A Place I Used To Live

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Back then, the word ‘Gay’ was tossed to the side, put in a dark place in my brain. It represented selfishness, debauchery, sin, darkness, and evil. It belonged on a list of words that represented similar ideals, words like Abortion, Alcohol, War, AIDs, Drunkenness, and Democrat.

I had been raised to love all people, it’s true, and I was taught that God loved all people the same, but still, those who were Gay, those who chose such a lifestyle, they were to be kept at arm’s length, they belonged over there somewhere. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I could tell them with words that I loved everyone, but I was not to allow them to influence me, to be a part of my life, or I could be tempted too far, influenced too much.

And so, when I arrived in Philadelphia in early 1999, at age 20, I got off the subway with my new companion, Elder Shoney, and I wheeled my suitcase behind me down the concrete paths toward my new home. I had a backpack over my shoulder, filled with my scriptures and journals, and containing a glass jar in which my pet fish Caliban lived. (The fist was against the rules, shhh. Missionaries aren’t supposed to have pets.) Sweat dripped down my back, under my white shirt and garments. Although I had been a missionary for a full year at this point, I hadn’t ever been to a city this size, and it was completely overwhelming.

I looked like I was 16 then. I was sad inside, shut down, fractured. I was going through the motions, embracing the ideals I was raised with. Prayer, scripture study, knocking doors, teaching when I could, more prayer, more study. I knew I was gay by then, but I had long given up finding a cure.

Elder Shoney and I walked through the narrow streets of Germantown, and I realized that I saw no white people here. There were black people everywhere, women, children, grandparents, families. I occasionally saw someone Hispanic. But no white people there, just us, just these two young boys. We walked farther, past storefronts covered in graffiti, with garage door-style bars that would lock securely to the ground at night to protect from theft and vandalism. Elder Shoney told me that we should be in by dark every night, “cause that’s when it gets dangerous in the streets here.”

We walked over a street and into the nicer area of town, where the houses shifted from stacked row homes into larger structures with porches, windows, and backyards. A kind and successful black attorney owned the home where we would live. I wheeled my suitcase up the front steps of the house then carried it inside, up two more flights of stairs, to the apartment where I would spend the following nine months. I wasn’t excited,  I wasn’t scared, I was just ready to continue the monotonous daily work of the missionary for another year until I could finally go home and start my life.

Fast forward to 2018.

20 years later, I found this same house, the one I lived in back then. I stood on the sidewalk in front of it. On one side of me stood my sister Sheri, my gay sister, taking a few days away from her wife to come and see me during my vacation in Philadelphia. On the other side of me stood my boyfriend.

“This is where I lived,” I told them. “For nine months. I thought I would be here four, maybe six maximum, but some special circumstances kept me here for nine, then I finished my mission out in northern Delaware. Twenty years ago. Man, twenty years.

“That’s the mailbox where I’d get between two and eight letters per day, making my companions jealous. I walked up and down this street hundreds of times. Down there, I would catch the train to the subway to the bus that would take us to church, and it would take an hour each way. That two mile radius over there contains what we naively called ‘the ghetto’, filled with these beautiful African American families, and so many churches, and so much poverty. It was so unsafe for us! There are good people here, of course, but there are also gangs, and we had no protection and no training.”

My mind raced with the memories. “I lived here with four different companions. Elder Shoney, who was a basically like a brother to me; we had so much fun. Elder Borne, my greenie, who was so clearly gay; we knew each other were gay, and we were both so depressed; he thought our home here was such a disgusting mess until he saw where the other missionaries lived; he threatened to throw himself off the roof just so he would have a reason to go home, and eventually he did, and when he left, I just stopped caring.  Elder Donner, who was such as asshole, so holier-than-thou, so bossy; he once kicked a door while yelling ‘Fuck you, Anderson!’, and that was the day I got mugged and knocked unconscious. Elder Sanders, who was so-so nerdy and hilarious.

“I baptized three people in this city. William, a 13-year old boy whose mom had died and whose dad was in jail, and his grandmother Clarice, the woman raising him. She was so sweet, and she had no teeth, and she wanted her grandson to have a church to go to every week with kids like him. (Boy did she pick the wrong one). And I baptized Nyoka, a gorgeous college student. I don’t know where any of them are now.”

I went quiet for a moment and turned around, pointing down the street. “See that hair salon? That used to be St. James Chapel Fire-Baptized Congregation Holy Church of God of the Americas. We went to so many churches here! I learned so much about religion! Race! Privilege! Life and ethics and fairness. This city taught me so much, but I was a scrawny little Mormon white closeted kid here, with no perspective, no experience. What was I doing here?”

I turned back to the house, letting the memories wash over me. I put my arm around my boyfriend, pulling him in close. Sheri and I talked casually about all of the changes we had been through. And then we turned away, hungry, ready for lunch somewhere.

I turned back to the house, giving it one last look. It didn’t feel like home. It never had. It was just some place I used to live.

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Washington Square

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“Where are you headed on your mission?”

In the airport security line, the sister missionary turned around to face me, pulling a lock of blonde hair off her face and behind her ear. She was in a modest black skirt with grey top. Her tag read “Sister Jensen, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

“I’m going to Montreal, and I’m so freaking excited!”

I laughed, her enthusiasm contagious. “I’m excited for you! Congratulations!”

“How about you, where are you going?”

I gave a soft, tight-lipped smile, and looked down. “I’m headed to Philadelphia, actually. I went on my own Mormon mission there nearly 20 years ago. I haven’t ever been back.”

She held up a hand for a high-five, and I gladly gave her one. “Well, heck yeah! Now you’re going back! Good for you! Gonna see all those people you converted?” She did an awkward little hillbilly-like dance, conveying her good humor.

“Ha, actually, it’s a different life now. I’m no longer Mormon, and this time I’m going back with my boyfriend.” I craned my neck, indicating the handsome fellow standing behind me in line.

Sister Jensen made a sober face. “Oh. Oh! Well, um, good luck!” She rushed off, having been called forward by the next available agent.

I was overcome by a strange sense of nostalgia. In January of 1998, I had entered this same airport in a white shirt and tie, with my own name tag reading “Elder Anderson, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” clipped to my shirt pocket. I wheeled behind me a suitcase full of clothes and toiletries, scriptures and supplies, things I would use for the next two years as I lived with strangers and attempted to convert those around me to what I believed, at the time, to be the true religion. At the time, with only two weeks training under my belt, I had just turned it all over to God, hoping he would make me successful and reward my efforts with great numbers of baptisms.

Just a few years ago, in this very blog, I took time to go through my mission experiences in several different entries. I recounted my efforts to cure my homosexuality through missionary service, my bizarre and tragic experiences with companions, my converts, and my life lessons. But here I was, prepared to actually physically go back to the city I had once lived in for nine months. Then, I was 19 (and looked 14), away from my family for the first time, full of naiveté and self-doubt. Now, I was 39, confident in my own skin and full of life experience, out of the closet and with a fantastic partner at my side. And I was beginning the trip in line behind a brand new sister missionary. The irony made me smile.

The plane ride was smooth. I got a middle seat in the 20th row, and was comfortably nestled in between my boyfriend and an elderly woman who kept hacking, complaining about not being able to smoke on the plane, and sipping on a Bloody Mary and a coffee the flight attendant had brought her. We landed in Philadelphia around 4 pm, gathered our things, and caught a car into the city without incident.

When I lived Philadelphia for those 9 months of my mission back in 1999, I stayed in Germantown, in a crime-ridden area filled with poverty, though the house I stayed in was blocked into the nicer city area where it was safe. This time, we’d be staying in an Airbnb in Washington Square, what they now referred to as the “Gayborhood”, a place with mostly safe streets, thriving businesses, and gay bars. It was sure to be a very different experience.

After checking in, the boyfriend and I went through a long walk in the area, and so much felt familiar, although the city was as different as I was. The skyline, the moisture in the air, the sheer diversity of the people around us, the long flat stretches, the century-old churches int he middle of large blocky brick buildings, the row homes, the garbage on the curbs waiting for pick-up, the people just stacked on top of each other. A million flashes of memory hit me. Trying to maneuver a couch up and down flights of narrow stairs while helping someone move, ringing every doorbell on a particular building while hoping someone would answer and invite us up to teach, tables full of counterfeit products on street corners ready to be sold, navigating busses to subways to trains in order to get anywhere. This city had been so overwhelming to me at the time, so monstrous and impossible. Now it felt both familiar and foreign, like a place I’ve been yet just like every other place, its own history and people here all along, moving forward without me.

In nearby Washington Square Park, I stood in the middle to survey my surroundings. Behind me stood a statue of George Washington behind an eternal flame, making the grave of an unknown soldier to honor those lost in the Revolutionary War. Arrayed around that were benches and tables, pathways, and trees filled with birds. And across the park, a sea of humanity. A beautiful white man with a gorgeous black woman, cuddled tightly on a bench together, clearly in love. A gay man in a pink tank talking loudly on his cell phone while walking several dogs. An older black man with a thick beard mumbling to himself as he looked into one garbage can, then the next, trying to find some treasure. An Asian man reading medical textbooks. A heavyset woman wrapped head to toe in a burka and hijab, the symbols of her religious devotion, the colors of the robes flashing black and red. A well-dressed elderly black woman with tight grey curls laughing loudly, showing half her teeth missing. A handsome man instructing a white couple on how to do burpees in the main pathway. A lithe black woman with a baby strapped to her chest watching the water spilling in the fountain.

A sea of humanity, and one that included me, a formerly Mormon missionary who once stood in this park doubting himself, yet who had now returned to see it with new eyes.

Disney Divas!

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“This is not a family friendly show! We are chicks with dicks! So for those of you who came and expected not to get offended, I recommend you get over that real quick!”

The drag queen, dressed as Tinkerbell, paraded the stage with her microphone confidently, wearing thick make-up, a perfect green pixie dress, a pair of wings, and a huge yellow wig. She was hilarious, teasing various members of the audience with plenty of swag and sass. “Oh, hello there, Daddy,” she said to a man on the front row, then asked his girlfriend, “are you with him ’cause he’s got lots of money or a big dick?” She teased a girl on the other side, saying she’d be happy to give her make-up tips after the show.

Tinkerbell recounted how, back in the 1950s, she’d been approached by Walt Disney himself, who saw her as a real star, but in the end, he’d cut all of her dialogue from the show, and simply named it Peter Pan, not even using her name in the title. “He knew what he was getting into,” she explained, “so he couldn’t have been surprised when I used a bit of language on camera. All those girls going after my man. ‘Fuck you, Tiger Lilly! Fuck you, Wendy!’ just didn’t play well for the kids,” she explained.

And sitting on the raised seating on stage right, on my uncomfortable stool, I sipped on my gin-and-tonic and laughed my ass off. She really was very funny.

The show had opened with a robust and enthusiastic medley of Mary Poppins songs, a lengthy set of Step in Time, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, and Jolly Holiday, and I sang along with every word. The packed audience sang along, clapping, tossing dollar bills and the drag queens dressed as Mary, Burt, and the chimney sweeps. A girl across the stage and I made eye contact, as she sang along as well, and we shared a smile.

I’ve been to a lot of good drag shows over the past seven years. Drag shows, in my experience, tend to fall into one of four categories. (Well, the professional drag shows anyway, not the ones that are performed on random stages in parks or on Pride weekend). There’s the really amazing ‘female impersonator’ shows like this one, that run regularly, with seated audiences and food and drinks. There are the drag queens who host various tired events and seem to run out of material very quickly. And then there are the traveling drag queens, the late night crowds and dance floors, with long wait times and packed audiences, wall-to-wall drunk people all screaming for every move and shake.

This drag show, the Disney-themed one, was the first kind, the female impersonator show, with a regular cast, incredible costumes, and amazing lip sync performances. Shows like this require set design, painstaking costume design, choreographed routines, advertising, merchandising, themed drinks and bartenders, social media campaigning, state licensing certifications, and a hell of a lot of leadership and organization. I was damn impressed. I’d seen shows like this in San Francisco and Seattle, and to see one here in Salt Lake City running regularly, with changing themes and variable performances, was downright delightful. Just weeks before, we had seen this same cast performing as Dolly Parton, Cher, Katy Perry, Adele, and others, and it had been just as good.

The show continued with drag queens performing Disney songs from every era, with characters like RapunzelMoana, Cruella de Ville, Ariel, Ursula, and others, and the first act culminated in a very bold production of Snow White with all Seven Dwarves. As the second act continued, I was astounded by some of the choices, with songs from CoCo and Frozen. The girl across the stage knew a lot more words than I did at this point, and I gave her a mock bow, recognizing her Disney superiority.

My friends and I had an intermission discussion about which Disney character we most represented, and we had a good laugh as we made our decisions. One said he was Gaston, and I said his husband was likely King Louie. Another couple said they were Prince Phillip and Flynn Rider. I laughed with delight when someone compared my boyfriend to Hades from Hercules, then surprised myself by declaring that I was Prince John from Robin Hood. This was fun, I thought out loud, realizing a group of grown-ups was delighting at men dressed as Disney characters.

Getting sleepy after a few drinks, and a few hours of sitting, and after sitting for more than two hours, I stood back behind my table to stretch a bit and keep myself awake. (I’m always lame like this, getting sleepy anytime it’s past ten pm. It works wonders for my weekend social life). As I watched one of the drag queens perform, I turned my head to the side and saw someone pass through a curtain that gave a peek into the back stage area. I saw one of the performers sitting on a bench, his skirt pulled up over his knees, fanning himself as he waited to go on.

Shortly after that, Tinkerbell (the performer who also played Mary Poppins, Snow White, and Elsa) herself exited through the curtain, making another grand entrance, and gave me a quick hug as she rushed in. “HI!” she said with enthusiasm, recognizing me from social media (I presume). And as I leaned in to hug her, I noticed her thick layer of make-up, and inhaled a mouthful of Aqua Net. As Tinkerbell rushed the stage, I gagged on the hair spray, and couldn’t get the taste of it out of my mouth for several minutes.

The show ended, and for the rest of the evening, I contemplated the professionalism of these performers, giving their all to a crowd out of love for their craft, but I also couldn’t shake the image of that drag queen fanning herself on a bench, or the taste of the hair spray. These performers, like any other, must love what they do, entertaining a crowd. Love it enough to spend hours hand-sewing dresses and lining them up with sparkles, enough to learn the lyrics to long intricate songs while learning routines to go with them, enough to tape their genitals back while wearing contouring and shaping mechanisms before draping themselves in dresses and wigs, enough to spend hours applying and re-applying make-up before every show (and likely hours more taking it all off afterwards), enough to keep their equipment clean and laundered, enough to apply noxious amounts of hair spray to keep their wigs just perfect.

As the show ended, I stood up with the rest of the crowd and clapped heartily, a standing ovation for a show well done, for a group of performers who gave it their all.

Your Villain

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“You’re the villain in my story.”

You said this with derision

With a gnashing of teeth

And a wringing of hands

And exasperated wails

Memories of everything we’ve shared

Replaced

Tossed into a bag labelled “PAIN!”

And selectively viewed from behind

Only the darkest of glasses.

 

And after you finished

Listing my sins

You finally looked at me

I saw you there

You seemed wounded

But also

Smallhurtpatheticshallowmean

Incomplete

Like you were still rooted

Fixed tightly

In the past.

 

I responded with a list of facts

Rebuttals

Keeping it clinical at first

Until I started to shake

And then the tears

Big crocodile tears

(Why crocodile? Named such

For their size?

Or for their sharp teeth?)

And then the gasps for oxygen

The tight shaking stomach

My spoken words coming out

Jagged, with too many syllables.

 

“You-have-no-idea-

what-it-is-to-come-out-

to-lose-everything-

to-start-over-

to-change-every-relationship-

to-redefine-yourself-

my-mother-my-sisters-my-nephews-

my-sons-my-friends-my-clients-

my-home-my-job-my-marriage-

my-God!”

 

And then I looked back at you

With my hands clutched

Protectively

Around my center space

And my eyes went cold.

 

“Make me a villain if you must

If you need someone to blame

To shame

To toss aside

To justify your pain

Make me the villain

And never change

Never forgive

But if I must be your villain

I will be the very best kind of villain

With complex motivations

Contradictions of character

With love and ego and worth

And triumph

And progress

And strength.

 

“You can see me forever standing there

Twirling my moustache

Cackling ‘Muhahahahahaha!’

Over the melodramatic organ

As the train barrells down on you

At top speed

And you, the damsel

Tied down and only able to call out

‘Help me! Save me!’

 

Do this if you must

But recognize,

When you are ready

That there is no train

And I have no moustache

And there are no ropes.

 

It’s just you there

Lying down on the tracks

Screaming for help

And never looking up to realize

That I haven’t been standing there

For years.”

Mother’s Day

I burst through the door in her room. “Mom! She is taking an extra turn on the video game! She promised to let me play when she died, and she wouldn’t let me!”

I immediately regretted my decision. In my rage at my sister’s video game injustice, I failed to realize exhausted my mom was. It was Sunday afternoon, after a long three-hour block at church, and she had been dead asleep for only an hour.

I looked at her back as she faced away from me, the covers pulled up over her ribs, and I knew she was awake, but she barely spoke above a whisper. “Please handle it yourselves and let me sleep.”

“Okay, okay, Mom, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have woke you. Go back to sleep.” I retreated out of the room quietly and closed the door. But of course she couldn’t sleep.

It was 1992, and I was 13 years old. The sixth of seven children, I was the man of the house now. My older sister, Marnae, at 16, was always sneaking out and causing problems, and my younger sister Sheri, at age 10, was forever trying to get me into trouble. (The older four kids were already out of the house, married or divorced and raising their children). But I saw myself as the rock in my mom’s life, the one that could help ease her burdens a bit. I felt terrible for having interrupted the nap.

I decided to make up for it by making dinner. I scanned our cupboards, finding cans of chicken soup, crispy fried onions, and Rice-A-Roni there, and in the fridge was butter, milk, and a few essentials. I could cook all of this up and them Mom wouldn’t have to work this afternoon, she could rest.

As Sheri and Marnae kept fighting over the video games in the next room, I thought of how much our lives had changed in the past few years. In 1990, just after I’d finished the fourth grade, Mom had made the boldest move of her entire life; she left her husband. After over 20 years together, seven children, and a move across the country, she couldn’t take anymore of Dad’s depression, crippling debt, constant yelling and fault-finding, or the long crying spells. Though it had been good in the beginning, the last decade plus (right around the time I was born and afterward), Dad had been steadily declining. So Mom, in her mid-40s, packed a U-Haul full of keepsakes and left Missouri.

For two days, we had driven back to Idaho, where we’d moved back in with her parents for a time. Mom found work at a small-town Idaho school, using the teaching degree she had earned back before she’d had children, and rented a small brick house next door to the Mormon church, in a town that had less than 500 people. We registered in to new schools and our new lives began.

I wouldn’t understand for several more years how difficult this patch of life must have been for my mom. Many years later, as I faced my own divorce with two young dependent children, when I moved from a four bedroom home into a one-bedroom apartment and from financial security to massive amounts of debt, then I would begin to understand. Mom’s entire future had been built up in her marriage. She’d prepared for marriage through her entire adolescence, and she’d supported Dad through thick and thin. She’d carried seven babies and raised them, each with their own struggles and challenges. She’d had many joys, but she’d faced many hardships as well. And now, with the divorce final and three children remaining at home, she must constantly wonder what the future held for her. At 14, I simply lacked the capacity to see her courage, her unwavering strength, and the utter emotional exhaustion and devastation she must have been facing at the time.

When she left Dad, there might have been hope for a reconciliation. Maybe this would be the wake-up call that he would need to finally climb out of the hole he had dug for himself. But instead, he’d only gotten farther away, more angry, more critical. He’d sold the home, berated her for leaving, and moved himself to Las Vegas. He didn’t call us, he saw us maybe once per year, and he didn’t pay an ounce of child support. She was on her own now.

Earlier in the day, in sacrament meeting, I’d seen Mom wince, almost silently, and a few tears leak down her cheeks when one of the women in our Mormon congregation had stood up to bear her testimony of the power of marriage. She’d discussed her gratitude and love for God for providing her such an incredible husband to share her life with, and she’d professed that all who worked to keep God in their marriage could be successful and find happiness. After that, I’d gotten up to bear my own testimony, sure to tell the congregation how blessed I was to have an incredible mother who was my best friend and who sacrificed everything for her family. She was my greatest, and only, example of heroism in my direct life.

I worked quickly to prepare dinner, accidentally knocking a bag of sugar over, several cups’ worth of it spilling onto the floor before I noticed. Then as I was cleaning it up, the glass bowl that I had set on the burner, full of water and set to boil, exploded into a million billion shards that cascaded across the room; somehow I didn’t realize at the time that glass bowls couldn’t be heated from the bottom up. The explosion woke Mom up and she saw the kitchen littered with sugar and glass shards. I was worried she might cry, but somehow the sight of it was just ridiculous.

Mom got a broom and a dustpan and sat down next to me on the floor to start cleaning up the mess. She knew I’d only been trying to help.

“Sorry, Mom. I love you,” I said, a guilty, humbled expression on my face.

She looked past her exhaustion and saw me there. “I love you, too, Chad.”

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

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Trump Lessons

 

I will be the first to admit, the election of Donald Trump as President was one of the most difficult things I have ever experienced. Honestly. 

C’mon, it wasn’t that big of a deal. It was an election just like any other election. It just didn’t go the way you wanted it to. 

No, it was more than that. I mean, go back just a bit. Gay marriage had just passed. President Obama acknowledged LGBT people for the first time openly. There was a black man and a black woman in the White House. People who have spent their entire lives feeling like ‘the other’ or ‘the outcast’, the people in the shadows had started to feel safe and come up for air for the first time. They were finding a place at the table. And then Trump was elected. In my therapy office, I swear every one of my clients was having trauma reactions to the election. 

It’s just an election, though! He’s just another president you don’t like. I didn’t like Obama. I still don’t. I hate Hillary. I didn’t like Gore or Clinton. You didn’t like Bush or Mitt Romney. It’s just the normal political lines. 

It might be that was for many people, but it wasn’t that way for me. You might not believe me, but although I didn’t agree with all of the politics of Romney or Bush, I had respect for them. I even respect Mike Pence. And I don’t agree with everything Obama and Hillary did either, not every ounce of it. But it’s not just that I don’t like or trust Trump, I don’t respect him either. He is a reprehensible person, who is surrounding himself with the people who represent the very worst parts of our country. I know you don’t agree, and that is okay, because I respect you as well. 

Thank you for that, at least. I’m so tired of the ‘you voted for Trump so you are disowned by me!’ thing that I’m getting from all of the liberals in my life. It’s exhausting. No one is willing to keep an open mind, like, at all. 

So here is me with an open mind. Why did you vote for Trump?

Honestly, I know you don’t like Trump, but Hillary represents everything to me that Trump represents to you. Corrupt politics, rich corporate agendas, dishonesty. I feel like she is a slimy criminal who only got away with Benghazi and the Email scandal because she is so good at evading and getting away with things. I know you respect her, but I don’t. At all. And I know Trump is a bit unhinged, and everyone wants him to just stop Tweeting once and for all, but he is listening to people who were feeling forgotten and he’s pushing a new agenda for our country. The way politics was going wasn’t working anymore, and he’s trying something different. If he steps on some toes along the way, then does that matter that much if he gets the job done?

But what about you, personally? How did he appeal to you? Not your politics, but you?

The main issue for me was Obamacare. I work my ass off and I saw people at a lower wage than I get getting easier access to health care. I saw my own wages getting cut. A system that I didn’t want was basically forced on me and it made it harder for me to live. I voted for someone who listened to me, and someone who shares a lot of my values. I really struggle in this country seeing people who don’t work hard get free handouts, and those who shouldn’t even be here receiving support while I have to scrimp and save to pay even my basic bills. My credit cards are maxed out and I can hardly afford my own power bill. 

I hear you. I do, really. But you have to recognize that there are millions in this country who have zero access to health care, like, at all. No insurance options, nothing. What Obama was trying to do was address the wider system. It did put an unfair advantage on some in order to help others. 

I understand the concept. But it didn’t work. I want to feel protected, like my work is valid. It didn’t work. It broke me further. But again, all of my values tend to fall on the side of the Republican party, just like your values fall on the side of the Democrats and liberals. 

All right. I get it. 

You aren’t going to try to change my mind, to tell me how great Hillary is and how evil Trump is? I mean, this is why you and I stopped talking during the election. 

No. I don’t want to change your mind. I’d rather understand each other than disagree. 

You have to admit that Trump is amazing when it comes to North Korea. And he is right about the news media often being fake. You have to admit those things are good. 

Okay, I’m going to go into my most generous headspace. My instinct is to rant about how terrible Trump is and to give a tirade about respecting women, and the transgender military ban, and the DACA Dreamers, and the Mexico wall thing. But I’m going to go to my rational brain. I will admit that Trump is capable of accomplishing some things in Washington. His tactics may yield some positive results. But I don’t think he can be solely cited with the North Korea results, nor do we know how all that will end. And while there is definitely a problem with some ‘fake news’ in our country, he only uses that to discredit news he disagrees with. I prefer Rachel Maddow to Sean Hannity, and CNN to Fox News, but they all have some problems, and it’s awful to just shame some of them. 

That’s fair. 

Still, at my heart of hearts, Trump represents almost everything that I hate. He’s erratic, narcissistic, and unpredictable. He calls people names. He rants in public. He at worst lies and at best constantly changes his mind. He’s under indictment, and he surrounds himself with some of the seediest, most under qualified people our government has ever seen. 

The Russia thing! They have found no proof of collusion OR obstruction! It’s been over a year! And Hillary has been under indictment! Twice!

Okay, again, I’m going to rational space. Listen, the politics of it aside, look at facts. Perhaps Hillary was slimy, and maybe she got away with it, but she fully participated in the Benghazi and the Email investigations. And yes, I know she deleted and wiped things illegally, I get it. But at the end of it all, no charges were filed and there were zero indictments. The investigations lasted 4 years for one, and 2 years for the other. Zero indictments, with full participation. 

The Mueller investigation has been going for 14 months. And there have been over 20 indictments. Trump may never have a single thing lodged against him, and there might ultimately be zero proof of collusion or obstruction. But there has been a lot discovered about illegal and unethical activity in many of his closest associates. And the part where I really struggle is, he changes his story constantly. You can’t argue with that part. If he isn’t hiding anything, then why is he lying? But that isn’t for me to decide. We do have to have a system in which the investigation is allowed to happen, though. 

But Mueller is totally biased against him! He fired James Comey, so what! Comey deserved to be fired! And so what if he slept with Stormy Daniels years ago! Bill Clinton did it while in office with Monica Lewinsky and he lied about it, that was the difference!

I agree, Comey was baffling. But the American people have the right to ask hard questions. If he was fired for unethical reasons, if there was collusion, if there was obstruction. An investigation needs to be allowed. Clinton was investigated for lying, and we need to be able to hold Trump to the same standard. And there should be checks and balances on Mueller to make sure the investigation itself is ethical. But he has to be allowed time to do so. Anything else is unjust and if we start deleting those checks and balances, then democracy itself unravels. 

I respect you, Chad. You give me a lot to think about. And I feel like you’re the only liberal person I know that I could have this conversation with and not feel like we hate each other afterwards. 

I respect you, too. And to be honest, Trump’s election, more than anything, has taught me that it is a complicated world with no easy answers. Liberals can’t just should ‘racist’ or ‘homophobe’ or ‘misogynist’ every time they sense disrespect, and conservatives can’t just site immigration or abortion or ‘fake news’  when they do. At the end of the day, we agree on much more than we disagree, when we take time to talk it out. 

Agreed. But can we change the topic now? This makes me tired. 

Yes! Please! Waiter, two margaritas, stat!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Santa Fe, are you there?

“We met back in the days of Gay.Com back in the days of America Online, in the early days of the Internet. It changed everything, back then. Gay men had to go places to meet other gay men back then, parks or clubs or events. Before that, the only way to meet gay men from far away was through correspondence of some kind, a phone service or responding to a letter in a magazine. But they launched gay.com, and you could create a profile about yourself and start chatting with men from around the country. It was revolutionary. That was more than 20 years ago now.”

Ed took a sip from his homemade margarita as his partner, Joe, spoke. They were nestled in the corner of their balcony, two chairs pushed up next to each other. There were seven of us out there, chairs arranged in an abstract circle. We all had drinks, and plates full of tortilla chips and homemade guacamole, perfect for this Santa Fe early evening. I turned to look at the view behind me, the skyline stretching over brown rolling hills and brown adobe-style buildings. I could hear birds all of this city, and I loved it.

“It’s quite a view, isn’t it? We retired here earlier this year. And this is basically paradise for us, sitting out here and watching the sun set. It’s the perfect life.”

“So you started chatting online, and then what?” I asked, eager to hear more.

“Well, it was very apparent we were attracted to each other. But life was complicated. I had a wife, children, and a law practice. And Ed had the same, except hundreds of miles away, and he was a pharmacist. But after a few months, we just decided to go for it. We both told our wives we had a work conference and then we started driving. We met in the middle, in a town on the border of Texas and Colorado, and spent three amazing days together. It was just meant to be, I guess. But it took a few years of secret weekend rendezvous times before we could actually come out and be together. And now we’re married. We’re grandfathers. And we’ve retired to Santa Fe, our dream city.”

The other couple there, Wayne and Jason, told a similar story, reminiscing about meeting years before when they both had families. Though they still spent time in different cities as they pursued their own jobs, and both had children and families, they wanted to settle into Santa Fe themselves one day.

I’d connected with this group of men through a random Facebook connection. While I was visiting Santa Fe, a long-time online friend who I had never met had invited me out for drinks with his friends, and I’d eagerly said yes, always happy to make new friends.

“There seems to be a substantial gay community here.”

“Yeah, there is. There has been for years. Gay couples and eccentric artists, that’s Santa Fe. But it isn’t your typical gay community. There aren’t any gay clubs. The town is big enough to have everything you need or want, and there is always something going on, but it’s usually just local restaurants, comfy normal bars, and a show or movie. It’s quiet here.”

The birds chirped louder suddenly, almost seeming to emphasize the point. I’d noticed that over the past few days. Everywhere seemed to have people, every museum or venue that I’d visited, but the streets and shops were quiet. It was a strange combination.

“Years back, Santa Fe had to choose between putting in a university or a prison. The community chose the prison. They liked the jobs it brought, and the tax incentives, and the university would have brought with it a lot of young people, which would change the entire town. Anyway, you can find what you want here, or not. It’s one of the most romantic cities ever.”

“Well, if you are part of a couple, it’s romantic.” The other single guy on the porch, Gary, took a gulp of water. “I moved here three years ago from Europe for a job, and the entire city is idyllic, but it seems everyone here is older and partnered. It’s a difficult city to date in.”

I tuned out for a bit, my attention moving toward the clouds and the horizon. I felt the breeze and got a bit chilly in my tank top and shorts, wrapping my arms around my own chest for warmth. A few minutes passed as I just lost myself there, feeling the internal pressures of the past few weeks just kind of calm. Life could be so simple, or so complicated. It could be kids, bills, projects, and deadlines. Or it could be sipping margaritas and eating chips on a porch while watch the sunset. I needed this.

Ed talked about volunteering a few days per week at the local AIDS clinic, detailing that with the older generation of gay men living here, many who had survived the deadly AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the clinic was crucial for their ongoing health. Some of these men had been living with AIDS for two or three decades, he explained.

I tuned out again, my thoughts going to the history of everyone here, the various paths we had taken. The birds, the roads, the buildings, the hills, all of it coming from somewhere and moving somewhere else. In hours, this patio and this conversation would be part of the past and I’d be on to a new present, and somehow that felt okay right now. It was a strange sensation, one I’d been getting more accustomed to lately, this idea of dwelling only in the present moment.

I turn inward and realize the song Santa Fe from Newsies is playing there on auto-pilot. It’s been playing in the background of my brain ever since I planned my trip here. My brain always works this way, some random song in the background. I hadn’t seen Newsies in years, but I could still remember Christian Bale dancing through the streets as he dreamed of a better life.

Santa Fe are you there
Do you swear you wont forget me
If I found you would you let me come and stay
I aint getting any younger
And before my dying day
I want space not just air
Let them laugh in my face
I don’t care
Sante Fe
I’ll be there

Meow

robot.jpg

Clutching my roasted eggplant veggie wrap and my hot coffee, I took a seat at the picnic table underneath the giant spider, setting myself in the shady part underneath the spider’s abdomen. The Santa Fe sunshine was perfect but bright, and I wanted to read.

A few minutes later, an older man, in his mid 60s, sat across from me. He was tall and thin, almost wirey, and he had a close-cropped grey beard and a floppy sunhat. He had a plate full of meat, rice, and potatoes, and a bottle of Orange Crush.

“Whatcha reading there?” he asked me through a mouth full of food.

I showed him the cover of my book, a mediocre autobiography by Elvis Costello, and smiled.

“Ah, he’s one of my favorites. And whatcha eating there?”

The conversation flowed easily from there as the man, overly friendly, asked several questions. He learned I was visiting from Salt Lake City, that I had a boyfriend and kids back home, that I had recently written a book, and that I was a social worker. He seemed astounded that I enjoyed taking little weekend furloughs for myself in unfamiliar places.

“Me, I never really planned on living here. It just kind of happened that way. I spent my career in California as an engineer, surveying land for big projects, and teaching at a few universities while my wife spent her time in education. We raised some kids, they moved away, and we wanted a fresh start. We came here for a visit, and we just kind of never left.” He took a large bite of potatoes and a swig of orange and kept going. “Now I spend my days doing stuff I love, and so does she. This place is weird, right? It’s perfect. She’s off painting this morning, and I just took an improv comedy class that they have down the road every morning. It’s all retired guys, and most of them are gay. Hell, most of Santa Fe is gay, which means we have the best neighbors.”

Then he seemed to remember where we were, and he indicated his fork at the giant spider above our heads, then over toward the other giant statues nearby, one a large metallic wolf, the other a building size robot smelling a flower. “And what do you think of this place? Did you go in? Tell me you went in.” I nodded, smiling. I always tend to get slightly quieter around those that are loud. He kept talking. “I’ve never been in. I’ve been meaning to. I just like to come down here on Saturdays after improv cause the food trucks are fantastic. But what was it like in there? What is Meow Wolf? I still can’t figure it out.”

“It’s… hard to explain,” I said simply, and I tried computing a way to explain it simply. “Have you ever taken your grandkids to McDonalds, to the play-land there? They climb up a series of platforms and end up in a big blocky room that has three different exits. One leads into a tunnel that winds up in a fake car with a plastic steering wheel; one leads into a room with an interactive tic-tac-toe game; the third has a slide in it that lands in a ball-pit at the bottom. Conjure that image, except multiply it by a thousand, and make it big enough for adults.”

The man listened intently as my voice rose in enthusiasm. “It was so weird. I felt curious and full of wonder the entire time, and I was in there for over three hours. They have this whole storyline that they tell you about a family that has gone missing, and then you go in to explore their house, except that their house has been hit by a reality-altering alien entity and all of the rooms are portals into little Twilight Zone dimensions. There were over 72 different rooms connected in the most bizarre ways, and all of them are interactive art displays.”

“How strange,” he said simply as I continued.

“Like I went in and saw the house and I read the family’s mail in their mailbox, then I went down a sidewalk and turned a corner, and suddenly I was in a passage of neon trees with fish swimming in the tops, and past that was an alien ship. Then a minute later, I found this narrow spiral staircase that I could barely squeeze myself through, and at the top I had to push this door open and it made a woman scream. Well, I climbed through the door and looked back and realized I had climbed out of the washing machine that was in the family’s home on the upstairs!”

The man listened as I continued describing the house. The family photo albums, the bizarre images in the mirror, the portal in the fridge, the room of robot hands, the cartoonish room, the mechanical hamster, the harp made of lasers that I actually got to play.

“But then about a thousand kids came in all at once, and I realized I was ready for lunch,” I laughed, noticing the four school busses now parked in the lot.

“It sounds like you need to bring your kids back here,” he laughed.

“Oh I had way more fun without my kids today,” I admitted. “But I would love to bring them back here.”

“You really seemed to have fun in there! I’ll have to bring my wife back next week.”

“You should!”

Out of words for a minute, we both cleaned up the last of our plates, A silence hung in the air, and I looked forward at the Santa Fe skyline, rolling hills in the middle of the desert. Despite how busy it was, I could see green everywhere, and I realized how many birds were singing.

Then the man burst out with one loud laugh. “God, Santa Fe is weird!”

“It really is!” I laughed back, excited to explore more.

“And it’s perfect just the way it is,” he said, excusing himself shortly after. He got on his bike and rode off, past the flower-smelling robot and into the dusty roads beyond.

Reservations: the Well-Meaning White Man

Petroglyph.jpg

“Welcome, everyone, to today’s competency training! To begin, we will have an exercise. I want everyone to stand somewhere in the room. Spread out, make sure you have plenty of room. There are about one hundred of you here, so you should be able to stand with enough space to spread out your arms and turn in a circle without touching anyone. Make yourselves pretty comfortable.”

I did as instructed, watching the crowd spread out around me. I didn’t really know anyone, so it was nice to have space.

The woman spoke back into her microphone. “Okay, now that a few minutes have passed, We are going to take away half of your space. One entire half of the room is no longer available to you. Everything from this line of chairs to the door. Everyone please move to that side of the room.”

We all did as instructed, cramming together in the smaller space, not touching each other still, but with much less space between us. Then the woman shrank the space by fifty per cent one more time, placing us all into one quarter of the room, where we were now standing shoulder to shoulder.

“Okay, please meet your neighbors, get comfortable. We will just leave you there for a few minutes.” But after only thirty seconds, she spoke again. “Just kidding, I know this is uncomfortable. But I have bad news. We are taking away half of your space once again. You must now fit between this section of wall and that space on the floor. Please move closer to accommodate everyone.”

And with that, we crushed ourselves into each other in the corner of the room, feeling desperately uncomfortable. She only left us there for a few seconds, but it was enough time to feel humiliated, frustrated, angry, and, for some, panicked. But then the woman finally instructed us to take our seats, with all of us wondering what the point had been. She taught us quickly.

“This is what it was like for Native Americans over time. For hundreds of years, our ancestors had the rule of the entire land. But when settlers came, their land was taken, and taken, and taken, and taken. Many thousands were killed, and their religion was mocked. They were called savages. Their children were forced to covert to Christianity. Their resources were pillaged. They were given alcohol to appease them, and they were subjected to hard labor for little pay, and finally poverty. Then, when there was little left to take, they were crushed into the corners of the room, placed into reservations. And while they struggled to survive in these harsh conditions, the white man mocked them, calling them drunks and wife-beaters, and resented it when they spoke up and wanted to govern themselves. They laughed about how easy the Natives had it while the life of the white man was much harder. And that is the story of our people, crushed into the corners and resented for trying to succeed.”

Back in 2007, when I underwent this training, it had a profound impact on me. For the following four years, I worked as a mental health clinician on a reservation, with a population of people I’d scarcely given thought to. When I think back hard enough, now in 2018, I can still feel the goosebumps on my skin from my co-worker singing a family chant while playing a hand-drum, I can still watch the sunrise over the distant corners of the reservation’s sacred lands, I can still picture the grieving Native families rubbing sage on themselves to honor a deceased loved one as the coffin sat in front of a Christian cross, I can still recall the bravery of the young woman who fought the system to get herself a full-ride scholarship in an attempt to honor herself and her family.

Today, just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, I walked among the Petroglyphs. In the hills around the city, Native Americans lived for hundreds of years, and they carved on rocks. People, birds, images, animals, arrows. Some of these faded drawings date back to the 1300s, the signs say. The European settlers came, slowly trickling in over the following few centuries, and the Natives were forced to change with them. The white men brought diseases, money, conquest, and unfamiliar customs, with words like ‘rape’ and ‘pillage’, ‘kill’ and ‘exploit’. I think of my own childhood in the 1980s, still playing leftover games of ‘cowboys and Indians’, with the cowboys always being the heroes as they stole the land.

I stood on a hilltop today and looked across the brown New Mexican landscape. The plants are unfamiliar here. They are sharper, dustier, with needs and crags. They are the desert and the mesa. I look down and a small spotted lizard no bigger than my pinky finger rushes across the rock, leaps into the grass nearby, then scampers out and into the rock face. It it foraging for food, watching for rattlesnakes around it and birds above? Nearby, a dove of some kind gives a long trilling call, over and over again, and I shiver with the loneliness. The rock behind me has a drawing of some kind of man on it, or perhaps a woman. I have no idea what it means. No one can possibly know. But it is beautiful because it is old, and because it is all that remains.

A sign nearby references the original settlers of this land, the Pueblo. It talks about the honor paid to ancestors, who built a layered city around the banks of the Rio Grande, sharing the water source for survival. Even from here, I can hear the electric buzz of the buildings and the impatient bustle of the cars, and my phone buzzes in my pocket.

I turn back to the petroglyph, and I think back to my first days working on the reservation, far from here, but a place with a similar history. A strong woman I worked with, a Native American grandmother, grew frustrated with me one day. I had been complaining about the long list of clients waiting for drug and alcohol assessments, frustrated that I might never catch up.

“We are paying you to help us here. These are people. Not a list of names, but people. They are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. And they need your help.” And after I’d apologized, she’d smiled affectionately, and said, “Don’t apologize. Just help. You have your heart in the right place. Well, as much as a well-meaning white boy can.” Then she laughed, a loud cackle that I can still hear.

I turn back to the petroglyph again, and I grieve.

Animal Kingdom

animal

As I child, I poured through the pages of encyclopedias for fun. I was endlessly fascinated with words themselves, with their variable origins and meanings. Crisp letters here and silent, hidden letters there. Synonyms and homonyms, syllables and participles. I was amazed by the very structure of them. Even as a young child, I had an incredible sense of understanding that not only would I never know all of the words in my own language, but that there were hundreds of other languages out there, each with words that could never translate into mine. This realization left me awestruck.

I remember being similarly overwhelmed by the vast kingdom of animals out there. As animals evolved in different environments, they adapted with skills and shifts in their very biological chemistries in order to survive. A spot, a ruffle, a horn, a tuft, or a pouch generally meant a completely different species. Turtles could be painted, box, or snapping; trout could be rainbow, brown, or brook; owls could be white-plumed, tiny and burrowing, or fierce and screeching. In every biosphere, there were creatures that dug deep into earth and trees, those that flew above and stretched their wings to the sky, those that nibbled on the green growing grass, and those that fed on all. The circle of life, from bottom feeder to great predator, in every realm from desert to ocean to cave. And it all adapted around water, and sun. I could flip through a book full of butterflies and look at the hundreds of wing pattern variations, and wonder for days at how they all happened that way and where they came from.

When I first became aware of the super powers animals contained, my brain was arrested with the sheer possibility of it all. Chameleons camouflaged, monarch butterflies flew the length of the world in a span of generations, and cicadas slept for years at a time. Squirrels foraged using cheek pouches to carry extra, spider monkeys had tails that could be used liked hands, and camels could go for days without water. And the more obscure the animal, the more I was fascinated by them. There were sword-billed hummingbirds, binturongs that smelled like buttered popcorn, and bizarre red-lipped batfish that lurked on the ocean floor.

My love for heroes began shortly after that. Not surprisingly, the majority of them seemed to be based on animals and their abilities. Batman, Penguin, and Catwoman. Spider-Man and Ant-Man. Wolverine. Ninja Turtles. Black Panther, Cheetah, Killer Croc. And, as always, the more obscure the character, the more I rejoiced in them: the Beetle, the Vulture, Kangaroo, Leap-Frog, Puma, Squirrel Girl, the Mandrill, the White Rabbit, the Owl, and the Walrus. From there, I found myself creating my own heroes and villains, with their own animal powers. It was so easy, as there were so many to choose from. The electric eel, the angler-fish, the goblin shark, the monitor, the ocelot, the maned wolf, the mosquito, the starfish, the capybara, the ibex. It was as if the possibilities were endless. My ideas filled entire notebooks.

Since having children of my own, my love of animals has been reawakened. My sons J (9) and A (6) are endlessly asking questions about animals. We pick up educational videos on them and talk about the special skills of each. We discuss endangered species, habitats, and species diversity. They make me think and learn even more. A year or so ago, we started playing a game initially called Farm, then Farm and Zoo, then Farm and Zoo and Aquarium. Now we just call it the Animal Kingdom. We began collecting animal toys, little plastic figurines, realistic in their detail, and we began arranging them by habitat. It started with the obvious, pigs, cows, and horses, then diversified into black bears, Siberian tigers, and timberwolves. We have adventures with the creatures, and the human characters who come to visit them with nefarious plots.

Lately, though, the game has turned more complex, as the denizens of the Animal Kingdom continue to grow. The boyfriend and I have been giving the boys new animals every other weekend or so, creatures to add to the ranks, and it’s almost as we are having a contest to see who can go the most obscure. We don’t just hand the boys the animals, we take time to learn about the creatures together, we draw pictures, and we have active conversations. Three weekends ago, I gave the boys a wombat and a wallaby; the next weekend, Mike gave them a reticulated giraffe and a gharial; I followed that up with a cassowary and a rhinocerous hornbill. We fully admit that it is we, the adults, who are the most obsessed at this point, but I find myself planning out how I can teach the boys about the pygmy hippopotamus, the giant anteater, the pangolin, and the kudu in the following few months, and it fills me with joy.

This weekend, I took a solo trip to New Mexico. With a few hours to kill between the landing of the plane and the check-in time for my hotel, I took myself to the zoo. I wandered, a grown man in love with animals again, and I watched with fascination, still amazed at the variance and complexity. The baby chimpanzee wrapped itself in a blanket and turned somersaults for several minutes while its win sibling cuddled tightly with a grandmother chimp in the corner. The polar bear danced back and forth in a repeated rhythm, taking a measured number of steps, sticking out its tongue, turning around to march back to the front, then repeating all over again. The baby American alligators huddled on top of each other in a pile at the corner of the pool. The warthog inhaled its pile of vegetables with its great hinged jaws, reminding me of a muppet. The peacock startled me with its loud guffaw of a song, shouting across the zoo for all to hear.

Inspired, I left the zoo, sat down at my computer to blog about animals, and promptly logged into Amazon to mail order more creatures for the Animal Kingdom. The orders were for my kids, I told myself again. But, frankly, they were more for me, and for the little boy version of myself that flipped through encyclopedias to take notes.