Capitol Boulevard

Getting selected to work on Capitol Boulevard gave me a sense of pride. It made me feel special, perhaps even a bit superior.

It was my final year of college before I got my Bachelors degree in Social Work, or BSW, although I would go on to get my Masters immediately afterward. As part of the course curriculum, every student was required to complete a substantial amount of hours at an internship, while simultaneously balancing school work, classes, and general life. Students began looking the year before, the internships that offered pay or stipends being the most popular. The Juvenile Justice System, the Department of Children and Family Services, the Veterans Administration, Hospice. First applications, then interviews, and finally acceptance letters.

But my favorite professor, Yunker, was starting a brand new program in a housing unit for the mentally ill. An old hotel downtown had been converted into apartment units, and he wanted six undergraduate social work students, and two graduate students, to begin a resource allocation program that would focus on case management, hosting a community space with groups and programs, and some limited therapy. Selected students would work together to manage the program, and participation by the community of residents would be voluntary. Professor Yunker high-lighted what a prestigious opportunity this was, and how he would only choose the best of the best. The interview was extensive, and in the end, I was selected along with five of my fellow students, one man and four women, including one from Bosnia.

Capitol Boulevard was a dive in to the deep end of the professional world of social work. The clientele we served at the residential center included a myriad of the extremely mentally ill, ranging from victims to perpetrators, from the chronically depressed to the psychotic. The population included men just released from prison for violent crimes, women who had lived on the streets for decades, refugees from war zones, and women who had been sexually assaulted an untold number of times.

I was only loosely familiar with diagnostics with my limited training at the time, but I was surrounded by clients presenting with symptoms and issues that I had little understanding of. One man would march back and forth in a pattern while aggressively ranting about the universal math principle of zero times zero equalling ten that he believed would revolutionize the galaxy. One man kept records of all of the female students license plates and would try following them home. One man refused to let any garbage or human waste leave his apartment, even by flushing, and after weeks he had to be forcibly removed. One man violently assaulted another, and one man committed suicide. One woman brought in a bottle of scabs she had saved, and dumped them out on a table to show us. One man wrote page long complaints over small slights and would tape them to the door for everyone to read. One man continually drank himself nearly to death and would be rushed to the hospital, only to start drinking again immediately upon his release.

Yet somehow the most stressful part of the internship, more than the school balance and the intense clients, was the creation of agency politics with the other beginning students. All eight of of brought our own experiences,  passions, skill-sets, competencies, and insecurities to the table. Creating a work environment where each student felt safe, challenged, validated, and integral was difficult. There were weekly meetings with rushed agendas and no clear leadership, all of us sailing our own ships in the same harbor. Small issues, like forgotten food in the fridge, the failure to forward an Email, or a crooked parking job, could create painful barriers that would last for weeks. There were silent treatments, passive aggressive jabs, and side-taking, and everyone would at some point get involved. Yet we all seemed to come together when the big issues came up.

Within weeks, my pride at being selected to work at Capitol Boulevard was replaced by an overwhelming stress, yet somehow I stayed dedicated to both the clients and the agency. I’ve never worked so hard for no pay in my life. Looking back from the vantage point of 15 years later, all of them spent in the social work field, I’m able to recognize the extreme launching point this was for understanding a very complex field. It tossed me into a reality of limited resource allocation, mental illness, community collaboration, working with clients who have different goals for themselves than the ones I have for them, working with others from different walks of life, navigating difficult agency politics, and keeping proper boundaries. I look back at my work alongside Pam, Richard, Shanna, Anna, Jason, Leslie, and Lelja, under the guidance of Professors Yunker and Dooley, with a sense of reminiscence and pride.

At the end of the year, after we had already interviewed and selected new interns to take our place in our program the following summer, we stood for graduation. Professor Yunker gave a speech and invited the six of us to stand for special recognition and applause. I blushed and felt embarrassed at the time, but I also glowed with pride because I had triumphed. I was ready for whatever came next. I’d come out the other side of the fire stronger than when I’d gone in.

Today, at the age of 39, I drove past Capitol Boulevard for the first time in 15 years. The building looked the same, the divided apartment units converted from hotel rooms. I didn’t go inside. I don’t know if students still work there, or if community programs even exist there. But I sat and stared at the building for a long time, feeling the flood of memories from my year there washing over and through me.

The building is still there. And I’ve moved on.

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City of Trees

CityofTrees.jpgThe colors are more muted than I remember. It’s still pretty, but the greens, browns, and blues seem to dull at the edges and blend in to each other.

I remember the first time I drove to Boise as an adult. I had only been here a few times as a teenager, on trips with the high school band perhaps, but at the age of 23 I packed my little red truck full of my things and drove from southeastern Idaho to southwestern, and along the way the potato fields, volcanic rock, and white capped mountains shifted to green trees and brown hills, beautiful but a different kind. The Snake River moved from one side of the state to the other along with me.

My life was so different in 2004. After over two years at a Mormon-run school, which had followed a two year missionary service, I had spent a summer mourning my life (and my inability to cure my homosexuality) at a little mountain theater, playing roles in mediocre plays, walking trails, and reading books in isolation. Now, Boise beckoned, a brand new world. I had a scholarship, I found a cheap apartment, and I could always make friends in my new Mormon ward. Life was full of possibilities.

I was shifting from an all-Mormon campus to a secular one. People wore shorts here, and smoked cigarettes. They had beards. There was much more ethnic diversity (if still not much), and I sometimes saw gay guys now, which just baffled me and scrambled my senses. My first teacher in my first class used the word ‘fuck’, and my history professor told us that the Bible had no historical accuracy. I was stunned, intrigued, and ready for a new life.

Now, in 2018, Boise feels… safe. It’s not like home. It’s been too long since I’ve been here. I’ve changed too much. But it feels quaint, open, protected. It’s been nearly 15 years, and the city has changed as much as I have, but it’s still the same. The same buildings, the same river running beautifully behind the same picturesque campus, the same streets winding around the state capitol building. But the people are all different, occupying the benches, paths, and corners where I used to dwell.

Memories come haphazardly, quietly, non-intrusively. The apartment where my little sister told me she was gay and I yelled at her in response. The parking lot where the mentally ill client threatened my life. The gazebo where I saw two men kissing, and I knew that I would never be able to find love like that. The greasy burger joint where I would order a triple cheeseburger and a giant package of onion rings. The hotel where I studied social theories in between checking in clients. The tennis courts I worked in, where I should sit anxiously at the desk knowing that all of the male athletes were one locker room away. The institute classroom where the teacher taught us all about the Plan of Salvation, God’s grand scheme, the one I didn’t fit into. The therapy office where the counselor said he thought being gay was the source of my depression, and I stormed out in fury. The library room where I spent an entire weekend polishing a policy paper on the death penalty, it later being published in a professional review. The charity home I worked in, where I was once caught watching porn after hours. The Mormon temple where I attended services every week, trying to prove to God I was worthy enough. The city park bench where the girl I’d been dating told me abruptly that if I didn’t finally kiss her it was over. The town hall where, as an actor, I played a dead body for a drunken crowd, and a woman in a nun costume, who was part of the audience, came up to the stage and grabbed my ass, saying to laughter “I have to make sure he’s dead.”

Walking the streets now, I can only wonder what my current life might be like had I come out back then, at 23, when I began to realize what a gay life might mean for me. I would almost assuredly have still finished college with the same degree, and worked many of the same jobs. I would have found plenty of support. My family would have adapted, after their initial grief and pain. I would have left Mormonism and started dating, finding connections and strength along the way. I would never have married, would never have broken hearts when I later divorced. But then my sons would never have been born. Would I have been a parent still? Would I have settled down with one partner and built a life from the ground up? Would I still be acting and singing? Would I have traveled the world? Would I be living in Seattle, San Francisco, London? Would that extra ten years of happiness, of life, made a substantial difference?

In an alternate universe somewhere, Boise, this City of Trees, represented a different path, a jumping off point that changed everything, and I hope that the Me in that universe is as happy as the Me in this one is right now.

Period.

Growing up, I was totally grossed out by girls. It wasn’t just me, the straight boys around me were also disgusted. Even girls seemed grossed out by other girls, sometimes by themselves. That’s how it seemed to five year old me.

In kindergarten, we had to carry imaginary cans of ‘Cootie Spray’ in case a girl touched us, that way we could get rid of any invisible infections, cause Cooties were even worse than germs. Even at that age, I remember the guys in class having recess discussions about which girls were the hottest, ranking them right down to the ugliest. There were even discussions about girls’ private parts. We didn’t know much, but we knew they didn’t have a penis, and that was just weird. Boobs were cool, though. I agreed in order  to fit in.

Around the age of 7, I was curious, and took the clothes off of my sister’s Barbie doll, but there was nothing there. Barbie’s slim waist was a smooth plastic surface, lacking any definition. On the back, she had a smooth line in the center of her rounded hips, giving her a butt, but there was nothing on the front. (An inspection of the Ken Doll yielded similar results. No penis. This couldn’t be right.) So later, I called my little sister in the bathroom, in an ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’ moment, and we showed each other. Mine dangled. But for her, there was nothing there, just a little opening of some kind. Huh. Okay. That was that.

All through adolescence, my peers continued talking about boobs and hot girls, but the conversation topics somehow shifted into virginity, and how one might lose it. I didn’t know what that meant until 15 or so, except that it meant inserting the penis into the vagina, but we never talked about the vagina, and guys always seemed a bit grossed out by it. Guys also constantly cracked jokes about PMS, about how if a girl was upset, annoyed, moody, or angry, she must be on her period, that mysterious time of month when girls had to use tampons to mitigate blood flow, and during when they could get lots of headaches, stomach cramps, and mood swings. PMS jokes were rampant, though I don’t remember a single girl ever laughing at one of those jokes ever.

I don’t recall ever speaking to my mother about vaginas, or periods, or PMS, or menopause. But I was the sixth of seven children, with five sisters, and settled in between two sisters in the birth order, one that was 3.5 years older than me, and one that was 3.5 years younger. I saw the feminine hygiene products in the cupboard, and I remember discussions about periods being irregular, and voiced reluctance for either sister to see a ‘lady doctor’, the phrase used to avoid using the word ‘gynecologist’. I didn’t know the difference between a tampon and a maxi-pad, I just knew there was blood, and I knew that everyone thought it was gross.

In my third year of college, in a Human Behavior in the Social Environment class, the teacher made time for one of the students, Shanna, to perform for the class. She had been rehearsing a piece from the Vagina Monologues. She boldly stood before the class, sharing the story of a woman who had grown up thinking her vagina was disgusting and how she eventually learned to love it. I remember sitting in the back of the class, in my Mormon mindset, and feeling disgusted that she felt the need to talk about the vagina at all, which I thought of as some sort of sacred lady part that should only be discussed by wives with their husbands, or maybe with their ‘lady doctors.’ After class, I told her good job, but secretly I was grossed out.

It wasn’t until many years later, when I started becoming more aware of feminism and female issues, that I realized the shame with which American society treats female bodies. This opens all sorts of wider discussions on abortion, genital mutilation, rape culture, diet culture, and a myriad of other issues, but at its very basis, I’m realizing that I grew up in a world where we were taught to be embarrassed about vaginas,  reproductive cycles, gynecology, and periods. When those discussions did happen, they were with derision, disgust, shame, or belittling. And that is entirely unacceptable.

During the brutal election last year, Donald Trump was at odds with newswoman Megyn Kelly. In an interview about her, he stated, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever. In my opinion, she was off base” A presidential candidate, one notorious for his marriages, divorces, and affairs, tried to shame a professional woman because, he hinted, she might be on her period. It was vagina-shaming, period-shaming, at a national level. I remember experiencing disgust and revulsion at his comments, at a bully of a man who was shaming a woman simply for being a woman. And I remember being repulsed that he was finding support from Americans who defended his comments.

As a gay man with two sons, I am not a good advocate for women’s rights. But I am an ally. We shouldn’t be laughing at, feeling disgusted by, or body-shaming our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and friends for being women, for having vaginas, or for having natural, biological, healthy functions like periods. Health care for their own bodies should be in their control. And we should be able to have grown-up conversations about it.

And that’s all there is to say.

Period.

period

One Epic Fantasy

MagicJesus

There is a reference in the Book of Mormon that talks about the “great whore that sitteth upon many waters”, meaning the “great and abominable church” established by Satan to confuse and corrupt men. Growing up, I was taught that this meant, basically, that every religion except my own was a confused or corrupted version of the truth, and that only I had the real, whole truth. I was taught, as a child, to stand at the pulpit and profess this truth. I was taught to thank God daily for blessing me with this truth. And I was taught that I must consistently seek to help others find this truth. Every other religion’s claims of heavenly visions, divine miracles, spiritual truths, and godly gifts were false, they were corruptions at worst, misunderstandings at best. Only my church was true.

“I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true.”

This gave me a sense of superiority. I was a choice son of God from a chosen generation, in the last days, preparing the world for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. I was taught that my religion would slowly spread through the world, breaking borders and barriers, and every soul on Earth would slowly and surely join the true church of God. (That word again, true, my word we used that word a lot).

My religion, like all others, stared science in the face and stuck its tongue out. Forget scientific advancements, delete evolution, overlook the dinosaur bones. The truth of the world was part fairy tale, part epic science fiction story, and the closer you looked the more complex it became.

See, the world was created thousands of years ago, not millions, and it was by godly beings, Michael and Jehovah, angels with epic powers commanded by a Celestial man named Elohim who lived on the planet Kolob. Elohim had billions and billions of spirit children, and he needed a place for them to live, where they could be tested properly and receive bodies. Satan had one plan, and Jesus had another. God liked Jesus’ plan, so Satan and a third of God’s children declared war and were cast out, forever unable to get bodies after that, leaving the billions of them to only try and tempt mortals all the time. God sent Michael down to be Adam, took out a rib to create Eve, and told them not to eat some fruit, and when they did they were cast out to live for hundreds of years in toil. The following generations encompassed the Bible stories, epic adventures all. There were major floods with ships full of animals, a whale who swallowed a guy, mass genocides of cities full of sinners, and slave revolts. There were oceans parted by a man’s hands, plagues of frogs, voices out of burning bushes, and little guys knocking over big guys with a slingshot. There was incest, adultery, slave-mongering, diseases, mass murder, and untold numbers of dead babies. Oh, and lots of white guys with beards who spoke for God. White guys with beards in the Middle East who spoke for God.

And then Elohim finally sent Jesus down through a virgin birth, kept most of his life a mystery, then gave him all kinds of godly powers to change water to wine, survive starving in the desert, and multiply food sources, all while teaching mortals a lesson. Then he let Jesus bleed from every pore, be whipped and flogged, and then get nailed to a cross to die painfully, only so mortals could be told they would never be good enough to make it on their own, they would need to learn from all this, cause Jesus suffered for them, way worse than any mere mortal could suffer, and he had two because Adam and Eve ate that fruit that one time. And then God raised Jesus from the dead. So if we want some of that, we better listen and do as we are told.

And although the world had a few thousand years of religion prior to this, this is when religion as a culture really kicked in. Christians had already separated from Jews. But then lots of different men said that they were doing the Jesus thing the right way, and they formed their own churches, cultures, and governments around it, then started fighting with others. And as humans expanded from millions into billions, they divided themselves along those religious lines. Hindu. Islam. Buddha. Jewish. Christian. Far too many to count. Then they subdivided again, then again.

The way I was taught it, God was so upset over the way Jesus was treated that he took religion away from the Earth for nearly 2000 years. He waited a good long time for a nice righteous white boy in America. In fact, lots of history happened just to get the world ready for that white boy. There were wars and revolutions, slavery and crusades, but finally Joseph Smith came along. He was visited by God and Jesus, floating in the air in white robes, and then a series of angels and magical powers followed. There were buried artifacts, stones in a hat that could translate old records, and relics from an ancient civilization that has somehow evaded every scientist ever. Outside of Jesus, Joseph was the most important man to ever live, they said. He set up the true religion with the true scriptures, and he started converting people by the tens, the hundreds, the thousands, moving them from city to city and asking them to focus on his holiness and his revelations, and not on his increasing number of wives, his failed banks and smashed printing presses, and his youth full of treasure-digging. He retranslated the Bible, then brought forth more scriptures from some hieroglyphics he found in a mummy case. When Joseph died, the Mormons moved west and set up their own government, even though it meant fighting against the American government, and the Mormons changed their laws when they had to, which meant changing their belief structure and pretending  God had planned it that way all along.

Things are different nowadays in the true church. There is way less magic, fewer visions from the sky. Now there seems to be a strong focus on forgetting the past and focusing on conformity and obedience. Only certain things should be talked about. In a new world focused on equal rights, in a world where we talk about sexual abuse openly, where gay marriage is legal, and where it is considered cruel to discriminate against transgender people or anyone else, the Mormons want to keep the focus on happy families, and not on the excommunication of gays, the sexual abuse of women, the 150 years of denying blacks the Priesthood, the opposition of the Equal Rights Amendment, or how they treated young women as acquisitions for old men for many years past the time when it was declared illegal.

Some days, I feel angry about the religion I grew up in. Some days, sad. Some, numb, confused, or embarrassed. Some days, I even grow nostalgic. But others, like today, I look back on what I grew up believing and I can’t help but choke on my own laughter. It’s all just so asinine, so full of holes. It’s corruption from the inside out. It’s rotten to its core. It’s abusive, bizarre, ridiculous, beyond comprehension. It’s Star WarsLord of the RingsLord of the Flies, Animal Farm, Lolita, and Wolf of Wall Street all in one bizarre life-ruining epic. It’s crazy-making.

And it’s a system I’m relieved to be free from. But damn if it isn’t a good read.

 

 

Rolling Queers

God-Hates-Fags

“My friends and I, we used to go down to the Salt Lake City Cemetery on Saturday nights, and we would roll queers there.”

I looked at the man, the murderer, with confusion on my face. “Roll queers?”

“Yeah. We’d go down, bash them up a bit, steal their jackets or shoes, take their stuff. Gay guys would hang out in the cemetery that night, so we knew where to find them.”

I could hardly hide my expression of disgust and shock as he told me this simple tidbit. Knowing this man would go on to brutally torture and kill a gay man just a few years later, in the late 1980s… hearing him casually talk about beating gay men up in his youth, it just felt like a blow to my stomach. I felt cold for the entire interview after that.

Later, after the video call ended and I could finally think clearly, I realized I was shaking. I splashed some cold water on my face, guzzled a bottle of water, and chomped on some chocolate that had been offered. I felt myself calm down. A few minutes later, I rejoined the camera crew at the table, and sat in heavy silence for a bit.

“That was intense,” I processed out loud. “Challenging on so many levels. On a personal level. He was charming. Charismatic. But there was a coldness to him. He was manipulating, lying at times. I can’t figure out why he talked to us. I mean, he seems like a nice man, someone who has been changed by nearly 30 years in prison. And as a social worker, I believe in prison reform. I believe people can change, that they deserve second chances. But I know what he did, what he is capable of.”

“What did he mean by ‘rolling queers’?” I looked up at the woman asking the question, knowing this story was new to her, and wondered what she must be thinking after an interview like that. I took a deep breath.

“It’s different, being gay, nowadays. There are gay bars, clubs, and phone apps. It’s easy to date, to find people to connect with. But back in the 1970s and 80s, it was different. It was dangerous to be gay.”

“Dangerous?”

“Absolutely dangerous. Coming out was impossible in a place like Salt Lake City. It could mean being disowned by family, being fired from jobs. There were gay bars back then, but guys like this might wait outside, to beat you up, to ‘roll’ you. Plus you had to register to get inside. And cops would patrol these places, arrest gay men, threaten to expose them unless they were paid off. It wasn’t exactly common, but it happened a lot. Gay men could lose their jobs, their church memberships, their families. And they could be attacked.

“But they still wanted to meet other gay men. They had to hide from everyone around them, and yet they needed to connect with others. They would sometimes go to public parks or other places, like libraries or cemeteries, to try to meet other guys. They might use fake names, afraid to be exposed in their public lives, but their need to connect with others was so great that it was worth the risk.

“I’m picturing these guys in the 80s, going down to a cemetery discreetly, walking the grounds and trying to meet other guys, catch their eyes. These guys could have been lawyers, bishops, dads. Just lonely guys in Utah. Have you been to the downtown cemetery? There are all these walking trails. It’s almost like a park.

“Anyway, imagine these guys, parking blocks away, nervous to be seen, walking through the park. And then being attacked by this group of violent teenagers. Their wallets are stolen, their jackets, their shoes, maybe their car keys. And then, punched, hurt, beat up, having to find their way home to tend to their wounds. Imagine the excuses they had to make to their families and coworkers. Imagine how scared they must have been to go out again. To be targeted like that, to be hurt, to be “rolled” just for being gay, that’s a hate crime. And sometimes these accidents resulted in permanent injury. Sometimes in death. What could they do, go down to the local police, say ‘I’m gay and I was attacked’? Imagine living like that!

“To see him sitting there, talking about ‘rolling queers’ as a regular pass-time, like he was talking about ‘tipping cows’. It’s like frat guys sitting around and casually discussing rape with terms like ‘banging chicks’. It just, it just makes me furious. It hurts me to hear it.”

The room was silent for a bit. Saying it all out loud helped me process, but the feelings didn’t go away. They stayed with me that night, and into the next morning. ‘Rolling Queers.’ It’s a different world now in 2018, but people are still attacked for being gay. I think back to last year’s Pride celebration and the group of so-called Christians standing outside with their messages of God’s hate for gay people. I think of a history of gay people being assaulted, of transgender people getting it even worse. I think of the men on the other ends of those blows and how they lived their lives thinking this was normal, that it was acceptable. How they went on to become fathers and how they spread their hate.

It’s going to take a few days for the images in my head to leave. In a weird way, working gone this project, I feel a bit like Truman Capote, during his work on In Cold Blood. I won’t dive into depression and alcoholism, I’ll process, open up, maybe even write a bit about what I’m going through, knowing that the end result, the final project, the documentary itself, has the potential to teach about our past, to remember the fallen, and to learn about ourselves.

Motherboard

motherboard.jpg

I’ve never claimed to understand technology. I’m the kind of guy that just wants to push the ON button and have everything work. I’m a creature of habit. I want to start my morning with my brewed cup of coffee, my laptop open on my table, and the programs I’ve chosen to use all working correctly. I want to sip on my caffeine and toggle between an electronic comic book and an open browser with tabs for FacebookYahoo Mail, and CNN. (That’s right, I still use Yahoo Mail, that same account I set up back in 1997, which now has tens of thousands of archived Emails in it).

Nothing infuriates me quite so much as technology that won’t work. Random computer viruses (probably from visiting the wrong porn site), laptop batteries that die a bit too quickly (probably because I haven’t updated in far too long), or a change in the homepage when I open Internet Explorer (probably because I didn’t click some box when I opened some account), they make me crazy. Those and intrusive Internet ads that require me to click eight little ‘X’s to escape. I hate altering my habits, and I hate being inconvenienced. So when something isn’t working right, I can quickly go from calm to ‘I’m going to smash you with a hammer, stomp on you, and dump you in a lake somewhere!’ without warning.

A few days ago, I called my mother and asked her about day. She was slightly insane, having been on hold with Amazon tech support for two hours. Her Alexa machine wasn’t working, and when she called to get it figured out, she found out there was something wrong with her login account. She needed some sort of password change, but she couldn’t change it because the Email she had registered with didn’t match the Email she was currently using. She was transferred multiple times, put on long holds, and forced to listen to ear-worm music for hours when all she wanted was to get the weather report from Alexa in the morning like she was used to. (I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent on the phone with tech support agents over the years).

It takes me months, if not years, to adapt to changes in tech when they take place. When I get a new phone, it doesn’t feel right for so long. My thumb doesn’t tap the screen in the same place, it fits differently in my palm, and the volume down button is in a new place. My first cell phone was simple, just a phone. Now my screen is filled with apps, and there is a camera always pointed at my face recording who knows what and showing it to who knows who.  I have to monitor data usage, and I have an Autocorrect demon living inside that is determined to make my life a living hell. I tell myself that I’m not attached to my phone, but I always have it on me. It’s always in my hand, in my pocket, or right next to me. I check it during red lights while I drive. It is the last thing I look at before I go to bed, and the first thing I reach for when I wake up. When I’m forced to disconnect from it, due to a dead battery, or a low WiFi zone, or even during a movie, I have a mild anxiety that doesn’t go away until I can see what the new headlines are, if I have any new Emails, and if anyone new liked my latest Facebook post. It’s crazy-making realizing this. But again, I’m a creature of habit and I don’t want to change anything.

It is daunting to realize technology has defined and dominated every single part of my life, from childhood on. When I think back, I get these flashes of tech that represent such key moments in my life along the way. 1984: recording myself singing on cassette player. 1985: typing out endless computer program commands on the Texas Instrument Basic for hours in order to play Hang-Man. 1990: playing Super Mario Brothers and the Legend of Zelda on Nintendo for the first time and having Mom comment behind me that “these graphics are so awesome!” 1993: getting my first CDs for Christmas and listening to albums my very own Disc-Man. 1995: playing Super Mario 3 for 16 straight hours one Saturday, with no breaks at all. 1996: setting the VCR to record my favorite programs while I was at work, then fast-forwarding through the commercials later when I watched; that and spending an hour looking through movies I might want to rent at the local video store. 1997: tying up the phone lines with the obnoxious sounds of America Online connecting to the Internet, then clicking on a webpage I was interested in only to leave the room for several minutes while the page loaded. 2001: getting my first cell phone for $20 per month, one that would allow local calls only, and with only 200 minutes available. 2005: uploading all of my CDs into music files on my computer, and then converting the songs to a different format in order to pile them on to my new IPOD. 2008: experiencing distress because my DVR was filling up with re-runs of my favorite shows, and knowing there were new things I wanted to watch. 2010: buying a combination DVD and VCR at home because so many of my favorites were still on VHS. 2012: asking students in a college classroom to stop playing Angry Birds and listen. 2014: growing completely frustrated because I couldn’t get my iPhone to sync up to my car’s stereo, and thus getting teased by friends for still using CDs. 2018: sitting down on the couch and deciding if I wanted to watch a show on HuluHBO, Amazon Prime, Netflix, CBS Online, or YouTube; years ago, I would have just chosen from a local channel, but who has local channels anymore? (As I make this list, I realize each one of these experiences could elicit their own blog entry).

I look toward the future and wonder what is possible. Self-driving cars, Virtual Reality interfaces, the cloning of human organs, DNA engines. Tech will change in the next 20 years as much as it has in the past 20, and one day in the future, my sons may sit down to write about how things are so different for them than it was when they were kids. I’ll constantly be adapting just like they will. Everyone has to.

Sometimes I sit back and ruminate on the floating Internet out there, the data that forever preserves videos and photos in some virtual space. I think of archived Email folders, about the super-villain fan fiction that I wrote back in college, about college transcripts and submitted term papers. I think of the LGBT history video series I did on YouTube, about social media comment wars I’ve engaged in, about Instagram photos, about sexy pictures I’ve sent back and forth with friends. What would people find were they to Google my name, and what if they looked just a bit farther? Who is saving my photos? I exist out there in that data stream, and I’m not sure where. It’s exhausting, thinking  of this. And yet, there are eight billion people on the planet. I exist as only drops in the ocean. This blog entry will just be one more particle.

Years ago, I opened up a broken laptop to look at what was inside. Clips, screws, and elastics held delicate components in place. There were fans, bands, and bizarre metal pieces, all wired into a larger motherboard. Looking down on the tech felt like viewing a city from an airplane. Geometric squares and circles, connected by paths and blips. Shrunk to tiny size, I could get lost in a city like that, lost in the motherboard.

I guess I already am.

Master of the Universe

He-Man

“Whoa, that’s awesome.”

Mom watched me put together the final pieces of Snake Mountain, my big gift for Christmas, together in the corner of the living room. There was wrapping paper scattered everywhere. The other kids all had some of their new Christmas gifts off in some corner of the house, where they were playing. It was weird to hear her say the word ‘awesome’, a word I associated with kids, not parents. At least she didn’t say rad, or tubular. (When she was a kid, she probably would have felt the same way if she’d heard her mother say ‘keen’, ‘neat-o’, ‘swell’, or ‘groovy, baby.’)

“Yeah, I’m pretty excited about it.” I could set Snake Mountain against the wall in my room, opposite from Castle Grayskull, the craggy space where He-Man lived with his allies in EterniaSnake Mountain was for the villains, the ones working for Skeletor. I could already picture the epic adventures between the heroes and the villains that would take place. The two castles would line the different walls of my room, which I had divided into areas for the characters to play in. On the far wall were the tar pits and the mountains, in the center were thick forests. Outside the room, in different areas of the house, were other places for the characters to adventure. And outside each castle were some of the vehicles the heroes and villains used to fight each other, including a bizarre helicopter with a ghost face, and a huge spider with jagged red legs for the villains; the bad guys had the coolest looking vehicles anyway.

I toggled the different features of the new headquarters. There was a trapdoor that could be triggered, to send the heroes plunging downward. There was even a snake-headed microphone, battery-powered, that I could speak into as if I was Skeletor himself, one that would alter my voice to something deep and monstrous. I picked it up to practice.

“You’ll never get out alive, He-Man!” I tried the same phrase again, but this time in Skeletor’s high-pitched nasal sneer. “You’ll never get out alive, He-Man!”

My mother clapped her hands in enjoyment, hearing the cool sound effects. “You’re going to have so much fun with this!” She was right, I would.

I wouldn’t say it directly, but I knew there was no Santa Claus. After all, I was ten years old. So I knew she had personally sacrificed a lot to bring me such a nice gift for Christmas. After all, she had to buy gifts for seven children on a limited income. I would definitely make this castle a big part of my play. In fact, I already had an adventure lined up, when Skeletor could reveal to the heroes that he had constructed a massive headquarters to operate out of. They had been living in caves before this, and some of his henchmen were not happy.

Mom carried a list in her purse for whenever she took a trip or spent a day out shopping. I updated the list a few times a year, when they released new characters of the Masters of the Universe toy-line. On special days, maybe once a month or so, she would buy me one of the five dollar action figures, then cross the name off her list. I loved having new characters to add to my ongoing toy adventures. Each new face brought new rivalries, new alliances,  new points of drama to inject into the game. He-Man always won, of course, but it was the how he got there that made the game so much fun.

Lately, Evil-Lyn had been using magic to trick heroes to fighting each other in a giant arena, and forcing He-Man and Battle-Cat to watch in a cage, unable to help their allies. The villains lined the seats, watching and cheering. Fist-O, who had a giant metal fist, had just defeated Buzz-Off, the bee-man, and Moss-Man, the man made out of plant matter, had fallen to Man-At-Arms, the weapons expert. I already had it planned out, how He-Man’s most underestimated allies, Teela (a girl who was the captain of the guard, one who basically just reminded me of Princess Leia) and Orko (a clumsy magician that looked like a ghost and who always messed up his spells wit hilarious consequences) would end up saving the day by defeating Evil-Lyn, then the Sorceress, the magic woman who could turn into a screeching falcon, the one who lived in Castle Grayskull, could heal the heroes, who would then turn on the armies of Skeletor. I had been playing this storyline out for several days, keeping notes in a notebook, content to play it out and having a blast along the way. I could play before school, leave the characters laid out and pick up right where I left off when I got home.

The name Masters of the Universe for the He-Man cartoon and toys made me smile, from a sense of irony. I so often felt like everything in my life was out of my control, but I got to control the storylines here. In this one place, I felt like the master of my own universe. I couldn’t change much in the outside world, how my brother and sister picked on me a lot and were always arguing, how sometimes I remembered how I had been sexually abused a few years before, how my dad was constantly crying while laying on the floor or locked in his room, how mom always seemed so stretched thin trying to take care of a family with nine people in it, how I didn’t fit in with other kids at school, or how I was different than other boys and I knew it. I hated how awkward I felt around other boys. I couldn’t make a basket with the ball, hit a ball with coordination, or even ride a bike, and I got teased because I spent my time writing or drawing. I had a few friends, guys who also liked Saturday morning cartoons, but most of them weren’t Mormon (there weren’t many Mormons in the area of southwest Missouri), and I knew I was mostly only supposed to play with kids who shared my beliefs. But He-Man gave me a place to escape.

He-Man was cool, too. He didn’t fit in either. Well, at least not when he was Prince Adam. Adam was kind of girly, with thick blonde hair, and he acted scared of everything. He was royalty and always dressed fancy, even wearing a pink vest most of the time, but people were always confused by him and impatient. His only friend, well, his only true friend, seemed to be his cat, Cringor, a talking green tiger thing who was even more afraid than Adam. Cringe had a weak voice and he thought everything was either scary or inconvenient. Everyone saw both Adam and Cringer as helpless, silly, and incompetent, and grew frustrated with the fact that Adam was the heir to the throne. But Adam had a secret life. With just a flash of a sword and a few magic words, Adam transformed into the most powerful man in the universe, and Cringer into his mighty steed, Battle Cat. The pink vest came off and suddenly Adam was wearing a harness and a loin cloth with some fur-lined boots, and he had a sword that was bigger than any other man’s, the biggest sword in the universe. He was He-Man!

The plots in He-Man the cartoon often seemed a bit thin. How could Adam’s allies never recognize that he was He-Man… they had the same haircut! And exactly how many green-striped cats could there be in Eternia! But I always figured that maybe there was a magic spell that prevented people from figuring it out. A world full of magic. One where the guy who didn’t fit in could change into someone powerful and confident, with lots of friends and amazing adventures. One where the heroes were always sure to win, and where there was a happy ending after every conflict. Those were exactly the kinds of adventures that a kid like me needed.

The following year, in the fourth grade, I began bringing different He-Man characters to school, and my friends, mostly girls, would bring some of the toys from the line of He-Man’s twin sister, She-Ra. We would play together there. A few months after that, I switched my interest to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and my He-Man toys got placed in a box and later sold at a garage sale. The characters I had infused such love into for so long were suddenly gone.

When the first ideas for this blog sparked in my brain, I went back to research the old toys I used to place with, and it dawned on me how horribly stupid so many of these characters were. I mean, listen to these character names, each of them resulting in a toy being sold to the masses. Buzz-Off. Rio Blast. Slush Head. Clawful. Stonedar, who could turn from man into rock. Two-Bad. Man-E-Faces. Clamp Champ. Screeech, with three E’s, and Sssqueeze, with three S’s. Twistoid. Webstor. Rattlor. Grizzlor. Plundor. Spikor. (Oh my gosh, Autocorrect hates every one of these names so much).

And then I began to realize how gay so many of these toys were. Mek-A-Neck, whose neck grew longer when you twisted his waist. And then a character named Extendar, who had mastered the power of extension! Man-At-Arms, who had the best porn-stache ever. Evil-Lye, who simply had to be a drag queen in that costume. Whiplash. Tung Lasher. Snout Spout, an elephant man with a huge trunk who also used the name Hose Nose. Dragstor. Mantenna. Not just Hordak, but also the Creeping Horak. Mosquitor, whose long nose could suck the life right out of you. Stinkor, the Evil Master of Odors. Ram Man. Prince Adam in his pink vest, with his leather harness and giant sword! Skeletor with the gayest voice of all time! And Fist-O, you guys, Fist-O!

I thought I grew up lonely and isolated, but it turns out my mom was buying me maybe the gayest toys of all time.

 

 

 

 

Captain Comics

CaptainComics

“Excuse me, Corbin?”

He looked up from behind the glass counter, where he was sorting through new packs of Magic: the Gathering cards. “Hey, Chad, what’s up?” I had always found Corbin handsome, but I could never say that. I was only 16, and still firmly in denial about being gay.

“Hey, I was wondering–” My heart was pounding. I shouldn’t be this nervous over something so simple.

“Are you here to empty your comic box? I put an alternate cover for the new Uncanny X-Men for you, plus your regular copy. It’s good art, could be a collector’s item if you want it.”

“Oh, no, I’ll probably just take the regular. I don’t think I could afford the alternate cover.” I smiled, awkward, and stepped to the side as a kid came up to the counter, carrying a stack of Gen13 comics, all of them featuring covers with girls who had enormous bowling-ball-size breasts in tight T-shirts. Those were bad, but not nearly as risqué as the Vampirella comics, where the girls were basically wearing strings. I hated this trend in comics in the mid 1990s, where so many artists seemed to make girls’ breasts bigger than their heads.

I waited for a moment, practicing my speech in my brain again, as the customer tried convincing Corbin to sell the comic books at half the price. Captain Comics was a tiny store, a small storefront in Idaho Falls, Idaho, nestled next to a Little Caesers and some cell phone shop on the other side. There were bins full of back issues, a wall of new comics, and sections for trading cards, card games, and comic book memorabilia. With a small back room, and a long glass counter, it had become a place of refuge for me over the past year, a place I frequented once per week at least, so I could pick up some new comics with money I had saved up.

I’d become obsessed with Marvel Comics over the past few years. I’d first fallen in love with comics in the sixth grade, when Archie Comics was printing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I later fell in love with the X-Men, and soon found myself wanting to buy everything put out. But I also wanted to start collecting everything that had been printed before, seeking to understand the deep and rich histories of Captain America and Thor and Ghost Rider and Spider-Man and everyone else, not an easy feat in the pre-digital age, when tens of thousands of comics had been printed over the decades before me. I had a special fondness for discontinued titles like the Defenders. If I wasn’t careful, I could easily blow entire paychecks at the store, and instead had to watch for sales, bargain bins, and occasional online auctions of comics over E-bay.

I kept my comics so carefully, bagged, boarded, and in alphabetical order, lined and stacked in cardboard boxes at home in my bedroom. As my collection expanded, the space in my room shrank, more comics lining the desk, the closet, the floor against the wall. They had become my greatest obsession, my greatest love.

And in ways, my greatest escape.

Corbin was free again as the customer huffed out in frustration. He turned back to me. “So what was it you wanted to ask me?”

I lowered my eyes, embarrassed and a bit ashamed of myself. “I, um, haven’t ever told you much about me. I’m Mormon. I work after school and everything, but I’ve been saving up money for my mission that I’ll go on in a few years, and also I’m saving up for my senior trip. And I love comics. They are, like, one of the best things in my life right now. But I can’t keep affording to buy them because–”

Corbin tilted his head, sympathetically. “Do you need me to put a hold on your box for a while?”

I looked up, surprised. “No–no, that’s not what I’m saying. I–look, my parents got divorced a few years ago and my mom married this guy, my step-dad, and he’s kind of a huge jerk, like he yells and hits and stuff, and I don’t really have a dad around. I’m not sure why I’m telling you that. What I’m getting at is, I was wondering if maybe I could work in your shop on Saturdays or something, or maybe on Tuesday nights when you get your new comics shipments in. I could work just like a few hours a week, and you don’t have to make me an employee. Maybe you could just let me work off the amount I would owe for the new comics I’m ordering? I would work hard, and that would let me keep getting comics so I could keep saving up for my mission and everything.”

My heart was pounding out of my chest as I waited for Corbin to respond. He looked at me intently, curious and wanting to ask a million things, I’m sure, but he just stayed there silent for a small eternity. Finally he spoke.

“Chad, you’re a good kid. I’ve always liked you. And you seem trustworthy.” He paused again and I waited for him to break the bad news. But then he surprised me. “You know what, let’s try it out. Five dollars an hour, a few hours per week. And you can be paid in comic books. That’s two-and-a-half standard books an hour, five books for a two-hour shift. Two hours a week on Tuesday nights work for you?”

“Yes! Yes, absolutely!” I gripped his hand in a hearty handshake, shaking hard. “You won’t regret this, sir. I’ll work really hard.” I felt like I had just made the deal of the century.

The next Tuesday I worked my first short shift. Within a few months, I was working Saturdays, and in time, even running the store for afternoons or evenings on my own. I would continue working at Captain Comics throughout my high school experience, right up until I left on my mission, for a total of three years. And the entire time, I was being paid in comic books. My collection at home expanded into around ten thousand before I was all done, and I’d move the boxes with me through most of my adult life.

Reflecting back on this story now, at the time of writing, at age 39, I think of how much comics saved me, especially during my difficult adolescence. My love of comics also led to me working for Marvel Comics for a few years, and even writing my own line of comics.

So from both 15 year old Chad, and 39 year old Chad, thank you, Corbin of Captain Comics, wherever you are, for giving a young man a chance when he most needed it.

White kid, black avatar

Stardew

“These villagers are giving Kevin a hard time. I bet it is because he is black.”

A, my 6-year old, toggled the control to the Playstation 4 as he bounced up on to his feet, unable to hold still. He had his newly created character, Kevin, walk through the sparsely populated Pelican Town, chatting with strangers. I had explained to him that talking to everyone was important because relationships in the game were built slowly over time, by speaking with people and occasionally giving them presents. He could even learn what kinds of presents each person liked, like jewels, fresh fruit, or fish, and then give those specific gifts to strengthen the friendship bonds. A was getting the hang of it. But the villagers didn’t know Kevin at first and were saying coy and dismissive things to him.

A was playing Stardew Valley, a kid-friendly game that involved farming, building wealth, planting seeds, purchasing animals, building friendships, foraging, and even mining. He had been watching his older brother, J, play it for a few months and had wanted to try out his own character.

A had been thinking about his character Kevin for a few days before he brought it up. He waited for a quiet evening then asked if we could design a new game for him, and the boyfriend and I enthusiastically agreed. We opened up the design screen, typed in the name Kevin at his request, then moved to select the character specifications.

“I want him to have brown hair, a blue shirt, brown pants, and black shoes. And I think he should have brown skin.”

I had turned to him, surprised and pleased, and asked him why.

“Well, the town has a bunch of white people in it. I’ve watched J play and there are only a few brown or black people. They need more.”

I nodded, pulling in A for a squeeze as I changed Kevin’s skin color. And then A had gone about learning how to play the game. Kevin settled into a small house on a wide piece of land. He learned how to chop down trees, hoe the ground, purchase seeds and plant them, and water.

“Man, Kevin worked really hard on his first day!” A had said before sending an exhausted Kevin to bed for the night. And when the sun rose the next morning, A focused on taking Kevin around Pelican Town to meet new friends.

When A made the comment about Kevin’s race being the reason that the villagers weren’t being friendly, I turned to him surprised.

“You think it is because he’s black? Why do you say that?”

A didn’t look over as he took Kevin down to the beach to forage for shells and clams. “Well, you and Mom taught me about slavery. White people used to own black people and were super mean to them. And now white people are mean to black people sometimes. So maybe that’s why they aren’t being nice to Kevin.”

I hesitated. “A, it’s just a game.”

He looked at me with an expression that said ‘duh.’ “I know. But it’s like real life. And black people have to work harder sometimes. That’s why we need to be nice to everyone.”

My thoughts were spinning. I had made a strong effort, in the lives of both of my children, to teach them about the components of social justice. We had gentle, kid-friendly discussions about feminism, homophobia, racism, and disabilities, always with the very strong message that we are never to be bullies and that we embrace and stand up for everyone around us. While I had mentioned racism to A before, we hadn’t had any lengthy discussions about it, and I wondered if it had been something on his mind.

A turned to me. “Did you know that there were slaves a long-long time ago, too? The Egyptians had slaves before Moses freed them.”

My eyes opened wide, and I looked at him confused. “Where did you learn about that?”

Another ‘duh’ look. “Daddy, I go to school. Me and my brother both.”

I remembered that J, his older brother, age 9, had been learning about Hebrew stories in his class lately, and they had probably been talking about it at home. The boys went to a charter school with an alternative education curriculum, with sections on mythology and historical stories. I nodded, accepting the answer.

“Slavery is horrible. It’s one of the worst things in human history,” I said.

“Yeah, I know. I’m glad people are free now.” A said with startling insight.

Later that night, after the kids were asleep, I thought about the implications of this discussion, cleaning up the kids’ toys. I thought of my older sister, who was raising three adopted kids, two of them the same age, one who is white and one who is black, and the differences in how the world will treat them growing up. I thought about two friends of mine, a gay couple, who are raising a black son and daughter, and I thought of a dear friend of mine, a black woman who had been raised by white parents. I wondered how all of these people in my life would feel about my white son choosing a black avatar, a 6-year old boy wondering if there was racism built into his video game. I didn’t come to any conclusions. I just felt the feelings, a mix of pride, fear, anxiety, and discomfort all at once. A had approached the topic from a 6-year old understanding, a place of empathy, not impatience or superiority, and that felt okay for now. He’d seen the need for more diversity in his video game and had made that happen, and that part thrilled me.

My sons, with their gay dad and straight mom, with their black cousin and lesbian aunt, with their Mormon grandparents and ex-Mormon parents, were being raised to see the world from a wider view than the one I’d be raised with.

As I laid down that night, I found sleep evasive. Strangely, I was just a bit worried about Kevin.

8 billion

My first year of college, I had an ant problem. I lived in an old apartment up on the hill above Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho. The complex was called Aspen Grove, but we affectionately referred to it as Aspen Hole, because the units were in various states of disrepair. There were two bedrooms, a small kitchen and living room, and a small bathroom, and generally four college students were crammed into them. Over 95 per cent of the students at the school were fellow Mormons, and we made up wards and stakes of students, there for a shared college experience with those just like us. (I find it strangely comforting to think that 16 years later, Mormon guys are still likely living in those apartments, and they probably aren’t any nicer.)

My first month in the apartments were in the dead of summer, when temperatures were higher and student population was slightly lower. I began to notice a lot of ants on the sidewalk outside our front door and around the entrance to our home, a problem that seemed to be getting steadily worse over time. My roommates weren’t exactly great at cleaning the kitchen or doing dishes, so the ants began making their way slowly inward, becoming bolder and slowly taking over the apartment. I complained about it a few times, and the landlord assured me the problem was being dealt with, but after a few more weeks, it got even more unmanageable.

One Sunday afternoon, I walked home to find a swarm of ants (hang on, what is a mass of ants called, let me look it up–okay, it’s a colony)– a colony of ants in a dark black mass swarming on the sidewalk like an inky disgusting puddle. I considered stomping there until they were all gone, but couldn’t do it. I was so disgusted. Where were they coming from, and why were they hanging right outside my front door? So grossed out, I began searching for what must have been a nest. I found nothing outside and worried it might be underground, then I realized it was in the wall of my apartment building. It was the only explanation.

Inside, I noticed, for the first time, an electrical socket that was right next to the front door. I was oblivious to it, because none of the outlets worked in that room. I retrieved a screwdriver, loosened the cover to the socket, and then pried it loose. As the covering fell to the floor, a black mass of ants began climbing out of the socket in every direction, spilling out of it like ooze, going up on the wall and down to the floor. I had disturbed the nest, and the thousands of little ants were coming out to claim their revenge in one of the most Alfred Hitchcock moments of my life.

I fled from the apartment and got the landlord, who investigated, got similar freaked out, and then retrieved an industrial size can of bug spray, which he emptied in into the wall, committing genocide against the invaders. An hour later, he was sweeping up the little corpses into a dustpan and tossing them outside into the lawn, which was also disgusting. There must have been tens of thousands of them. (I slept the next few nights at my mother’s home, an hour’s drive away).

Ants

This image left my brain until recently. I was away for a weekend in Phoenix, Arizona. It was a new place, somewhere I had never been before, and there were people, everywhere. Lines waiting to get into restaurants, dog walkers, the homeless, impatient girls on cell phones, people spitting smoke into the air in their unending lines of cars. They were hacking, spitting, texting, lounging, and complaining, everyone impatient for whatever it was they were waiting for.

There are people everywhere, and in every neighborhood, and Phoenix was lovely, so I’m not sure why it was this moment that the image of the swarm of ants hit me. It just suddenly dawned on me that we are everywhere. We are vast swarms all over the planet. There are 8 billion of us, swarming out of our nests and over the mountains, deserts, oceans, and rainforests, while we consume, devour, breed, and swarm, all the while complaining that we don’t have enough.

The math of it all exhausts me. Ten per cent of 8 billion, that is 8 with nine zeroes behind it, is 8 with 8 zeroes behind it, or 8 hundred million. Like some crazy natural disaster could strike and wipe out 1 billion people, and there would still be 7 billion left. And there are reports that this next generation could take the total up to 10 billion. Yet we can’t get gun control, or women’s rights, or our prison systems, or air pollution, or global warming, or basic health care under control.

A few years into my education, in a human behavior course in college, we had a discussion on the risks of overpopulation. The year then was 2004. The population at the time was 6.5 billion. It’s been fifteen years since then, a dime and a nickel of time, and we’ve increased by another 1.5. I remember arguing, naively, at the time, from my Mormon, Republican mindset that God would take care of the population issues, and that it wasn’t a real risk as he had a grand design in mind. Another student wondered aloud if that grand design included the entire destruction of our planet.

I’m not an anxious person, but the thought of it all just scares me sometimes, stops me right in my tracks. I have a feeling that that image of the swarming colony of ants is going to stick with me for a bit.