Silver Paint and Cigarettes

The man’s face was painted silver. Thick, shiny silver. He wore a black jacket over a flannel shirt, and he had a Saints ball cap pulled low on his head. Blue jeans, tennis shoes. He leaned against a wall and took a long drag on a cigarette, blowing the smoke out in a long stream, and a low sigh exited his lips as he stood there. Then I noticed that his hands were painted silver too.

I leaned over to Mike. “Look!” I spoke in an excited whisper. The man took another long drag on his cigarette, blowing the smoke out, and then he began walking down the block, away from us. Mike took brief notice, then looked back down at his phone, disinterested. But I was fascinated by this man.

“He must have been one of those guys who does street performances. He paints himself silver and stands there not moving like a statue and people stand in front of him and take pictures and give him tips and stuff. He’s one of those guys.”

Mike used his phone to navigate us to our destination, a little supper club space a few blocks off of Bourbon Street. We entered an old building with sparse decor. A band sat right inside the entrance, playing old blues songs, and the perfect mix of the percussion, the clarinet, the bass, and the piano arrested my senses. The man at the piano crooned softly into a microphone, his voice reminiscent of Louis Armstrong. (But somehow in this setting it made me think more of King Louis in Disney’s the Jungle Book). My foot started tapping as I surveyed the room. A simple bar with a bartender named Jory who was dressed like some kind of 1950s pin-up girl as she deftly mixed drinks for the small crowd. A few scattered tables and stools with six or so people spread among them, all listening to the music. No one had their phones out, and that struck me almost more than anything.

“Oh, this is perfect,” I whispered to myself. Just a few blocks away there were hundreds of people swarming up and down the street in vast crowds, tripping over each other, half-drunk. They clamored from bar to bar, shop to shop, on the street full of singers, crooners, and musicians, with a different club every thirty feet, each with its own oyster or crawfish specialities, its own drinks, its own music with horns and drums and lead singers. But this place, with this handful of people, just far enough of the beaten path, was somehow perfect.

I ordered a drink from the bar, something with rum and gin and ginger beer and cherry juice and orange peel, and as Jory began shaking it all together in a metal cup, the band started a new number. The piano shifted into the upper octaves, the bass thumped out a deep resonant strain, and the percussion shifted into some wood-block-tapping sound. I turned as the clarinet began its song, and my spirit soared with it. I took my drink and joined Mike at the table.

“This. Is. Perfect.” I repeated with emphasis, and he laughed.

“Happy 40th birthday vacation weekend,” he smiled, gripping my hand, and I laughed. We clinked our drinks together, and the clarinet soared around our heads as we sipped in celebration.

One song later, I looked up to see a cop ride by on horseback, clip-clopping through the French Quarter a literal head and shoulders above everyone else.

I leaned in to Mike. “Where else would you see that?

He twisted his lips up the way he does when he’s about to make a joke. Banter is one of the very best parts of our relationship. “Canada,” he replied.

“No, they ride moose there.” I wiggled my eyebrows.

Mike rolled his eyes. “You can’t tame a moose.”

“Well, I did,” I stated, then stroked his hand affectionately, like I was petting a dog.

“Hey! I’m not a moose!”

He jabbed at me as I simply took another sip of my drink. “Aw, I made the moose upset. Look at his cute little waaaaaaah-tlers.”

Mike broke, laughing, and the singer started crooning again. There was a growl in his voice, and it made me want to snarl in the very best ways.

We went for a walk after that, weaving around the side streets of the French Quarter, with its small and beautiful homes, its waving flags, its low lights. We passed no less than six gay clubs and fifteen supper clubs, and people were crammed into every one of them, watching the Saints play football. We heard whoops and shouts and laughter, and we held hands as we walked.

We ended up back at the same club, wanting just a bit more, and saw the band was on break. Jory waved at us as we arrived, outside on her cigarette break, and I smiled. Taking a seat at the same table. I watched the four men from the band at the bar. Two wore straw hats. The singer had dreadlocks. I wondered what their lives were like. They had wives and children, day jobs, families, and here they were on a Thursday night playing incredible music for this tiny crowd for no other reason than that they loved it. Between sets, they checked text messages, had idle conversation, had a quick drink. At the end of the night, they’d go back home by bike or in a cab, and they’d sleep before their alarms went off for the workday in the morning.

Soon after, Mike and I headed back to our Airbnb, tired from the long flight and the time change, the walking and the humidity. And I thought of that man, the statue performer. I thought of him posing with drunk people in photos for tips. The put on his jeans, his jacket, his hat, then snuck around a corner for a cigarette break, still in his silver paint. I thought of the silver paint from his lips on the cigarette, of the silver swirls that must permanently stain around his shower drain, of the canister of silver body and face paint that must stack up on the side of his bathroom, of the cigarette smoke rising slowly in the air before disappearing. Evanescent. Just like me.

Silver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Strange Thanksgiving

I woke up to the text message that my boyfriend’s grandmother had fallen and was in the hospital. My first thought was, “Oh, no, Grandma!” My second thought was, “Well, there goes Thanksgiving.”

I’m very fond of Mike’s grandmother. She turned 93 recently, and while a bit frail, she is sturdy and sound. She lives alone and, with the help of her children and her Mormon congregation, she is relatively self-sufficient. She’s tall and lovely, opinionated, and strong willed. She’s a Republican Mormon woman who hates Donald Trump. She is very physically able, strong if slow-moving. She speaks in long breathy whispers, struggling to get air and achieve volume.

My first time meeting her and, well, all of my boyfriend’s family, was 18 months ago. Mike and I had been dating for 4 months by then. On a Saturday afternoon, we packed my kids into the car, drove to their small Utah town, and met the family in a busy Mexican restaurant. We piled in around each other at a round table, the kind where you have to scoot from the sides around and into the center, and there is no way out for that back person unless everyone else gets up. It was Mike and I, my two sons, Mike’s mother and her boyfriend, Mike’s sister and her husband and son, and then grandma, and she was seated right next to me. She had clearly done her homework on me before arriving.

As the kids chowed down on chips and salsa and made loud dinosaur noises, and as Mike chatted with his mom and sister over the table, Grandma leaned close to me, her voice a thick whisper, taking on breaths every half sentence.

“So, Chad, do you mind (breath) me asking you a personal question?”

I smiled at her. “Of course not.”

“If you are gay, (breath) then how is it (breath) that you were married to a woman?”

Oh, Grandma jumps right in, I thought. I gave a canned, rehearsed answer, as this is a question I’ve been asked a lot over the years, about how religious expectations trumped my common sense and reasoning, about how I’d been promised a cure, about how my ex-wife had known I was gay before I came out. I saw Mike’s mom and sister leaning in to hear my answers. The idea of their son dating a man who’d been married to a woman, one who had children, must have been jarring to them. They seemed to accept my answer, and Grandma and I had spent the rest of the meal talking, sharing, bonding. And over time, Mike’s family grew as fond of me as I was of them.

Over the past 18 months, we’d had many long visits with Mike’s family. I’d grown close to them. And so the news of Grandma’s fall, resulting in a cracked pelvis and a broken elbow, was horrible. I woke Mike up with the news, and we talked about the best way to handle the day. Our fridge was packed with an uncooked turkey, red kale, white mushrooms, brussels sprouts, sweet onions, and red peppers, and sacks of potatoes, bread crumbs and the rest sat on the counter. My sons were off with their mom for the day, so we made plans instead to do Thanksgiving dinner the next day and instead go to visit Grandma in the hospital. Mike’s Mom had been up all night with her.

And so, in late morning, we drove an hour north and arrived at the hospital. The place was scarcely staffed, with no one at the front desk and only a few nurses on staff to keep things running. We found Grandma’s room and entered, seeing Mike’s mom sitting to the side exhausted and Grandma in her bed looking more frail than I’d ever seen her.

My heart skipped a beat briefly. Back in 1997, I’d sat at my Grandpa’s bedside for weeks, every day, leading up to his death. And in 2009, I’d seen my own Grandma grow frailer toward the end, fully blind and with little energy though she kept her sound mind and her determined spirit right to the end. They were both beloved to me, and losing them had been devastating. Seeing Grandma in bed now, covered with blankets, with electronic monitors attached to her, broke my heart. We each gave her a light hug and she weakly gripped our hands, then she fell back into a deep sleep, her mouth open fully as she breathed heavily, under the influence of the nauseating pain medication.

Mike’s mom told us how Grandma had removed her emergency monitor briefly the night before and then had stepped into her garage to retrieve something. She’d fallen and then, unable to get back on her feet due to the injuries, had pulled herself across the room on the floor to the phone, where she’d called her daughter for help. Later, they couldn’t get her into the car and had had to call an ambulance to get her to the hospital.

Mike’s mom looked exhausted, but she remained friendly and witty, as she always is. She’s in amazing shape, thin and fit, and has a keen mind and an inquisitive nature. She’d recently graduated college, after going back for her degree in her fifties. I respect her immensely. We warmed a plate of food we’d brought for her out of the fridge and chatted about Thanksgiving, about my sons, about her new granddaughter, for a period of time. She invited me over a few days later to celebrate my birthday.

After a while, the nurse came in to check on Grandma, and ended up staying in the room for 45 minutes, chatting and laughing with us. I could see her trying to figure out the relationship between Mike and I… were we brothers, cousins, roommates, boyfriends? She casually mentioned her gay daughter and her wife, and I confirmed that were indeed partners. The nurse reacted with such joy and enthusiasm, leading to a long discussion about gay family members and how parents react to their children coming out. Mike’s mom talked about Mike’s coming out, 17 years before, and how the world had changed. I talked about my sister, about me, about my nephew and niece all coming out, and about my work as a therapist seeing others do the same. The nurse talked about her daughter. As grandma lay there sleeping, gasping in as much oxygen as she could, we talked about biological theories regarding homosexuality, and found reasons to laugh, and it was strange and somehow delightful.

We left the hospital and made our way home. I folded some laundry while Mike went ahead and cooked the turkey for himself, and while it was cooking, we started watching Sense8 on Netflix, simply because Mike hadn’t seen it before. 3 episodes later, Mike pulled the turkey from the oven and ripped off large chunks of meat for himself, laying them in strips on a plate. I finally got hungry and made myself a slice of toast with almond butter, then mixed together a concoction of plant protein, plain Greek yogurt, almond milk, chia seeds, and frozen cherries, stirring the mixture up and eating it by the spoon. We watched one more episode, binge-watching at this point, as I licked yogurt off a spoon and Mike ate one more slice of turkey, and then one more.

And Thanksgiving, well, it was strange. My typical family chaos moments, with dozens of people swarming through the house and the kids needing lots of attention and my mom cooking for hours upon hours in the kitchen and everyone collapsing into couches as their bodies digested massive amounts of food, none of that was here today. But Thanksgiving was about gratitude. I’d spent my day with the man I loved, showing support to his family I love, and talking about things I’m passionate about. So while it was weird, it was a pretty damn good day.

 

And I have a lot to be thankful for.

Justice Court

court.jpg

I arrived first.

I’d driven by this building at least one hundred times but had somehow never noticed it. It was tucked on a side road off the freeway entrance, behind a Ramada Inn. The freeway arced up and over, crossing the skyline above the court building with rushing cars and exhaust fumes. The air was biting. It was two days before Thanksgiving, but we hadn’t had our first snow yet, and I looked forward to the clean white powder falling on the city.

I considered waiting in the car, but I saw a line forming, and I didn’t want to be here any longer than I had to be. I got out and stood in the cold. It was 7:40 am, and the building didn’t open until 8.

My eyes scanned the crowd, the people I would be spending my morning with. I have a habit of giving people names in my brain, at least when I’m focused on them. There was a tall good-looking stoner looking guy, skinny and in baggy dress clothes; I called him Quinn. A haggard-looking white girl with a stained sweatshirt and ripped jeans sagged against a concrete pillar, awake far too early for her; I called her Tina. A large man with an ample stomach stood against the wall, wearing a baggy hoody over his curly grey hair; he kept nodding to everyone who walked up to the building, saying hello with enthusiasm in a Southern accent; I called him Beau. A gorgeous African woman with coal skin and waves of black and golden hair stood looking furious, her back turned to the man who was there with her; his skin was more like cocoa and he stood in a shirt and tie, his hands in his pockets as he looked at the ground; I called them Rose and Robert.

More people gathered and the doors finally opened. I held the door for a few folks, walked in, and somehow still ended up in the front of the line. The court windows opened, and a clerk took the citation number off of my traffic ticket, checked my name, and confirmed that I’d scheduled an appearance today. The ticket had been issued a month ago now. I signed a waiver stating that I was waiving an attorney and agreeing to represent myself, I handed the form to a pair of security guards, and I passed through a metal detector. I was immediately impressed by the multi-cultural representation in the staff here; the clerks, bailiff, guard, and court reporter were white, Hispanic, Polynesian, and Asian, both men and women, and of various ages.

As I waited for everyone to pass through security, I reviewed the facts of my case in my brain. On a Sunday evening, I’d received a ticket for ‘improper left turn’ from an aggressive officer, one who’d been belligerent and sarcastic. The ticket he’d given me had had incorrect information on it, including the wrong penalty and court information. I couldn’t argue that I’d committed the improper turn infraction, but I thought that perhaps the way in which the ticket had been given might nullify it somehow. I thought I could at least try it.

After a few minutes, with everyone in the room, we were instructed to watch a video made by a judge, a Hispanic woman, that explained our rights, including the option of pleading ‘no contest’, ‘not guilty’, or ‘guilty’ to each of the charges. We were instructed to ‘all rise’ and the judge entered in her black robes. Anna Anderson was her name (no relation). Her hair hung long on her shoulders, freshly washed and not yet dry. She carried a plastic cup with something juicy inside, took a sip from her long straw, and took a seat. The prosecutor occupied one table, a friendly man in his mid-20s, handsome, with a scruffy face and glasses. They both opened up their laptops and began to process through the cases.

I was called up first, and I pleaded ‘not guilty’. The judge invited me to speak with the prosecutor after everyone else had entered their pleas, and I agreed, so I took a seat again and prepared to wait an hour.

There were about 20 people in the room, of all shapes, races, ages, and sizes. Many I recognized from outside. Just across the row from me was a skinny Asian man, likely around 50, who was aggressively plucking nose-hairs with tweezers; he did it with such speed and efficiency that I was almost more impressed than I was grossed out. Beau sat next to him, coughing enthusiastically from time to time and apologizing to others in his Southern drawl each time he did. An old man with an oxygen tank walked in, muttering about the bail he’d posted for his ‘god-damn wife’ and about being in ‘fucking court at fucking 8 in the morning’.

My ‘improper left turn’ charge had been called up first. After that, I was shocked with how the cases escalated in severity. A woman with an endangerment to child charge from 2013 made an appearance, having been avoiding court for five years apparently. Other traffic violations, though many of them much more serious, such as major speeding infractions. Judge Anderson worked through the cases efficiently, with respect to each person, explaining things clearly, offering options for counsel, working out payment plans for various fines. Overall, I was pretty impressed.

Quinn got called up after a few minutes, his blonde hair slicked back against his scalp. I noticed his shoes were scuffed. The judge reviewed his charges, which included a DUI, and he pleaded not guilty, but then changed to guilty after realizing he didn’t qualify for court-appointed counsel. The judge explained that he made far too much money for that. He looked at the ground, clearly distressed, and stated that she could go ahead and sentence him because he wasn’t going to ‘pay no attorney’. The judge counseled him to think things through, asking him if he realized that if he pleaded guilty that he could go to jail immediately and for up to six months, right there from the courthouse. At her suggestion, he agreed to at least talk to the prosecutor before he made a decision, and resumed his seat in the back row of the courtroom. My heart went out to him. I had no idea what his life was like, but facing charges like that couldn’t be easy. Anyone could get a DUI in the wrong circumstances.

Rose was called up next. She had a thick accent, but her English was impeccable. The judge explained that she was facing charges of domestic violence in the presence of a minor, and Rose pleaded not guilty, then asked for a court-appointed attorney. Robert, Rose’s boyfriend?/husband? spoke up and stated that he was financially supporting Rose and her child since she had recently lost a job, and Rose shot him a look that let me know that he had been the victim of the violence. Rose muttered something about this being ‘such a joke’ under her breath, and the judge invited her to fill out the application for court-appointed counsel. Rose stormed past Robert on her way out to the lobby.

Tina couldn’t get out of there fast enough. She looked down, muttered lowly into the microphone as she spoke to the judge about multiple traffic infractions. She pleaded guilty, apologized for having missed court before, agreed to pay the fine in full, didn’t want to come back again, and rushed out after hearing that her license could be reinstated. The was a beat of silence, during which I could only hear the intakes of the oxygen machine and the clink of the Tweezers.

Beau went last. As he name was called (his real name wasn’t Beau), he strolled up to the microphone, speaking before he got there. “Well, your honor,” he said in his drawl, “let me just say thank you for all your hard work and service, and can I just say, ‘Go Utes!'” The judge wasn’t amused. She reviewed his assault charges and Beau pleaded not guilty, laughing as he spoke. He asked for a public defender, explaining, “I’m a veteran, and I’m mentally ill! I get disability. $900 per month, and $450 goes to my new truck and the rest goes to my rent and I use public help for the rest, so I’ll need your help. Go Utes!” He was given the proper forms to fill out and he thanked the judge with one final “Go Utes!” before walking away.

All twenty plus cases were processed by the time an hour was up. Then the prosecutor pulled me into a side room to discuss my case. He was shockingly charming, laughing about how I surely wanted to be spending my day somewhere else. He listened patiently as I expressed my concerns, then he listed my options, careful not to give me advice. I quickly realized fighting the charge wasn’t worth it, though I did have some valid concerns. I ended up pleading no contest, getting quickly processed by the judge, and then paying a $120 fine. I’d already filed a professional complaint against the aggressive officer. The rest would be fine as it was.

I left the building with an overwhelming feeling of ‘meh’. A traffic ticket was ultimately inconsequential. But, upon reflection, being there was kind of a cool feeling, sitting next to people from all walks of life, people whose paths I likely wouldn’t cross even though we lived in the same city. Sitting there, we were all equal. The intricacies of the court existed. Those who worked there interacted with each other daily, with a new crowd of people crossing their paths every day. Different judges, different prosecutors, same security guards, bailiffs, and clerks.

“Hey, Janet, hope your dog is feeling better. Guess we better unlock the doors, we got forty cases on the docket this morning.”

“Hey, Georgette, did you see we have four battery charges, three assaults, and two domestic violence cases today? Better not display your last name! You have terrible taste in men.”

“Hey, Charlie, remember when that drunk guy came in last week? I’ve been drinking more lately since my son went to college. I better not ever get a DUI!”

“Hey, Joe, wanna grab a drink after work? Oh, hang on, that crying lady is walking back through.”

Numbers on a docket. Each person had some interaction with the police that led them here. Each would plead innocent, no contest, or guilty. Each would pay a fine, or hire an attorney. Each could face consequences with their jobs and families, but each represented a series of charges and penalties with the court. Did they show up? Check. Did they plead? Check. Did they accept the consequences? Check. Next! Fill up your coffee and finish your doughnut, the next forty people are headed in.

Ninety minutes in the court. My ticket was paid, my charge was over. I couldn’t help but wonder what this meant for the rest.

Crunch!

Cereal

There was a certain ritual when it came to cereal in the mornings. I would wake up craving it, from the moment my eyes opened. It didn’t matter if it was 4 am or 7, I would stumble out of bed, use the restroom, wash my hands, and immediately head to the kitchen. And there the ritual could begin: open the cupboard, remove the bowl, hear it clink against the other dishes as I pulled it free, set it on the counter. We kept the cereal boxes in rows on the top of the fridge. Select the box, open the flap, un-crinkle the plastic bag inside the box from where it had been crumpled down tightly, to keep the cereal crisp. Then tip the box and hear the little morsels of sugar-y grain tinkle-tinkle-tinkle inside the bowl. Set the box on the table, open the drawer, grab the spoon and clink it against the glass bowl. Open the fridge, retrieve the milk, unscrew the cap, and then pour the white gold directly into the bowl until the cereal could just float on the top. We generally chose Skim milk; it was more water-y than the others, but it had fewer Calories than whole milk. Then lift the spoon, mix the cereal into the milk until it was evenly distributed, the perfect mix of wet and dry, still crunchy but cold from the milk. Scoot the chair out from the table and take that first delicious crunchy bite while slurping the milk off the spoon at the same time. There would always be reading material as well; some people preferred newspapers or even the back of the cereal box itself, but me, I liked comic books. I’d bite, read, clink the spoon against the side of the bowl as I scooped another bite, turn the page to find the X-Men battling Apocalypse or Magneto or Stryfe, take another bite. Crunch, slurp, flip, bam-pow-splat, clink, crunch, slurp, flip, clink, crunch.

I downed the cereal quickly, every time. There was no savoring it. Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t eat it fast enough. I’d barely be swallowing one bite as I shoved another quickly into my mouth, and in 2 or maybe 3 minutes, it would be gone, leaving nothing but the milk in the bowl. The milk would be flavored by now, it would take on the color of the cereal, tan or chocolatey or yellow, and there was sugar and high fructose corn syrup making it sweet. And I could have just slurped the milk down, but it seemed such a waste to let perfectly good milk go unappreciated like that. So instead, I’d reach for the cereal box and pour just a bit in, repeating the ritual, except with maybe half the amount of the first time, just enough to float in the milk. Clink, crunch, sip, flip, clink, crunch, sip, and soon that would be gone, and there’d be even less milk. One last small handful of cereal to fill that up, a few more bites, then finally I could slurp the remnants. The bowl would go to the dish washer, the milk back in the fridge, the plastic crinkled down over whatever cereal remained, the box closed and put on top of the fridge again. And I’d be left with that Styrofoam feeling on my tongue and a heaviness in my gut.

The cereal was the perfect beginning to the day, no matter what I chose. Cereal, and milk. I never read the ingredients back then, never took the time, but the top ones would have always been ‘enriched wheat flour’, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and maybe marshmallows, depending on the brand. It might mention oats, or rice, or corn, or bran, or whatever grain had been modified to create the crunchy shapes, but almost always it was enriched wheat flour, and everyone knew that wheat was good for you. Wheat and milk. And sure, sugar, but we were Americans, and everyone was entitled to a little sugar in their diet. We earned it. Throw in some preservatives, some food dyes, and package for selling.

All of the cereals were just variations on each other, squares or circles, flakes or crisp little morsels, and some cut into the shape of some cartoon character or emblem. Some were dyed different colors, usually brown or tan but sometimes pink or green or yellow, or made to resemble something delicious. Cocoa or peanut butter or “natural fruit flavor”, with marshmallows or sprinkles or cinnamon. Some were even known for the sound effects they made, or for the color they would turn the milk.

Corn Pops, Apple Jacks, Lucky Charms, Honey Smacks, Honey Nut Cheerios, Trix, Waffle Crisp, Cookie Crunch, Fruity or Cocoa Pebbles, Frosted Flakes, Cocoa Puffs, Fruit Loops, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Golden Grahams. They filled up long shelves down an entire aisle of the grocery store, each box lovingly placed under the lights so the kids could salivate over it as their moms wheeled by them with shopping carts.

“Mom, please! Can I have that!” And if there was cereal and milk, then Mom didn’t have to cook. Win-win for everyone.

No matter what the boxes advertised, things like ‘made with real fruit juice!’ or ‘now packed with vitamin C!’ or ‘part of every kid’s balanced breakfast!’, I knew that these sugary concoctions weren’t good for me. They tasted too good to be good for me. It was like having crunchy Halloween candy for breakfast. God, one cereal brand was even made by Reece’s. But I didn’t care. I let myself belief they were good and good for me, and I grew up loving them. I idolized them in a sense, all through childhood, through my teenage years, and well into adulthood. They were iconic. They made me think of home, of breakfast time around the table with family, of indulgence. Of ritual. Didn’t matter that I was different than other kids, or that dad cried all the time, or that the step-dad used his fists too much; cereal was constant. It got me through three hour blocks of church, gave me energy to get ready on school mornings, and kept me company through Saturday morning cartoons. Delicious, crunchy, wonderful cereal and milk. Clink, crunch, slurp, every morning.

Getting name brand cereals was a treat. A rather rare occasion, but a treat. It was much more likely that we would get the cheaper off-brand product, made by Western Family or Malt-O-Meal instead of General Mills. We couldn’t afford Frosted Mini-Wheats, but we could certainly afford a plastic bag full of Mini-Spooners, and a bag of Cini-Mini Crunch was much cheaper than the Cinnamon Toast variety. There were rows full of off-brand options. Fruity Dino-Bites instead of Fruity Pebbles, Honey Nut Scooters instead of Cheerios, and Golden Puffs instead of Honey Smacks, Chocolate Draculas instead of Count Chocula. All of them were carefully marketed to resemble their brand-name counterparts, with designs, shapes, flavors, colors, and packaging. Pranks instead of Trix, and Honey Buzzers instead of Honey Comb, on and on and on.

These cereals, the brand-name ones, were branded into my soul. They had mascots, each and every one of them. Most Saturday morning cartoon characters from the Ninja Turtles to the Power Rangers to the Flintstones, had their own cereal brands and boxes.  But each of the name-brand cereals had their own branded cartoon right on the box. The characters were colorful, with huge features, and easy to identify. Just looking at them, you could hear their voice, their slogan.

Toucan Sam (Follow Your Nose!), the Trix Rabbit (Silly rabbit, Trix are for Kids!), Lucky the Leprauchaun (They’re Always After Me Lucky Charms!), Tony the Tiger (They’re Grrrreat!), Sonny the Cuckoo Bird (I’m Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!), that weird little werewolf hedgehog on the Honeycombs box whose name was Crazy Craving (Honeycomb, honeycomb, me want honeycomb!). They had adventures, sometimes even enemies, heck, sometimes kids were their enemies because kids wanted their cereal! Saturday morning cartoons were punctuated by commercials starring these characters, the same ones that smiled on the front of every box. Some commercials ended with a dramatic “to be continued.” Would the Trix Rabbit be fooled by the kids trying to steal his cereal? Would Cap’n Crunch escape from the Soggies? What magical shape would become the next Lucky Charms marshmallow? They already had green clovers and yellow stars, why not a purple horseshoe! The commercials were exciting, and they carried over onto the cereal boxes. I could still doodle these characters on paper, I can still hear their voices in my head. It made things even more appealing. The off-brand cereals had mascots as well, but they were nothing more than images on the box. I can’t name a single off-brand character or what cereal they went with. I have vague images a koala, a kangaroo, a monkey, a dinosaur. No, without the multi-million dollar marketing campaigns of General Mills, Malt-O-Meal never stood a chance. Malt-O-Meal could only try to look like the stuff I really wanted, the stuff I saw on TV.

And there were prizes in the boxes! Generally, they were of a lower quality than something you might find in a McDonalds’ Happy Meal, but it was exciting nonetheless. The second we’d get home from the grocery store, I’d rip open the box top, tear open the plastic, and throw my likely unwashed hand down into the cereal, rifling through it until I found the small plastic package with the toy inside. A plastic ring with a spider on it; a small coloring book, the entire thing only four pages and smaller than my hand; a low quality hunk of plastic designed to look like some cartoon character; a treasure map that led to nowhere. Sometimes the prizes got very specific: an “Urkel for President” button, color-changing Flintstones dinosaurs, a Sugar Bear yo-yo. Generally, whatever the prize was, I’d play with it for approximately one minute, then it would end up in some corner of my room never to be touched again.

In childhood, when I first started snarfing down bowl-fulls of cereal, I learned the nutritional habits that would set me up for my teenage and adult life. Don’t read the labels, don’t worry about nutrition for the most part, no moderation needed. Eat as much as you can for as cheaply as possible. Why buy the 4 -dollar loaf of bread when there was a loaf for 60 cents right there? Cheap soups, meats, crackers, cake mixes. When it went on sale, buy as much as possible, and then eat as much as possible at home. There were seven kids in my family, and many meals were simply ‘fend for yourself’. The exception was always Sunday dinner, when Mom made pot roast and bowls full of mashed potatoes, and an entire pan of Little Debbie cake, and plates full of rolls. Then, there was always plenty of food. I’d already had two or three bowls of cereal for breakfast, but there was nothing wrong with having seconds, or thirds, or maybe even fourths. I’d eat so much on Sunday afternoons that I’d wind up on the couch in a food coma, my body devoting all of its possible resources to digesting the mass of chewed-up food in my gut. My stomach would poke out, I’d undo my pants and lay there, reading a book or watching cartoons, perhaps having a snooze. I’d lay there until I could move, but I’d feel bloated and exhausted for hours afterwards, all the way to bedtime. And then the next morning, I’d get up and start with cereal all over again.

Things changed a lot when my parents divorced. I was the sixth of seven children, and the two oldest kids were already out of the house. Then, just after my fourth grade year, we packed up the U-Haul and Mom moved us from southwestern Missouri to southeastern Idaho. Dad stayed behind with my brother and one of my sisters, who wanted to finish school there, and Mom took the three youngest kids to start a brand new life. We moved into a rental home and Mom started a new job, working more than full-time as a second grade teacher. To make things worse, she got a concussion in those first few months. I was 11, my younger sister Sheri was 7, and eating became more out of cans and boxes than ever before. Lunch was often at school, where we were given whatever equivalent of healthy lunch was being served at the time, but at home, it was much easier to simply eat cereal. Every morning, every evening, and sometimes for all three meals on the weekends. This diet, supplemented by toast and peanut butter, cans of Spaghettios, and Kraft Mac-n-Cheese, became the staples of my diet.

I’m sure I learned the food pyramid somewhere along the way. There was very likely a discussion about vitamins and nutrition in my sixth-grade health class. But it wasn’t until I was 15 that I started processing that food was impacting my day to day health. I began to realize that cereal simultaneously made me feel stuffed full, but also left me ravenously hungry within a few hours. I was starting to notice boys more now, and the guys I noticed usually had big calves and strong chests and muscular arms. I wasn’t exercising, ever. I avoided it. And I was eating constantly. I was average in height and weight, but I had no muscle definition. I began to realize that with what I was eating, I couldn’t poop for a few days at a time, or that some of them, Honey Smacks and Golden Puffs in particular, made my urine smell just like the cereal. I had headaches and back aches more often, and less energy, and my sleep suffered. I was less confident, more prone to depression. I needed to change things.

And so, I shifted my eating, not much, but some. I would only have one bowl of breakfast cereal, and I would try to make a healthier choice. I could purchase Cinnamon Life, or Wheat Chex, or regular Cheerios, or Honey Bunches of Oats, or whatever their Malt-O-Meal counterpart brands were. These were healthier decisions, and I could still keep my ritual. The cartoons and prizes were gone, but I still got the crinkle of the plastic, the plink-plink of the bowl, the pouring of the milk. And now I could add two or three spoon-fuls of sugar and mix it in before I ate it. A much healthier choice. And if I kept it to one bowl, and added two slices of toast with butter, and a big glass of orange juice, and maybe a multi-vitamin. And no more cereal for lunch and dinner. Instead, I could have spaghetti and lasagna, and garlic bread, or chili with crackers, or sandwiches with bowls full of chips and a glass or two of Kool-Aid. And Sundays, for big family meals, I could still eat as much as I wanted. After all, I was the only boy in the house now. Now maybe I’d start to feel better, have more energy, and start to look good. I wouldn’t even have to exercise!

This routine lasted me for years, diversifying my diet and keeping my cereal to just breakfast time. It lasted through my two -year missionary service, when I had to shop and cook for myself exclusively. I came up with about 25 ways to eat Ramen noodles, and went through hundreds of jars full of peanut butter, and I even added some fruits and vegetables along the way for good measure, but every morning, cereal. It lasted me through two years of college, when I discovered a deep-and-abiding love for microwave pizzas (only 99 cents for an entire plate-sized pizza!) and microwave burritos, still every morning, cereal and milk. When I first started working out regularly at the gym, I finally grew out of my skinny self and put on some muscle, gaining 20 pounds in one year, but I never changed the way I ate and never got enough protein. And every morning through all of that, breakfast cereal with milk and sugar. My beloved life companion.

And thus it continued, through graduate school, through my several years to be the best Mormon boy possible, through all of my attempts to no longer be gay. And then, finally, I got married. I was maybe 10 pounds overweight then. And when that didn’t fix my homosexuality either, well, the portions got bigger, and so did I. Three or maybe four bowls of cereal at breakfast, or maybe just one bowl if I got one of the big salad bowls to eat out of instead. A family size bag of M-n-Ms per day in my office. A burger and fries for lunch. A liter of Pepsi and a bag of microwave popcorn for an afternoon snack. Huge helpings of whatever dinner my wife made that evening. And, between the ages of 27 and 30, I got up to 255 pounds. And then, between the ages of 30 and 31, I got back down to 175, a total of 80 pounds loss. But that journey, that’s another story completely. But I will say that losing my weight meant starting to pay attention to what I’m eating, to developing an education about myself. It required mindfulness and self-inventory. And ultimately, it led me to coming out of the closet and starting a bold new life.

A big part of my coming out was recognizing that the rules and customs I’d grown up with, the ones that felt good and the ones that didn’t, weren’t all that healthy. Breakfast cereal represented comfort and sustenance for me, excitement even. But ultimately, it was entirely threatening. It comforted me while harming me, it filled me up and left me hungry for more. After my weight loss, I started studying food and nutrition more. I learned how scientists altered the wheat plant so that products could stay longer on the shelves, basically stripping them of all nutritional value. I learned how they make high fructose corn syrup, about the spike in the American obesity epidemic for both children and adults, and the similar spike in diabetes and other related illnesses. I learned that nearly every product sold in grocery stores, even those labelled as health foods, are labeled and advertised in ways that appeal to the market they are directed for, that words like ‘low-fat’ or ‘multi-grain’ or ‘packed with vitamin C’ or ‘organic’ may not mean anything at all. I learned that corporations and big businesses fuel and fund the laws and regulations around advertising and marketing, and how it pervades nearly every aspect of culture.

Take Cap’n Crunch for a moment. It’s a simple product, crunchy corn cereal in little rounded square shapes. It takes amazing with milk. Cap’n Crunch was created by Pamela Low in 1963. She remembered how her grandmother would put butter and brown sugar over rice, and that was the inspiration for the original flavor. Low also helped create several candy bars. Before she came up with the cereal, she had a marketing plan, then she perfected the recipe, feeling it left the consumer with the right amount of, and I quote, “want-more-ishness”. They hired scientists to perfect the recipe, came up with the name, and designed a silly white-haired pirate captain to appear on the box. They gave him a name: Cap’n Crunch, his full name is Horatio Magellan Crunch, by the way, and then a uniform and a backstory, with a full team of animators and storytellers to help them. He lives on Crunch Island, which contains Mt. Crunchmore, a mountain made of cereal. They came up with a slogan, a jingle, pretty colors to put on a cereal box, and then launched it on the public. A few years of success, and they launched a new brand: Cap’n Crunch with Crunch-berries! And then, a few more years, and Peanut-Butter Crunch, with a new mascot, Smedley the elephant! Then in the 1970s, they put out Vanilly Crunch, with the mascot Wilma the White Whale, and the fruit-flavored Punch Crunch, with the sailor Harry the hippopotamus. And then, in 1982, Choco Crunch, with the mascot Chockle the Blob. The following decades have given us dozens more variants: Christmas Crunch, Halloween Crunch, Deep Sea Crunch, Galactic Crunch, Polar Crunch, and Home Run Crunch, as well as the charmingly named “Oops! All Berries”, Mystery Volcano Crunch with Pop-Rocks in the cereal, and Airhead Crunch with sugary Airheads mixed right in!

Cap’n Crunch is owned by the parent company, Quaker Oats, a company around since 1901, and a company which is in turn owned by, surprise surprise, PepsiCo. PepsiCo employs the food scientists who alter the corn and wheat crops, who make the corn syrup, who design the preservatives, and who study the exact amount of crunch per bite that will satisfy their customers. And they do the same for chips and crackers, cheese-foods and yogurts, lunchmeats and carbonated beverages. And if that doesn’t change the way you look at the cereal aisle in the grocery store, well, nothing will.

A few years ago, I went to a family reunion, where hundreds of extended family members had gathered for a big summer celebration. There were tables full of food. Donuts, fried chicken, pulled pork sandwiches, caramel popcorn, buckets of licorice. I remember walking up and down the rows of food and just witnessing how every food item was saturated in sugar, corn syrup, and enriched wheat flour. And then, in the center of one of the tables, a small bowl of green salad and another of grapes. Every person there had giant platefuls of food, stacked up on top of each other. And I knew they would finish the plates and then go for a pile of dessert off the far table. Nearly everyone there was obese. And this was the culture I’d grown up in, the ones my grandparents had set up with their own children. My grandparents had been raised in the Great Depression years, during a time of great scarcity, when they had to eat when they could, and then as much as they could. And they’d raised their children this way. And somewhere along the way, that had turned into a culture of just, well, indulgence without thinking. And this, my family and every other, this was the public the companies were marketing to.

I could go on and on, but I’ll close with this. I remember being 12 and waking up, immediately looking forward to a bowl of Peanut Butter Crunch. I poured the milk, I wolfed down the cereal, I poured more and ate it too. And I remember realizing that the top of my mouth was raw. It felt like the skin was cracked. It hurt, it was tender, and I could almost taste blood. “Oh my word,” I thought. “I’ve eaten so much Cap’n Crunch, the roof of my mouth is bleeding. I should go look in the mirror and check.” And I did. But first, I had just one more bowl of cereal.

Stan, the Man

If I give it a bit of thought, I realize Stan Lee was likely the greatest influence on my creative ventures, more than anyone. There are other influences, sure. Robert Jordan and C.S. Lewis and Carolyn Keene and my own mother, as well as all of the authors of my beloved Choose Your Own Adventure books from childhood. But Lee, he created the universe I would spend my lifetime with. He set up an entire age that would capture me for decades. More than anyone, he inspired my awe.

I’ve learned a lot about Stan Lee’s life over the years, but for the purpose of this blog, I’ll focus on his creative endeavors, the one that impacted me the most. For years, the comic book industry had been dominated by super heroes, ones who transcended all of the romance and cowboy and war and monster books that filled every shelf in America through the 40s and 50s. Superman and Batman are the most widely remembered. The stories were simple and short on substance. Super hero keeps his identity secret from his friends and foils plot by fill-in-the-blank villain, be they mad scientist, alien warlord, or misunderstood monster.

But then, in 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put together the Fantastic Four, and they changed the industry completely. They made their heroes flawed. They were fallible, they made mistakes. They overcame overwhelming odds in order to triumph over villains. And the villains suddenly became relatable, with variable motives and intentions. The lines blurred, and suddenly everything felt more human.

Stan Lee gave us the Thing, a man who hated being transformed into a lumpy orange monster, and one who took his rage out on the world even while being as lovable as can be. He gave us Spider-Man, a young man who dedicated himself to good after one of his own mistakes resulted in the death of his Uncle Ben. A line-up of X-Men, who were hated by the world for being different. Daredevil, who was a blind attorney by day, a hero who could jump off rooftops by night. The Hulk, a scientific Dr. Jekyll with a secret Mr. Hyde he was ashamed over. Iron Man, a selfish playboy billionaire with shrapnel near his heart. Thor, an arrogant God of Thunder who must learn humility at all cost. Stan Lee was an idea machine, giving the world more and more heroes to wonder over. Ant-Man and the Wasp. Dr. Strange. The Silver Surfer. Magneto. Green Goblin. Dr. Doom. Dr. Octopus. The Human Torch. The Inhumans. The Black Panther. Captain Marvel. The Skrulls. Loki. He brought back Captain America, and then he grouped up random heroes into the Avengers. And it was later he added more characters that he loved, ones who hadn’t had titles of their own: Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Quicksilver, Black Widow.

It’s been over 60 years, and these character names still headline comic books, multi-million dollar movies, toys and clothing lines, and cartoons. They’ve become household names, some gaining more notoriety than ever in just the last few years.

Now granted, reading these old 60s comic books from the year 2018 can be a bit uncomfortable. The heroes are overwhelmingly white and male. When girls did show up, they were often given passive powers and, when not fussing over their hair or outfit, were generally relegated to the kidnapped and tied-up damsel. And characters of other races, including Asian and Black, were generally characters. But over the years, that would evolve, as the comics addressed more relevant issues.

I didn’t start reading comic books until the mid-1990s. By then, many of these series were numbering in the hundreds, an impressive feat when you consider most books produced about 12 comic books per year. Picking up Amazing Spider-Man #300 meant the book had been running for 30 years. Stan Lee wasn’t really writing anymore by then, a man near 70 years old. The company had changed. Some characters had surged in popularity and added entire franchises. Characters died and came back. Storylines became complex, frequently saturated with complex and intricate plot devices. Was Spider-Man the clone or was his clone the clone? Cable was the product of Cyclops marrying the clone of his love, Jean Grey, and bearing a child, and sending that child to the far future to be raised, and then that child coming back to the present followed by a clone of his own. There were alternate dimensions and timelines, time travelers, shape-shifters, and teleports to save any character from seeming death. There were secret shadow organizations, and characters still alive from World War II who should have been dead decades ago. Marvel invented a sliding time scale, basically stating that although the characters debuted in the 60s, you could just presume that they had been around for ten years or so before you picked up the book. And as long as you didn’t mind the decades of history, the suspension of disbelief, the occasional continuity gaff, and the fact that you couldn’t possibly afford every book on the shelf, well, you had a whole world you could get lost in.

And that was exactly what I needed at the time. Things were getting tough at home. My step-dad was lashing out with anger more frequently, and it was getting more difficult to hide the fact that I was gay and pretending to be straight. I desperately needed an escape. And so, one weekday, I bought an X-Force comic book off the grocery store shelf. And it was amazing. Within a few years, I was working at a local comic book store by special arrangement: they paid me in comic books. And by the time I left on my Mormon mission at the age of 19, I’d collected thousands of them, meticulously preserved in bags and lined up alphabetically and numerically in dozens of cardboard boxes that lined the walls of my room.

And on that mission, for two years, reading comic books was my secret sin. I could buy them when no one was looking, hide them under my mattress at the apartment, read them when my companion was sleeping. Again, I could escape. All through college, I raided back issue bins in comic book shops, carefully scanning for every issue that I didn’t have. And always the hardest to come by was the original Stan Lee stuff, the primordial works from which an entire universe developed.

Even now, comic books are a part of my life. Everything for me is digital nowadays. I don’t keep my books in boxes, instead I keep them on hard drives. Every week, dozens of new Marvel books come out, still charting the stories of these classic characters and their extended families. The heroes from the 60s should be elderly, or dead and gone, but we readers just pretend they are perhaps in their late 20s or early 30s. I still love the X-Men, although their school has blown up 35 times by now, and every one of their members has died and come back from the dead at least twice. I’m still captivated by these classic characters. I sip my coffee and click through my pages with love and excitement. My brain auto-plays the sound effects of Thwip and Snit, and the classic phrases still leap off the page at me. Flame on! Hulk Smash! With great power comes great responsibility! It’s clobbering time! By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth! By Odin’s beard! Oh my stars and garters!

Everyone who followed, all the other big names that have also become something, they only succeeded because of the platform Stan Lee created. Luke Cage. Iron Fist. Wolverine. Punisher. Moon Knight. Cable. Elektra. Ghost Rider. Deadpool. The universe got a lot darker for a long time, then it got lighter again. And in the new comics, the world looks a lot different. There are gay characters running around everywhere now. Women play a much more prominent role. Many of my favorite titles star characters that Stan Lee must have been proud of. Moon Girl (a 9-year old black girl, the smartest person on the planet) and Devil Dinosaur (her big red T-Rex). Ms. Marvel (a Pakistani-American teenage girl, a Muslim). Squirrel Girl (a plucky computer nerd with a squirrel tail). I sit down with my children now and read these stories, sharing with them the joy of these characters, ones who make us laugh and smile.

I got the news today that Stan Lee died at the age of 95. I haven’t given him much thought in recent years, except to smile whenever he’s made a cameo in a Marvel movie or show that I love. Before I got that news, just this morning, I read the latest Spider-Man, and just last week I looked at the last episode of Daredevil on Netflix. And it dawns on me how much he transformed my life.

Thank you, Mr. Lee, for giving me another world to escape to. It was a complicated world, a rich one that expanded far beyond your original concepts, but then again, you started it all. You built a civilization under the ocean, and another beneath the surface of the Earth. You made up entire countries, some that floated in the clouds, some that nestled between existing borders. You gave men and women powers from a myriad of sources: alien experiments, exploding chemicals, radioactive spiders, godly interventions, magical training, Gamma bomb explosions, radioactivity, or just an accident of birth. You made me believe anything was possible, and that, no matter how complex and flawed the world might be, that good always triumphed and there was always another adventure beckoning.

Thank you, Mr. Lee, and Rest in Peace. Excelsior! 95 was a good long time, and your universe lives on.

Stan