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Fairy Tale Fears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NYPD Adventure

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“So when I get there, are you going to demand money for my phone?” Cooper stared off into space, negotiating with the man who had robbed him. I heard the man’s voice come back through my cell phone.

“That was the wrong question to ask me, son. Now you have thirty minutes to get here or I’ll just sell your phone. Meet me at the Bank of America.”

“At least tell me what you look like!”

“You don’t need to know that either.”

Cooper got off the phone quickly and looked at me, not knowing what to do.

We were sitting at a Starbucks in the heart of midtown New York City, just blocks away from the United Nations, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and the New York Public Library, all iconic and famous buildings.

My sister Sheri and I, there on vacation, had just left the United Nations after a wonderful tour through the massive and reverent facility, and Cooper had messaged me, saying his phone and wallet had been stolen at the coffee shop. He was in town auditioning, preparing for a big move to the city as an actor a few months down the line, and we had talked about meeting up while we were both in the same place. He and I had been on exactly one date a few years ago, and had stayed friends, but he had moved to Los Angeles now and was working as an actor, while I was still in Utah working and raising my sons. He had been working on his laptop, had bent down to get something out of his backpack, and had sat back up to find his phone missing, and with it the attached case that contained his cash, credit cards, and identification.

Before Sheri and I arrived at Starbucks, Cooper had opened his laptop and accessed an IPhone tracker app. By entering his number and password, he was able to see the location of the phone through the city, and it was several miles away. Cooper had entered a phone number of a friend into the phone, which would then allow the robber to call that number only. Cooper could also push a button that would make the phone ‘ding’ loudly, even if it was on silent mode. The only way to quiet it would be to shut it off, and so far the man hadn’t done that. So once we arrived at Starbucks, Cooper changed the number in the tracker to my number, and the robber had called it.

“What did he sound like? Do you know what he might look like?”

Cooper grimaced. “I don’t want to sound racist, but he sounded like an older black man. I know that type of voice. And I think I remember a guy like that here. He was an older guy, blue shirt, with a cap on his head.”

I laughed, lightening the moment a bit. “You aren’t racist. If I said it, it might sound racist, I’m the white Utah kid. But you’re the black Utah kid, so saying another man sounds black is less racist.” We both chuckled a bit.

“Okay, listen,” I told him, leaning in over the table. “This is clearly some kind of scam. When I was 21, I was in Philadelphia, and a guy tried engaging me in conversation on the street. When I slowed down, he signaled his buddies and suddenly I was surrounded by men who mugged me. I ended up unconscious as they ran off. So this guy clearly has some sort of plan. This is something he has done before. You can’t go up there, and even if we had a car, there is no way you could make it in thirty minutes. Maybe you call 911 instead.”

And so Cooper called 911. “What’s my emergency?”  he said when they answered, and he explained the whole situation, how he could track the man with the phone, and how the man wanted him to show up by himself to a bank. The unsympathetic operator told Cooper to head up there to the bank on his own and see if the man was there, and then to call the police and they would arrive. Except it would likely take the police over an hour to arrive. The call ended abruptly.

We strategized briefly. Cooper had a plane to catch the next morning. He absolutely couldn’t go meet a criminal with a credit card at his bank. A call to the airlines confirmed he could still board his plane if he had a police report that showed his ID was missing, so he could cancel his credit cards, get a new phone, and get the police report.

On our walk to the police station, the man called back and I found myself laughing out loud as Cooper channeled his inner black girl in his responses, his walk more confident, his gestures more dramatic.

“Okay, listen, nigger, there is no way on God’s green Earth that I am coming up to you in a place I don’t know when you won’t describe yourself. No! Just leave my cell phone with a bank teller then! What’s that? Oh, you want me there in person so that you can see the look on my face when you hand it to me! No! I’m not a fool! What do you take me for! Fine, then sell my phone! The screen is cracked and the battery is almost dead, and I have the charger, but I bet you can get 20 bucks for it! Go ahead! Go right ahead!”

The man hung up, and although we tried calling several more times, he didn’t answer again. But he didn’t turn the phone off either. Cooper, strangely, was a bit elated. He talked about having the best time with this, and how this was an epic New York adventure. We kept laughing as we walked into the local police station precinct of the NYPD, an older tomb-like building with poor lighting inside and a set of chairs in front of the reporting desk. We saw several policemen walking around, all men, a multi-ethnic team of professionals of all ages.

Cooper explained the story to the dispatch officer, who called in his supervisor, who called in his supervisor, who called in his supervisor. We showed them Sheri’s phone, which now had the IPhone tracker downloaded on it, and we could see the man had moved several miles again to Central Park. We tried calling him again with the police there, but he wasn’t answering. And suddenly, one of the men spoke up.

“Well, let’s get an undercover car, and let’s go get him.”

And before I could blink, Sheri, Cooper, and I were piled into the back of an unmarked police car. In the front sat Sergeant Morales, a thin, handsome Hispanic cop with a no-nonsense attitude, and Officer Francis, a linebacker-sized Caucasian man with a tremendous sense of humor. Both men had huge hearts and were clearly very passionate about their jobs.

The car began whizzing in and out of traffic down Fifth Avenue toward Central Park, and I had to crack a window to keep from getting nauseous. I was fatigued, and hungry, and dehydrated. The officers triggered the siren to clear traffic when necessary and ran several red lights.

As we drove, Sheri, ever the comedian, quipped, “Cooper, what if the guy just thought you were hot? What if he stole your phone to get your attention?”

Cooper, all smiles, laughed back. “That would be the most twisted and elaborate story of all time. Maybe I’ll meet my future husband now!”

Sheri kept going. “What if the cops are in on it? Are you guys just actors leading Cooper to an epic date?”

Officer Francis looked back seriously. “Yup. Surprise!”

And Sergeant Morales, more serious, still chuckled. “Right. Cause we could get an unmarked cop car and break traffic laws for that.”

Cooper and I exchanged an ‘is-this-really-happening’ look and soon we were near Central Park on a busy intersection, right on top of the blipping dot on the tracker.

“Okay,” Officer Francis explained. “Chad and Cooper get out and walk down the road. Push the little button that makes the phone ding. I’ll hang out behind you and as soon as you point him out, I’ll grab the guy.”

We walked up and down the block, watching for a man that met Cooper’s description. He pushed the button, but we heard no pings. My heart was pounding and my senses on hyper-alert. At the end of the city block, the tracker suddenly showed the man another 8 blocks away. We all piled back in the car, wondering if he was on the subway or a bike or a city bus. Two more times, we walked the busy streets filled with pedestrians, and each time he would be blocks farther away. We kept calling and pinging the phone, but the man never answered.

Finally, we identified the bus he was on. And so the NYPD activated their siren and pulled the bus over. On Fifth Avenue. In New York City. Blocking traffic. And my friend, my sister, two cops, and me walked on to the semi-crowded bus. To catch a criminal. Who had stolen a cell phone. My head was spinning.

As we got on the bus, an older woman rushed off. “I want nothing to do with the cops!” she exclaimed, basically fleeing.

Sitting right there at the front of the bus was an elderly black man with a walker. He was wearing thick black glasses, a blue ballcap, a grey sweater over a plaid shirt, and blue pants. Cooper was off the bus pushing the ‘ping’ button and I heard it going off in his pocket. The man’s walker was draped in clothing and bags.

“Is there something going on, officers?” the man asked. They explained they were looking for a stolen cell phone and the man reached into his sweater pocket and pulled it out. “You mean this one? I was at a Starbucks a few hours ago and I found it sitting in a bathroom. I have been trying to talk to the kid to give it back, but he didn’t want to, so I kept it here in my pocket. I’m just on the bus, headed down to K-Mart to buy me some socks.”

The police pulled the man off the bus and he took a seat on his walker on the sidewalk as the officers got his identification. His name was George and he was 72. He had no criminal record except for a speeding ticket back in the 1970s.

George kept talking, professing pure innocence at what he had done. He seemed to mostly be dialoguing for himself, and now, days later, I’m not sure if he was a master criminal with a very convincing cover story that he has used over and over, or a slightly senile old man who was purely innocent. I found myself questioning him as he spoke, as did Cooper, as did the officers, but his story didn’t change.

“Look, I found the cell phone in the bathroom. I didn’t realize it had your ID and credit cards in it. Look, nothing is missing, see? I had no idea the police could track a phone like that! Wow, how did you guys even find me? And on a bus! Anyway, I didn’t steal it. I didn’t give the phone to someone at Starbucks or see if anyone there had lost it because I didn’t want anyone to steal it. You say you left it on a table? No way, I found it in the bathroom. So I just put it in my pocket. I was trying to give it back to you, wasn’t I? I didn’t ask for no reward. Why didn’t I describe myself? Because I wanted you to be surprised! Why didn’t I just leave the phone with a bank teller? Well, because, I wanted to see the smile on your face when you got it back! That would have been my reward! Why did I threaten to sell the phone? Well, what else was I going to do with it! Why was I miles away at a bank? Well, because I had to go up that way for some glasses! That was just a good place to meet you!”

And in the most telling moment of the entire conversation, the man turned to Cooper and said, “Look, did I ask you for any money for your phone?”

And Cooper quipped back, “No. But I had to get the cops to chase your bus downtown to grab it.”

Officer Francis explained that they definitely had enough evidence to arrest the man, but that he rather believed the man was a bit senile and didn’t mean to steal it. He said it would be the weirdest arrest he had ever made, taking the man in his walker back to the station for booking. He explained that since there were credit cards with the phone, that George would be charged with a felony. And Cooper, magnanimously, decided not to press charges.

Before the police gave us a ride back to the station, before we firmly shook their hands and sincerely thanked them for their amazing service, before we all went about our days with giant smiles and spinning heads, before I could ruminate on what an insane adventure that had been, before George got back on the next bus to go on and buy his socks (and maybe to steal another phone)… before all that, I made one suggestion.

“Hey, Cooper, you and George want to get your photo taken?”

And so Cooper held up his phone and stood next to George, who stood up off his walker and put his arm around Cooper. They both smiled and held up their thumbs as I snapped the shot. People passed behind them, texting, oblivious.

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Hump day

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A Few of My Favorite Things

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I love tree branch picture frames, when the view from my back is a dusky sky surrounded by jagged leafy edges.

I love the empty space in my arms on nights with no kids, where I can almost feel them cuddling into me, invisible heads nestled into the spot between my chin and my shoulders, a pellucid invisible hand on my cheek.

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I love the one hundred different colors the leaves think to turn themselves as the heat of summer retires into shorter days and longer, colder nights.

I love words that arrest my brain with sound and rhyme, poetry and deeper meaning. Fervor. Cadence. Alacrity. Pulchritude. Profundity. Lackluster. Brouhaha. Cacophony. Conundrum. Detriment.

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I love the shining crystals that stand on freshly fallen snow, undisturbed by the ugliness of footprints and human destruction.

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I love the helpless peeping sounds ducklings make as they boldly forage across the pond.

I love the deeply textured and billowed skyscrapers, canyons, valleys, and cities of clouds I only see from airplane windows.

I love the all-encompassing warmth in my heart when I hear my children call out to me in the mornings, the feelings of genuineness, unworthiness, love, patience, dedication, strength, and fear they bring.

I love savory salty crunches.

I love that two people could have ten thousand children, and each one would be a new combination, a unique and unpredictable miracle of life.

I love sunlight on my skin through the window, and how it can warm my whole body.

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I love the bizarre combination of peanut butter spread on toast and dipped in orange juice, the sweet, soggy, earthy flavor that coats my tongue with each bite.

I love the deep muscle ache that sets in the day after a great workout.

I love taking the last product out of the box, the sense of finality and accomplishment in disposing of the container, and the fresh feeling of birth and newness of replacing it with a new package.

I love seeing a sight, be it a squirrel, a spoonful of soup, or a sad sequined stranger, and inherently injecting emotion, drama, motive, incentive, denouement, plot, and climax in a split second, my writer’s brain operating undisciplined and unrestrained in even the most mundane.

I love seeing a person recognize their potential, forgive themselves, and choose to step forward with strength.

I love in late September when the air coats my lungs with cold and feels like Halloween.

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I love using my strong thumbs to find the tense spot and feeling the pain intensify with pressure before it oozes out of the body like toothpaste from the tube, leaving only the impression of a bruise behind.

I love the rare occasions when the deep percussion of my heartbeat sets in my bones with rhythm, celebration, alcohol, and friendship taking over, and I dance without limits.

I love walking the streets of an unfamiliar place and, without agenda, awaiting the next experience.

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I love the thrill of a blank sheet of paper.

I love how each vertebra pops and expands and releases in the shift from downward dog to upward, and the newness each small stretch brings with it.

I love finding just the right angle in the mirror where I can think, “Damn, you look awesome”, for just a moment before I turn.

I love the unseen smile I get in my throat where no one can see when someone surprises me with just the right counterpoint in a bantering session, and the challenge I have to quip back.

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I love dark chocolate on my tongue, slowly melting.

I love the sound of woods, all rustling leaves and birdsong and pine.

I love the majesty, and the inevitability, of waterfalls.

I love the altering shades of blue in the eyes on my children, never quite the same, each containing their own universes.

I love the threat of the bathwater as it slowly rises around me, promising to cook me from outside in.

I love hot water down the spine.

I love the splashing colorful grandeur of fireworks.

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I love the smell of fresh apples.

I love earth, dirt, and grass beneath bare feet, knowing that billions of life forms exist below as they do here, and above.

I love thunderstorms, majestic, black, powerful, fill-the-entire-sky thunder and lightning extravaganzas.

I love choosing water by the cup, the glass, the gallon, and washing away all the unwanted with each sip, gulp, and drowning.

I love that there is no truth except my own, and that my truth is not your truth, and that your truth is not mine, and that my truth can change with age, and understanding, and experience.

I love shaking the boat, violently and willfully, or gently and rocking, so the water laps over and threatens the security of those who hold the oars, those who have forgotten other passengers are on board.

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I love the color coffee turns with just a touch of cream, and the soft bitter taste against my tongue with that first sip.

I love finding random knowledge, from a callously selected biography, an unexpected conversation, a dense nonfiction on an unfamiliar topic, a news article.

I love what I know to be challenged.

I love to have my awe inspired.

I love the pressure and anticipation I feel when finishing the last chapters of a book.

I love the slow painful realization that I’m not doing as well as I thought I was.

I love how many ways there are to make music.

I love my animal urges, and knowing that the animal is every bit as big a part of me as all the rest.

I love the feeling of a pair of eyes following me across the room.

I love losing myself in a role, in a character, in a line of lyric, in a song; becoming someone, something, somehow different from and more than myself, like all of us in one but still just me.

I love sticking it out, despite my most rational reasoning telling me I should go, and finding myself having a wonderful time.

I love learning that taking care of my own needs makes me better equipped as a father.

I love seeing myself on a long timeline, knowing each moment of my life was faced with all the authenticity I was equipped with at that moment.

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I love that everyone I have ever known leaves an impact on me, like a crashing meteor, or just a pebble, but enough to alter my lunar landscape for the rest of my days.

I love the other world I enter just before I fall asleep.

I love laying out small portions of my vulnerable self and finding out who will match me, pound for pound. I lay one down, then he does, I, then he, until trust and safety are there, or they aren’t. I love knowing that when I am not met in the middle, my sacredness, my self, will come back to me wiser and stronger through the pain and understanding.

I love that initial eye contact, then the gentle touch, then the kiss.

I love that line on the male form that extends over the stomach and into the hips on each side, the solidity and the core from which all else builds, and I love the strength when I feel place my hand there.

I love that no matter how far we fall as humans, physically or spiritually, we can always rise again in love and potential.

I love setting out to teach, and in turn learning more than I ever thought possible, over and over again.

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I love the assurance of the sunrise tomorrow, and the certainty of the moonrise tonight.

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