Dark Valentine

valentine

I hate Valentines Day. Everyone hates Valentines Day.

Valentines Day is the darkest day of the year.

In fact, Valentines Day is the worst.

IF you are in a loving supportive relationship, Valentines Day sucks. You find yourself in a weird sort of competition with other couples to prove who has the most love as expressed through exchanged overly priced gifts.

“My husband got me roses and chocolates and had rose petals laid out on the bed after we got home from our steak dinner, and we have plans to rent a chalet on the ski mountain this weekend with a Jacuzzi. I’m so lucky!” she says, while her coworkers think of ways to top her story. But really they are all feeling either jealous, annoyed, or both as they think of their lack of Valentine or measure up how that Valentine stacks against the one exchanged in their relationship.

OR you find yourself in competition WITHIN your own relationship, wondering who loves who as demonstrated through exchanged overly priced gifts.

Sheri bought her wife Heather a dozen roses and wrote her a love poem while Heather made Sheri a romantic dinner and cleaned the entire apartment, and both of them are thinking, “My gift was better than/worse than hers” and plot ways to use that against each other later.

OR maybe you’ll even be pissed off about why your own relationship is going so poorly and everyone around you thinks you are happy, but you have to stomach another Valentine’s Day with the person you don’t really love anymore. But at least your Facebook status update will make things sound lovely between the two of you.

And IF you are single on Valentines Day, you will either spend it moping about the fact that you aren’t in a relationship, OR moping about your failed relationship (you know, the one you aren’t quite over yet), OR you will spend it with other single friends complaining (either out loud or silently) about not being in a relationship or your last failed relationship. Maybe you’ll get cute and call it Single Awareness Day, but really that’s just another way of lamenting that you think people who are in relationships are happier than you are.

Some advice for those of you who are in relationships: celebrate the day after Valentines Day. All of the over priced flowers and stuffed animals and food drop in price by fifty per cent. And then celebrate a few weeks later with some kind of normally priced (not overly priced) weekend or evening away. Exchange genuine, meaningful gifts, not kitschy expensive things that will never be used again. Show your love in your own way and on your own time, and make it special. And don’t, please, make others drown in your relationship status by flaunting how in love you are. “He bought me a necklace! He really does love me!”

And some advice for those of you who are single: celebrate yourself on Valentines Day. With friends or without, don’t lament on your relationship or lack thereof. Treat yourself to a nice meal, a fancy dinner, an evening away, a glass of wine and an old movie, whatever it is you enjoy. Don’t let a calendar date dictate the success of your live, just live your life and live it well.

This Valentines Day, I’ll be celebrating my children. I wrote them cards and bought them toys they like, and we will engage in family activities and talk about things we are grateful for. Last year, I was on my own on Valentines Day, and I spent the day off of social media before driving to a mountain town and treating myself to a nice dinner with a beautiful view of the mountains.

Don’t waste a minute being miserable today. Valentines Day is dumb.

St. Valentine himself is an old Saint who no one knows much about except that he was imprisoned and later killed for doing nice things and believing in his religion.

cupid

Cupid is a mythical old man baby who shoots iron tipped arrows that force people to fall in love against their will. He’s definitely rapey.

Candy hearts are disgusting. Flowers die. Chocolates make you fat.

And hearts can be full and pink and full of love, or they can be cracked down the middle and broken.

Whatever yours is, celebrate that heart, that it beats miraculously within you and gives you glorious life. Make today about YOU. And don’t worry about the THEM you are so jealous of. Don’t waste one moment of today moping about what you don’t have or what you did have, instead celebrate what you DO have: a beautiful day ahead that you can spend however you desire.

If you’re with someone, be with that person you love. But whether you are with someone or not, make sure you love yourself first.

Advertisements

Facing Gay: Lesson from Avenue Q

rod1

Rod, the gay puppet in Avenue Q, just wasn’t ready to be told he was gay. He struggled to face it within himself, being a Republican conservative puppet. When his straight roommate Nicky, also a puppet and one who Rod happened to be in love with, told Rod it would be okay to come out, that his friends would still love him, Rod still couldn’t face it. He swore he was straight.

A little later in the play, a group of Rod’s friends are talking about him being homosexual, and he throws a violent tantrum, promising them he isn’t gay and making up a girlfriend in Canada that he corresponds with that they just haven’t met. Because if he has a girlfriend, even a fictional one, it legitimizes him, and the others can’t question him anymore, at least in his own mind.

Finally, toward the end of the play, Rod comes out of the closet. He spreads his puppet arms and announces the news dramatically. And the rest of the puppets and people shrug and nod, not in the least surprised. They already knew it. They just needed him to know it.

The only difference between the beginning and the end? Rod’s readiness to face the truth about himself.

As I watched Avenue Q in a community theater production last night, I laughed and clapped and cheered, loving the production, but Rod’s story struck me poignantly as I realized how vastly my life has changed in such a short amount of time. I sat next to a date, with another gay couple to my side. Behind me directly were two middle-aged lesbian couples, laughing raucously at the content of the show. In front of me were two gay couples and a lesbian couple. There were people of all age and type in the theater, but the sheer presence of the gay community at this production filled me with joy. Years before, I would have felt both jealous and disturbed, convincing myself there was something morally wrong with so many gay people in the room.

Reflecting on Rod, I reflected on the years of loneliness prior to my coming out, and the worlds of lies I created to protect myself. I remember being head over heels in love with my straight best friend in high school and wanting to spend every moment with him possible, but convincing myself it was just because he was a cool person and that there were no feelings of romance there. I remember finally accepting the reality that I was attracted to other guys, but created facts to block the pain of that, like that I hadn’t met the right girl yet or that it was only because I hadn’t kissed a girl yet or that God was testing me with the opportunity to make right decisions. Yet even after I was married to a woman, my self-excuses continued, the ultimate being that God would make me straight in some post-mortal existence if I was strong and faithful enough.

In my early 20s, I took myself to a therapist in college and told him I needed help “overcoming my same sex attraction”. A few therapy sessions in, he gently stated that it might simply be that I’m gay, and that there was nothing wrong with that. I emotionally and angrily responded that other people were gay, but that wasn’t a reality for me. I had a gay sister, gay friends, and I loved them no matter what, but that God had different plans for me, I couldn’t be gay, I just couldn’t, and how dare he say that I was. The therapist backed off right away. But I wish he had pushed me farther. It could have saved me a lot of later pain.

In the years since I’ve come out, I’ve seen hundreds of others make that same journey, take that long slow reasoning climb through admitting attraction to the same gender to running down the list of excuses and coping mechanisms to avoid the reality of being gay to finally admitting that being gay is a reality. For many, that is simply the start. Then there can follow years of unpacking personal baggage and bias as they sort out what being gay means and how to incorporate that with their outside world of jobs and families, hobbies and travels.

I’m exhausted by the mental and emotional energy that Rod had to use to stay comfortably in the closet, and I’m exhausted by my own journey there. No wonder finally coming out felt like coming up for oxygen–it was such a waste of effort to convince the world around me, and the world within me, that I wasn’t what I was all along.

And so, to every young man or woman out there who finds themselves attracted to the same gender, and for every young man or woman out there who feels their inside gender doesn’t match their outside gender, I invite you not to waste the time and energy that it takes to keep yourself hidden. There is an entire world out there of love and joy and self-acceptance.

At the end of the play, Rod maintains his friendships; it turns out his friends loved him all along and just wanted to be happy. And Ricky, the roommate he liked, put out a personal ad for Rod, who then got a sexy puppet boyfriend. Although he was just a puppet, Rod’s smile seemed much more genuine in the end.

I know mine is.

Rod2.jpg

Sends Nudes: thoughts on gay sex and vulnerability

nudes

Welcome to 2017, where, for many, sending pictures of genitalia is more comfortable than exchanging a first name.

I may never get accustomed to this, logging into a dating or chat app and having someone send me a photo of their erect penis, yet say they are discreet or shy when I ask for a photo of their face. A few months ago, during one chat, I got a dirty photo from someone I’ve never met, unsolicited, and when I said I prefer to chat a bit before going there he responded with, “Look, bro, if I wanted a chat, I’d call my mom. I’m looking to bone, not be your friend.”

In the gay male community, there have always been strong elements of sexual expression, and sexual oppression. In the generations prior to mine, men weren’t allowed to be sexual with other men without serious consequences, from being arrested to disowned to fired to attacked to shamed. For most of human history, there has been an element of danger to gay sex–it had to be private, it had to be discreet, it had to be secret.

In Brokeback Mountain, the first time Ennis and Jack have sex, they can’t look at each other and there is no intimacy. Ennis shoves Jack’s face forward and gives in to urges. After that, they develop an intimacy when they are alone, an affection and love toward each other through looks and handholds and private jokes. But in public, there can be none, no errant glances, no physical contact. If someone suspected their love, there would be public shaming, humiliation, lost jobs, and lost families.

And this became the culture of the gay male community, by and large, over the years. The wider public sent the message that gay men do not belong, that they should not be seen, and that they should be taught a lesson if they are seen.

“What they do in their own homes, I don’t care, as long as I don’t have to see it” and “I didn’t plan on hitting him but he looked at me funny and I would have been made fun of if I hadn’t fought back” and “Can’t we just round them up and put them on an island some place where we don’t have to look at them” and “If we let gay people teach in our schools, our kids will get AIDS and turn into fags” became normal messages on television and from church pulpits and around the family dinner table.

And so gay men learned to hide, and to have two lives. In one life, they had jobs as teachers and doctors, dancers and hair dressers, social workers and CEOs, police officers and judges; and they had families with mothers and fathers and often wives and children; and they had lives, on their local bowling leagues or PTA committees.

And in their other life, the gay men noticed handsome men around them and hoped to catch their eye. They learned of public spaces to meet other gay men, in public parks or on the third floor or the local library behind the biography section or in the alley behind a particular club, or in the local gay club or bath house, although those were a bit scarier. And they learned to relate to other gay men on a purely physical level, focusing solely on sex and body image, shaming those that were not their idea of physically perfect or those who wanted some sort of emotional connection. They learned to mask feelings with alcohol and drugs, often to enhance the pleasure of the sex, and then they stepped back into their daily lives.

These social and psychic trends seem pretty rampant in the gay male community among men who, primarily, grew up divided within themselves, longing for acceptance, community, understanding, validation, and love, and who instead divided themselves up into spaces where vulnerability is frightening and sex is simple.

All that said, there is nothing wrong with sex in any of its forms, so long as the person engaging in sex is educated, honest, and ethical with themselves and others. Engaging in random illicit sex with a stranger, a threesome with a few friends, or even a bathhouse orgy, those are viable options for gay men, but they won’t serve as healthy alternatives for loneliness, depression, self-shame, family problems, or religious discord. The person who chooses to be sexually active should do so from a place of self-acceptance and confidence, and the ability to realize that the person or people they are engaging in sexual activities with are also human beings who have stories and families and needs.

I viscerally remember the radio commercial from my youth where the deep voice stated, “Remember, sex lasts a moment. Being a father lasts your whole life.” And there is absolute truth there. The man who chooses to engage in sex should be able to recognize the risks of pregnancy, the potential for STDs, and the ability to realize that the human heart is a part of sex, both for him and for the other person involved. (And yes I realize that gay sex does not result in pregnancies, but the other truths hold valid).

So go, have sex. Have fun. Have adventures. But know yourselves first, and know your motivations. Look at your trends. Can you only have sex when drunk? Are you only seeking to dominate someone else? Can you look your partner in the eye and have a conversation? Are you seeking to escape the stress and expectations of an unhealthy marriage, religious obligations, or the family you’ve built around you? Do you reject anyone who isn’t your ideal of human perfection, your exact type? Do you realize and acknowledge that there is another person there with a story, with needs, with struggles and situations different but just the same as yours? Do you understand the history of where you’ve come, and do you have an eye on where you are going? Do you think that having someone in your bed will take away your pain and loneliness and make you like yourself?

I guess the take away I hope others to get in reading this is just to know yourself, to question your motivations a little bit, to explore your concepts of vulnerability, and to be able to realize there is another person on the other end of that exchange. The world is about more than naked pictures and quick sex, it’s about safety and kindness and attraction and love. But that has to be toward yourself first.

 

 

 

Dolly

“Find out who you are. And do it on purpose.”

dolly_parton-album_cover

I find this to be one of the most inspirational quotes I have ever heard, and it comes from the inestimable Dolly Parton, who did exactly that.

A lot surprised me as I read about Dolly. I have always admired her without ever knowing much about her. I didn’t own any of her albums, and I had probably only seen a few clips of her in movies. I knew some of her most famous songs, like Jolene and I Will Always Love You.

I was baffled by her carefully constructed image. A woman who painted her face, wore thick wigs, and made herself known for her enormous breasts, which she definitely accentuated in her dress, a woman who compared herself to drag queens in style… yet somehow she cultivated a family friendly, down-home, comfortable around the kids personality. She embraced both gays and Christians, men and women, families of all kinds.

Dolly took her talents as a storyteller and a songwriter, her incredible and unique country voice, her savvy business sense, and her talent at drawing people into her as an icon, and she slowly and carefully built an empire up around herself. CDs, radio hits, albums, sheet music, concert tours, television appearances, movie deals, book deals, her own television show, and her own theme park. Dolly managed to make everyone who watched her feel as if they knew her, feel safe with her, while keeping her private life and politics and beliefs incredibly private at the same time.

As a kid, Dolly learned she liked being the center of attention. With nearly a dozen brothers and sisters running around in a rural Tennessee house, and between her dad’s affairs and her mom’s strict rules, she discovered she loved make-up and she loved boys and she loved people looking at her and she loved to sing. In the 1960s, when she went to the big city for the first time to find her fame, Dolly met Carl Dean when he noticed her exposed midriff at a laundromat and flirted with him. They married, and they have stayed married for decades, striking a seemingly perfect balance of having separate lives and careers, a lot of time for each other, and a whole lot of respect for each other. Carl stays out of photographs and interviews, and Dolly respects his privacy.

Dolly never had children. She made a career for herself working endless hours on tours, after years of concerts and radio performances. I watched some of her television interviews over the years and saw the grace at which she handled inappropriateness and invasiveness. When David Letterman said he’d give a year’s salary to see her naked breasts, she laughed it off, and she did the same when he said she was a pretty thing and that he’d like to see her all sweaty. She carefully balanced the ability to be objectified by men and seen as a sex symbol, yet stand for fidelity and morals at the same time.

Dolly cultivated this in her movies as well. In her two most famous films, she combined sexiness with feminism, career aspirations with family values. In 9 to 5, she played the sexy secretary who wore tight clothes and big hair to work, who stayed faithful to her husband, resisted the advances of her boss, and longed for the camaraderie of her female coworkers, hurt when she realized there were rumors about her. And in the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, she played the owner and operator of a whorehouse, a smart and savvy businesswoman who donated to local charities and stayed faithful and local to her boyfriend, the local sheriff.

One paragraph in the book highlighted how Dolly had the ability to be on a car in the middle of a crowded parade in Dollywood. She would wave and smile, wave and smile, wave and smile, and every once in a while she would choose a stranger in the crowd and get a bright smile on her face as she eagerly waved, as if she had seen a long-lost friend. This wave endeared everyone watching to her, making them feel safe with her, like she was their personal acquaintance. This, combined with her down-home country tales and her high-pitched laugh and her grace, has made her an incredible empress of her own little empire.

Perhaps the single fact that endears Dolly to me more than any other has been her ability to succeed in a man’s world with the odds stacked against her, on her own terms. When she “fails”, she learns her lesson and stands back up to fight. She has been unflinching as she has dedicated herself to the hard work it takes to build a name, slowly and carefully over years, and then to keep that name alive for decades. She is a household name, an unforgettable presence.

Dolly tells a story of once entering a “Dolly Parton lookalike contest” among drag queens who dressed as her. She dressed as a caricature of herself, and lost the contest. She tells this story with great delight. When asked about being a ‘gay icon’, she smiles and says she loves all people, and she speaks about everyone should be just who they are and never let anyone stop them.

Sound advice from a woman who has done just that.

 

 

Mr. Karen Carpenter

carpenterwedding3

Just days before her wedding, Karen Carpenter discovered her fiancee was a liar.

Karen had been dating high profile men for years, sometimes casually and sometimes seriously. Alan Osmond and Steve Martin and Tony Danza. She was 5’4”, petite and small with an enormous smile. She looked healthy and strong at around 115 lbs, but she was hard on herself, often starving herself while using laxatives to empty her system and uppers to boost her metabolism and energy, and her weight would sometimes drop to 90, 85, or even 80 pounds, giving her the look of a skeleton covered in skin.

Her voice, though, her voice was unchanging. She kept an impossible schedule, touring the world and making music with her smoky and sultry voice in its lower register, somehow conveying the emotional weight of every word, whether she sang of falling in love or of being desperately lonely or of being heartbroken.

Talking to myself and feeling old, sometimes I’d like to quit, nothin’ ever seems to fit, hanging around, nothing to do but frown, rainy days and Mondays always get me down

and

why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near? just like me, they long to be close to you

and

what to say to make you come again, come back to me again and play your sad guitar, don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby?

Karen’s mother, Agnes, ruled the household with strong words and harsh expectations. She saw her son, Richard, as a musical prodigy who would have a successful career playing the piano, and she saw Karen as a talented young woman who could support Richard in his rise to fame and then perhaps Karen could become the wife and mother she was meant to be. Karen started her music career behind a set of drums, playing for her brother’s band, but when they heard her sing, she was moved out in front as the lead singer. She was the one everyone saw and heard and remembered.

Karen and Richard were dubbed the squeaky-clean rock stars, full of innocence and virginity, during their era, and their personal lives matched that at first; they even lived at home with their parents until they were in their mid-20s, for years after they had become famous. In time, Richard struggled through drug addiction while Karen fell in and out of love, hoping to find a unicorn of a man, who could love her, give her a family, be independent and devoted, and be able to handle her fame.

Karen met Tom Burris during a difficult time in her life. She had just tried launching her own musical career, her own solo album. She had smiled and beamed through the hard work of making her disco album, but after a year of hard work, her family and friends had discouraged her from releasing it, hearing the tracks and telling her it would be unsuccessful. And so she shelved the album, and it would only be released years after her death.

Tom had appeared perfect, and he came at just the right time. He was handsome with a flashy smile and a nice career and stories of vast wealth, and he was blonde and blue-eyed and seemingly devoted to Karen. He claimed he had never heard of her, though she was world famous. A decade older, Tom rushed a divorce with his current wife and proposed to Karen, promising to give her everything she ever wanted, and Karen, hesitant at first, said yes. Then, weeks before the wedding, Tom told her that he had had a vasectomy and that he couldn’t give her children. Karen was heartbroken and furious. He had lied to her. She called off the wedding, but her mother had already sent out the invitations and Karen was pressured into continuing.

And so, Karen Carpenter married Tom Burris married on August 31, 1980. She cut the honeymoon short, immediately unhappy, and then Tom began asking for money, having lied about his personal fortunes. He bought her a car, but they later repossessed it for missing payments. After months of unhappiness, Karen began working on the divorce proceedings, changing her will to keep Tom mostly out of it.

Karen’s health was failing, her body unable to operate without food and sustenance, abused by pills and laxatives. She started treatment and wanted fast results. The therapist was rough on her and Karen began facing harsh truths, especially in a therapy session where her mother could admit love for Richard but not for Karen, not out loud at least.

And so Karen was 32 when she woke up one morning, started a cup of coffee, and then collapsed naked on the floor in her room in her mother’s basement, her heart giving out on her. She died minutes later. It was 1983.

I was five when Karen died. I grew up listening to her amazing voice. It was heavenly, and it made me feel all the feelings. And now, I’m 38, older than she was at the time of her death, and I’m learning about her life. I’ve played her music for the week while I’ve read about her, and I’ve watched her old interviews as she denied having an eating disorder late in her career. I’ve watched her awkward singing behind a set of drums early in her career, and her extreme confidence as she flirted with the audience masterfully in the middle of her career. And this morning, I sit and type about her sad story, one talented and beautiful young woman who wanted love and happiness just like anyone else. And  I realize, it’s a rainy day and a Monday, and I’m feeling down.

But good Lord, that voice…

 

 

Delivering the bad news

BadNews.jpg

Direct and uncomplicated, in a soft and nurturing voice, that is the best way to give bad news.

“Mrs. Jones, I’m sorry, but your daughter didn’t make it, the damage was just too severe,” comes across much better than “Hi, Mrs. Jones, I’m Dr. Miller. It was an absolute honor to help your family as much as I could. I’ve been practicing as a surgeon for 15 years and I have a very good reputation and widely renowned skill. I want to assure you that I did everything I could but it was just too late. Your daughter didn’t make it,” or “Mrs. Jones, maybe you should sit down for this, I know this must be difficult and I hate to have to be the one to tell you this, but your daughter is dead.”

Delivering the bad news is terrible, every time. The words hit their audience, and the pain is immediately evident, the range of emotions going from shock to fury to disbelief to anguish to deep depression to guilt to fear, and never in a predictable order. But there are ways to make the difficult better. Or at least less terrible.

As a social worker, over the years, I have had to sit with clients in some of their darkest and most painful spaces, as they process through neglect, abuse, and trauma of every kind, from cheating husbands to recently lost freedom to major drug addictions. Every human has been through hard things, and they come to therapy to talk about it. Sometimes, though, I have to be the one to sit with them and tell them the bad news.

There is no easy way to tell someone that I have had to call Child Protective Services, or that I have to give a difficult report to a probation officer, or, worst of all, that someone they knew, and perhaps even loved, is no longer living.

When I’m delivering terrible news, I tend to mentally divide the people I’m talking to into three categories, as I watch to make sure they are going to be okay. One, I watch for those impacted by standard grief: loss, emotional pain, shock. This category encompasses everyone at varying levels, for hearing the news about a terrible trauma happening to someone else, even someone not known well, is enough to elicit low levels of pain. Two, I look for people who have old wounds now being opened up by the difficult news, specifically those who have past traumas that are being brought to the surface. Example, Sandy hears about a coworker’s suicide, and is immediately reminded of the suicide of her father from years before. These types of trauma recall are more acute and have a wider range of impact. I worry about the last category the most, though. Three, I make sure to be extra sensitive toward people who may be already at capacity with current life stress. Examples, Joann has cancer and is now dealing with her best friend’s death in a car accident, or Mark is fighting for custody of his children in a terrible divorce battle and now is now learning about his beloved boss’s fatal heart attack. The onset of grief in those who are already at capacity comes in unpredictable ways.

When I give difficult news, I sit with the person for a few minutes afterwards to make sure they are stabilizing and okay, then I make sure they have someone with them. Depending on the severity of the shock, I recommend they get a ride home and have someone safe to be with. As often as possible, I recommend the person remove as much stress as possible and engage in self-care, treating themselves as if they just got out of surgery. I recommend blankets and a couch, a favorite movie, a glass of wine or mug of hot chocolate, and a hot bath. I tell them it is a bad time to spend money, to begin a major project, to have a difficult time with a loved one, or to drink alcohol–grief is going to happen, and it is best to provide the body with as much comfort and ease as possible. Too often those in grief wind up sick afterwards.

Recently, someone asked me what the hardest kind of bad news was to deliver. The news of a death of a loved one is always the worst. But there are varying kinds of that as well. When someone dies as the result of a medical event, such as a heart attack, there is a certain comfort that comes with that as we can reason with ourselves that it was there time. Grief in these situations comes naturally, generally. But when someone dies as the result of a preventable accident, or worse, as a result of the negligence or violence of someone else, it is a much more painful and confusing prospect, and grief takes much longer, often, and brings an entirely different kind of pain.

The worst, however, is having to tell someone that a loved one has died as a result of suicide. That brings a tremendous amount of anger, anguish, and extreme and acute pain that the loved ones never quite heal from.

Grief is baffling, and healing takes time. I see people shift from crying uncontrollably to laughing at happy memories to painful anger toward God to abject numbness. It’s natural to feel like a crazy person while grieving.

Grief is painful, and ranges from brief to sharp to all-encompassing, coming in drops over long periods of time. It is heavier in the beginning, then less frequent as the days go by and the sun keeps rising.

And though it is difficult to be the one to give the bad news, it is my honor to be able to help those in their times of need.

What to do with a Furrowed Brow

img_3327

I recently taught a college class on Anger, to a group of social work students all learning the skills they will need to interface with others in emotional situations.

I left several colors of markers standing near the white dry erase board: black, light blue, dark blue, red, pink, yellow, purple, orange, green. On the board, I wrote simple instructions, to write out all the different synonyms of MAD they could think of.

The students started with a few easy words. Underneath MAD appeared ANGRY and FRUSTRATED and PISSED OFF. Soon the list expanded to IRATE and ENRAGED and INCENSED and INDIGNANT and IRRITATED.

I kept the class silent after the words stopped, silently encouraging them to continue, and then words related to MAD started showing up, without a direct connection. HURT and EMBARRASSED and HEARTBROKEN and RESENTFUL.

By the end, nearly 50 words showed up on the board. I then had the students write down a 1 to 10 scale on their paper, and write words under each number to demonstrate escalating anger. They looked up at the board, selecting words from the list, perhaps placing UNCOMFORTABLE under number 1, PEEVED under number 3, FURIOUS under number 6, and FOAMING AT THE MOUTH under number 10.

I asked students to remember the last time they hit a 10 level of anger, and many of them couldn’t think of one. I asked the students to list things that made them angry at a 7 level, and I asked them to describe how they handled that anger.

We talked about anger being a full body emotion, one that dwells in your ears, in your teeth, in your stomach, in your fists, in your brow, in your feet, in your fingertips, and perhaps most of all, right on your tongue. We talked about anger coming in different colors, from mild yellow to sheer red to darkest black. We talked about anger being a secondary emotion, how it generally stems from, or is directly connected to, feeling hurt or jealous or betrayed or disappointed first.

We talked about anger being a gut-level emotion, a programmed response that we learn as children to protect us from the pain of the emotions that lie underneath. We talked about anger’s connection to sadness, to guilt, to fear, to pain.

And then we talked about anger being a healthy emotion, one that is important to survival. Every human gets angry. It’s what we decide to do with our anger that matters most. We talked about recognizing anger at number 4 or 5 rather than waiting for it to boil over to 8 or 10, and we talked about how the negative consequences of anger tend to increase when the numbers climb and we, in the moment, care less about the results of our actions; at least until the anger dissipates and we are left with the wounds it has inflicted.

We talked about all of the anger in the world today. Righteous primal anger, directed inward and outward. We see it in furious Facebook posts about political parties who didn’t vote the right way, in criticism of elected leaders and in those criticizing the critics. We see it in ignored text messages, in clenched fists and tight breaths, in blaring horns on the freeway, in tear-soaked pillowcases, in consumed bags of potato chips, in unheard wails to a God who doesn’t seem to be listening.

We talked about anger being directed toward the past or toward the future, yet how anger is always an in the moment emotion, happening right now. We talked about anger being like a fire, one that can burn brightly but never maintain the flame and smoke without fuel.

And then we talked about participating with anger, deciding what to do with it. We talked about having angry, healthy workouts instead of passive aggressive social media posts. We talked about being inspired into social activism instead of ignoring the phone calls of family members with different opinions. We talked about constructive conversations with loved ones that result in compromise and change instead of furious words and unsightly sneers. We talked about listening to the pain behind the anger and charting a course forward instead of feeling helpless and despairing and retreating into the shadows.

Lastly, we talked about anger being a part of us, an unchanging and consistent emotion, something at the very essence of being human. We talked about getting healthy and fit, emotionally, and how anger will still be there, along with the other emotions we perceive as negative. We talked about anger being a primal force, something beautiful and constructive. We talked about anger’s connection to trust, and love, and family, and faith, and justice, and humanity itself.

Then we, all of us, left the class angry. And we each got to decide what to do with it.

Matt

“Do you personally relate to Matthew Shephard? How did his death impact you?”

I furrowed my brow. I hadn’t expected that question. “I’d have to think about that a little bit.” I smiled up at the crowd for moment as they waited patiently. It was getting closer to 11 pm, and the crowd was awake, but we were all emotionally exhausted after the production of the Laramie Project that we had just witnessed.

The play had beautifully recreated the Matthew Shephard story. A group of actors had portrayed a few dozen people from Laramie, Wyoming in a rapid fire monologues, all based on interviews that took place after the horrible hate crime had taken place in 1998. Ranchers, friends of the victim, friends of the killers, drug addicts, bartenders, teachers, students, their only connection having been living in a small Wyoming town that had been  ravaged by a nosey and impossible media that flooded the town for a time, then left it abruptly when another story had come along.

I flashed my brain back to 1998, when I learned about Matthew’s murder. He was only months older than me, just shy of 22, and I was turning 20. I was a Mormon missionary at the time, barely out of high school, and steadily internally torturing myself for being gay, begging in prayers every night for an impossible cure. The first person I had baptized on my mission had been gay. And I knew other gay people. But the way I thought of them at the time, gay people, I thought of them as weak of character, like they had succumbed to temptation, like they hadn’t been strong enough to stop themselves from being gay. Not like me, I was strong enough to not be gay… but I hated myself at the time, because the temptations kept recurring, kept coming back.

The thoughts spread through me and I looked back up at the crowd, a sad smile on my face. I was there as a social worker with training in working with the LGBT community, and as someone who had spent time researching hate crimes in recent months. Earlier in the day, I had given a lengthy presentation to the students at Southern Utah University, and now I was here for a post-show discussion. This had been the toughest question so far.

“Well,” I started, eloquently, “I was basically the same age as Matthew Shephard. I was 20 at the time of his murder.” The time he was punched with fists, pistol-whipped with the butt of a gun, kicked and beat more after being tied to a fence, and then left to die overnight with his skull crushed. He’d been in a coma for days before finally dying. “I guess his death impacted me a lot, it impacted all of us a lot. I grew up gay and religious and in a small town too.”

My eyes moved over the crowd a bit and I breathed out slowly. “More than anything at the time, I remember how whenever anyone talked about Matt, they were finding ways to blame him for his own death. I remember people saying terrible things. If he hadn’t been gay, if he hadn’t flirted with those men, if he hadn’t gone out alone, if he hadn’t been at a bar, if he hadn’t been drinking, if he hadn’t been so flamboyant, if he hadn’t experimented with drugs, if he had been smarter and not gone off with those two men… if if if… then he wouldn’t have been killed. And no one was talking about the killers, no one was outraged in the same way I was outraged. I remember his death scared me. It was one more reason to not be out of the closet, because if I was out of the closet then I could get attacked and beat and killed like Matt had been. And in my brain, I figured that didn’t happen to people who weren’t gay. And in my brain, I guess I thought it was Matt’s fault too, at the time.

“And I didn’t realize that there had been hundreds of other men attacked and killed for being gay. I just knew about Matt. And I saw the protestors at his funeral, and I saw how his parents spoke up and chose not to pursue the death penalty for one of the killers, and I heard no words from the Church leaders that I looked to for guidance about it.

“And that was almost 20 years ago. And Matt didn’t live. I lived. If that had been me, all of the experiences I have had since then would be erased. I wouldn’t have served a mission, or gone to college, or had children. I lived, and Matt didn’t. And his family has had every day since then without Matt in their lives. His parents and his brother, his family and friends, they never got to see what he would become. So I guess Matt’s death affected me a lot.”

There was a pause before I decided I didn’t have anything else to say. The questions continued for a bit, and the evening ended, and there were hugs and handshakes and goodbyes. And then I was dropped back off at the hotel.

I looked out at the horizon in the dark over the nearby streets of Cedar City, Utah, and I felt temporary, as this would be one more moment that would soon be passed.

matt

 

 

Universal

universal-studios-orlando-review

One day, an executive for a company sat down and thought, Hmm, people love the movies. And people love parks. What if we made a movie park. Disneyland did it with Snow White and Cinderella and all that. They have rides and castles and people in costumes. What if we did that for beloved movies?

And so that executive pitched the idea, and it was accepted, and a giant plot of land was purchased, and worlds collided as giant rides and structures, food stations and shops were built around common themes. Jurassic Park, King Kong, the Simpsons, Marvel Super Heroes, and the newest crowd draw, Harry Potter. They built the parks, and they came up with marketing strategies, and they opened the doors, charging hundreds of dollars per person to come inside. And soon, billions were pouring.

On our first day in Universal Studios, all 30 members of my family wore matching shirts, black and white striped prisoner of Azkaban shirts emblazoned with our names and prisoner numbers, and the employees gushed at our creativity. We waited in a long line to park, walked a long distance to the park entrance, and waited in line to enter. Friendly employees scanned our tickets (my two sons and I cost nearly $700 for park tickets for two days, not including parking, lodging, airfare, or food), and then we started to walk. And walk. And walk.

The large family group had agreed to meet for a photograph on the bridge in front of Hogwarts, in the Harry Potter section of the park, and it took us a full hour for everyone to assemble. We smiled for our photos, then moved into Hogwarts itself, where we stood in line for an hour to go on an incredible motion ride with Harry Potter and his friends. Hungry, we moved to a nearby food line, where we waited for 40 minutes to order, and the kids fell asleep on the bench while eating, already exhausted. We browsed the shops, displays, and decorations, then waited in line to enter the wand shop to see a magical display.

The kids were troopers, standing still and staying good-natured and staying quiet during the long line waits, but we were all a bit worn down already and the day wasn’t even a third over. Over the next 7 hours, we found dinosaurs peeking through trees, avoided some long lines while standing in others, purchased snacks, splashed in Dr. Seuss structures, rode the Hogwarts Express to the other side, snapped photos of SpongeBob Squarepants, and eventually trundled back to our cars and back to the hotels, where we soaked in the hot tub for a few minutes before passing out.

A second day in the park seemed daunting, especially as a few family arguments erupted and one of the kids seemed to be having tummy troubles. As we parked again, there was tension in the air and we waited in the long line to enter the park again. I kept a giant smile on my face, telling the kids how excited I was for King Kong and Shrek and the Minions and they stayed smiling. We walked through the park quickly, knowing the lines would be mounting, and I had to do some quick calculations.

As a conservative estimate, I guessed there were 10,000 people at the parks on any given day, who each paid about $150 for admission, that was $1,500,000 per day, before the cost of food, parking, and souvenirs. I don’t have a great business brain, but I calculated that many of these rides and structures had been running for several decades, and I was flummoxed by the amount of money rolling in at this place.

We rushed to King Kong just after the ride opened and stood in line for over an hour to ride it, then another 90 minutes later for the Spider-Man ride, and another 45 later for the 3-D Shrek film. I pictured people back home, blaring on their horns over a few extra seconds at a stoplight, or haggling over the nickel cost increase on their box of cereal now here maxing out there credit cards for an $8 cup of root beer and a 90 minute wait for a 3 minute decades-old ride.

We left the park early the second day, our feet and backs tired, ready for a good night’s sleep. And then we lost our car in the parking lot, unable to remember where we had parked in the tension of the morning. 45 minutes later, we finally drove out of there, our souvenirs clutched in our hands and our stomachs full of heavy foods.

I sat down with the boys that night and recounted our favorite parts of the last few days as we had tried to get our money’s worth in the busy parks. Added all up, we had a great time, but it cost a lot of money. There are a lot of ways to vacation, I thought, and I wasn’t sure this was my favorite way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speed bumps

speedbumps

I have a bad habit of seeing small setbacks as major crises. In the moment that they happen, they feel that way, they feel like permanent barriers, insurmountable and impenetrable. Like any other human, I can then spiral downward for a bit, wondering if I have what it takes and contemplating whether I’m doomed to fail.

Within a few hours, I generally gain perspective again, and I’m able to get a clearer picture. Generally, with a bit of clarity, what seemed like a mountain soon stands clear as a speed bump, a small upset in the road that required me to slow down and check my pace, roll over it slowly and carefully. It is only once the speed bump is carefully cleared that I can resume my previous speed.

And there are times when speed bumps are placed strategically one after the next to keep me going slow. During those times, I grow more accustomed to them and I get used to the feeling of their inconvenience and frustration under my feet. The momentary devastation tends to come only when the speed bump is unexpected, when I’ve been cruising along for a period of time and looking toward the horizon, and then I have to hit the brakes in order to move safely forward.

The day after a speed bump, I get sad and quiet, I withdraw a bit and do a bit of self-assessment. I stop myself from the downward spiral, the one where I grieve my lost years in the closet and feel like I have to hit life at full speed. I remind myself of my progress and my positive changes, I remind myself of the things that bring me truth and light and peace, and I breathe deeply. Then I get angry for a bit, at the event or person or circumstance that placed the speed bump in my way. After the anger simmers for a bit, I exercise, and I let my heart pound toxins right out of my system. And after the workout, my focus sharpens. I look ahead with renewed focus and scan the road ahead for further barriers even as I sharply focus back on the horizon again.

And sometimes that horizon doesn’t look quite like what I had originally envisioned it to be, and that is just fine.

The last few days hit me with a few setbacks, one small and one large. A personal project I’ve put a tremendous amount of effort into seemingly came to a screeching halt with an unexpected Email, and I had to do a lot of self-inventory to revisit my focus. At the same time, I realized a recent developing friendship may not be quite what I thought it was, and that required a bit of focus and processing as well. After an evening of bad dreams, I had to rise, breathe, stretch, exercise, and then chart the path ahead once again with new light.

A few weeks ago, I was processing with a client her tendency to be really rough on herself when things don’t go right. Like me, she grew up in a very religious family as part of a church that taught merit-based salvation. She was born into the philosophy that she came to Earth a sinner based on the choices of Adam and Eve thousands of years ago, and that she had to be saved through a sacrifice by the son of god, and that she then had to prove her worthiness to that god through her choices and actions. Like me, she left this religion years before, but like me she also finds old thinking patterns returning, surrendering subconsciously to the idea that she must earn her happiness, and that happiness can only look one particular way.

After we dissected these thinking patterns, my client and I were able to put down on paper the actual definitions of happiness, of worth, of merit: healthy human relationships, inner peace, adventure, service to others, laughter. We made a list of things to be grateful for, of things that were going right, and of beautiful things in the world. We then set goals for the immediate future.

With new light, this brave woman stepped back into her life and saw the struggles in her life as exactly what they were: temporary, momentary, fleeting. Progress is measured in small increments over time, and speed bumps are a natural part of the landscape along the way.

And so today, I will take a bit of time to survey the land ahead, and then I will look ahead to see where I should place my feet next, working my way ever forward to the goals I have set, and I will do all of this with kindness toward myself and laser sharp focus.