Dark Morning

darkmorning

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

It’s dark outside, especially this early.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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the Dark Side of Calgary

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“Maybe I’ll go on a killing spree! Maybe there’s gonna be human flesh all over the pavement!”

The man was shouting at no one in particular. He was just kind of yelling into the sidewalk. He was in his late 30s, approximately, Hispanic, with a buzzed head and thick lips. He sat on the ground, wearing camouflage pants and a thick black coat, his back to a concrete structure, and he just yelled. He didn’t seem to see me walk by. I only paused briefly, and as he quickly scratched at a purple spot on his head, I determined he was on drugs and kept walking.

Encounters like this in big cities seemed relatively commonplace. Just in the last year, in San Francisco, and again in Seattle, I’d witnessed bizarre encounters like this on the streets. My boyfriend and I, during our travels, had seen one woman scream about the entire world being rapists while she scratched at open sores on her legs, and we’d seen a homeless man in a wheelchair masturbating in a stairwell right outside our hotel. Still, something about the human flesh comment left me feeling a little frightened this time around.

It was my final night in Calgary, Alberta. After a few lovely days of exploring various parts of the city, including the national park, the zoo, a couple of gay clubs, a shopping district, and a professional theater, I wanted to make my last day leisurely. Sunday had been full of church bells, slowly sipped coffee, and contemplation. I’d been writing poetry, thinking deeply about where I am in life, and determining what goals I want to work on next. The trip overall had been deeply healing. And this evening would be my last quiet night before flying home at the ungodly hour of 4 am.

I briskly walked away from the man in camouflage and noticed a beautiful courtyard park in front of a massive church just across the way. It was gorgeous in layout, with steel benches, curving sidewalks, and small manicured gardens in front of the large church. I hurriedly cross the street to check it out.

As I entered the park, I noticed the tall brown building against the dull grey sky. It had been grey my entire time in the city, but somehow it was perfect. This weather is what people think of when they think of Seattle, this gray overcast heaviness. But it didn’t bother me. I liked the drizzle, the clouds over the river. It was music to me.

I looked back down and realized that several different men were watching me from benches. It wasn’t a casual gaze, they were staring me down. I did my best not to make eye contact, but counted four of them, all of them clearly homeless and very likely high. Suddenly I remembered the building I’d passed a few blocks back, the one that had “JESUS LOVES” written across the top in giant red letters, and I realized it might very well be a homeless shelter. Had I wandered into the local version of Pioneer Park? Back in my home in Salt Lake City, there is a downtown park in a prime location that is generally very unsafe and full of homeless people due to its proximity to the shelters. This could be downright frightening.

I paused briefly at a small manicured garden full of what looked like cabbage plants. They were green, purple, and white, and came out of the ground in jagged spikes. I stared at the plants for a few moments, stunned by their strange beauty, yet still aware of the men in the park behind me.

Then I got scared.

“Fuck everyone! I fucking hate humans!” A woman stumbled from behind a group of trees as she yelled into the sky. Her hair was sloppy, pulled back into a shaggy ponytail, and she had far too much face paint on, bright blue over her eyes, pink on her cheeks, and red on her lips. She was slightly plump, likely in her early 40s (or maybe in her 20s but far older than her years). She wore a leather jacket over a black t-shirt that was cut low to reveal cleavage, a pair of jean shorts that had the legs cut off of them (likely with a pair of scissors), fishnet stockings with holes in them, and a pair of scuffed high-heeled boots. I immediately assumed she was a prostitute.

The woman tripped slightly and dropped a white container of some kind onto the sidewalk. “FUCK!” she screamed, then she bent down, nearly falling off her heels, picked up the object, and threw it across the street. “FUCK!”

She then took a leather purse from off her shoulder and threw it hard into a bench, where it landed in a pile on the concrete. “FUCK!” She slumped herself down onto the metal bench near her purse, unzipped her jacket pocket, and wrestled a cell phone and headphones out of her pocket. The cord was tangled up and as she unraveled it, she just kept screaming. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! I hate humankind!” Finally, she just dropped the headphones, put her phone on top of her purse, and just collapsed her head into her hands. She started sobbing her eyes out.

I stood there frozen for a moment, wondering what to do. Should I go to comfort her, ask if she needed anything? She shook with deep, silent sobs. I looked closer and saw needle marks up and down her legs under the fishnets. I was just remembering the men behind me and how I needed to leave when another man came from behind the trees, and I immediately wondered if he was this woman’s pimp.

He was bald with a spotty goatee and a patchy face. Shorter than me, he was missing teeth and wore a dirty white T-shirt and blue sweat pants over his white sneakers. He looked at the woman, then looked at me. He had a bizarrely playful look on his face.

“Hey.” His voice was almost calm. “Trust in JC, am I right?” I didn’t answer, and instead gave one last look at the woman. “Hey, that’s my coat, right? You take my coat?” I looked at the red jacket I was wearing, then back up, and simply shook my head. “That’s my coat.”

I almost answered, but instead just turned away and started walking quickly, not running, away from the cabbage plants, the crying woman, and the bald man. I crossed paths with the men with scary eyes again, and turned right out of the park. I kept walking fast, noticing the other people around me on the sidewalk, just regular civilians, realizing none of them had been in the park. I walked a full block before I turned my head around and realized the bald man was following me. He was only 20 yards back. We made eye contact and he playfully spoke again.

“Just trust JC.”

I went from nervous to downright scared now, and walked more quickly. Was he that woman’s pimp? Was he mad at me for having looked at her? Did I step into his territory? Was he mentally ill? Did he just really like my coat and want it? Or was he just high and curious? I walked faster.

Two blocks later, he was a bit farther behind, but he was still following. I was a mile from the Airbnb where I was staying. This wasn’t going to end well. I came on a new block and realized I was passing a business. I stepped inside without looking, and realized I was in an ice cream shop.

The shop was empty except for a small Asian girl working behind the counter. She greeted me, and I approached a bit nervous. As she described their unique ice cream methods, I felt myself begin to calm, and then I heard a tapping behind me. I turned around and saw the bald man standing right outside, tapping his hand softly on the glass. He was staring through the window right at me and wanted my attention. What kind of fucking Stephen King nightmare was this?

I turned back to the Asian girl, and told her how the man was following me, and how maybe we should be ready to call the police. She couldn’t be more than 17. She looked over my shoulder at the man, then smiled reassuringly. “This is a sketchy area sometimes. I don’t think he will come in.”

“No, but I have to go back out at some point.”

A few minutes later, I sat at the table, eating a scoop of mango ice cream that I didn’t even want, and tried to avoid the man staring at me from outside. There were no other exits that I knew of. How was I going to handle this? I opened up my phone and began to Google the Canadian police phone number. There was no way I was walking out there.

When I looked back up from my phone, the man was gone. I waited ten minutes, then wandered up to the window, wondering if he was around some corner. A mile was a long way to walk with someone after me, and I’d been mugged pretty badly once before (back when I was a Mormon missionary in Philadelphia). Instead, I summoned an Uber. The car pulled up within two minutes, and I rushed outside and jumped in, my heart thudding in my chest.

Twenty minutes later, I called my boyfriend to tell him what had happened. Knowing me far too well, he responded simply.

“Huh. That’s scary. I’m glad you are okay! But I bet this will make one hell of a blog post.”

Calgary Loft 3

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In America, I’m often asked if I’m really from Canada

There is something about the way certain words leave my mouth

The mix of Missouri and Idaho on my tongue

“See you ta-mohr-ow” or “hey, I’m soar-y”

Seem unfamiliar

 

And now I’m in Calgary and they sound nothing like me

 

It’s strange here, in a good way

Everything is the same, but slightly altered

Like looking at my world through a different lens

 

Cinnamon tastes a little different

And the air breathes a little cleaner

Product labels bear the same names with different words and designs

And things seem to cost a little more but actually cost a little less

I don’t speak metric or Celsius, I don’t know how to measure in kilometers

And the trending fashions seem like something out of 1995

 

Last night, a drag queen yelled, 

“Anyone here from the East Coast?”

And she meant Halifax and Charlottetown, not New York and Boston

 

I think perhaps I’m suited for these colder climates. 

I feel at home in my flannel and jeans, my knitted hat with the floppy strings

Conversation comes easily, and people laugh at my jokes

 

It doesn’t feel upside down, just a little tilted

Slightly sideways

 

Yesterday, I drove through a nearby national forest

And had to lurch my car to a sudden stop

When a large grey wolf ambled out into the road

She wasn’t in a hurry

She trotted across the highway, as if she were out for a stroll

And disappeared into the trees

I sat stunned, blocking the cars behind me

But no one honked impatiently

They simply waited for me to gather myself

And then continue driving

Into the trees

Ones that smell just a bit differently than the ones I’m used to

 

the Mormon out of the Man

moroni

“At what point will I stop talking about Mormons? When will it no longer be a part of me?”

I leaned back in my chair, a deep sigh escaping my nose as a I did so, and I couldn’t help but smile. “I don’t think that will ever be the case.”

“But I’m not Mormon anymore! I left! I’m not in it any longer!”

“Well, neither am I. In fact, I can’t seem to stop writing about it.” Internally, I reviewed the ways Mormonism was showing up in my life, even after my years away from the religion. In fact, I’d just finished my own memoirs, and I gave it a three word title, all three words easily capturing my story: Gay Mormon Dad.

“It just makes me crazy. I don’t go to church. I don’t associate with my family. I don’t even live in Utah anymore. I just, I swear it comes up in conversation at least a few times per week.”

I laughed out loud this time. “For me, too. I mean, I do live in Utah, but it is constant. I choose biographies randomly, for example. Recently I read one about James Buchanan, the president before Abraham Lincoln. He was a terrible president, and, ironically, was probably gay. Anyway, before he led the country into Civil War, he actually sent an army out to Utah to confront Brigham Young and his followers. There was a whole chapter about how Young ordered the Saints to destroy their own lands so the army couldn’t get them, and how they later came to peace and rebuilt. I spent two days thinking about how that was the environment I grew up in. The prophet tells you to burn down your own house to defy the government, and you do it, and then he convinces you that it was what God wanted. That’s how I grew up.”

My friend rubbed his fingers over his temples, fighting off a headache. “That is the world we grew up in, isn’t it? It feels like brainwashing.”

I leaned back in my chair. “I once had someone, who is still actively Mormon, tell me that I was obsessed with Mormonism, that I couldn’t stop talking about it. He said that if I wanted to get out of the church, then I should just get out and let people who practice the religion do so in peace. He asked me whyI keep writing about it.”

“Well, what did you say?”

“I told him it’s still a part of my existence. It was the driving force of the first three decades of my life, and of my childhood. My family still actively practices. My kids’ mom grew up in it, and their heritage on both sides for generations was part of it. And it surrounds me here. The streets in my  neighborhood are named after Mormon places. The government is predominantly Mormon, and the culture all around me. The very history of the place I live is all Mormon-influenced. If I talk about grade school, my grandparents, my college years, my mission, the births of my children, being gay, being a dad, dating, or where I live, they are all tied to and influenced by Mormons.”

“Well, fuck.” My friend said, and we both laughed more loudly this time.

I jabbed his shoulder. “I guess it is easier to take the man out of the Mormon than it is to take the Mormon out of the man.”

Our conversation shifted for a bit to current events across the country. Hurricanes were ravaging Southern coastlines, again. The children of immigrants were being told by those in power that they weren’t welcome here, again. Transgender people were being banned from the military, again. Racists were marching in the streets while public officials refused to denounce them, again. Public shootings were being reported daily in the news, again. Connections to Russia were being investigated and it felt like the Cold War, again. Women’s right to health care was being debated, again. It felt like all of the most dark parts of America’s history were showing up in politics and the media in the worst ways, and in the most public ways possible. It was exhausting.

“If we left the country, moved somewhere that felt safer and more accepting, like Canada or France or wherever, I bet we would still talk about being American, almost constantly. And we would talk about being gay. And we would talk about growing up Mormon. And being parents. We would always give voice to the things that inspire us, that shape and mold us into the people that we have become. And I guess that is brainwashing in its way, but I guess it is also just human culture, the way we tend to view things through our own eyes and experiences.” I rapped my fingers on the table gently as I talked, positing a different reality that somehow felt the same.

My friend laughed again. “I guess it is easier to take the man out of the gay Mormon American dad than it is to talk the American gay Mormon American dad out of the man… or something like that.”

“Hey, not so much the American part, but that sounds like an awesome book title!”

“Man, you do love to talk about yourself.” He jabbed.

“So do you!” I jabbed back.

And so do we all.

Ho Chi Minh City

hochiminh

“It all for her, everything. She lucky girl.”

My Viatnamese Lyft driver, Tuan, beamed as he talked about his daughter, navigating the car through the mild hills of San Diego. I smiled back.

“How old is she?”

“Oh, she 12. Her name Lina.” He indicated a photo of her that he kept nearby of a beautiful young Viatnamese girl, black hair and bright smile. “Her mother and I, we work always just for her, just so she can focus on education, have a different life.”

I commented on how beautiful Lina was, and Tuan asked if I had children. I mentioned I had two sons, ages 8 and 5, and he laughed heartily.

“Oh, two boys! They so busy, I guess! Girls more focused, more emotional. You lucky.”

We both laughed.

When Tuan asked, I told him I was a therapist, and he gave a cooing sound for a moment, seemingly impressed. He went on to explain how he worked as a driver all day long, stopping only to eat and relieve himself, and how his wife worked impossible hours as a nail technician. “We both work hard, too hard, but it good for us, for our family. We take care of Lina.”

I looked surprised, raising my eyebrows slightly as we sat at the stop light. “With you both gone all day, who takes care of Lina?”

“Oh! I should have said,” he laughed again. “My mother and father, they live in home with us. Mother is 84, father is 91, but they in good health. They wake Lina, take to school, pick up and feed. We take care of them, they take care of Lina. Wife parents still back in Viet Nam, but we not visit, too far, 20 hours by plane. Lina want to go to Viet Nam all the time, but we cannot go. We cannot even travel California, too expensive, have to pay bills and raise family. Education what important.”

I found myself asking the obligatory American question, the same question any white person has of any person from another country, before I could stop myself. “Oh, how long have you been in the United States?”

Tuan grinned broadly again, the smile almost constantly on his thin face. “We be here almost 20 year. I met my wife back in Ho Chi Minh City, where we grow up. It hot there, too hot, California nice weather. I meet her on a date with another girl, she was dating my friend, but I like her. We get married and move to San Diego, bring my parents here. Have our daughter. We citizens now. Very happy family now, but we work too hard, I think.”

Tuan asked me where I was from, and I said that I’d grown up in the Midwest but that my current home was in Salt Lake City.

He laughed. “Oh, that place have lot of mountains and lot of Mormons. Big families, lots of kids!”

I found myself laughing back. “Yes, that describes Utah very well.”

We drove through several more lights as Tuan talked about the San Diego weather, the seasons, the tourists, and driving. I muttered a few questions from time to time, but had difficulty slowing my own thoughts. I found myself wanting to ask a hundred questions, but refused to ask any of them, thrilled at Tuan’s narration of his own story. I thought of recent immigration policies, of the vastness and beauty of the world, of the rhetoric and fear spreading through the Hispanic and African and Latino and Middle Eastern people I know in central Utah as they wondered what would happen to their families in today’s America.

We pulled up to my lodging, the little Airbnb I would be staying for the weekend, and Tuan gave me a hearty handshake. “You enjoy those boys of yours,” he smiled.

I grinned back. “Thank you, Tuan, it was a pleasure meeting you. Thank you for telling me about your family.”

“I am lucky man,” he said, “but must go back to work. You enjoy vacation in San Diego. Maybe someday I visit Salt Lake City. And maybe someday you visit Ho Chi Minh City, too.”

“I’d like that,” I said, and closed the door as he drove away. I gave a quick wave, one proud dad to another, and both Americans.

Fireworks

The distant radio boomed over a hundred different speakers, all too far away to distinguish the specifics of the songs except in memory. I could easily recognize a few notes from “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful”, and I knew that march by Sousa. But I couldn’t quite time the music with the fireworks. We should have brought our own radio.

But the fireworks were beautiful nonetheless.

After spending three days with my family at a reunion in lovely Island Park, Idaho, a few random assortments of my family members had made it here, to this particular hilltop, where we were watching the fireworks show in Idaho Falls, dubbed the best fireworks show in the west in all of the advertisements.

My children were up way past their bedtimes, particularly given their off-routine meal times and naptimes while we were camping. My four-year-old (soon to be five), A, was curled up in my lap, and I was whispering in his ear about the various shapes and colors of the fireworks to keep him engaged and from falling asleep. “Ooh, look at that curly one. See those sparkly ones? How many colors can you count in that one?”

My seven year old, J, was on the lap of my sister, Kathy, who was tickling his back and he nestled in to her. I spoke to him once in a while to make sure he was still awake. They could go from exhausted and ready to fall asleep to wide awake and skipping down the road in seconds flat, but I wanted to make sure that not only did they enjoy the fireworks, but that they would be ready for bed when we got back to the hotel, right when I was ready for bed; falling asleep now would mean either being up half the night or waking up at five in the morning, and I dreaded both of those possibilities.

Kathy’s husband sat next to her, and her two teenage children sat on a blanket near her feet. A mother of six, with her oldest children preparing to marry, Kathy has always been one of my favorite people. Stalwart and giving and wonderful and hilarious. I watched her hand moving on my son’s back and viewed her face, firework light reflecting on it, and realized how grateful for her I am.

My eyes shifted to a niece, turning 21 soon, and her younger brother, now 16, children of my beloved sister, Kara. These two have had rough starts and a lot of hills and valleys along the way. I see them now and wonder what their futures hold. I’m tightly bonded to these two, in ways that are difficult to understand. We have a kinship, and they have a strong hold on my heart. They are both powerful forces for good in this world.

I look back over to my sister, Susan, and see her looking at my children each in turn before she looks back over to the displays in the sky. She loves them like a parent, and spends time and energy and effort in spending time with them. It’s no wonder she is their favorite. With no children of her own, she has spent the last seven years loving my children fiercely. She makes them feel special, makes them laugh, cuddles them to sleep and cuddles them awake. I whisper to A that he should go sit on her lap for a bit, and he does, gladly.

My eyes turn back to the exploding colors on the horizon and I settle back in to my chair, my arms curled around my abdomen for warmth. I can feel the lone mosquito bite on the knuckle of one thumb, and the sting on my palm where I had pressed against a shark thistle plant on accident a bit before. My back aches slightly and I adjust my posture.

As I listen to the distant music, I reflect on this weekend and my time with family. I’m so often on my own, it’s always a strange experience to relive my origins. And I realize that this time, five years after my coming out of the closet, there was no drama or struggle or confusion about me being gay. No one pulled me aside to tell me that being gay was gross, or that they supported me no matter what, or if I was still going to be Mormon, or if I was having any problems with the family for being gay.

Instead, I had been among my relatives, just me, Chad, and his two sons. A dad parenting his children, making conversation with cousins, laughing around the fire with sisters, standing in line at the buffet table in the woods behind uncles and aunts. Just part of the family.

And this sudden realization suddenly made me more grateful than anything else.

The fireworks built up in the grand finale, a powerful conclusion with the sky lighting up in sound and color, deep resonant booms and bright cascading flashes of yellow and gold and red and orange. The fireworks ended, the music went quiet, the human voices picked up as they began gathering their things and heading toward their cars, but my eyes stayed on the sky, at the shapes of the fireworks still there in smoke on the horizon, slowly spreading and expanding against the black until they would disappear.

And as I gathered my children into my arms, I realized, not everything is fireworks. Sometimes it’s just the smoke and echo that remains afterwards, until that, too, fades.

firework

Muslims at my Door

Saudis watch a religious program in Riyadh

A man with a thick dark beard and a white and red checkered head covering talked briskly on the television screen, crisp clicks and beautiful trills a part of his Arabic language. Curly curved Arabic letters adorned the bottom of the screen, looking to my American eyes a bit like how a child would draw a fire or water, or a swift rippling cursive.

I watched the man speak for a few moments, listening to the lovely language with no context for what it might mean. The camera shifted to two other men, in similar garb and with similar beards, who laughed and continued speaking. Then the camera shifts to a long-distance view of a sports field, and numbers flashed across the screen, reporting scores and victories. I realized the television show was some sort of sports commentary, perhaps a Saudi Arabian version of ESPN.

My Saudi house guests looked over at me, noticing me in the kitchen. Both college students from Saudi Arabia, now living in the American midwest for several years, Ibraim and Nasser were in my home for the week as Airbnb guests, visiting the west coast on a road trip over their school holiday. Ibraim was 21, tall and lanky with thick black hair and a short mustache and glasses. Nasser was 23, heavyset with large hands and large features. Ibraim was quiet and thoughtful, Nasser more loud and boisterous with an infectious laugh.

“Is our television show offending you?” Nasser asked.

I smiled broadly. “No, of course not.”

“It’s just that it is in Arabic,” Ibraim looked up.

I turned back to putting away the groceries. “Well, that is very easy to tell.”

“And this does not offend you?”

“Of course it doesn’t. You can watch Arabic shows in my home and you can speak Arabic here, why would that bother me?”

Nasser rested his hands on his stomach and laughed. “Well, it is not your language. We would not want to make you uncomfortable.”

I shrugged. “I don’t understand it, but it doesn’t make me at all uncomfortable. Make yourselves at home, honestly.”

Ibraim relaxed back into the sofa. “Many Americans aren’t so tolerant.”

My mind shifted to recent media reports of Islamaphobia, and how often it was showing up on the news. I thought of all the recent mass gun killings by mentally ill Americans and how they seem to be shrugged off, yet how when one Muslim couple shot many others, the Muslim religion was blamed, automatically associated with terrorists and the Taliban and Isis. I thought of the support going toward Donald Trump, who threatened to ban all Muslims or to require them to wear identification on their clothing, like the Jews in World War II Germany with the Star of David.

And then I looked back to these two young men, bravely seeing America on their own, who were nervous to watch Arabic television in the home they were staying in. Both of them literally around the world from their homes, families, and communities, one of them studying to be a doctor and the other an engineer. When they had first checked in, they had asked detailed questions about the things there were to do in Salt Lake City. They asked about ski hills and cuisine, about the Mormon temple, about local parks and bars. When they ate at a local Middle Eastern restaurant, they had come in raving about the food. When they spent a day snowmobiling, they were both beaming when they returned, and Nasser declared the event “the best day of my life!”

I thought about asking them about their experiences in America, wondering how well they were treated, but decided it against it. Instead, I listened to the Arabic on the television, listened to the laughter of my house guests, and finished putting away the groceries.

“Did you have a busy day?” Ibraim asked.

“I did. I worked a lot. What about you guys, what did you do today?”

Nasser muted the television again. “Oh! We went down to the Mormon temple for a tour, as you recommended. It was very beautiful. Some of those female missionaries approached us and we politely declined their tour. I must admit, I know very little about Mormons.”

I took a seat. “Well, they probably know less about Muslims.”

Ibraim joined the conversation again. “I understand very religious communities like this one. A lot of religious cultural influence. Although I suppose it happens more pervasively in small towns than in big ones like this. That is how it is in Saudi Arabia. The religious culture there is everywhere, but in the larger cities there is more people and culture, more room for diversity. In the small towns, they remain very traditional.”

“That’s a very good way to put it. Salt Lake City has much more diversity. Many of the smaller local towns have a lot more religious influence on family and community.”

Ibraim and Nasser told me a bit about their families, and I told them a bit about mine, talking mostly of my sons. They mentioned their plans to wait to marry and have families until they were finished with college in a few years. We talked about their adapting to the small midwestern university they were attending, and how they had grown accustomed to it now, and they talked about both missing home and being glad to be away.

Soon, both of the young men went to bed, and I looked over to see the television still on, a beautiful Muslim woman in a head covering, speaking, and I thought about how little I know of Muslims, a religion that makes up one fifth of the world’s population, and how I really should take the time to learn more.

Nasser came back out to turn off the television, smiled, and bid me a simple good night.

I shook his hand. “It’s a pleasure to have you in my home, Nasser.”

He closed the bedroom door and I thought how these young men and I have far more in common than we have different.

Women in Hot Water

“A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she’s in hot water.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

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Christopher Columbus sailed around the world with a ship full of men, and hundreds of thousands of men followed, each seeking to stake a claim in a new land. America was founded on the principles of a fresh start, escaping poverty and oppression and building a new life in a new world. Civilization spread over the next two hundred years from coast to coast. Men came, men conquered.

And eventually, an organized civilization formed in the name of revolution. Wanting freedom from other men, these men declared war and, in time, won, declaring independence. These men formalized a government, wrote a Constitution, elected a president, put a court system in place, and began to govern the people. America was a nation of immigrants, unified in the cause of governance.

The land of the free, they called it. The home of the brave, they said, where all men were created equal. Except for the Native Americans, slaughtered, given diseases, and eventually shoved onto small pockets of land to contain them. Except for blacks, gathered on ships and stolen from their homes, then forced into slave labor for generations. Except for Mexicans, killed and manipulated in the need for acquisition of more land. And except for women, who were expected to bear children, serve in the home, and not participate in governance.

It took ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ until 1920 to give women the right to vote. Around 135 years after the formation of the country on the premise that all are created equal, the other fifty per cent of our citizens got their most basic right. (Keeping in mind, this was after we went to war to end slavery, decades before the Civil Rights movement, and nearly 100 years before same-sex couples would be granted the right to marry).

In 2016, population wise, there are more women than men by several million. Men make up most of the prison population, commit nearly all of the violent and sexual crimes (including, obviously, rape and murder). Men run most of the American businesses (around 85 per cent) and are paid more than women in nearly every position, often including fields where women dominate the work place (like social work and nursing). Men run most of the religious organizations in the country, almost exclusively.

And perhaps most shocking, men dominate in nearly every category of elected officials in the United States. A recent study showed that the United States ranks number 69 in the rankings of the world’s democracies in elected positions for women. In fact, Afghanistan has more women in government than the US. As does Pakistan. And Uganda.

In our presidential running this year for the Republican and Democratic primaries, we saw a bit more racial diversity among the candidates, though it was still dominated by white men (though some of them had racially diverse spouses), and one female candidate on each side. One. Carly Fiorina for the Republican party, and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic.

I, personally, am saddened and a bit horrified at the idea that we are still so far from having equal representation in our government. Men have been making mistakes in our government for  a very long time. And the only way women can break in is by playing by the men’s rules in the men’s systems, with men as their peers. And the country is still, by and large, very patriarchal and misogynistic, and makes it very hard for a woman to succeed.

It is with this awareness of history and focus on social justice that I went about researching Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton. Clinton was raised in Chicago by a hard-working father who taught her self-reliance, and a courageous mother who had been abandoned by her parents and abused by her grandparents before staking out life on her own terms. Hillary’s mother raised her to believe in herself, treating Hillary and her two brothers as capable in every capacity. Hillary was raised with an awareness of privilege and social justice, and knew very young that she would make something of herself someday.

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Hillary married the handsome young Bill Clinton and moved to Arkansas, building a life for herself there as a successful attorney as Bill ran for various government positions. Hillary is now nearly 70 years old. During her life span, she has been the First Lady of Arkansas for nearly 15 years, the First Lady of the United States for 8 years, a Senator in New York for 8 years, and the Secretary of State for 4 years. That is a total of 35 years in public, over half of her life. She has also run two Presidential campaigns. She has championed education, women’s rights, children’s rights, LGBT rights, free information rights, and health care. She has survived public scandals and inquisitions, media feeding frenzies, and decades in the public spotlight. She has shown up time and again with courage, clarity, and strength in the face of opposition at every turn. And in my opinion, she has done so with grace, strength, and openness.

As Secretary of State, Hillary traveled the world, interfacing with male world leaders, many times as the only woman in the room. She negotiated with men who weren’t allowed to shake her hand because she was a woman, due to their own customs. She was courageous and strategic in each instance, and she stood for social justice in each encounter. She has a deep sense of history, change, initiative, and responsibility.

I don’t thank that any presidential candidate is spotless. But Hillary Clinton has my vote for three primary reasons: 1. She is simply the most qualified candidate up there. 2. She knows, first hand, what being president entails. She has, quite literally, lived it. 3. It is long past time we had a female in office.

Centuries past time.

It’s time to put more women in hot water so we can see how strong they are. z47

Joe America

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I’m an American, and I have an opinion about everything. 

I live in the greatest country in the world. We have the strongest values, the biggest military, and the best schools. We are the country that the other countries want to be like. Here, we fight for what we believe in and everyone has an equal shot. 

This is the home of the American dream. That means it doesn’t matter who you are, what color your skin is, if you are a man or a woman, that you can be anything you want if you just work hard enough. Even if you grew up in the poorest city in the world, you can come here and grab yourself by the bootstraps and work and work and work and become a millionaire or a doctor or a lawyer or anything you want. 

America is the land of freedom. Everyone is free here. We don’t have to fight for it. We are free to be whatever religion we want. We are free to say whatever we want. We are free to vote. I bet you can’t name another country where that is possible. Yeah, I can’t either.

It’s not all sunshine and roses here for me, though. I got a wife and two kids. We both work and go to church. We are hard-working Americans. But I can’t pay off all my student loans, and the mortgage is a little bit too much. We can hardly afford vacations, maybe just one big one per year, and we only have two credit cards. We have two cars and a truck, but we don’t own any other property. We have health insurance, but it’s expensive for a family of four. My mom always told me I should be thankful for things like running water and electricity and Internet and that, but I work hard to pay for that stuff, why would I be grateful for something I work hard for? My wife got her Masters degree. I barely finished high school and she’s frustrated that I make more than her, but that’s just the way things are. 

I just want what every American wants. Lower taxes and the right to do as I please. I want paved roads, public parks and buildings, a good police force, a good school for my kids, a fair legal system, libraries, and all that, sure, but I shouldn’t have to pay so much in taxes. And I especially don’t want to have my taxes to go toward taking care of other people. Medicaid and Medicare, Food Stamps, feeding people in prisons, bailing out poor people in other countries–use someone else’s money for that. I’m trying to take care of my family. They can take care of themselves.

I live in a place where there is mostly white people. I’m so sick of all the political correct baloney that goes on. People keep saying that someone of another race doesn’t get the same chances as someone white, but I think that’s crap. We all have an equal chance. We need to focus less on this stuff and more on making life easier for regular American families, families like mine. If the police shoot someone of a different race, it’s probably because that person deserved it. Okay, we had slavery way back when, but I wasn’t a slave owner, and we give Native Americans their own lands to live on. I’m sick of hearing all the complaints about stuff that happened a hundred years ago or more. 

I keep hearing about all these topics in the news, like gay marriage and abortion, and I’m so sick of it. We need to get focused on the real issues again. Look, if someone chooses to be gay and wants to be gay with other people, that’s fine, I just don’t want to see it. Go live together and do what you want, but me and the rest of the world believe in the Bible, and it says you shouldn’t get married. And abortion is just wrong. If a woman is gonna let herself get pregnant, she should have the baby, don’t abort it and give it to scientists who are gonna do terrible things to it. Planned Parenthood needs to go. 

I don’t really like Donald Trump, but if he gets the Republican vote, he’ll get my vote over Hillary Clinton. Trump comes on strong, but he has the right idea. I deserve the right to own guns without interference. Muslims aren’t all terrorists but they should at least wear badges so we can see them and be prepared. And Mexicans need to stop crossing our border and taking our jobs–they can immigrate properly just like anyone else. Hillary is just gonna Email all the American secrets to everyone from her home computer again. 

And that stupid war on terrorism needs to end already. Just wipe out the Taliban and ISIS and get our troops home. I’m so sick of hearing about American troops over there. Get the hell out of those countries and let them handle themselves. We have plenty of problems around here to fix. Some lady was trying to convince me that problems over there are problems here. But it isn’t my problem that ladies in Saudi Arabia aren’t allowed to drive or that gay people in Russia can go to jail for years. Those are foreign problems, and we have enough to worry about here. 

I miss the 1960s. Things were perfect back then. Everyone had jobs, everyone was proud to be an American. We landed on the freaking moon back then. Why can’t America be more like that now. 

So anyway, I’m a normal American. I believe in God and Jesus. I love my kids. I work hard. And all I want is for the government to make my life easier, but stay out of my affairs. I’ll take care of me and mine, you take care of you and yours. It’s time to get Obama out and get someone new in. 

Sincerely, Joe America