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.

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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

 

Legal Left Turns

After First Man ended, the boyfriend and I exited the theater, holding hands, a bit silent, contemplative. We muttered back and forth a bit about the progress of man, the quest to be the first country to touch the moon’s surface, and the billions of dollars it cost, all against the moving backdrop of Neil Armstrong’s very personal story. It was a beautiful film. We walked to the car holding hands then pulled out of the parking lot to drive the short mile home.

It was 8 pm on a Sunday evening. I stopped at the red light, left turn signal on, and thought more about the moon as I waited for green. The night was quiet, and no other cars were out. The movie had left me deeply reflective.

The light turned green, and I turned left onto the empty two-lane road headed east. Almost immediately, police lights flashed behind me, and I looked at them flashing in my rearview mirror with surprise.

“Is that for you?” the boyfriend asked.

“It has to be. Weird.”

I pulled into the nearest parking lot, to some business that was closed for the weekend, and watched the cop car pull in behind me at an angle. His lights flashed furiously, red and blue, in my mirror, and stayed that way for several minutes. obnoxious as the drew the attention of every passerby.

I rolled down my window and waited a moment for the officer to approach us. He had his flashlight out, shining brightly into the interior of the car, blasting me in the eyes briefly. I sighed in frustration, but immediately understood. It must be frightening approaching cars at night when on solo patrol. I know many police officers, have had them as both friends and clients, and I knew it was not an easy job in any capacity.

The officer was fit, dark-complected, and wore glasses. His head was shaved. He looked to be in his early 30s.

“Good evening, officer. How can I help you?”

The flashlight scanned the interior of the car briefly. “I pulled you over for two reasons. Did you know your car registration is expired?”

“My registration isn’t expi–”

“I said your registration is expired.” He was stern, blunt. “Now hand me your registration.”

I reached over to the glove box and pulled it out, immediately handing it over. I made eye contact with the boyfriend briefly and he looked nervous. (He hates conflict.)

“See, officer? It expires next year in 2019, look right–”

“Yes, I can see that. But there are no tags on your plate, son. Why are there no tags on your plate?”

I looked baffled. “I put the tags there, sir.”

“And yet they aren’t there, are they? Do you know why else I pulled you over?”

“I truly have no idea, sir.”

“Do you know how to make a left turn?” His voice was thick with sarcasm, and I felt my patience begin to wane.

“I do, officer.”

“Then why don’t you tell me how? Because I just saw you make an illegal left turn.”

I was baffled. I had used my turn signal, I’d waited for the green light. The road was clear. I hadn’t been drinking.

“I–I believe I did make a correct left turn.”

He tsked. “I just said you make an illegal left turn. Why don’t you define a legal left turn for me?”

“Officer, I’m not trying to be difficult. I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“Define ‘legal left turn.'”

“I don’t know what words you want me to use, and I feel like you are being very sarcastic and stern with me when I haven’t done anything wrong, sir.”

“Define ‘legal left turn’. This is your last chance. You got your driver’s license, correct? You passed the exam? If you read the driver’s manual, then you should be able to define ‘legal left turn’ for me.”

There was a beat of silence as I breathed in steadily, slowly. “Officer, I can’t provide an exact definition, but I believe I did turn legally.”

“Okay, fine.” He sounded exasperated. “You had your chance. Give me your license please.”

He took it and returned to his car. I sat there, baffled, not knowing what had just happened. My brain spun in a dozen directions. Had I done something wrong? Did I have a burned out taillight? Was the cop bored and needed someone to pull over? Why was he being so direct and sarcastic; was he having a bad day, was he on a power trip, did he hate his job, had I done something disrespectful? Had he seen me holding hands with my boyfriend at the theater, and did he hate gay people, and was that why we’d been pulled over? Oh my God, had I really just told a cop he was being stern and sarcastic? I felt a weird mix of confused, angry, embarrassed, and scared as we waited, processing all of this out loud now. I got out my cell phone and set it to record when he returned to the car.

Suddenly, the officer was calm, friendly, and clear. Was it because he knew my phone was on? “Hi, sir, here is your license back. When you are making a left hand turn on to a two-lane road, you must always be sure to choose the lane on the left. Not the turn lane, but the farthest lane away from the curb. You may then use your right-turn signal to move to the right lane. In this case, I witnessed you turning into the right lane of traffic, thus the one closest to the curb, which makes this an illegal left turn. Regarding the matter of your registration, it appears the sticker on your plate indicating the current registration has folded downward, and you need to get that fixed.”

I asked for a bit of clarification, finally understanding why I had been pulled over, though still frustrated as it seemed such a minor offense. I nodded a few times as he explained how to handle the ticket, an offense listed at around $90. I signed the form where he instructed, then took the ticket from his hand.

“Officer, thank you for explaining. I wish you had been this clear. I am confused by the sarcastic and disrespectful approach you used in our–”

He interrupted again. “You think I was disrespectful? Whatever.” He tossed his hands up in surrender and walked away from the car with a sarcastic “Have a nice day.”

And I found myself raising my voice after him, desperate suddenly to get the last word in. “Yes, and you are being disrespectful right now! Why don’t you have a nice day!”

I rolled up the windows in anger and frustration, then realized, again, that I had just talked back to a cop. I said out loud to my partner, “God, what if I’d just acted that way and I was a person of color?”

We drove the mile home in near silence. The boyfriend rubbed my back, reassuring me that things were fine, and I processed through getting the ticket and feeling okay about it, but just hating the way I had been treated. If I had done something wrong, he could have simply been kind and direct, and then issued a ticket, but the whole ‘legal left turn’ definition rigmarole had left me flummoxed.

Two days later, I delivered an official letter of complaint to the officer’s precinct. I let the officer-on-duty know that I go out of my way to report positive experiences when they happen, but I felt obligated to notify the precinct about this encounter. This officer was friendly, and asked if I wanted any follow-up from the complaint I’d issued, and I said that wasn’t necessary, and that I didn’t expect it to change the outcome of the ticket.

The day after that, I called the court number from the back of the ticket. It instructed me to call the number and request a ‘court-appointed mediator’ if I wanted one.

“Well, sir, we don’t have mediators here.”

“Um, the ticket specifically says to request a mediator.”

“Okay, well, we don’t have any. But you can either request a trial or a meeting with the judge?”

“What is the difference?” I asked.

“The difference between what?”

“The difference between a trial or a meeting with a judge?”

“Those are the same thing, sir.”

“You just said I could request a trial or a meeting with the judge!”

“No, sir, I said And, not Or. You can request a trial and a meeting with the judge.”

I sighed deeply, and made the request, feeling I had a valid case to contest the ticket. The woman took my citation number and looked it up.

“You can show up for court in four weeks, or you can pay $120 in advance to settle it.”

“Wait, $120? The ticket says $90.”

She grew impatient. “Look, sir, the police officers are now charging $120 for that offense. The tickets they are using still say $90 because they are using up the box of old tickets before they issue new ones.”

I hung up the phone exasperated, wondering if I ever wanted to drive again. But I had to give the officer credit for one thing. I was now indelibly recorded in my brain forevermore what a proper legal left turn was.

The Sexy Cop at Gay Christmas

“Maybe I could actually pull this off,” I told myself, surveying my costume in the mirror.

I’d purchased a “sexy cop” costume for forty dollars at a local costume shop. It came in a small compact plastic back that fastened together with a small snap, like one you’d find on a pair of jeans. When I got home, I opened the back up to look at its contents. A police cap of cheap material with a plastic bill. A small vest that would fit over my shoulders but leave my chest and abdomen exposed. An armband that would go around my bicep, one that read Sheriff on it. A pair of black leather briefs with a zipper along the front. A silver star to pin on the vest, like something my kids might be handed by a cop at a family parade. And finally, a small plastic nightstick, 1920s/Keystone Cops style, one I could twirl around like a baton or perhaps slap against my own hand for emphasis.

I looked at myself in the mirror, turning this way and that. My chest looked good. My arms looked great, especially with that little band to emphasize the definition. My legs were strong. I turned and felt like my ass looked nice as well. Turning back, I realized the zipper over the crotch was a nice touch, kind of left the imagination working. And while I wasn’t super proud of my abdomen, I figured I could just kind of keep my gut sucked in all night at whatever party I was going to and just see how it turned out.

This was my third Halloween since coming out of the closet. I was 34 years old, and while I hadn’t quite achieved the type of body I hoped for, I was in great shape for me. Somewhere along the way, I learned to quit caring what other guys thought about me. I mean, either they were into me or they weren’t. I wasn’t for everyone, nor was everyone for me, and that was fine. I liked my body, especially given the fact that I’d weighed 80 pounds more just a few years before. But still, this was Halloween, and I was going to be wearing a ‘sexy’ costume for the first time, and I didn’t have a ton of body confidence. “Maybe I can’t pull this off,” I muttered, changing back into my regular clothes.

When I first came out, a friend jokingly told me that Halloween was kind of a ‘gay Christmas’, meaning that gay men took it very seriously and went all out. I’d known growing up that there were all kinds of ‘sexy’ costumes for women. But I had no idea how seriously gay men treated this idea of ‘sexy’ costumes. I spent Halloween in 2011 at a gay club called Jam. I wore a costume, something simple and not at all sexy, I think I was a 1930s mobster guy, and I went out dancing with friends that night, and I’d been astounded at the costumes. Sexy Mario? A guy wore a red hat with an M on it, a fake moustache, and a red jockstrap that literally left his ass hanging out. That was it. Sexy Tarzan? A super buff guy in a loincloth, under which he wore nothing. I know because I saw him lift the loincloth several times to show people. Sexy Angel Moroni? A lean, muscled guy who basically wore a diaper, painted himself gold, and carried a plastic trumpet. Man, it really was gay Christmas.

So was I sexy enough to pull off a sexy cop costume? Or should I go back to a more traditional costume, something that covered my body? Ugh. I had to try it. I’d been invited to two Halloween parties, and dagnabit, I was going as a sexy cop.

I showed the costume to a female friend, and she fully encouraged me to go for it. I asked what she was going to be that year: a sexy cat, a sexy witch, a sexy nurse perhaps? She laughed and said she was far too feminist for that. When I suggested she should try maybe a sexy suffragette, or maybe a sexy Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and she was not amused.

The first party was on a Saturday afternoon. I went in a bit nervous but confident. My best friend Kurt was there, and as I exited the bathroom in my costume, he threw his head back and laughed with joy. “Yes! You did it! And check you out, you sexy, sexy man!” I blushed as others from the party came to look, and I ended up getting plenty of attention that night. I spent the evening snacking, having a few glasses of wine, and feeling a little bit shy as I fended off veiled comments about the nightstick and the handcuffs. And then, at the end of the evening, there was a vote for various costume categories, with prizes awarded at the end. Funniest, most original, etc. And guess who won the sexiest costume award? The hot cop. That’s right, this guy. Maybe it didn’t matter that I was the youngest person in the room by at least 11 years, I still got the award, and it was a nice ego boost. (When you’re a gay dad with young kids, and you have a lot of gay dad friends with older kids, well, this wasn’t so unlikely).

But the next party, that would be the real test. It was a huge house party, with an expected 150 people going. This was a younger crowd, full of athletes and professionals, many of them men who spent hours in the gym every day. This was a party that would start late and go all night. There would likely be drugs in quiet corners, groping and nudity were a given, and I’d expect some guys would have quick sexual encounters behind closed doors. This was the kind of party some of Mormon friends warned me about when they told me not to pursue ‘the gay lifestyle’. It would be out of my element, but I desperately wanted to fit in in this crowd. It was a lifelong need for me to fit in, a primal part of me left over from my adolescent days when I was the gay kid with the straight guys, feeling less than them but in love with them all at once, yet always picked last for every sports team. I needed to fit in here.

The party started at 7 pm, it said on Facebook. So I arrived at 7:02. I was the first guest there. The next few arrived around 8:45. When I’m not careful, the dad part of me shows up very clearly. And so I helped the hosts set up snacks, I had a strong drink that one of them mixed for me, and by the time the party was really going, with loud ‘nn-ts nn-ts nn-ts’ music blaring all over the three story house, I was good and sauced, a rare occasion for me. I chatted a bit, yelling into some guy’s ears, introducing myself to others, dancing a bit in the main room. There were sexy guys everywhere, ripped and toned, with muscles on their muscles, and I felt very exposed in comparison. I drew a few eyes, but the Charlie Brown tree hardly stands out among a forest full of sequoias. Clearly I needed one more drink.

Someone handed me something homemade, and I took it without much of a thought. It was sweet, and I drank it a bit too quickly. It was about 11:30 pm, and the house was full of people. I went back out to the dance floor and saw a sexy construction worker making out with a sexy Superman (he was shirtless with a red S painted on his chest), and the music kept going nn-ts nn-ts nn-ts. I started to dance a little, and then quickly realized that something was very wrong. My head was starting to spin, and my heart was beating faster, and my stomach was seizing a bit.

Now the next day, I would make sense of all of this. I either drank too much too quickly, something I had literally never done before, or that drink I’d been given had been laced with something. It was very likely the second, because I learned later that several other people from the same party had similar side effects, so I’m guessing it was probably something in the drink. Regardless, I had to get out of that room, where the bass was thrumming in my head and in my stomach, and it had to be now.

I fell against a wall and kind of leaned into it down the hallway to the bathroom, where of course the door was locked. I slumped on to the floor and covered my eyes with my hands, and my brain felt like it was swimming around in my head, just turning and turning. The door finally opened and two drunk and giggling gay men, one of them in some sort of sexy Pikachu costume, came stumbling out, and I crawled in, kicked the door closed behind me, managed to lock it, and then proceeded to vomit. And then again, and again. I threw up until there was nothing left to throw up, and then I dry heaved a few times, and sat back against the wall, where my head was still swimming. I’m not sure how long I sat there, but someone finally knocked and shook me to alertness again, and I stood up, flushed the contents of my stomach away, and washed my hands before opening the door.

It was sexy Pikachu again, with yellow ears, yellow briefs with a lightning bolt tail, and a Pokeball hanging from each side of his shorts. “Hey, hot cop costume!” he said, tracing his finger down my stomach and to my leather shorts. While such attention in this setting might welcome in different circumstances, I was seeing four of the shirtless Pokemon bouncing around in the air in front of me, and I simply muttered a thanks while holding on to the wall for support again. I found the stairs and used the banister to pull myself up. There were three bedrooms upstairs and only one was unoccupied. I made my way inside, lay down on the floor by the bed instead of on it for some reason, and watched the dark ceiling twirl above my head as I lay there.

I must have stayed in that spot for three hours. At some point, freezing there on the floor in my sexy cop costume, I pulled the comforter off the bed and onto the floor, where I covered myself with it. Shortly after that, two drunk men came in to make out with the door closed, and they continued even after they saw me, perhaps thinking I was asleep, or perhaps just too drunk to care. And then, I fell asleep.

Around 3 am, I woke up on the floor. I’d turned on my side, the sheriff’s star poking hard into my chest, my trusty nightstick still near my fingers somehow, the handcuffs still hanging from the side of my briefs. The room wasn’t spinning, but now my head was thudding terribly. I got up, saw two people sleeping in the bed, and exited the room. I heard someone vomiting in the bathroom, saw about 8 people passed out in various rooms of the house, and realized the music was still playing. Nn-ts, nn-ts, nn-ts. I turned it off, found where I’d stashed my keys, and exited the house. There was more vomit in the driveway.

As I drove home that morning, I thought of my children, and the way they grounded me. Sometimes I resented having all that responsibility. I’d started my life so late. I hadn’t come out until I was 32, which was also the age when I first kissed a man, first had authentic sex, first stopped hating myself. Sometimes I sat around and felt sorry for myself, for all the time I lost. No college parties, no backpacking across Europe, no crazy adventures with a first love. I’d missed my 20s somehow, spent them being a responsible Mormon boy. But an event like this, with loud music and strong booze and promiscuous hook-ups and revealing costumes, well, they might make a fun story to tell one day, but they ultimately weren’t things I really wanted. They were just thinks I thought I wanted. I’d much rather have A drink, hang out with a FEW friends, and be in bed by midnight so I could wake up to the sounds of my children. A night out from time to time would be wonderful, but I certainly didn’t need a headache like this to show me a good time.

I got home, unzipped my leather shorts, un-velcroed my arm band, slipped out of the vest with the sheriff’s star, removed the hat, and hung up the handcuffs and nightstick. Then I slipped on a pair of baggy blue sweat pants and a tent-size T-shirt left over from the days when I used to be fat, popped a few Ibuprofen, and collapsed on the couch, where I would sleep as long as I could. I certainly never wanted another hangover.

I smiled to myself as I fell asleep, though. I’d won a ‘sexiest costume’ award. And I’d gotten drunk at a party. That was enough, once, I told myself as sleep beckoned. That was plenty sexy enough.

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2030

I’m afraid.

Lately, my fears for the future have been regularly realized.

Every little news headline seems to reinforce how corrupt we are as a species, how doomed our planet it, and how without hope we are. Some days, I have to work hard to find the hope that will reinstate my faith in humanity. Some days, I have to dig very deep.

Nothing is quite as infuriating as politics and religion. These issues charge me up and fill me with outrage. Hearing about the sexual abuse of a minor from an adult makes me angry; hearing about the sexual abuse of a minor by a priest and then learning that case was willfully ignored by men who claim to speak for God, well, that fills me with rage. Hearing a boss or a neighbor or even a parent say they hate gay people, that hurts my heart; seeing a straight elderly white man stand up and say that God says gay people are sinners and apostates, and then hearing about suicides that take place afterward, well, that fills me with dread. Seeing a man post on Facebook about how times are tough for men right now and how alleged victims of sexual assault need to come forward with proof, that makes my heart ache; seeing an elected official who has been accused of sexual assault multiple times and who is a known sexual philanderer appoint another man accused of sexual assault to a lifetime position on the Supreme Court and then afterwards talk about how difficult men have it, well, that fills me with hopelessness.

And, as I write this, I realize I willfully take part in this outrage. I recognize that the world around me has learned how to capitalize on it. Logging into Facebook recently, I clicked a few buttons and realized that the computer algorithms have labeled me as an extreme liberal. I get fired up over transgender rights, and gay marriage, and fair wages, and victim advocacy, and #metoo. And entire political campaigns seek out my information and run ads that will get me fired up. The content that shows up on my page, in my Email, in my mailbox, it is often targeted just for my eyes. And it isn’t just me,  this is everyone.

I have a habit of waking up in the morning and checking CNN, or Rachel Maddow, or the New York Times, and I look for evidence that my beliefs and affiliations are justified. I want facts and figures that back up my beliefs. I want to feel validated. I want my hope back. And sometimes I find it. “See! There is a new trial for Paul Manafort! I knew Trump was corrupt! I knew Obama was the best president! I knew Russia was behind it all!” And sometimes I don’t find it. “Oh. Oh! There isn’t enough support to impeach the president, and there weren’t enough senators to keep Brett Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court. How could they! What is the world coming to! Why do I even try!” And then I realize that every one of these places runs on advertisements that are geared toward me. And I realize that the same thing is happening on the other side, too.

Recently, I had a long, several-hour drive through central Utah, and I could only get one radio station to play, and it was broadcasting the Sean Hannity show. And I thought, well, why not. The show opened with something like this. “On today’s show, we provide evidence that there isn’t one single decent Democrat among the whole bunch! They are all extreme liberals! And we will show you how Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue to influence the efforts of Donald Trump, the greatest president of the greatest country on Earth!” And then an ad came on featuring a man saying something like “I love what I love. I love my woman. I love my children. I love my trucks. And I love my guns.” And I didn’t stick around after that because I wanted to pull over and vomit.

With compassion, I realize that there is someone not that unlike me who wakes up across the country somewhere and brews his coffee and checks his Fox News and Breitbart headlines, where he finds stories that reinforce his own hopelessness and outrage. He talks to his friends about it, posts some things on social media, and wanders around wondering if the world will ever stop being so broken.

And so, to clear my head, I went on a long walk. I set aside the outrage, the pain, the hopelessness, and I focused on the beauty of the world. The changing leaves, the crisp fall air, the hilarious photos my children sent me the night before, the progress I helped one of my clients make in our latest session, the way my boyfriend snuggled me tight last night. The world is okay. The world is okay.

Except it isn’t! My reassurances weren’t working. I can’t just explain the feelings away, or even just breathe through them. The issues I am passionate about are real issues for me! Gay kids are committing suicide! Trans women of color are being brutally murdered! Sex trafficking numbers are higher than ever! Human populations keep growing and consuming, and entire ecosystems are critically endangered if not on the verge of extinction! People of color are still fighting for equality and recognition! Survivors of sexual assault are still not being believed! The air is being poisoned, and the icebergs are melting, and the hurricanes are growing bigger, and the climate is rising! It makes me want to scream! I’m afraid for the future! What kind of world are my sons going to grow up in! What world will be left for them to have a future in! (And those on the other side are outraged about their own issues, I realize. Abortion! Religious discrimination! The fall of basic morals and values! Sigh.)

And then it is another deep breath. I think of the protestors, those who fought against the Iraq War in my youth, those who fought against the Viet Nam and Korean Wars in the youths of my parents. I think of the hippies, and the feminists, and the Freedom Riders, and the Suffragettes, and the Underground Railroad, and I realize that things are changing. They are. And my heroes have always been those who rose up against impossible systems and made change. Gay marriage is legal now, and the Berlin Wall came down, and segregation was deemed illegal. Sally Ride went into space, and Barbara Jordan got elected, and we had a black president for eight years, and Elizabeth Smart survived to tell her story, and there is a street down the road now named after Harvey Milk. There will always be something to be outraged about. But only if we have a planet and a society in which we can be outraged at all.

I woke days ago to a headline that basically said, from a scientific standpoint, that we have until the year 2030 to get our shit together as a species or the planet is doomed. That’s basically what it said. We can cut back on plastic, and stop mass-slaughtering animals, and quit fracking the earth open, and shift to solar energy. We can take care of our air, and our water, and our animal habitats, and our trees, and our mountains, and our soil, or we can realize that they simply won’t be there any longer to take care of at all.

I sometimes feel like modern society is far too much like the one in the Game of Thrones. The people slaughter each other in political games, playing dirty and wiping out the well-meaning, all while the Apocalypse rises from the north, ready to consume them all. They have a limited time to get their act together if they want to survive at all. And even then, it may be too late.

In 2030, I’ll be turning 52 years old. My sons will be 22 and 19. (They are 9 and 7 now). This is not a far future. This is the amount of time from 2008 to now. It’s the simple difference between ages 20 and 32. It’s barely more than a decade. And no matter the state of the world, I’m sure humans will still be arguing, screaming, and protesting with each other about their personal outrages. But I don’t know if this is a future where the oceans are choked by plastics, garbage, and poisons, where massive storms ravage our coasts, where animal habitats have been almost entire consumed, and where humans have to wear masks outside to breathe. Or if this is a future much like the one that presently exists, damaged but salvageable, where convenience is somewhat sacrificed in the name of preservation. Will my sons get college, careers, families? Can they plan vacations? Can they breathe fresh air, see sunsets, climb trees, ride on a boat to see whales diving in the ocean? And can they raise their children to do the same?

Or is it too late?

I’m afraid.

sunrise

Prince Henry

Yesterday on Facebook, an old friend of mine uploaded photos from nearly 20 years ago, from my first year in college.

The year was 2001. I was a newly returned missionary, age 22, and I planned on a major in social work and a minor in acting; at the time, this made a lot of sense, but later I dropped the acting. I was taking between 16 and 21 college credits per semester while also working nearly full-time. I went to my Mormon ward every Sunday, attended the temple weekly, had roommates, and dated girls. At this particular time, I was just pretending that I wasn’t gay, though deep down I had a hope that I might be able to cure it all if I could just try hard enough.

After the completion of my second semester, I stayed on campus for the summer. I was at Ricks College, an all-Mormon school in Rexburg, Idaho, and in the summertime there were less students, but the school remained a very busy place. I’d already been in the Ricks College Mens Choir, and I’d tried out for a few plays and had joined the story-telling troop. Later, I’d help found the improv comedy group on campus, and I’d form my own A Cappella group. But for this summer, while I took classes and worked, there was nothing I wanted to do more than to be in a school play, entertaining the crowds.

The play was “This Castle Needs a Good Scouring”, a silly farcical comedy version of Cinderella, designed to get big laughs from kids, and the director of the show was one of my former teachers, a warm and friendly Mormon man named Omar. Not only was Omar directing the show, he had also written it himself, and he would play one of the lead characters, the ineffectual king; Omar’s lovely wife, Laurie, would play the wicked stepmother. In the play, the king had two sons, one quite effeminate and bumbling, the other a handsome and witty rogue.

I hoped for the latter part. Instead, I was cast as the effeminate prince.

Despite my worries about being on stage in this role while also trying to hide the fact that I was gay, I quite grew to enjoy playing Prince Henry. He was loud, prone to monologues, and quite dramatic. He got jokes only several seconds after the punchline was delivered, and he responded with a loud hearty laugh. He spoke with a thick, lilting, upper register British accent, and he walked in long strides. Henry loved the idea of love. He wanted to fall in love with the most beautiful girl in the land, and he often turned toward the audience and spread his arms wide as he loudly proclaimed what love meant to him.

We rehearsed the play for weeks and I grew to lose myself in Henry. He was delightful, and I knew the audiences would simply crack up at him. Along with a few other characters (including a malicious and dreadful stepsister and a bumbling mute elf named Wolfgang), he was the show’s comic relief. In one scene, he had to sing a love song to Cinderella, and I had a nice tenor voice. The song suited me. At the end of the song, as we rehearsed the scene, I tried convincing the director that I should be able to kiss Cinderella to show my love. Inwardly, I needed this to happen. I was going on lots of dates, but I was unable thus far to kiss a girl, not for lack of opportunity, but because I was simply too scared or too grossed out; I wasn’t wired for women, but I needed to be straight. I felt like if I could kiss a girl on stage, I could finally, finally see what it was like. But Omar wanted the moment to be funny, and so, when Henry moved in for the kiss, Cinderella turned her cheek, and the kiss landed there instead. I was disappointed, but it was the right call for the play. Audiences would love it.

As the set was completed for the show, the costume designing department finished their work for the play. I was given green leggings to wear underneath a very flow royal-looking shirt. It billowed out in a skirt-like fabric. A white shirt with lace collar and sleeves was placed underneath it, and my arms would go through the holes of the outer shirts’ sleeves, which hung down to my sides. The shirt was green on the outside with a pink interior, and a pink stripe ran down the center. I wore a simple felt crown on my head. As I moved about the stage, my outer shirt would flip upward, revealing the pink beneath. One particular scene, in which I brandished a sword, I would turn my body quickly, and the shirt would billow outward like a flowing skirt, creating a bright pink slash through the air. The effect was hilarious.

Without realizing it, I was participating in a long-standing tradition of making audiences laugh at effeminate men pretending to be straight. I was the buffoon. I was the character that audiences would look at and laugh at, practically limp-wristed as I pranced about talking about women and love. I saw myself Prince Henry as a comedic character, but I never thought of him as gay.

Iw as the closeted gay Mormon kid, playing the closeted gay prince, and I didn’t think of either of them as gay.

I look back at Prince Henry with affection. I adored playing him for that summer. But as I see these photos now, of me in pink and green, prancing about the stage in tights, I marvel at how deep the programming was back then. Being gay simply wasn’t an option. Were I to view myself in this production as an audience member, I would find the character hilarious, and I would immediately realize the actor was gay. I would embrace him exactly as he was, and never try to change him.

I smile at these photos, but they also make me sad. Cause this guy, who disliked himself so much back then, had another ten years to spend in the closet before he came out of the closet. He needed a lot of love back then.

I downloaded these photos, showed them to my boyfriend, and said “Look how masculine and heterosexual I was back in college! I could sword fight! I was surrounded by women! And I was so confident in my masculinity, I could wear pink and green!” He laughed then, and so did I.

 

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Dark Morning

darkmorning

I woke up this morning wondering what it was all for.

It’s dark outside, especially this early.

For a little while, I forgot how hard I fought to get to this place, the one where I’m working hard to live my dream. Well, at least the parts of the dream that aren’t contingent upon other people.

My back was aching. It aches every morning. On mornings like this, a few days after a hard workout, it hurts, and not in the “achy muscles that are building” kind of way, in the  “twisted spine scoliosis old man in a young body” kind of way. My muscles tug at each other over my ribs, and a deep ache sets in in the hollow under my right rib cage, and in my pelvis, and in the base of my neck. I desperately wanted two more hours of sleep, but I knew better. My body won’t let me. I need to get up, stretch, let my bones crack into their normal misalignment, the muscles stretch out twisted around them. I need to drink water, move my limbs, and let the natural healing of my body begin, so that my pain levels will drop to normal functioning rates. By then, I’ll be ready for coffee. Again, I wonder why this problem was one given to me, and if anyone who doesn’t have scoliosis could understand.

As I slowly stretched my back, feeling the pain pulse, I became aware of my boyfriend’s steady breathing next to me. He’s wonderful. Fit, and kind, and consistent. I know he has his own struggles, but he is so good at his nutrition, his routine. He’s so steady, so calm. I envy so much about him, and find myself wishing I could adopt his healthier habits. And I know he feels the same way about me, and I guess that is part of why we are so good together.

I lay there in the dark, not wanting to get up, and I grabbed my phone. I clicked the Email indicator, checked the first message, and realized a professional I’ve been waiting to hear from had finally written back. We had set up a meeting this coming week, one I’d been waiting for for weeks. She’d gone quiet for a full week, and now this Email was canceling the appointment. Ugh. I feel like my entire life has been dominated by variations of this interaction lately–professionals who take an active interest in my work and projects who eventually just ghost me or go silent or cancel things. I hate being pessimistic, but repeated interactions like this were beginning to rankle within me.

I’m spending so much time on work and projects that I’m consistently proud of. This blog. My book. Monthly readings and presentations. The documentary. My old comic book and YouTube channel. Quality work with very low audience attendance, and all things that yield zero profit. I do them because I love them, but this morning, I find myself wondering what would happen if I just scrapped them all, shut them down. It would free up so much time. Dozens of hours per month that I could use watching Netflix, playing video games, exercising, joining groups, playing games. I would miss them, but sometimes they feel they aren’t worth the aggravation.

Then I remember, again, how hard I fought to be able to do these things that I love. I feel like I’ve written a dozen blogs just on this topic, exploring the frustrations of not seeing things turn out as productively as I’d like. The costs of not being successful, the price of every artist living any version of their dream. I sigh, remembering these lessons, and stretch my back some more.

I switch over to the news, catching the CNN headlines as I lay there in the dark. Today is the final vote for the Supreme Court nominee. All rationality, all reason, all ethics and morals and human decency point to the fact that this man should not, should not, should not be given a lifetime appointment. Yet I already know he’ll be appointed. I’ve known it for days. It fills me with this despair at our entire government and political system. I want to throw my hands up and give up on the whole thing. I’m out of outrage, and that scares me. This coming week, I’ll watch my clients come in, traumatized by all of this. And I’ll have to inspire them to find hope again, because what is the alternative? Honestly, though, I haven’t felt this hopeless since that man was elected as our president. I keep hoping things might change. I’m not sure they can. But that doesn’t mean I can’t live a happy life.

I finally sit up, clear my head, stretch my back, stand. I step outside of the room. I know inside this isn’t some despair, some state of mind that will last all day. My self-care will kick in. Movement, water, exercise, food. My endorphins will begin firing. My heart will heal again. It does every day. I’ll sit down at my computer later and write about my feelings. My children will wake soon and they will giggle and be cute, then aggravating, then sweet and cuddly, then tired, then cute and giggly again. It will be a wonderful day with lovely fall weather. I’ll be fine.

I set the coffee to brew. I turn on soft music. I light the fire. The house is still dark, everyone is sleeping, and the world outside is still sound. I have a good life, I remind myself. My heart is full. I’m okay. I touch my toes, elongate my spine, twist my hips, turn my neck. My body cracks and my bones tug on themselves. I feel sad, mad, scared, impatient. I feel full of hope, light, pain. I feel.

It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.

Fairy Tale Fears

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I grew up expecting a bit of fear in my stories. All stories would be boring without a sense of anticipation and adventure. And every ounce of that tension was completely worth it because I absolutely knew that there was a payoff in the end, a happy ending. The heroes would definitely triumph, the villains would definitely be defeated (and sometimes killed).

When the giant chased Jack down the beanstalk, Jack chopped it down and the giant perished. The Big Bad Wolf was burned in the chimney, Goldilocks was sent running, Cinderella got the prince, and Frodo threw the ring into the pit. I loved these adventure stories and from my youngest possible age, I began writing my own. I’d plan sequels to my favorite movies, and I knew immediately, as young as ages 2 and 3, that every good hero needed a great villain to face.

I saw these same elements in the scriptures we read together as a family every week. The stories were sometimes deadly, sometimes gruesome, but they always ended with the people of God winning, after periods when it seemed all was lost. Nephi cut off the head of Laban to get the brass plates, and he constantly overcame the terrible things his brothers did to him. Even though no one listened to Noah as he preached to the wicked people, he built the ark and saved the animals and God killed every other human outside Noah’s family with floods. Abraham almost killed Isaac with that knife, but God stopped him at the last possible second, just to teach him the lesson.

And so, as I grew, I saw the world in black and white, in terms of hero versus villain. There were no shades of grey present. I was the hero. My family were the heroes. Mormons and our leaders and those in our history were the heroes. And the villains were bullies and criminals and those who stood against the things of God. It was Jesus on one side, Satan on the other.

But those terms of hero and villain, they applied inwardly as well. When I was good, following the commandments and the things of God, I was the hero, following Jesus. And when I was bad, not listening to the carefully established rules or allowing myself to be tempted, I was bad, there was something wrong with me, and Satan and his followers had a bit of a hold on me. God expected nothing less than perfection, and I realized very early on that that was going to be a big, big problem moving forward.

Even in early childhood, I began to realize that I was not like the kids around me. And it made me… well, afraid. Afraid that I would never be good. And that would mean I would have to pretend to appear good always, even though on the inside I knew I wasn’t. The evidence was all around me. My dad was sad all the time, my mom was stressed all the time. My brother was a bully and sometimes he locked the door of my room and… did things to me. My back hurt every day. I didn’t like the things that other boys did, like sports, instead I liked writing stories, reading, and creating things. And while other boys had crushes on girls, I had crushes on boys, and that, I knew, was the worst thing of all.

So if I was born broken, what did that mean? Was I a villain? Was I a flawed hero? Was I inherently bad and trying to be good, or was I so good that God saw it to give me extra challenges so that I could prove to him how good I really was? Could it be possible that I was both, hero and villain, even though since I was born Mormon I was supposed to be just the hero?

It was only later that I realized, perhaps in my late teens, that early childhood was supposed to be consistently about play, and learning about the world with curiosity. I was supposed to learn independence, answer questions about what I wanted to be when I grow up, and to begin learning. Instead, all of those childhood things happened, but under the weight of learning how to hide, how to keep secrets, how to feel broken, and while consistently wondering if I was good, or if I was bad.

As I look back, I realize how much the suspense of stories I was reading, those with the heroes and villains I sometimes hated to love or loved to hate, they allowed me escape. They let me out of my life and into an interior world of fantasy, imagination, and wonder that let me be free, be someone else. The heroes weren’t so complicated, and the villains were easy to identify. In time, that would turn into a deep and abiding long-term love affair with comic books, one that would bring me well into adulthood. Childhood story books turned into Saturday morning cartoons, and those turned into action figures and kids adventure stories.  As a teenager, I developed a love for drama, stories more about human relationships, parenting, and working through trauma. We are always adapting what we love, what we pay attention to, but they all represent escape, full of complex emotions that are not our own.

And all of them full of fear and suspense. But nothing like the fear that I was turning inward on a more constant basis, the fear that I would never be whole, never be healed, never be like the other boys. And it would take me a long time to realize that those very traits, the things that made me me, made me different, those are the very traits that would make me a hero. First, I had a lot of years of feeling like I was the villain.

First, I had to get very good at feeling afraid.

the Reality of Fear

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Admit it, you love being afraid. But only so long as you can control the fear, channel it in just the right doses.

You love the idea of fear, the way it grips your heart, thickens your blood, and gives you a rush of adrenaline. Fear like this, it helps us escape life, if just briefly, get out of our own heads.

When I was married years ago, my (then) wife and I went on a double date with another couple, Adam and Mary, a blonde-haired and blue-eyed Mormon couple with three kids under five at home. We paid money to go to a haunted amusement park experience, something called Scarywood, one where all the lanes, alleys, and roller coasters had been decorated in frightening images. People in costume hid behind walls, jumping out to say ‘Boo’, and everyone screamed. Our friend Mary was tiny, thin and slight, and thus, perhaps, the easiest target for the teenagers in costumes, continually screamed and then would immediately scold the person who scared her. “Rarrrr!” yelled the ghost girl, the 15 year-old underpaid student in grey and white make-up. “Eeeeek!” yelled Mary as she threw her hands up, then she immediately got a stern Mom-look on her face as she pointed at the ghost-girl and exclaimed “How could you! Does your mother know you’re here!” And we all laughed and laughed and waited for the next person to jump out.

But was it funny? I think back to this isolated experience and the actual things we witnessed. A section of the park had dozens of fake clown corpses, hanging on ropes from the ceiling, and you had to push the bodies aside in order to walk through. In another section, a man stood over a fire and pretended to cook humans in a pot, then when you walked close, he rushed at you with a chainsaw as everyone in the party screamed and fled.

There is a multi-billion dollar industry out there capitalizing on these fears. Companies design realistic make-up to give children leprous sores on their faces so they can stagger around as zombies, they design realistic severed heads with bugged out eyes and knife marks on the neck where the red plastic blood drips out and the bones protrude, they build withered corpses to sit up from coffins as maniacal laughter plays from the ground.

Why do we love it so much, being scared, these chemical rushes in our bodies? Why is it customary to walk my children in the grocery store to buy a bag of apples and to pass an aisle full of plastic rats and spiders, vampire fangs and fake blood? Why do we put millions of our hard-earned dollars toward the latest scary movie franchise, about teenage witches and killer clowns and mass-murdering dream monsters and vengeful devil spirits? If I asked you to name 25 scary movies off the top of your head, you could. Easily. Because we have been making them for decades, and we love them.

I get that there is suspension of disbelief there, something that is just outside of reality and thus we remain safe, and that’s why I say we like to control the fear. We like knowing we can go home afterward and lock our doors and climb under our blankets. But we are titillated by reality as well. We latch ourselves on to serial biopics of serial killers and serial rapists, mass shootings and gruesome medical conditions. When we hear someone committed suicide, we don’t generally ask ‘Are you okay?’ first to the bearer of the news, instead we ask ‘How did they do it?’ We simply must know. And then we retreat to the safety of our lives again afterwards.

Real fear, though, that is something else entirely. Fear comes in all kinds of shades. Fear is associated with loneliness, love, anger, sadness, joy, depression. Fear is tied to worry, to unease, to suspicion, angst, panic, and dread. It’s tied to despair, stagnancy, apprehension, and excitement. There are clinical terms for fear of everything, phobias of heights, of teeth, of hair, of small spaces, of blood, of blades, of elevators. Fear of bathing, fear of babies, fear of falling sleep.

We say we love being afraid, but I don’ think we do. Real fear, the stuff that shuts us down, well, it’s really, truly scary.

Maybe I’ll make a scary movie one day about fear. Real actual fear. In this movie, an old woman sits in the park, and she invites people to experience their truly greatest fear for just $20. Anyone who pays her simply shakes her hand, looks into her eyes, and for one full minute lives their truly greatest fear. These wouldn’t be ghost hunts and werewolves, these fears would be deeply rooted in human insecurity, family and personal history, and in relationships, and they would be truly terrifying. One woman would be cornered in her room, like she was as a child, with her uncle closing in telling her that she could never tell anyone about what he did to her. One man might find out his mother had breast cancer all over again, and he would have to watch her suffer for years only to lose her. A father might go in to check on his baby and find her dead, suddenly, and they would never find out why. A young girl might go to high school and see a man with a gun enter and begin killing her friends. A woman may discover that her husband was lying to her, cheating on her all the time, and he never loved her, never found her attractive. A man might go bankrupt, be homeless, and die alone on the streets.

Real fears, the abject deep and personal ones, are not capitalized on. Fears of abandonment, bankruptcy, cancer, and trauma, of losing our loved ones, of being assaulted, of having our belief systems shattered, of growing old, of never measuring up or being enough. You don’t see these for sale in grocery stores.

I’ve learned to embrace my fears as part of me. They help drive me. They are deeply connected to every other emotion. And I will always have fear. My greatest fears change along with me, every birthday bringing with it a new set of things to be afraid of. And just like anyone, I can enjoy a good scary film, a nice suspense thriller, or a book that leaves me eagerly turning the pages to see what comes next. But real fear, well, the older I get, the less funny it all is. Most people are truly afraid of the things they have already experienced. And in that, I’m proud to say, I’ve faced a lot of my fears and walked out the other side, resilient. But there is still so much to be afraid of…

 

Release Time

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“Brothers and sisters, I want to bear you my testimony that I know that this book is true. I know it in the depths of my soul. I know because I have prayed about it, and God has confirmed in my heart that it is a true work.” My seminary teacher straightened his tie, clutched his hands behind his back, then continued with his testimony. “I will now quote to you my favorite scripture, the one I used on my mission over and over again, from Moroni Chapter 10, verses 3-5. ‘Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things.’

Brother Acey quoted the scripture with a loving reverence in his voice, and somehow a sense of both drama and urgency. It was a familiar tone to me, one that Mormons used when bearing testimony. They didn’t just know the truth, they know the truth! All of the truth! With every fiber of their beings and beyond the shadows of any doubts!

Then Brother Acey concluded his testimony. “And I promise to you, to all of you, that if you feel that same spirit, then you too can know that what I say to you is true. And I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

Brother Acey let a long silence hang in the classroom for a few seconds. His eyes scanned over over us. “Do you feel that?” He asked. “What is it you are feeling now?”

I felt goosebumps break out on my arms. I felt my heart pounding. I felt joy in my soul. I raised my hand and waited until he called on me. “The Holy Ghost,” I said, with enthusiasm. “I feel the Holy Ghost.”

“That’s right. Now take a minute to consider the story of Moroni, the one who wrote the words I just read to you. His father was the great prophet, Mormon. Moroni grew up during a time of war, when he saw the people of God being slowly slaughtered by their enemies because they had turned away from their beliefs. His life’s work became protecting the Holy Scriptures, the words of God etched on plates of gold. He spent years wandering in the wilderness, alone. And before he buried those records, knowing that they would be found hundreds of years later, he took time to carve those words I just read to you into that gold. He knew. He knew with all of his heart of their truth. Now, we have no idea how much longer he lived after that, but eventually, he was blessed to come down as an angel, an immortal being, and tell Joseph Smith where to find those plates. And now you, Chad, all of you in this room, you hold that record in your very hands. It is an absolute miracle.”

A few other students shared their thoughts when Brother Acey called on them. I felt electric the entire time he was speaking. I had always loved the Book of Mormon, since I was a very small child. I’d read it when I was still in kindergarten for the first time. And I’d always believed it was true. But at times like this, it was more than belief, I just knew it. I was so blessed to just know, to have my testimony come so easily to me.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, and I was 16 years old, and sitting in my Seminary class. On my report card, this block of time was just called ‘Release Time’. It was the fourth hour of my academic schedule. Before this, in third hour, I had U.S. History, and after this was lunch and then fifth hour, English class. Then Band, then P.E. to finish the day off. As the majority of my school in southern Idaho were believing members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, around 60 per cent I estimated, Release Time was a popular selection for many students. We didn’t get actual academic credit for it, instead we just attended the class during the school day, just like a regular class. It was held in a specially consecrated building across the street from the school. There were pictures of Christ on the wall and hymnals and scriptures on every desk. We had a lesson plan that covered church-approved content, turned in homework, and opened and closed every class with a prayer. It was my favorite time of day. And it was the most important. The things of God would always be more important than the things of the world. And my religious education mattered more to me than my regular classes.

In Seminary, I belonged. I blended in. It didn’t matter that I was attracted to boys, or that my step-father had hit my mom in front of me the night before, or that I was teased for being a sissy simply because I was less athletically inclined. I didn’t fit in the world around me, but here I fit in. I didn’t notice boys as much, the temptations seemed to diminish when I was worshipping and learning about the things of God. Thus it was easier to keep my thoughts clean, meaning I didn’t feel like a sinner as much. This class was a refuge for me, and I simply loved being there.

Brother Acey issued us a challenge at the end of class. “The prophets have taught for years that every member should be a missionary. Every one. That means each of you. If you have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, then it is your duty, your obligation, and your privilege to share it with others. I challenge each of you to think of someone you know who is not a member of the church, and I want you to bear them your testimony and give them a copy of the Book of Mormon. If you do this, your life and theirs will be richly blessed. If they choose not to be converted now, well, at least you tried, and maybe you’ve planted a seed for the future. But maybe they will gain their own testimonies and choose to be baptized, and then how great shall be your joy! Go forward and speak boldly, without fear. After the closing prayer, please grab a spare copy of the Book of Mormon from the box at the back of the classroom. I will invite you to share your experiences in class next week.”

I was filled with excitement in my next class, and I immediately began making a list of every person I knew who was not a Mormon. Most everyone in my life already was, but I could still think of a few. I had a large group of friends, and at least two of them were not Mormon, Kenny and Desiree. And there was one neighbor down the street. My mom had a few non-member co-workers. There was the lady at the bank. Oh, and there was Mrs. Campbell, my English teacher. She liked me, I bet she would enjoy a copy. Maybe I could help save their souls! Maybe I could help convert them! The thought thrilled me. Maybe if I could do this, it would make me just a bit worthier in the eyes of God, and maybe I could finally be cured.

I had only recently told my Bishop that I was gay, and he had responded with kindness and love. He’d explained to me that this was a particular challenge that I had been given to overcome and to prove my worth to God. He’d given me a blessing, and then sent me home with a copy of the Miracle of Forgiveness, a book that loudly proclaimed the evils of homosexuality. Gay people were an abomination, and they could be cured if they tried hard enough, the book assured me. And then there was my patriarchal blessing, which told me that I would be an effective missionary, and I knew deep down, that maybe if I could help bring more people into the church, then maybe I could help make myself straight. I couldn’t ask that of God, not directly, but he knew the desires of my heart, so just maybe it would work.

I prayed that night for guidance, that I might know the best person to give my testimony to. And after careful contemplation, I chose three names off of my list. Kenny, Desiree, and Mrs. Campbell, all three of them. We’d only been challenged to give out one copy, but I would give three, to show my commitment. I got two more copies of the Book from Brother Acey the following day, and on Friday, I was ready to go.

I woke up and said my prayers, and then I began my day with a fast, avoiding food and water for the school day to make me spiritually sharper. The day before, I’d asked Kenny to meet with me before school, and Desiree during lunch, because I had something I wanted to talk about with them. They’d both agreed.

Thus, I met with Kenny first. He and I were close, and his parents were super nice, but we didn’t really talk about religion that much. So when I sat next to him in the school cafeteria and got out a copy of the Book of Mormon, one where I had written my testimony inside, he looked shocked. I started to tell him how I knew the book was true, but Kenny interrupted me.

“Chad, look. We are friends. But don’t try and shove your religion down my throat. Your church is totally historically inaccurate, and weird, and it doesn’t make sense. And if you are going to try and convert me to your church, we can’t be friends.”

I began apologizing, but then remembered how Brother Acey had encouraged us to be bold. “Just try it, Kenny. Just try and read it. If you do, I know you’ll find out the truth just like I have. Let me share one scripture with you. I highlighted it here.”

Kenny agreed to take the book, but he was hurt. He walked out of the classroom and didn’t speak to me for days. He never mentioned it again, and neither did I.

After Seminary, my lunchtime meeting with Desiree was even more painful. “What? Are you actually trying to make me a Mormon? I thought you respected me more than that, Chad. Do you have any idea how much teasing and bullying I put up with here because I’m not Mormon? Do you know how cruel the other girls are to me, or how hard it is to find a date? Do you know what I go through? You are one of the few people I feel safe around. Don’t do this.”

“But I do respect you!” I argued. “I respect you so much! And I care about you! And that’s why I wanted to share with you something that is so important to me.”

“Fuck you, Chad,” she said, furious, a wounded look in her eyes. “I thought you were my friend.”

“Desiree, please, just give me one minute. Let me read you just one–“. She gave me a death stare, then she walked out, taking the book I’d forced on her and throwing it in the trash. She didn’t speak to me for weeks afterwards, not until I apologized and promised to never bring up religion again.

As lunch ended, I tried hard to find my courage to give my final copy to Mrs. Campbell. I thought of all of the prophets, from Noah to Moses to Ammon to Abinadi, who had been rejected in their efforts. But if I was going to be a missionary for two years, when I turned 19, I had to learn how to do this now. I walked into English class a few minutes before the bell rang. Mrs. Campbell sat at her desk alone. The other students hadn’t started entering yet.

“Hi, Mrs. Campbell,” I said, cheerfully. She was a young teacher, with a husband and a few kids at home. She’d moved here a few years before to take this teaching job.

“Chad, hi! I wanted to tell you how much I loved your essay comparing Batman to Beowulf. In fact, I would love to keep a copy of it to share with students who need to see how great writing looks.”

I was thrilled at her words but muttered a simple thank you. My heart was thudding in my chest. I was so nervous. Without speaking, I pulled the final copy of the Book of Mormon from my backpack and placed it on her desk.

“Mrs. Campbell, I wanted an opportunity to share with you—“

“Oh my God, this again?” She rolled her eyes as a look of significant annoyance crossed her face. “This is my third year at this high school. Every damn year. Ugh.” She made eye contact with me, her usual look of kindness back on her face. “You got the Seminary challenge, didn’t you? Which means you are the first today, but between now and Monday, I bet about 12 of you offer me these damn books with your testimonies written in them. I respect you, Chad. I like you. I love your writing. You have a tremendous talent, and you have a great future ahead of you. But I need to be able to come to my job and not have religion be a part of it. Separation of church, and state. Of your beliefs, and mine. Please put your book away, sit down, and we can talk about your essay after class.”

I fought back tears the entire class. My head burned hot with embarrassment, and my heart thudded in my temples. I had clearly exasperated Mrs. Campbell, who was normally the friendliest and funniest teacher, but today she seemed flustered. She looked over the classroom exhausted, perhaps wondering how many more books of scripture from eager young 15- and 16-year olds would be tossed her way by the end of the day.

That night, in my prayers, I apologized to God for being an ineffective missionary. I prayed for the souls of my three friends, all of whom were not Mormon and would eventually need to be if their souls were to be properly saved. Maybe I’d planted some seeds today. I asked for comfort and guidance, and then closed in the name of Jesus Christ.

And then I turned on a cassette tape of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, pulled the knot on my sweatpants extra tight so that I wouldn’t be able to masturbate while sleeping, pushed out thoughts of the really good-looking wrestler in my P.E. class, and went to sleep, wondering if my efforts had been enough to make me straight yet.