Greying Temples

I was blonde and chubby when I was born. My hair was soft and thick, and I had the customary cowlick or two, in unmanageable places. (Every kid should have a few cowlicks, in my opinion). By the time I went to grade school, my hair had turned a chocolate brown color, or perhaps it was more chestnut.

I looked just like my dad growing up, brown hair and brown eyes, just like my brother and two of my sisters. You could line the five of us up, even now, and say ‘yup, those people right there are related.’ My other three sisters, they looked more like my mom, blonde hair, a bit prone to curl, and blue eyes. They might be a bit more difficult to recognize as my siblings.

My mom was a beauty growing up. A teenager in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in the era of poodle skirts and stacked hair, she was the American beauty ideal. “Blonde, with peaches-and-cream skin”, she would say. A Prom photo of her, hanging in grandmother’s study for all those years, showed her with lean face and pink lips, her hair swirled on top of her head like a soft-serve ice cream cone.

And my father, he was uncharacteristically handsome. Old photos of him, from the early 60s, show a lean and strong farm boy, in a suit or a military uniform, classic smile on his face, his dark brown hair, nearly black, combed perfectly.

Five years older than my mom, he swept her off her feet. A nice, handsome, returned missionary Idaho boy from a good family. They dated slowly, carefully, and then he proposed, and she said yes. She’d had many marriage proposals before, but she’d turned them all down, seeing some boys as better for “kissing up a storm” in the back of a car than for starting a family with.

And soon they were in the house on the hill overlooking the river, and the following twenty years brought seven children, varying in their complexions. Blonde, brown, brown, brown, blonde, brown, blonde.

In grade school, in the early 80s, I remember sketching pictures of my five sisters and my mother, little stick figures with round eyes and orange slice smiles, perhaps the only way to distinguish them being the varying styles of their hair. Mom had a yellow perm, rather like Betty White. Michelle kept hers short and feathered back in waves, reminding me of Shirley Partridge. Marie wore long braids and ponytails, much like Jan Brady. Lynn’s hair was shoulder-length and a little shaggy, like Farrah Fawcett. Marnae kept hers short, a tom boy look that she loved, one she could wear hats over. And little Sheri, her long, light blonde hair went all the way down her back, stretching to the lowest vertebra, a cut she would keep until she dramatically chopped it off in her 20s; she even adopted a red mohawk for a time. My only brother, Kenny, had long hair, down to his shoulders, and would sometimes perm it into curls. Dad had his Burt Reynolds mustache. And me, I kept mine short, simple, just enough to keep it out of my eyes.

In sixth grade, when I was 12, everyone sold their jeans and replaced them with the parachute pants popularized by MC Hammer. The brighter and more audacious the colors, the better. Neon pink covered in green watermelons, sharp yellow with black and purple polka-dots, puke green with haphazard silver stars and moons covering them. They were baggy and roomy, and truly horrible. I was awkward then, with my first zits, my voice starting to squeak ever upwards, resulting in Mom calling me a ‘Squawk-Box.’ And to top it off, the customary bowl cut, leaving hair thick around the top in a bowl formation while shaving the hair below it.

As a sophomore, I started caring about my appearance, at least moderately. After years of Hypercolor shirts, or more frequently shirts brandishing images of my favorite cartoon characters, ranging from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Animaniacs, I started wanting shirts with patterns and variable colors. I wanted to catch an eye or two from time to time. My hair remain thick, and had a tendency to curl at the ends when it got long. And when I was 15, a friend showed me how to use a combination curling iron/blow driver device, a long rod with comb-like spikes in it as well as a little curling iron clip attachment that blew warm or hot air out of holes in the rod while you used it. I would get out of the shower with hair still soaked, dry it just a bit, add a tiny bit of mousse, and then begin taking sections of hair in the clip and twisting them backwards as the rod dried the hair. Arranging it all over the part, it would take me ten minutes or so to style the hair in a feathered back wavy look, rather like something Zac Morris might wear in Saved By the Bell, and for the first time in my life I got compliments. It worked for me, and I kept the style all throughout high school.

My hairstyle has stayed pretty consistent throughout my adult life. Through my 20s, there was just enough to comb (though there was that brief few months when I got blonde high lights and grew a goatee). In my early 30s, though, when I lost all my weight, I buzzed my head for the first time, cropping it close to my scalp, and the cut worked wel for me, making me feel slimmer. For the past few years, my temples have been growing grey, climbing a millimeter at a time toward my ears. Every few months or so, someone will notice, as if they’ve never seen it before. “Chad, you’ve got grey hair!” But I like the grey, it gives me a distinguished feeling, and it gives me a bit a clout, taking the attention off my baby face and making me, somehow, more legitimate as a father, a writer, a therapist, and a speaker. People take a different kind of notice.

I’m a dad now and my sons have the fortune or misfortune of looking just like me. They have the same thick hair that started a bit more blonde and ended up more brown. J, my 9 year old, prides himself on how soft his hair is. He washes it it and it falls easily in place without a comb. Lately, he likes shaking his head back and forth and feeling it bounce off his scalp. A constantly has bedhead, his cowlicks more unmanageable than mine ever were, always returning no matter how much water or hair gel plaster them down. His hair is more coarse, and he couldn’t care less how it looks, happy to pair it with a backwards shirt and a pair of pants stained with chili. So long as he can run and play, he gives zero thought to his appearance.

And it doesn’t feel like it will be long before they are the ones that are going grey at the temples, and I’ll be watching from behind.

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Animal Doctor

Animaldoctor

“GrrrhissgrrhssssgrrROARslurp!

A, my 6-year old son, lurked down the hall in a crouch, curling two fingers on each hand into twisted claws. He rounded the corner, making a series of growls and hisses before he made a small roar. He finished off the monster song with a long slurping sound of spit being sucked through teeth.

When he noticed me sitting on the couch and looking at him, he immediately straightened up to a human posture and began explaining. A can talk for several minutes without interruption, and I’ve developed the skill to patiently listen and give him all of my intention, letting him know that each word of his is important to me.

“Oh, hey, Dad, I was being a raptor. You know, like those little T-Rex creatures from Jurassic Park? They walk differently than humans so I was putting my butt back and sticking my head out and then kind of walking like with my feet forward and out like this.” He gave me a quick demonstration of his posture again. “And then I was sticking my fingers like this for claws. I was pretending that I was like hunting some prey down a hall here and then I hissed to scare it and then roared when I attacked it, and did you hear that like spit sound at the end, that was me eating the creature. I had to make a wet sound because that was the sound of the creature’s blood and wounds and stuff.”

I winced a bit at the graphic nature as he continued talking. A has been fascinated by predators his entire life. He loves all animals, but, rather like Hagrid from the Harry Potter series, he has the most fondness for the ugly, toothy, craggy creatures, and he automatically sees them as cuddly and misunderstood all at once. Tigers, sharks, hyenas, falcons, gross bottom dwellers and fierce meat-eaters. Anything with claws or rows of teeth automatically makes his favorite list. Yet at the same time, he coos and fawns over baby animals of any kind, but especially mammals. A tells stories constantly, and his epic tales generally star a baby mammal of some kind with a fierce predator of another kind who comes to protect it. He stories commonly result in bloodshed of some kind or other, but it is almost always evil humans who meet grisly ends. It’s never animals.

At the same time, A has a tremendous sensitivity about him. Violence in any form, particularly directed toward animals, leads to long piercing cries. He despises cruelty. I’ve been reading my sons the Wonderful Wizard of Oz books recently, the original ones from 1900 and on. In the original book, in one scene, the massive Kalidahs (with heads of tigers and bodies of bears) attack Dorothy and her friends, and the Tin Woodsman casually lops off the heads of the beasts; in another chapter, the Scarecrow rings the necks of 40 crows and the Tin Woodsman kills forty attacking wolves. Each of these details has caused a crying spell in my sensitive son, who now hates Dorothy’s companions for their wanton violence. “I hope the Tin Woodsman never gets his heart!” he yelled after yet another beast, a wildcat, was killed.

“They didn’t have to do that!” he exclaimed. “They could have just hided or scared the animals away! Why did the author let that happen!”

A has been telling me recently that he wants to be an animal doctor, a veterinarian when he grows up. I’ve been telling him that he’ll have to go to college and learn a lot, how he’ll have to choose an area of specialty.

“Some veterinarians work with small animals and pets, like cats, dogs, birds, and lizards. Some work on farm animals. And there are special kinds that work on zoo animals, like elephants , and they have to get special training. Some work on big cats, some work on predator birds, some work on large fish. What kind of veterinarian would you want to be?”

I assumed his answer would be all about predators. But he surprised me. “I think I’d want to work on cute little animals and kittens.”

Just yesterday, I found A, and his brother, J, playing with their collection of animal toys. My boyfriend and I have been slowly getting them a collection of rare animals: a black rhino, a cassowary, a rhinoceros hornbill, a lynx, an octopus, a water buffalo. The boys have dozens of them. From the next room, I heard them playing out a scenario.

“Doctor Otter! The wolverine has been injured! He needs a surgery!” J said.

A put an official tone in his voice to respond. “Well, luckily, I am specially trained. I can treat his wounds, open him up, fix him, and then tuck his meat all back in. He’ll be better in no time!”

Friday night, I had friends over to my home to watch an old movie, Out of Africa. In the middle of the film, A came to sit on the floor, watching as Meryl Streep led her allies on a trek across Nairobi. As the humans slept, a pair of lions attacked, scattering the oxen and killing one of them before the beasts were scared away. A stood up in the center of the room.

“Wait, did those lions actually kill that ox?”

“Not in real life, but as part of the story, yes.”

“WHY! WHY DID THEY DO THAT!”

“Well, it was part of the story. You know how lions hunt zebras, gazelles, wildebeests, and other animals, right?”

“Well, yes, but they didn’t have to show it!” He began shaking and crying as he climbed up into my lap in tears, snuggling me tight for comfort. “They didn’t have to show it!” he cried again.

“Son, they didn’t actually show anything. But really, lions should only hunt when we can’t see it!”

“Do you think the humans should hunt down the lions now?”

“No! Of course not! They were only trying to survive!”

A few minutes later, nestled into me, no longer crying, he muttered softly. “I just don’t want anyone to get hurt. I don’t want to see it.”

This from my raptor child who mimics the sounds of meat being eaten, from my carnivore who pretends to be Dr. Otter packing the meat back in, from my sensitive child who cuddles into his father for comfort. This, from my complicated, beautiful son.

“I don’t want anyone hurt either, son.”

And soon he fell asleep.

Hot For Teacher

Jonah

“You can’t understand the story of Jonah without understanding the culture of the times.” I picked up the dishcloth I had brought from home to use as a sweat rag and dabbed it against my forehead. “Here is what most people know about Jonah, much like the one you might read in the Children’s Bible: Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh but he refused, so God humbled him by having him swallowed by a whale, and the whale then delivered Jonah to Nineveh to preach. Can anyone think of other any individual details?”

I dabbed the cloth along my neck line and looked out at the crowd over the 100 or so members of my Mormon ward. The bright pancake lights above hit me brightly as I looked over the faces of the crowd. There were young mothers with newborn babies, elderly couples who had been been attending weekly Sunday School Services for seven decades, and every shade of person in between. Most Mormons, even those who actively read their scriptures and lived their religion, didn’t take much time to study the Old Testament, so sharing content from these stories always brought me joy. With enough research, I felt like I could truly enlighten those in the room and leave them feeling inspired. Sunday School teacher was my very favorite church calling.

I would spend hours researching my Sunday School lessons during the week, reading the content and taking pages of notes, looking into supplemental articles, cross-referencing pieces of history. I would often prepare a lecture that could last for 2 hours, and then I’d pull out the most fascinating content, enough to fill about 40 minutes, which would then leave 10 minutes for discussion. Even paring things down that much, I tended to get overly enthusiastic, rushing my words to fit as much as I could before the bell rang for the next class to begin. I had to learn, slowly over time, that it was best to teach just a few things effectively rather than a bulk of things in a huge rush. It was much better to have people leave the class inspired, with a new sense of understanding, rather than a wealth of new information that was rushed. (This approach would later help me to become an effective college teacher).

My wife, Maggie, came in an out of the room a few times, taking care of our infant son, J, who was now getting more mobile and difficult to contain as he crawled rapidly, exploring every corner of the room. He wouldn’t be old enough to attend the nursery program for a few more months yet, and sometimes it was easier to just let him roam the halls rather than expect him to sit still.

I fanned my suit jacket open a few times, able to tell the white shirt I wore beneath it was already soaked through with sweat. I had taken to wearing baggier clothing lately, now that I was 255 lbs. My pants were now at a 39, where just a few years ago I had worn a size 32. If I wore layers, others couldn’t see how think my sweat was, except along my forehead and neck line. My face glistened in the bright lights. I hated how much effort just standing here and talking took out of me. It made me thirsty. And hungry. I always felt hungry. I woke up in the night to eat sometimes, and I ate between meals, always feeling full yet always wanting more. Sometimes I wondered what had become of myself. How had I sunk this far?

The clock ticked by as I discussed theories about the whale in the Jonah story being metaphorical versus theories that it was literal. We discussed the wickedness of Nineveh and what made the city unique, and why Jonah had been reluctant to go there. And then I tried to make Jonah real, illuminating for the class how much effort it would take to face an impossible task given to us by God, one that had to be taken on faith. I asked some of the class to share the difficult things they faced in their lives, and what made them a bit more like Jonah, weathering through illnesses, family struggles, or crises of faith. And somewhere deep inside, I faced my own Nineveh task, unable to reconcile being gay with Mormon.

Soon, the bell rang, and people began filing out the door, significantly lowering the temperature of the room as the doors opened and the air circulated. I stepped off the side, leaning against a wall slightly, out of the hot lights and somehow sweating more as my body seemed to realize class was over. Several people stood up at the front of the class, making comments from the lesson, asking questions, some reminding me how much they looked forward to my lessons.

With the room nearly empty now, Maggie made her way up to the front of the class. My son J patted at my calves, and I bent down to scoop him up careful to hold him out on my arm so he wouldn’t be pressed against my sweaty face. He grinned at me, silly and happy with a full tummy, and I squeezed him in close. As Maggie asked me how I felt about the lesson, I noticed Brother and Sister Markel, a couple in their late 70s, casually waiting behind her, and I beckoned them forward.

“Brother Anderson, thank you as always for your wonderful lessons.”

“Thank you!” I exclaimed back.

Sister Markel opened her shoulder bag. “Brother Markel and I have noticed you seem a bit… uncomfortable lately. We got you a small gift that might help.”

Using my third grade sense of humor, I took the present from their hands, immediately quipping, “Why Sister Markel, does this gift mean you’re hot for teacher?”

Maggie rolled her eyes as Brother Markel laughed heartily. Sister Markel looked surprised, then smiled gently. “I… I guess you could say that. Open it up.”

I opened the gift and found a small battery-operated fan inside.

“You seem to get very warm up here. We thought a small fan on the table might help keep you cool. So it is a ‘hot for teacher’ present, I suppose.”

I thanked the Markels, turning bright red, not wanting to even talk about the noticeable sweat. Instead of staying for the third block of church, I took J and went home early. There, I poured myself a bowl of cereal, a snack before the later lunch, and, noticing the small fan on the counter, thought that one of these days I needed to do something about my weight problem.

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Bucket O’ Crawfish

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“You guys can choose something fish-y if you want to.” I put on a determined face as I drove.

“You hate fish,” my boyfriend, Mike, responded.

“We can get anything. It doesn’t have to be fish. Let’s go somewhere you would like,” my best friend, Tyler, reasoned.

“No, no,” I said, a touch of the martyr in my voice, “I’m not hungry. Plus you guys never get fish when you’re with me. It’s the holidays. Treat yourself. Just pick something nearby.”

We scanned the map and, determined to show them that I could do it, I picked the fishiest sounding place possible and drove there while they both tried to talk me out of it. Bucket O’ Crawfish. How bad could it be?

I’d been fully vegetarian for a number of years (not vegan, but vegetarian), and I was generally fine with people eating meat in front of me. I don’t like looking at or touching raw meat, and I definitely can’t handle animal carcasses of any kind (it makes me shudder even writing that), but cooked meat being eaten is fine. But there had always been something about fish. Even from my earliest days, the sights and smells of cooked fish gave me a gag reflex response and left my whole body feeling weak and woozy. I have a very difficult time watching someone eat fish, but I can’t stand smelling it being cooked, and I despise tasting it afterward. Not just fish, but seafood, including crab and lobster. Conversely, I love live fish and think they are beautiful.

On rare occasions, when Mike would order fish in front of me, I would respectfully place a menu in front of his plate so that I couldn’t see it, then I would focus on my food and just remind him that I wouldn’t be kissing him until later, even after he brushed his teeth (cause I can definitely still taste it). One weekend while I was traveling, he cooked fish in the house, and upon returning I could still smell it; I deep-cleaned the kitchen, opened the windows, and lit candles, and could still swear I smelled it for a full day. He’s never cooked fish at home again.

Upon walking into Bucket O’ Crawfish, I immediately knew I’d made a huge mistake. The room was well lit, with wooden tables and chairs, and I directed us to a back corner table where I could look out a window without obstruction. The entire room had a thick, cloying, dense smelled of cooked shellfish and pepper-y, heavy, Old Bay seasoning smells that had me gagging. I gave myself lots of positive self-talk as I took short small breaths.

Tyler and I made small talk, avoiding my pale face as they looked over the menu. I had insisted on coming here, and I would stick it out. The waitress soon took their orders: a bag of shrimp, a bag of crawdads, a bag of mussels, some varying levels of spicy seasonings and sauces, and a few beers. (The word ‘bag’ in the order immediately sent me on a spin of nausea and I found myself looking at the floor). Me? I ordered a single cob of corn.

“I’m vegetarian,” I pathetically explained.

“Oh…”, the waitress responded, as if to say, “you fool, what are you doing here!”

Within minutes, plastic bags filled with dead shellfish were placed on the table, steamed and hot, and although I was trying not to look, I realized the shells were still on the crawdads, the tails still on the shrimp. And then I was not okay. Mike reached into the bag for the first mussel and hot fish smells hit the air, leaving me wanting to hide my face in my shirt. I heard the slurp-y sounds of his first tastes, followed by his moan of pleasure from the flavor. Tyler grabbed a crawdad and I listened as he cracked it’s little shell off and then sucked the meat out, followed by a gulp of beer.

Go to your happy place, go to your happy place I muttered to myself in an effort not to be ill, and I thought of a river bed or a beach until I realized the water-y bodies were full of life that men wanted to devour with tangy sauces, and I went even paler. I placed my hands in front of my face to avoid all eye contact, unable to watch them, knowing that a view of those plastic bags full of corpses would cause me to empty the contents of my stomach. Tyler and Mike muttered ‘this was your idea!’ and ‘you can wait outside!’ but I wouldn’t hear it. I would show how tough I was.

The waitress brought out my corn cob, a small yellow thing that looked overcooked. It glistened with red, salty spices, and I quickly devoured it with hearty bites, desperate to be tasting something besides the fish fragrances in the air. It wasn’t until minutes later that I realized it had been cooked in the bags with the fish themselves, and then my face went from pale to red.

“I made a mistake!” I exclaimed softly and went outside the establishment, gulping in oxygen outside until they finished their meals. When we got into the car, I realized my clothing had soaked up the fish smells, and I suddenly wanted to burn my clothing. I drove home with the windows down, despite the winter air. At home, I tore off my clothing and threw it violently into the washer, angry because I knew my car’s interior would still have the scents in the morning. I gulped glasses of water to purge myself.

Later that night, feeling like I had just overcome the stomach flu, I cuddled up tightly to my boyfriend, refusing to kiss him. I looked him in the eyes. “That was my fault,” I said. “I was trying to be brave and do something nice. Never, ever, ever let me be that nice or brave again. That was horrid. God, I’m so stupid.”

Mike wisely stayed silent and just held me close. I soon fell asleep with the realization that I’d just faced my own personal version of Hell, and I’d survived.

 

 

Capitol Boulevard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Period.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s all there is to say.

Period.

period

One Epic Fantasy

MagicJesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Rolling Queers

God-Hates-Fags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dangerous?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motherboard

motherboard.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess I already am.