Brattleboro: Coffee and the Meringue Queen

merigne

The view from the coffee shop window was perfect: a gentle, sloping, wide river lazily flowing between a set of old railroad tracks and a moderate hilltop covered in the greens, browns, and oranges of fall. I found myself hoping, almost desperately, that a train would go by and shake the building so that I could count the boxcars as they went by, the way I did as a child.

“In high school, everything is going to change. Even junior high is much more intense than middle school. I mean, when I was younger, I could just have fun, but now I have to get really serious about my studies. I either want to go into international relationships or one of the sciences, depending on how a few things go this year. I’m only in eighth grade, but my mother tells me that this is the time to get ready for the rest of my life. She feels like girls are the future. My dad agrees.”

I tried tuning out the loud voice behind me, turning back to my computer to focus n editing my novel. I’d finished my memoirs months before, but hadn’t taken any time to proofread and edit it down, and that was one of the major reasons I was here in Brattleboro, Vermont, taking a week in new spaces so that I could focus without distractions.

“I mean, look at everything happening in the world. There are so many terrible things! But that’s why girls have to step in and save the day. We make up half of the population and we simply have to step up and clean up the mess if we are going to save the future. First from this administration, then from the top down or the bottom up everywhere else. I think we can do it! And for me, it starts with my education. That’s why I wanted to meet with you. I’d like more female mentors to teach me along the way.”

Now I was intrigued. I turned me head to casually look at the table behind me. A young woman who looked about 20 years old (but who was only 14 by her own words) sat facing an older woman. The student with the loud voice was beautiful, blonde hair that hung to her shoulders, green sweater, gold necklace, no make-up. She looked like someone who would start in a Disney show for teens. The older woman had her back to me, but she had on a black felt hat and a black scarf, and she was hunched over a cup of steaming coffee. I turned away, eavesdropping a bit more. I couldn’t hear the older woman’s soft voice as she spoke, but I continued hearing the booming alto of the teenager.

“I love that you were a teacher. I love that you taught poetry! And I love that you were part of building this community out here. Maybe we could meet every other week or so and just talk? I would love to read your poetry and share mine with you and hear about your stories here. May I read one of my poems now?”

The girl then read a short poem about sweeping crumbs under a rug, then using the rug to cover an ancient stain on her floor, and then transitioned that into society’s mistakes being swept under the rug historically, finishing the thought that perhaps it is best to leave messes out in the open and try to clean them up instead of just hiding them. I was stunned. Suddenly a Garth Brooks’ song came on the radio, and I was distracted by the bizarre contract of his words with hers. “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care.” That song now, during her impassioned speech about history, feminism, and owning mistakes? I couldn’t help but laugh as I turned my head, and the teen girl briefly made eye contact with me, clearly annoyed at my gaze. I turned back away, still smiling anyway.

The old woman spoke for a long while, and I got lost back in my book editing, but soon, the young woman was talking again, this time about her family.

“It’s me and my two brothers. I’m the oldest. My parents are really cool. We all contribute to meals. Like, my mom makes all the fish. Sockeye, bass, everything. I don’t like salmon much, but we do a lot of fish around the house. We use lots of vegetables, of course. Me, I’m the desert person. I love desserts. Always from scratch. I make French macaroons, and I use lots of berries. My favorite is meringue. I’m the meringue queen, I guess you could say. Did you know you could do meringue out of chick peas? It’s delicious.”

I looked across the table at my sister, who was sipping at her iced latte and reading a book. She attends an all girls’ college nearby, where her wife works in administration. A quarter of the all-female student population was international, and the school embraced transgender women as part of its student body. Hours before, we had checked into an Airbnb, where a female homeowner named Carol welcomed us, and we learned that she was a pastor at a local church. Next door to the coffee shop where I sat was a church with a giant rainbow banner proclaimed ‘God isn’t done speaking’. Just last night, I saw an online music video by Amanda Palmer that showcased incredible women saving the world through mothering, the final image of the video being Palmer herself pulling out a breast to feed a Donald Trump looking alike, soothing him to sleep as she took his phone and Twitter feed away. And behind me, a young feminist who loved poetry and meringue was seeking out a feminist mentor to learn the history of women.

As the two women behind me packed their bags to leave, I clicked on CNN to see the latest headlines. A tweet from Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault, shaming Al Franken for being accused of sexual assault. More allegations that all opposing news is “fake news”. More allegations against Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. A massive oil spill. More Russian connections drawn toward Kushner and the Trump administration. Political revolution in Zimbabwe. A story about a homeless man posing with his wife’s corpse before dismembering her.

Literally every story about horrible men in power abusing that power and doing horrible things. I shuddered from exhaustion. Then I looked at my sister, then at the departing mentor and student, then back at the slowly flowing river, and I realized there is far more hope than the news headlines convey.

It would just make patience, trust, and a lot of strong voices working together.

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Oz and the real world

OZ

My sister’s home was built in the 1880s, she thinks. It’s a nice two story apartment with a basement. She won’t go down there because she’s afraid of bugs. The home is drafty and pretty with strange placements for light switches: the light for this room is on the opposite wall, the light for that room at the bottom of the stairs.

I didn’t get a good look a the street outside, it was too dark. But in the morning, I’ll go for a long hike around the area. I’ll see giant stone buildings, long concrete stairways up to sun decks, beautiful open yards. Everything feels old. And cold. The trees have already lost their color as fall shifts to winter, and the sun is down at 5 pm.

Everything in Massachusetts feels older, colder. It has a density to it. A history. It’s different than Utah, different than the Rocky Mountain regions I’m so familiar with.

It’s quiet outside and I’m laying on an inflated air mattress. I have three blankets on me, as well as a sheet, and I’m still cold. The air is drafty and I can’t quite get warm. I feel selfish for being cold. I feel cold and old like the place around me.

I give so little thought to the comforts in my life, and to their origins. Synthetic fibers and animal parts were harvested and crafted to make these blankets, in machines built from metal, housed in buildings made from wood and stone. We men, we have cracked the Earth open, bashed it apart. We’ve felled trees, split stones, slaughtered creatures. We’ve poisoned down and around and above. And here I lay, cold and old.

I have a right to be cold and old, I remind myself. But lately I’ve been feeling a sense of dread. I’ve read theories that the world is doomed to fail. We’ve warmed the Earth, melted the ice bergs, fracked the ground apart. We’ve ripped up rainforests, depleted the oceans, killed the bugs, and genetically engineered animals to dangerous levels while driving others to extinction. We’ve doubled our population in a generation. We are killing the planet.

I’m just one, just me. But I walk on pavement, burn gasoline, run up my electricity bill, shower in hot water, breathe out carbon dioxide. On moments like this, laying cold under blankets in a drafty stone and wood building from the 1880s, it’s moments like this that I feel responsible. I didn’t build the roads, but I walk on them. I didn’t shape the metal of my car, but I drive it. I didn’t lock the chicken in the cage, but I eat its eggs even if I don’t eat its meat.

As I child, I read the Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. He created a fairy tale world that little girls and boys might want to be a part of, and he explored the land in over a dozen books. It was a simple place, and he made it decades before Judy Garland would immortalize it in the seminal movie. There were witches, legions of nome creatures, talking animals, patchwork girls, mechanical men, and men made of tin and straw. Humans from Earth could only reach it by hot air balloon, tornado, or earthquake. There were magic belts and mirrors and books, silver shoes, secret princesses, roads of yellow brick, and a powder that granted sentience to whatever it was sprinkled on. And there were entire lands within dedicated to puns, full of talking rabbits, glass dolls, and silverware. There were adventures and intrigue, yes, but the good guys always won, and no one could die. They could be transformed, imprisoned, even chopped up into pieces, but no one could die. There were four lands, each a different color, with the Emerald City in the center, a city where everyone wore green-tinted goggles to make everything look emerald.

It filled my mind with wonder. Kids from Earth could escape there, but not many did. Dorothy did, and she took her dog and her chicken and her aunt and her uncle. Button Bright did, and the Wizard, and Zeb with his horse Jim, and the Shaggy Man. I never wanted to escape there, but I liked the idea of it being there, just knowing it was there in pages, ready for me to escape to whenever I wanted. Nine decades after Baum wrote the books, they would let my mind escape.

As I got older, I escaped to Oz less frequently, but other lands captured my mind. Fictional universes almost always seemed preferable to the one I lived in. As a teenager, comic books dominated my thoughts, and I kept my brain constantly occupied with the far away and imaginary.

With thoughts of Oz on my mind, I realized it was only a template of this Earth. There were still villains. And someone had to mine the emerald for the city and the silver for the shoes. The yellow bricks had to be crafted out of something. Baum, perhaps, was distressed at the way the world was then, and created something easier to escape to. A world where no one died.

As an adult, other fictional worlds occupy my mind, ones that feel far too frighteningly close to home. White male Christian dominated misogynistic rape cultures in Handmaid’s Tale, and zombie apocalypses where people do horrible things to each other to survive in Walking Dead, and everyone obliviously fights to the death while the world ends around them in Game of Thrones. This world feels like a horrible composite of those. I sometimes just want the innocence of Oz back.

As I drift off to sleep, I think about how different things are now from when I was a child. The world has transformed in a generation. Medical science, gay culture, technology. In 30 years, everything is different. And I feel my fingers grasp at atmosphere, hoping to clutch on to a bit of hope and strength, that maybe it might not be too late for the world, that maybe we can change things just enough to avoid the disaster we seem to be facing, that perhaps my sons might grow up in a place a bit more like Oz.

 

 

Homeless

Nun

“This is my brother, Chad!” Sheri said excitedly to her co-workers. She marched me into the call center where she worked, introducing me haphazardly to the employees who weren’t on the phone. “He just flew in from Utah!”

“Chad, it’s nice to meet you!” one of them extended her hand. “I know all about you. Sheri tells me everything. I love your blog!”

I smiled as Sheri rambled on a bit. She talks quickly, full of nervous creative energy constantly. Moments later, she showed me her “fidget” drawer, full of objects she could play with so that she could stay focused on work calls and reading assignments for college. “We have an hour before I work, so I’m gonna show him around a little bit. I think I’ll walk him over to where the homeless guy lives, and then maybe over to the monastery. Then I gave him a list of things he can do tonight while I’m working.”

Sheri gave that weird laugh she sometimes gives although nothing funny had been said. Members of my family do that sometimes, give off a laugh to perhaps fill the silence or to avoid something awkward, though the laugh makes it inevitably more awkward every time. I smiled, remembering how I’d had that habit all through my school years.

Soon we were walking down he hill outside her work at 4 pm, knowing it would get dark in another hour. Sheri asked about my flight in, I asked about her classes, and we discussed plans for the coming days of vacationing together in New England. I enjoy how comfortable I am around Sheri, instinctively. She’s familiar, the sibling closest in age, and the one I had the most in common with.

“So there is this guy who lives underneath the freeway that goes over the dike,” she explained, “and he sets up tables and sells things sometimes. He has this whole section of land to himself. He has like a sleeping area and a cooking area. He is known. People walk through there as a shortcut to the shopping center.”

I found myself smiling. Sheri and I both love random encounters, and we can enjoy most any experience. We got closer down to the encampment and Sheri gave an ‘aww, oh no’ sound. Apparently, the city was changing the local area, taking out trees and building trails. Sheri had heard about it, but hadn’t realized that it might impact her homeless friend. “That’s sad. He’s been there forever. It’s kind of like his home. I wonder where he’ll go?”

We walked by the edge of the area, looking at the concrete pillars covered in graffiti. There were flattened cardboard boxes, a pair of shoes, and a random book, but no either sign of life. “That’s sad,” she repeated, assuming he had already moved on.

We started walking away, back up the hill and across a field toward a local monastery. “Did I ever tell you about the homeless guy from right before I came out of the closet?”

“I don’t think so.”

I breathed in the cold fall New England air, and began telling my story.

“Back when I was Elders Quorum President, I used to have to attend this Bishop’s Council meeting every Sunday morning before church. It would last like 90 minutes, and we’d talk bout ward business, events, members we were worried about, stuff like that. We’d give reports on budget and numbers. Anyway, the Bishop was this older serious farmer businessman guy who was very no-nonsense. One day he noticed that a homeless man had moved into the vacant lot across the fence from the church. There was this giant pine tree, and the man had set up some chairs and boxes underneath there to stay out of the cold. The Bishop was super worried about it.”

We walked up to the monastery as I spoke, and I noticed the stark white statues of the Mother Mary and Christ outside it. Sheri interrupted me, explaining that the church was open to the public, but we had to be silent because nuns lived in the building behind it, and they had taken the vow of silence. I lowered my voice as we walked the perimeter of the grounds.

“The bishop felt we should warn the ward to watch their children around this man. He felt like he could be a danger. He had acted the same way a few months before that when a registered sex offender had moved into the ward, and he had wanted to warn the families not to interact much with him. Anyway, he counseled us to keep an eye on things and said he would get it taken care of.

“During the following week, he contacted the owner of the vacant lot by looking through the records at City Hall. He got permission to go in and chop down the tree. He had the homeless man escorted away and chopped down the tree so no one could come back. All because the man claimed a tree too close to the church.”

On the edge of the grounds, we could see through the tall hedges briefly to behind the monastery. There was a stark white graveyard back there, and one solo nun stood among the graves, arms folded as she surveyed the small plot of land.

“The irony of a church denying a homeless man refuge instead of offering him aid wasn’t lost on me. And then, a few months later, I came out. And I never heard what the bishop said, because I stopped going to church, but I wondered if he worried about me the way he had about the sex offender and the homeless man. I wondered if he had warned people to keep their children from me, to watch me close when I entered the building.”

We walked into the monastery then. It was wide and beautiful, with stained glass Biblical depictions of the life of Christ lining both sides. Two people were there, praying silently on the hard back benches. The old man looked up and waved at me when he heard me enter, then returned to his prayers. A golden shrine of some kind lay at the front of the building, and I watched two nuns leave an offering of some kind and then move off to the side, entering a beeping code into a security device to enter the door that accessed their chambers, presumably. I walked to the front and saw lit candles and a book where civilians could write down the names of those who needed prayers for healing. A note suggested a two dollar donation for the prayer and candle.

Donations for prayers. Vows of silence. Shelter trees being cut down, and the homeless removed from their non-homes. It was all suddenly a bit claustrophobic and I stepped outside, returning to that view of the stark white graveyard, contemplating my old life, and comparing it to the new.

What’s a DSM?

DSM

“Chad, how did it go with your first client?”

I leaned back in my chair, contemplative. “Well, it went well, I think. She was certainly complicated.”

Kateri smiled at me. “Complicated how?”

“Complicated like complicated! Marriages, divorces, psychiatric hospitalizations, kids, child protection, drugs, suicide attempts, mental health diagnoses, and a whole lot of depression. She’s kind of a mess.”

“Well, aren’t we all?”

I laughed at that, thinking to my own immediate family’s mess of divorces, illnesses, and bouts with mental illness. And then there was me, the closeted Mormon guy with a wife and kid at home, one who had just been fired from a job after having been accused of cheating during a prestigious exam, charges I was quickly cleared of.

Kateri was lovely. She was in her mid-40s, lean and beautiful, and intensely charismatic. She had a way of addressing really serious issues that made everyone around her feel safe, and could somehow make me laugh even when she was being direct. I didn’t realize it then but some of the lessons she was teaching me early on in my career would stick with me over the following years, and would shape my therapy practice for the next 15 years to come.

I had been hired as a new therapist for a small agency in the town where I lived in north Idaho. After all of the stress of my previous job at the Department of Children and Family Services, this job sounded incredible. Previously, I’d been making about 15 dollars an hour doing impossible work that never seemed to end. This job was offering me 25 an hour for therapy services, the major drawback being that I would only be paid when I actually saw clients, and not paid when clients didn’t show up. I would also not be paid for doing any paperwork or phone calls. It was a major career shift, but it felt empowering, and my wife was supportive of the new situation. The job would work me two days per week in the home office, and two days in a remote town about an hour’s drive north. It would take several weeks to build up a full clientele, and we’d have to tap into savings for a bit before then. And as a perk for working there, I had a brilliant new clinical supervisor, who would help me in my transition for one hour per week in the coming months.

And so after the background check, applications, interviews, paperwork, and orientation process, I was up and running as a brand new therapist. I felt excited and overwhelmed after seeing my first client.

Kateri walked me through the sections of the standard mental health assessment form. It would take me over an hour to fill it out that first time, orchestrating the client had said into careful sections, like Family, Bio/Psycho/Social history, Spirituality, Health, and Trauma history. Kateri instructed me on the importance of getting notes done while everything was fresh in my mind. Writing had always come relatively easy to me, and I quickly typed up a detailed paragraph in each section, with Kateri giving me gentle hints.

With the assessment finished, I reached the diagnostic section at the bottom. “Okay, Chad, here is where you enter your multi-axial diagnostic assessment.”

I looked over at her, confused. “I’m sorry, my what?”

“Your diagnosis in the five axis format.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

She cocked her head, confused. “You don’t know what a diagnosis is?”

I laughed. “Of course I know what a diagnosis is. But I don’t know what this multi-axial thing is.”

“Chad, it’s the format for diagnostics. It’s laid out in the DSM-IV-TR.”

I looked over on the shelf at my DSM book, the diagnostic book of mental disorders the company had provided for me. “I, um, I’ve never used a DSM.”

Kateri laughed, thinking I was joking. Then she realized I wasn’t. “How is that possible?”

My cheeks flushed red, and I wasn’t sure shy. “In college, I had to choose an education track. I chose the Children and Family track, not the Therapy track, or one of the others. I never took a diagnostics course. I’ve, um, I’ve actually never opened a DSM.”

Kateri choked. “Are you fucking kidding me? You got a Masters degree in this field without ever actually opening the diagnostic book?”

My voice was small. “Yeah?”

“God!” She made eye contact. “Look, I’m not mad at you. You’re great. But I’m appalled that the college is not requiring the diagnostics course. That’s insanity. You just did a therapy session and you don’t know how to diagnose someone. God, that’s nuts.”

I felt very small as she cancelled her next appointment so that she could stay and show me how to use the DSM. Diagnostics turned out to be extremely complicated. The DSM itself was hundreds of pages long and explored dozens upon dozens of complicated diagnostics. Over the following weeks, I read the book non-stop, constantly checking the rules and consistently frightened that I would get something wrong. Kateri was patient and kind with me, bringing me up to speed on a skill set that I should have developed long before I had the job. In short order, I was seeing new clients constantly and completing mental health assessments like clockwork, even being praised for my efficiency.

I write this from the vantage point of 2017, back on experiences I had in 2005. I’ve had a long career since then. But from time to time, I reflect on my poor preparation for a job I would spend thousands of hours in over the following years. Eventually I would teach entire college courses about how to use the DSM. And I opened every class with this very story.

the Licensing Board

FBI

“Hi, Chad, I’m Fred Hill, from the FBI.”

I shook the agent’s hand, confused. “O-kay, Mr. Hill, how can I help you?”

“Well, first, why don’t you take a seat.”

He indicated a hard-back chair across the table from him. We were in a conference room at my workplace at the Department of Children and Family Services, where I had been working for the past year in my first post-college job after getting my Masters degree in Social Work. It was an incredibly stressful job. I was living in north Idaho and being paid minimally to work in an extremely high stress environment, trying hard to get children reunited with the birth parents they had been taken from for one reason or another. I was constantly stressed out and losing sleep, and could feel my hair going prematurely grey. In my capacity as a DCFS worker, I had met with policemen, judges, attorneys, guardians, parents, teachers, therapists, medical professionals, and probation and parole officers in this room, but this was the first time I’d met an FBI agent. I automatically assumed he was here regarding one of the teenage kids I represented for the state. A few of them had a penchant for getting into major trouble from time to time.

“Chad, it has come to my attention that you recently took a licensing exam for your professional licensure with the state of Idaho, is that correct?”

I furrowed my brow in confusion. “Yes. About a month ago. I barely passed the exam. I got a 72, the passing score being 70. I’d taken the exam once previously and didn’t pass, getting a 68. ”

The idea of the exam itself still put giant knots in my stomach. It cost hundreds of dollars and was a four hour test. I’d had a 3.9 GPA in college, yet this impossible exam with its subjective and misleading questions filled me with anxiety. Not passing it meant waiting months to take it again, paying full price each time, and it directly influenced my ability to be hired. It was like the Bar exam for attorneys, except much less stressful and for social workers.

“Yes, I had those facts already.” The agent consulted some notes, then looked up. “It appears you are being charged with potentially undermining the integrity of the exam itself. Pardon me, not charged. Accused.”

My heart started thudding. “Accused of undermining–I’m sorry, what?”

“It seems you might have cheated to pass the test.” His eyes were on mine, searching. Only later would I realize that he was watching closely for my reaction to his accusation, seeing if I looked guilty or not.

I was flabbergasted. “What are you talking about? I barely passed it!”

The agent explained that there were allegations by the testing center that I had compromised sensitive testing materials. The exam had been held by an independent testing center in Spokane, Washington, at the local community college. I had had to sign up weeks in advance. On the day of the test, I’d arrived early, checked in all of my things, and been shown into the testing room where it was just me and a computer, with four hours to answer the multiple choice questions. During the test, I was given two sheets of scratch paper and a pen, and those were the only tools I was allowed to use. I’d been allowed one ten minute break during the test. During the long, anxiety-ridden test, I had made random notes of words and numbers on the scratch paper, and during the break, I’d placed those random scribblings in my pocket while I’d gone to the restroom. I’d been out of the room approximately seven minutes.

“Upon reviewing the video footage of your test, we noticed that you removed the papers from the room. I was brought in to look at the results and determine if you did or did not cheat. I represent the testing agency in this region.”

My head was pounding with stress and confusion. “Wait, my random scribbles on a page–in the bathroom–how would I have cheated?”

He shrugged. “Maybe you showed the notes to a friend. Maybe you had a fax machine or a cell phone ready.”

“That’s ridiculous! Every exam has randomly assigned questions in a random order! How would I have possibly cheated! What good would those scribblings do anyone?”

“Mr. Anderson, it was against the rules to remove those papers from the room itself.”

“I just went to the bathroom!”

“Yet you removed those papers. Did you or did you not know it was against the rules?”

“I–sure, I guess so. But I wasn’t thinking about that then. I had to pee, and I was full of anxiety. How would I have helped anyone cheat?”

The agent’s voice lowered and he asked me several more questions. He told me he would need a written statement from me, and stated that I might wish to consult with an attorney first. I told him that one was absolutely unnecessary, and filled out a lengthy statement right then. Weeks later, the agent told me that my candor and unwavering statements confirmed to him that I wasn’t suspicious and helped him believe my story that nothing illegal had happened. I’d made a mistake in following rules, but that he believed it was accidental.

Two weeks after his visit, I lost my job. It was illegal for the state to keep me employed without a license. Tw months after that, the state board of social workers met to review my case and, determining I had done nothing wrong, finally issued my professional license. Ultimately, this series of events left me briefly unemployed, and then finally hired by a different agency as a therapist, an entirely different career track than the one I had been on, and one that I found paid better and was intensely less stressful.

That was 2005. It’s now 2017, and I’ve been operating as a fully licensed professional for over 12 years. As part of my professional responsibilities, I supervise a group of recently graduated social workers who are preparing to take their licensing exams. At that time in my life, that was the scariest thing that had ever happened to me. Now, this story gives me one hell of a cautionary tale to tell.

Pot and Coffee

pot

The morning was cold and rainy in Missoula, Montana, and rather than drive somewhere, I was in the mood to walk. There was a heaviness in the atmosphere, a wet weight that clung to the trees and showed up as wisps of clouds and fog across the sky. Against the dense green backdrop of pine trees and rolling hills, and over the river, the fog rolled and made everything just a bit magical.

My head felt full as I walked along the railroad tracks. The night before, the film crew and I had conducted a particularly heavy interview for our pending documentary, and I was still processing all the new information, the tragedy and pain of it all. The storyteller side of me was on fire, but the therapist side felt disheartened and exhausted. So, while the two sides battled it out, I walked.

After a time, I stepped up onto a road and noticed a small shop in an old brick building advertising coffee with a paper sign. It had the word ‘green’ in the title, but I didn’t realize what that meant until I stepped inside and smelled the pot.

The door opened with a small ‘ding’, a bell attached to the door announcing my entrance. The room was sparse, with a few black leather couches and some patio furniture, tables and chairs arranged against wooden walls and floors. It was an old building with a history, I could sense that much. On the back half of the room were lit up counters showing off baked goods, all of them edible pot concoctions, like snickerdoodles, lollipops, cinnamon rolls, and cookies, each wrapped individually or in bulk, each with a price listing next to it.

“Hey, welcome, man, how are you?” A skinny, good-looking white guy was behind the counter on a stool, shuffling through some business cards, probably looking for a phone number. He was likely in his late 20s and he had a killer smile. “I’m Kyle. How can I help you?”

I walked over to the counter. The shop was completely empty except for the two of us. “I saw your sign for coffee. It’s cold, sounded nice.”

“Right! Coffee!” Kyle stood up quickly and enthusiastically, knocking his stool back a bit. He caught it with a hand and set it down with a little flair, like he’d just done a magic trick, then he laughed. “Yeah, man, I got a fresh pot in the back. Ill bring it right out. Take a seat.”

I found a seat at one of the patio tables, and Kyle brought out a styrofoam cup of coffee. It was likely something from a K-Cup machine in the back. “Coffee’s free, man. Just glad to have the company. Make yourself at home!” He got me the Wifi code and I sat down to blog as we chatted idly over the next few minutes.

Kyle explained that he’d grown up in Missoula and he loved it here. He was putting himself through the local college, working at the pot/coffee shop during the day and as an Uber driver at night. We laughed about the fact that the shop had very little in the way of coffee. Kyle had a local girlfriend and talked about his philosophies of just getting through life by being a good person. As we chatted, old Metallica songs from the 90s played on the overhead speakers.

Soon the bell dinged again and Kyle rushed out of his seat again to rush to the door. “Evelyn, welcome, lady! How’s your rainy day?” He held the door open as a woman in her mid-60s entered. Her hair was gray and plastered against her head. Her face was angular and she wore a thick and baggy brown coat. She was hunched over, clearly in pain, and she had a cane supporting her weight. She slowly made her way into the store.

“Oh, Kyle, I’m well, thank you, dear. Do you have my usual order ready? My arthritis is something terrible in this weather.”

“I do, yes, ma’am. Enough to get you through the week.”

“You’re a lifesaver. My grandchildren are coming over this weekend.”

I watched casually as Kyle brought out an order from behind the counter, seven individually wrapped baked goods that Evelyn would presumably use daily to help keep her pain levels manageable. I wanted to ask her how long she had been using pot, and if she’d ever tried prescription painkillers in the past. As a therapist, I had known so many clients over the years who had struggled with chronic pain issues. From cerebral palsy, or multiple sclerosis, or old injuries, or chronic migraines, or recovery from a surgery. I thought of them self-medicating with alcohol or addictive medications that had harsh side effects. Now here she was, in a state that had approved medical marijuana use, picking up an order of cookies that would keep her pain levels down and keep her relaxed while allowing her to be with her family and grandchildren, not impaired and not constantly suffering.

Evelyn left, after sipping on some free coffee from Kyle, and another man came in, Bill, him talking about his anxiety after a car accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury, and after that, Sam, a younger man who struggled with severe headaches. After that, there was a lull, and Kyle came back by to chat.

“So you just see customers every day who come in for their orders?”

“Yeah, man, absolutely. These are good people. They just have to get the doctor to approve their cards, then they have the right to pick up their alloted order. I mean, before it was legal here, they would just do it anyway, but they could get in trouble for it. Now it’s legal and it’s regulated.”

I only stayed an hour, collecting my thoughts on paper and sipping my free coffee. Soon, I had my bag back over my shoulders and my coat zipped up. I offered Kyle a hearty handshake before stepping back out into the drizzle, the fog, and the green, sorting through my thoughts. My time in Missoula was at an end, and somehow this seemed the perfect way to go. The two different sides of me, the storyteller and the helper, had stopped arguing with each other, finding kinship in a man who helped others by baking cookies and legally dealing drugs.

And so with the taste of cheap coffee in my mouth, the scent of marijuana on my clothes, and my head full of things to get done, I stepped back on the railroad tracks to walk toward home.

just another mass shooting…

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Yesterday, I got word about another mass shooting. This one, in a Christian church. In a small unincorporated township in rural Texas. Eight members of the same family died. The pastor and his wife were on vacation, and their 14 year old daughter was killed. A one year old child is among the victims. A pregnant mother and three of her children are among the victims. The grandmother of the killer’s wife is among the victims. The shooter was an angry white man with a history of domestic violence and mental illness, with military training and mysterious motives.

It wasn’t the first shooting this month. It wasn’t the first shooting with victims in the dozens in the past few months. It wasn’t the first shooting in a church. It wasn’t the first murder of children. It was just… another shooting. And somehow, this time, that’s all that I’m able to process.

Weeks ago, when that man opened fire on the country concert in Las Vegas, I spent three days obsessively searching for information about the victims, wanting to honor them. I felt duty bound to remember them, and to not click on a single headline about the killer. I posted over 50 photos with synopses about their lives, and I took detailed notes. I even wrote a blog about holding vigil about them.

But this time, I’m numb. Again. (Still?) Vegas hit me more personally. It’s closer to home. It’s a place I have spent lots of time in, on the streets of. Virginia Tech, years ago, and Columbine before that, they hurt be deeply. Though they were places I’d never been, they are academic environments, a college and a high school, and I know the culture there. Sandy Hook hurt me more. As a father, the idea of waiting helplessly there to see if my child is among the living, the images of artwork and bulletin boards and school lunch menus and tiny desks, the idea of that becoming a place that is no longer safe, it hurt me on a primal level.

And the Pulse shootings. They haunted me for weeks. I’ve been in so many clubs in so many cities, there for a relaxing drink, some music, and some conversation and dancing, or entertainment. The idea of someone with that much hate.

I just, I’m numb. Today, I’m out of outrage. I’m out of fear. I’m out of pain. I’m out of hurt. I’m out of anger. I eek clicking back on the news website to see an update, and then not clicking on it. I don’t want to feel it again.

I don’t want to jump on social media and see the Conservative/Liberal debate over gun control laws (we need them!) and how the media is biased toward whites by calling them misunderstood and mentally ill while railing against people of color by calling for immigration bans. I don’t want to read posts about the corruption of America. I don’t want to see the statistics of how gun violence is increasing. I don’t want to see the charts with pink and blue and red lines that grow up and up and up. I don’t want to talk to relatives about how humans have always been bloody and vile, with their atomic bombs and concentration camps and war machines, and how assault rifles and rented trucks and car bombs are just the latest worries of our generation, not the most corrupt just the most current. I don’t want to realize that social media and news outlets will be outraged and titillated by this for about 72 hours, until the next horrible news drops.

I don’t want to explain to my children why there are people in the world who might hurt them, who might be so full of anger that they went to inflict as much pain on them and the world as possible before they remove themselves from it. I don’t know how to tell them to be afraid enough, nor do I want them to be afraid. I don’t want them to walk around in perpetual fear that someone could speed at them with a car or enter their school with a gun.

Yesterday afternoon, I went to hear a choir sing. In Latin. About death and remembrance. I sat on a hard wooden bench. There were easily 75 people in the room. As a male baritone sang words that I didn’t understand, his beautiful voice hit my heart, and I wondered what would happen if that man entered this room. Would there be warning? Who would be hit first? Where were the exits? Would I scream, fall to the floor, play dead, shield my loved ones, rush toward the exit, try to disarm him? Would my loved ones be among the dead? After the service, I crossed a crosswalk and I realized how swift it would be if a car careened toward me, trying to take out civilians.

I don’t know how to feel these feelings. I do grief for a living, yet I can’t process my own. I’m desensitized. I’m exhausted. I’m wounded and it can’t stop bleeding. Words like ‘massacre’ and ‘bloodbath’ and ‘terrorist’ and ‘mass casualties’ leave my fingertips and my lips far too frequently now.

And so, I’ll do what all humans do, what I would tell others to do, what I am growing accustomed to doing myself. I survive. I wake up and I make my coffee. I read my book. I see my clients. I process through how I’m feeling. I walk and feel the cool air and the warm sun. I exercise. I buy a T-shirt. I open my computer and I blog about being numb. And soon, another day has passed, and I’m still here, and I keep finding ways to fight for a world that I refuse to lose hope in.

That’s what the families of the victims have to do. And the law enforcement officers who responded. And even the loved ones of the killers themselves. And if they can get up, so can I. I’ll fight for a better world for me, and for my sons.

 

Sexual Predators

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“Am I a sexual predator? Are there people out there who think I’ve sexually harassed them?” and “Have I felt sexually harassed by others? Who, when, and why?”

I found myself wondering those questions over breakfast this morning, after a late night conversation with the boyfriend about these very topics. Lately, the news has been inundated with stories of sexual harassments and sexual assaults by celebrities and people in power. Social media has been full of outrage at Kevin Spacey, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and dozens more, all of them men who used power and manipulation to harm women (or in some cases men), or who excused their predatory behavior with “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing.”

But that leads me to think back to my own life and experiences, asking two questions internally. Are there times when I have felt sexually harassed, and are there times when others have felt sexually harassed by me?

Are there times when I have used “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing” as an excuse, and are there times when I’ve used those same excuses to explain away my feelings at the hands of others?

This is actually a really painful space to think upon. As a gay man, I’ve had plenty of evenings in gay clubs with loud music and drinks, where I’ve danced with a partner, and that can easily turn into kissing and groping. I’ve been approached by guys in a similar manner. And there is constantly either verbal or non-verbal consent or refusal happening. If someone grabs me in a club and I liked it, I might grab them back, feel flattered, or express mutual interest. If someone grabs me in a club and I didn’t like it, I might move away, give them eye contact to indicate I’m not interested., or feel disgusted or furious. Even more complex, if I flirt and someone doesn’t flirt back, I might feel angry, confused, or rejected, and they might feel things when I don’t flirt back. These basic encounters have sometimes left me feeling like a predator or like a victim, they just feel like part of the process.

But I can also recall times when guys have aggressively grabbed me in clubs. Strangers who have groped me while I walked by, or who have tried sticking their hands down my pants or unzipping my pants, times when guys from behind me have reached up between my legs from behind and grabbed hard. Those times have made me angry, downright furious, and I’ve forcefully removed hands and pushed guys away, giving very direct ‘NO’s with my voice or my eyes. Consent was much more apparent here. (And I’m never that aggressive in my own flirting).

That same feeling of discomfort has existed within me during more subtle encounters, however. I’ve felt anxious and angry at men who give too much eye contact or who aggressively follow me or pursue me at a party or a park. I’ve grown outraged with people who text too much or too aggressively, or who send unsolicited naked photos, or who brag publicly or privately with friends about sexual experiences they have had with me. These encounters have left me feeling unsettled and unsafe at times.

However, examples from both of the previous paragraphs have also been completely okay at times as well. I’ve had guys aggressively grab me and I felt flattered, men have pursued me or sent naked photos and I’ve liked it, guys have bragged about me and I felt happy about it.

It seems to come down to timing, trust levels, readiness, and level of attraction. And it’s difficult to know what will happen or how I will feel.

Self-inventory then ensues, and I begin to wonder about the times I’ve grabbed guys or have flirted too much or have followed a guy with my eyes in a coffee shop or I’ve complimented too easily. There are very likely people who have felt like I’m being predatory and who have felt unsafe, upset, or harassed by me. And that makes me feel worried and terrible.

Isolated encounters almost confuse me more. I think back to a time when I went on a weekend trip with a group of friends. We were in the Hot Springs together, and one of the guys got very handsy under the water, with his partner standing nearby. At the time, I found it enticing, and it went on for a while. It was only later that it bothered me. I never said no and I enjoyed the encounter, yet now when I look back I felt uncomfortable and maybe even a little harassed.

I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve appreciated it, and I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve been annoyed, sometimes avoiding them or even blocking them on social media because of it. I’ve had massage therapists get a little bit sexual and sometimes I’ve liked it and sometimes I’ve given a firm no and stayed furious about it. I’ve had clients flirt with me, and sometimes I’ve gotten angry and declared clear boundaries, and other times I’ve kind of enjoyed it and perhaps even subtly flirted back.

I once sat next to a friend during a movie, among a group of friends. During the film, I moved subtly closer until our legs were touching, then I moved my hand a bit closer to hopefully touch his. He responded by getting up and moving away, sitting on the floor, and later he’d told me that made him very uncomfortable. That had been hard to hear, but I respected that, and we are still good friends. I was happy he spoke up, and I was willing to listen.

Consent can be a bit confusing, honestly. And rather than saving my outrage for men in government and Hollywood who I have never met, who have preyed upon others, I’m taking the opportunity to do a bit of self-inventory. There are times when flirtations are just fun. And there are times when flirtations have caused me to feel unsafe and harassed. And there are times when flirtations have caused others to feel like I am harassing them.

I’m not sure what to take from all of these thoughts except to realize that asking is always better than assuming, that consent should be a part of every conversation and flirtation, and that I never like feeling unsafe, and that I don’t ever want anyone feeling unsafe around me.

Harassment and predatory behavior can show up in any space, through unwelcome compliments, eye contact, energy, or gestures. It can show up at work, in friend circles, and in bars. But it’s going to require us all taking stock of our encounters, apologizing when we need to apologize (without making excuses), communicating consent much more quickly, and setting clear boundaries when we need to. We are all sexual beings in our own rights, who experience attractions to others. But someone feeling like they have been marginalized or victimized, including myself, is never acceptable.

We live in a predatory community, and the way men treat men and especially how they treat women should never be focused on excuse-making and feeling rejected, but instead on conversations and consent. But it is very complex when we apply it ourselves. We all need to be using our voices and our ears much more. No one wants to be harassed, and no one wants to feel like they’ve harassed others.

Heaven

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“Hey, monkeys, I heard your great-grandpa died. How are you feeling about that?”

My sons, now J (age 9) and and A (age 6), thought about it briefly.

A set down the toy crocodile he’d been playing with. “I’m sad. But he was really old, like 85, so I guess it’s okay.”

J didn’t look up from the pad of paper where he was drawing. “I’m just glad he is with great-grandma in Heaven now.”

Later that evening, I gave thought to Heaven itself. Growing up, I’d thought of it as some sort of city in the clouds with golden gates and marble spires, where everyone was white with white hair and flowing robes. For most people, Heaven was a simple construct, a nice cloudy place for the dead to keep existing and to relax forever.

But I’d been raised Mormon, a religion that taught that all of mankind existed as spirits before coming to Earth, and that in Heaven, after the judgment, those who were worthy would get to live forever in their resurrected bodies. But there also some kind of in between life, which Mormons called Spirit World, where the good and evil spirits were divided into paradise and prison before the final judgment. Then, after the judgment, there were various kingdoms where humans would get to live depending on their worthiness, and men could only aim for the very highest through obedience to complicated rules. Married heterosexual couples who were worthy would stay married and would be bonded to their children and their parents, and on and on forward and backward, creating a family chain from beginning to end. The unworthy were severed from these bonds, yet they still had their own version of the afterlife, just a little less nice, a shack instead of a mansion, or a mansion instead of a planet. In the end, the most worthy would get to live on Earth again, which would be made paradise and its own version of Heaven.

All of that, with afterlife and varying levels of worth and reward, suddenly made Heaven very complicated. And that was before introducing the concept of Hell.

My children, in their short lives, have already seen more death than I had in my childhood. By 9, I didn’t really know anyone who died, not personally, until I was a teenager, but they have lost five of their great grandparents (the other three having died before their births). Death, to them, is something that happens to the old, as a natural part of existence. They don’t seem overly impacted, sad, or distressed, they just know that someone who was a parent to their grandparents is now gone on. To them, Heaven is still simple, a place to rest and be happy.

I’m not sure what Heaven is to me now. As a therapist, I often have spiritual discussions with my clients, helping them discover their own truths and sort out the complexities of their religious upbringings in their own lives. When asked to give a label to my own belief structure, I often tell people that I’m a “spiritual atheist” and that, while I don’t believe in God or religion, that I do believe in the human spirit and its capacity for progress and change, for peace and purpose. And while I don’t believe in cloud cities and white flowing robes anymore than I do in winged beings with harps, I also don’t believe in a great void of blackness where souls just slip away into oblivion.

It’s hard for me to sort out thoughts on Heaven without being influenced by my upbringing, where eternal rest was equated directly to obedience within a narrow set of rules. “Do as you are told, and you get to have the best afterlife” no longer sits well with me. And there are billions and billions of human souls who have come before me. In a world where millions have been killed in concentration camps or by atomic bombs and were told that they deserved it because of their heritage, where millions spent their lifetimes in the bonds of slavery and were told that they deserved it because of their skin color, or where millions were ravaged by AIDS and told that they deserved it for their lifestyle choices… what is the afterlife for them? Is it a place that white Christians have determined is primarily set up for white Christians? I can’t reconcile those untold millions into the Heaven I was raised to believe in, and so I reject that concept completely.

If my children were asking me about Heaven, I wouldn’t list any sort of merit-based system. I wouldn’t discuss a premortal existence, or God, or fire and brimstone, or higher or lower degrees. I would instead describe the very images they are likely to draw. A place where we are happy and love the people we love. And there can be clouds and trees and peace, human development in healthy relationships, free of war and pain. That’s the place I want them picturing their great-grandparents.

An uncomplicated space of love and health where every voice is heard and every person is loved.

In fact, maybe I won’t ask them to draw it, and maybe I won’t draw it for them. Maybe we can draw it together.

All your Moose-Bucks

“Wait, why Saskatoon?”

Every Canadian who learned who were on vacation from America asked us this question with shock, in a way that showed that they loved their city but they wouldn’t understand what would bring an American there. (I think it would be like a person from Ogden, Utah wondering why a man from Australia had chosen that particularly city for vacation, it just didn’t compute.)

Even Sonja, the kind Canadian woman who worked the WestJet check-in counter at the Saskatoon Airport, wondered why. “What did you even find to do here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

We’d done lots of things. Live music, beers, nightclubs, art galleries, live theater, long drives through the lush Saskatchewan farmland, historical exploration in small resort towns, long walks and talks, exploration of local neighborhoods and universities, coffee shops, and window shopping. It was difficult to explain that we’d chosen it to see a different side of life in a different place, somewhere far away but somehow just close enough to home. And in Canada, familiar to the culture of the United States but just one parallel universe away, with customs and currency just one degree off from the familiar. A place where people spoke the same, but the vowels were just a bit longer, giving an almost Irish lilt to the accents. (Example, instead of home, they say hohme, the oh just a bit longer.)

Sonja understood. “It sounds like you just chose a city with a great and unique name. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.”

I gave her a wide smile back. “The best name. And a place I’ll probably never make it back to.”

Adapting to the culture here had been mostly easy, with just a few rare exceptions. Without WiFi accessible on the phone, due to international data plans, we’d been left to use an ancient GPS in our rental car to get us places, and in at least one case it directed us to a spot around 160 kilometers away from where we’d needed to be, keeping us in the car an extra 2 hours to get back to where we needed to be. (But we’d seen an awful lot of wheat fields, flat horizons, and farm houses along the way, even stopping for some Rum Raisin ice cream at a random business built on a field, and served by a lovely woman with terrible teeth).

One day, we’d visited Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to take some old tours of the city’s tunnels, built back in the 1920s and 30s, one about Al Capone’s alleged boot-legging business and one about the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants for decades during the construction of the local railroads and the years afterwards. The tours had been run by local actors, all short and squat, who mostly seemed bored with their jobs as they recounted fascinating history in a character voice. Yet parking in Moose Jaw had been impossible. Most places in the province had allowed us to use credit or debit cards to pay for parking, but this city only had old-fashioned parking meters, and we had to stop into several places to first get Canadian dollars, then to make change for Canadian quarters. (Now I have a collection of Canadian coins and bills, what seems like play money with pictures of British royalty on it, in my wallet, and I’m not sure what I’ll do with it).

We’d gone to the two local gay clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, to see what the local culture was like. One Friday, at Diva’s, we had been the only ones at the bar, and finally left at 11:30, baffled. But on Saturday, at Pink, the bar had been packed with men and women in flannel, all with thick bushy hair, some even in mullets, wearing styles that were reminiscent of the mid-1990s in Idaho and Utah: backwards ball caps, cigarettes tucked behind ears, baggy jeans, and hoodies over untucked flannel shirts.

We’d seen a local play, a first viewing of a production written by a local gay man, one that featured gay parents struggling to raise a son with schizophrenia all while getting in touch with their own roots. It had been moving and wonderful.

We’d watched a local band, the Royal Foundry, a husband-and-wife pop/folk duo whose songs are newly gracing radio stations across Canada, give an incredible concert for a group of 30 people in a small jazz club. The singers’ parents and grandparents had been in attendance, and we’d clapped and tapped our feet to their incredible energy and music, sipping on Old Fashioned drinks and continually commenting on how amazing the band was.

On Sunday, I’d taken hours to walk through the rain through the local University of Saskatchewan, weaving in and out of buildings, watching students study and write in quiet corners of the library and classroom buildings. I read the placards about local Nobel Peace Prize winners, and had admired the “collegiate gothic” style of the buildings. It had been beautiful, and filled me with a longing for my academic days.

We’d been picked up and dropped off by a Vietnamese immigrant, whose car we had rented for the week through a phone app. Nguyen, as he’d asked to be called, talked about this Christian family in Viet Nam, black-listed in their home town for being Catholic. His parents had worked for years to afford a Western education for their son, and now he was here working on a PhD in business, in his sixth year of school. He discussed his “maybe girlfriend” who lived hundreds of kilometers away, a girl he was interested in because he had met her at a college Bible camp years before.

So why Saskatoon? For all of those reasons. These random encounters. The music and art and theater, the rain, the buildings, the farmland and history, the never-ending niceness of the locals, and the wonder that we’d had this weekend to explore and be parts of these things.

When we first landed, my best friend Tyler and I had laughed that we didn’t understand local currency, and I’d joked that they must use Moose-Bucks.

Now that we were leaving, Tyler asked if ‘d wade the experiences in, if I wished we had gone somewhere different instead.

“I wouldn’t trade them,” I said with conviction. “Not for all my Moose-Bucks.”

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