I’m not pregnant. It’s a small invite, family and a few friends, and I need you there. Will you be there?”

“Hell yes I’ll be there!”

And so, the following Friday, the boyfriend and I arrived at the Aquarium at closing time for a very Meg wedding. She wore a beautiful form-fitting white dress, cowboy boots, and a tiara that she made herself out of seashells. Her children, his children, their parents, and selected loved ones lined the walls of a narrow shark tunnel. Sharks, sea turtles, stingrays, and colorful fish swam on both sides and above us as Meg’s father played guitar, and Meg’s daughter sang “First Day of My Life” by Bright Eyes.

“This is the first day of my life. I’m glad I didn’t die before I met you. But now I don’t care, I could go anywhere with you, and I’d probably be happy.”

Meg’s new step-daughter officiated, using the words that Meg wrote, perfect and authentic, in the voice that only Meg has. Then she and her husband pledged their commitments to each other. The crowd took sips of sparkling cider from plastic cups. And then it was done. Five brief, life-altering minutes.

In the time leading up to the wedding, Mike and I walked through the sleepy aquarium. I’ve been there many times before, but never so late. The otters were all curled up on each others tummies and tails in a woody corner near the window, and I could see their breath in their stomachs. The penguins were all perfectly spaced across their tank, as if they each had an assigned space to stand during the evening hours, with heads tucked into wings. The light was different. It was magical.

In the shark tunnel, a giant sea turtle looked as if he’d crashed into the ground. His head was on the floor, and his giant shell rose up into the air, like he had a balloon tied to the back of his body. I asked the attendant about it, and he informed me this was a medical condition that they jokingly called the “bubble butt syndrome”; the turtle was fine, the back of his shell just floated like that. I watched the majestic sea life flowing around we mere human spectators, and thought, “This is the perfect place for a mermaid to marry.”

Meg is half-fish, half-human. She doesn’t dwell in one place, or in one form. She gracefully flows through multiple worlds, seamlessly existing in both. She is both elegant and white-trash, mother and lover, ethereal and grounded, confidence and confusion, writer and dreamer, wisher and hoper. Meg both buys and sells magic beans, both tells and receives the stories. She’s a true original. She’s the mother who volunteers to help judge the poetry slam at her kid’s school, and she’s the woman who places snarky comments on certain forums under the pseudonym Tits MacIntonsh.

She’s a mermaid.

I’ve known Meg less than a year. As part of a New Year’s resolution at the beginning of 2017, I set a goal to do more reading performances, to share my stories and hone my skills and talents as a writer. I created an event called “Voices Heard”, and established a format of me, with two other writers, sharing two stories each on a particular topic. I wanted to keep a steady influx of writers passing through, and I saw Meg’s name, at random, in an online group dedicated to local writers. I sent her a message about the program, asked if she might like to be involved, and she responded with an elegant and enthusiastic, “I would love to share! I am so on board!”

And so I drove to her home on a random evening to share stories on betrayal, a topic we would explore in readings just days later. Her home was decorated with a bizarre assortment of knickknacks, collected from thrift shop shelves and eclectic galleries. She had a food tray of fruits and meats ready when I arrived. We became acquainted, laughed a bit, and then read about raw painful stories from our pasts in a way that made us both want to laugh and shed tears at the same time. I read about being mugged, punched, and left unconscious as a closeted gay Mormon missionary; she read about losing a child to stillbirth and making the decision to end an unhealthy marriage while eating a meat sandwich. It was a match. Meg and I have been reading together ever since.

After her wedding, I gave Meg a huge hug. “You’re married!”

She gripped my shoulder, almost scandalously, and leaned in for a whisper. “Did you notice that the bubble-butt turtle got up and started swimming the second my husband and I were walking down the aisle?”

“Well that is a god-damned miracle,” I laughed.

After more hugs, greetings, and handshakes, Meg, in her dress, boots, and seashell tiara, left the sharks behind and gathered her family for a celebratory dinner. At the Old Spaghetti Factory.

And I drove home, thinking how fortunate I am to be friends with a mermaid.

Published

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I clicked ‘Publish’ on the final edit of my book, and then sat back, tempted to slam my laptop closed.

I expected a rush of elation. I wanted to rip my shirt open, incredible Hulk style, and smash my fist down on the ground in triumph. Instead, I felt my heart rate increase. I was nervous, and I felt an ache inside. It felt a little like exhaustion, and a little like heartbreak. Why?

I thought my book might be ready for publication about one week prior. Nervous that it would come out with typos or mistakes, I asked a few key people to give it one last look over, and I did one more myself. I quickly realized it wasn’t ready. Instead of publishing then, I gave the book a final edit. I pored over pages of vulnerable material, right from my heart space, cutting out paragraphs, deleting references, and combing over it line by line in order to make the book more effective, more readable.

I spent days, moving from one makeshift workstation to another. I would read a chapter at my kitchen table with a cup of coffee, then lay down on the floor in front of the fire place for the next chapter, then move to the hot tub for the third, propping my computer up on a towel placed on the folded back covering to keep it dry. I went through the book a full time, then again. I trimmed the book from 300 pages to 230, then had friends give it another read through. I saw the book shift from something dense and overly done to something succinct, smart, sharp, and wonderful.

Yet publishing felt so sudden, so jagged. Needing to chat with someone who understood, I messaged my writer friend, Meg.

Meg, I did it. I published.

Chad, that is huge! You did it! How do you feel?

Weird. Numb. My brain is empty. I feel purged, yet proud. I’m anxious and confused, yet accomplished and powerful. 

I’ve been there and I understand. It’s weird, right? What’s going through your mind?

Ugh. Everything. Will anyone read it? What if no one reads it? Oh my God, what if someone actually reads it! Is it as good as I think it is? Did I price it too high? I priced it too high. I’m so proud of this! Did I say too much? Did I say enough? Will it resonate with anyone? 

Chad, that’s normal. You basically just gave birth to a child. Stay calm and focused. This is all so good. And it’s going to be amazing. 

I’d been talking about writing a book for years. Something I, um, talk about in my book. I remember all the conversations I’ve had with those who read my blog about how they’d love to read a book by me. I thought of my mother saying she knew I’d write a book one day, with my best friend where he told me to make a book happen. I did it. And it felt amazing.

But there is something about a blog entry. You just type it up and click publish, and then people read it or they don’t. It feels like a journal entry, and it doesn’t even bother me if there is a typo or two. But a book, a book has promise and potential. It has permanency. It’s an entirely different caliber. It feels… amazing. Frightening.

I once published a comic book, the Mushroom Murders. It took me years to get it finished, coordinating with busy artists who also shared my passion for the book. Four years, actually. Then I had to work with a small press publishing company to help me market the book. I paid around $5000, a charge that went on my credit card, to print the book, and several boxes of product arrived at my home. I spent years selling it at conventions, in stores, to friends, and on Amazon. It got amazing reviews. And now, the final few hundred copies occupy dusty cardboard boxes in my storage room. I didn’t want that experience again.

This time, I printed my book per order, through an organization called CreateSpace. It markets the book through Amazon. No initial costs on my part. The book is printed per order. If only one copy is ordered, only one will ever be printed. Will it sell one, none, dozens, hundreds? Will anyone care? And because CreateSpace is the one to list the book, I don’t see until days or weeks later if any orders have taken place, or how many total. There are no little messages that indicate when a sale has happened. Not knowing if it is selling fills me with a different kind of confusion.

I had to shut my computer down and take the night off. I saw a movie. I grabbed a drink with friends. My boyfriend ket gripping my arm, squeezing, reminding me that things were fine, it was going to be okay. I breathed, calming myself. Writing didn’t usually feel this way. Such a weird stew of emotional ingredients behind all of this.

Well, I did it. I wrote a book. I designed a cover, edited it, and put it out there for the public. Years of life experience. Dozens of hours writing. A finely honed talent (I hoped others would agree). A stirring, powerful, and inspirational message. It could be… well, this could change my life. Or it could wind up in a box in my storage room, untouched within a few years.

Regardless, I did it. I accomplished one of my lifelong goals. I have no idea what might happen next, if anything. I’m powerful, vulnerable, and strong, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

And, in order to sort out my feelings, I decided to write a blog. About the vulnerability of writing and publishing. And maybe that tells me more than anything.