Meow

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Clutching my roasted eggplant veggie wrap and my hot coffee, I took a seat at the picnic table underneath the giant spider, setting myself in the shady part underneath the spider’s abdomen. The Santa Fe sunshine was perfect but bright, and I wanted to read.

A few minutes later, an older man, in his mid 60s, sat across from me. He was tall and thin, almost wirey, and he had a close-cropped grey beard and a floppy sunhat. He had a plate full of meat, rice, and potatoes, and a bottle of Orange Crush.

“Whatcha reading there?” he asked me through a mouth full of food.

I showed him the cover of my book, a mediocre autobiography by Elvis Costello, and smiled.

“Ah, he’s one of my favorites. And whatcha eating there?”

The conversation flowed easily from there as the man, overly friendly, asked several questions. He learned I was visiting from Salt Lake City, that I had a boyfriend and kids back home, that I had recently written a book, and that I was a social worker. He seemed astounded that I enjoyed taking little weekend furloughs for myself in unfamiliar places.

“Me, I never really planned on living here. It just kind of happened that way. I spent my career in California as an engineer, surveying land for big projects, and teaching at a few universities while my wife spent her time in education. We raised some kids, they moved away, and we wanted a fresh start. We came here for a visit, and we just kind of never left.” He took a large bite of potatoes and a swig of orange and kept going. “Now I spend my days doing stuff I love, and so does she. This place is weird, right? It’s perfect. She’s off painting this morning, and I just took an improv comedy class that they have down the road every morning. It’s all retired guys, and most of them are gay. Hell, most of Santa Fe is gay, which means we have the best neighbors.”

Then he seemed to remember where we were, and he indicated his fork at the giant spider above our heads, then over toward the other giant statues nearby, one a large metallic wolf, the other a building size robot smelling a flower. “And what do you think of this place? Did you go in? Tell me you went in.” I nodded, smiling. I always tend to get slightly quieter around those that are loud. He kept talking. “I’ve never been in. I’ve been meaning to. I just like to come down here on Saturdays after improv cause the food trucks are fantastic. But what was it like in there? What is Meow Wolf? I still can’t figure it out.”

“It’s… hard to explain,” I said simply, and I tried computing a way to explain it simply. “Have you ever taken your grandkids to McDonalds, to the play-land there? They climb up a series of platforms and end up in a big blocky room that has three different exits. One leads into a tunnel that winds up in a fake car with a plastic steering wheel; one leads into a room with an interactive tic-tac-toe game; the third has a slide in it that lands in a ball-pit at the bottom. Conjure that image, except multiply it by a thousand, and make it big enough for adults.”

The man listened intently as my voice rose in enthusiasm. “It was so weird. I felt curious and full of wonder the entire time, and I was in there for over three hours. They have this whole storyline that they tell you about a family that has gone missing, and then you go in to explore their house, except that their house has been hit by a reality-altering alien entity and all of the rooms are portals into little Twilight Zone dimensions. There were over 72 different rooms connected in the most bizarre ways, and all of them are interactive art displays.”

“How strange,” he said simply as I continued.

“Like I went in and saw the house and I read the family’s mail in their mailbox, then I went down a sidewalk and turned a corner, and suddenly I was in a passage of neon trees with fish swimming in the tops, and past that was an alien ship. Then a minute later, I found this narrow spiral staircase that I could barely squeeze myself through, and at the top I had to push this door open and it made a woman scream. Well, I climbed through the door and looked back and realized I had climbed out of the washing machine that was in the family’s home on the upstairs!”

The man listened as I continued describing the house. The family photo albums, the bizarre images in the mirror, the portal in the fridge, the room of robot hands, the cartoonish room, the mechanical hamster, the harp made of lasers that I actually got to play.

“But then about a thousand kids came in all at once, and I realized I was ready for lunch,” I laughed, noticing the four school busses now parked in the lot.

“It sounds like you need to bring your kids back here,” he laughed.

“Oh I had way more fun without my kids today,” I admitted. “But I would love to bring them back here.”

“You really seemed to have fun in there! I’ll have to bring my wife back next week.”

“You should!”

Out of words for a minute, we both cleaned up the last of our plates, A silence hung in the air, and I looked forward at the Santa Fe skyline, rolling hills in the middle of the desert. Despite how busy it was, I could see green everywhere, and I realized how many birds were singing.

Then the man burst out with one loud laugh. “God, Santa Fe is weird!”

“It really is!” I laughed back, excited to explore more.

“And it’s perfect just the way it is,” he said, excusing himself shortly after. He got on his bike and rode off, past the flower-smelling robot and into the dusty roads beyond.

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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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Building an Art Gallery

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“It’s like Andy Warhol doing Picasso,” I noted out loud as I looked at the lined Picasso impressions lined up on the walls in different neon colors, like that famous Marilyn Monroe piece that Warhol did.

“It’s nice. But I think this is my least favorite room in the gallery,” my best friend Tyler replied, and I agreed with him. The films we’d watched had been particularly inspiring for me, as I love the film-making medium, and he had adored the modern art room. One piece, a filmstrip on a constant reel just showing a blank filmstrip on rotation, had left me feeling inspired, like our days in life just rushing through over and over, one indistinguishable from the next at a certain point. Every person there was being made to feel, looking at particular pieces that evoke particular emotions, and that in itself was art.

I turned and looked at the fork in the South Saskatchewan River outside. The gallery and been placed her purposefully, I’d read, to show the juxtaposition of the old and the new, with the farmlands of Saskatchewan (called the Wheat Province) in the distance, and the more modern downtown life of Saskatoon behind us. It was raining outside and drab, but still beautiful.

“Hey, the guys from Utah! You made it!”

I turned to see Tracey, the woman from the Tourism office, behind us smiling. She was in her mid-30s and sort of looked like a Canadian Tina Fey, shoulder length brown hair with thick glasses and a charming smile. The day before, on our walk through the city, we had stopped by her office and she’d told us about the opening of the art gallery here, then had opened her purse to offer us two free tickets of her own, as two of her family members  weren’t going to be able to make it. We had chatted with her for thirty minutes at the time and had made fast, casual friends with her.

“Tracey, hi!” We shook her hand and commented a bit on the rainy weather, then she turned toward the gallery walls.

“So what do you guys think?”

“It’s really nice!” Tyler, himself an artist with artist friends and a history of promoting events, commented on the building’s layout and architecture as we stepped back into the hallway, gabbing.

My mind drifted toward the live performance art piece, and I had thoughts of the book I’d read by Marina Abramovic, all about live performance art. Here, two lithe and lean artists were dressed in floral prints and snug jeans and black shoes and they were laying contorted on the ground in positions that looked almost like they had fallen from a building. They slowly moved, painstakingly flexing an ankle, rolling a shoulder, craning a neck, raising a hip, twisting into new positions over minutes at a time, and I’d read on the board that they would continue doing this for a full four hours. I couldn’t imagine the strain that would put on their bodies.

On the drive to the gallery, I’d heard a radio commentator describing the gallery like she was talking to friends in her living room. “You guys, you have to come and check out the Remai Modern, I mean, it’s amazing, truly. It’s like a little piece of New York City right here in downtown Saskatoon! If you don’t make it down, you’ll be soar-y!”

Tyler and Tracey continued talking, this time about the development of the gallery itself, and how difficult it is to get a venture like this going. Tyler has the rare ability to engage with practically anyone on practically any topic.

“A place like this needed to happen,” Tracey was agreeing. “Much of the community stood against it. It required construction into a resource that a lot of people weren’t sure they wanted, and many still aren’t sure. But I think that just shows it needed to happen, to push more boundaries. Saskatoon has lots of different cultures in it. One of my favorite places is the Bassment, and on Friday nights there are free jazz shows, and older citizens will come in and get drinks and complain about the young crowd in the back who talk during the music. It’s not easy to bring everyone on the same page always. But it’s a really accepting place too.”

Tyler asked questions about the funding of the building, the construction of it, the selection of the board of directors, and the fight that they had over a period of several years to get the gallery built. There were empty spaces on some of the walls, and he estimated that the challenge now would be to keep tourism up so that staff and security could be afforded, and the place could become a community staple, a featured space for locals to gather and support. The truth of the space would be told over the following years.

“Back in Salt Lake,” Tyler was saying, “many complain about the local art community, saying it isn’t very vibrant. But there are galleries, art walks, and a museum, and none of those who complain about it seem to be the ones supporting art itself.”

The models on the floor were in new positions. The male had his legs bent back behind him, his hands on the floor, his back arched and his head dropped back, his chest raising toward the ceiling. The woman lay on her side in much the same position, her arms and legs both bent back behind her and touching at a point. It was painful and beautiful. It was art, much like the building itself. Yet each moment with these artists in the live piece was a new painting, something that could only be experienced in that particular moment, and one that would move on, one that would change for each viewer as they walked by, some moments perhaps captured by no one at all.

We bid Tracey farewell and walked along the river for a bit, and I thought of the complexities of having a dream, and then navigating the political realities of making it happen. Actresses who dealt with sexual harassment to get a role, playwrights who pushed through rich snobby boards to get their works put on a community theater docket, and, in my case, documentary film makers who search and search for funding to try to make a life-changing film, navigating through an insular movie-making community in a small town.

Then I turned back and saw the building on the river, filled with people looking at art. I thought of the artists contorting their bodies on the floor of the museum as patrons watched them, and knew they did what they did because they loved it and wanted it to be seen, just like the people who dreamed up this gallery in the first place. And now that it was built, after the dream, and after the struggle, now the struggle for survival started, and the space would likely transform in the following years, as all spaces do, into something that the dreamer hadn’t dreamed in the first place. But still, it had been built, and how many dreams weren’t ever built?

If they can do it, so can I, I thought, and turned back to watch the river flow.

Asking for Money

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I hate asking for money. I’ve never been the type to ask for money. I’ve always been the kid who paid his own way and who contributed to others.

As a teenager, I worked after school to save up money for my mission. On occasion, I would slip extra money into my mother’s purse to help her pay for groceries. Sometimes at work, I would clock out early and keep working because I felt like it would help the owners out. I even made a deal with my local comic book shop where I would work for free and be paid in comic books, so I could keep reading them without spending money.

In college, I used student loans for my tuition and books, and I had a full time job to pay for my housing, meal plans, transportation, and leisure. It took me years to pay all those off. Even now, in my 30s, I run my own business and pay all of my bills on time, helping out others when I can.

I don’t think I’ve ever, as a standard, asked for a cent or expected anyone to provide for me.

But making art is impossible without money.

Years ago, I wrote a comic book. I hired artists myself and printed the book myself. But when expenses ramped up, I asked for financial help for the first time. I ran a campaign through the website Kickstarter and promised people prizes in exchange for donations to printing the book. I was able to raise about $1000 of the $5000 I needed to print the book, then I charged the rest on my credit card. The money I made from book sales barely paid my card off. Overall, it was an exhausting process, but I got to see my book in print and share it with others, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Now, a few years later, the Mushroom Murders remaining copies fill boxes in my basement.

And now I’ve reached a place where I’m not asking for $5000, I’m asking for a few hundred thousand dollars. I’m making a movie, and movies take money.

A few years ago, I discovered a forgotten man, a gay Mormon guy who was violently tortured and killed for being gay, back in the late 1980s. No one remembers him, and I want him to be remembered, because he was special and authentic and his life was cut short, and because no one ever deserves to die like that. I started seeking out his loved ones. I researched the lives of the men who killed him, and I started meeting their loved ones as well. The story is insane, with so many twists and turns. It’s a story about being gay and Mormon, about murder, about the death penalty, about miscarriage of justice. It’s a story about people whose lives were altered forever because they lost a loved one, or they saw a loved one go to jail, and it’s a story about how they moved on with their lives and yet how they never moved on.

The last few months, I’ve travelled all over Utah, and into Nevada and into Montana (where I write this from) to interview these amazing, brave people. I have a professional film crew at my side, talented filmmakers with top-notch equipment, and they believe in the project too.

Making this movie fills me with passion and creativity. All of my skills, as a father, as a social worker, and as a writer, come to the forefront as we tackle this wonderful and painful project. I shed tears and my heart aches as I weave these pieces together, but I come alive doing it because it is work that simply must be done.

This is a story that has changed my life, and has placed an entirely new path before me. This is a story that can change the lives of others, one that when they view it will alter their views, make them reach out to their loved ones with messages of ‘I love you’, one that will help them live for today and want to make a difference in the world.

Yet, without money, I’m self-funding the project, charging trips to my credit card because I believe in it, because I believe in myself. With this approach, the project will take years instead of months. And facing that fact gives me angst and anxiety.

And so a big part of my journey in 2017 has been learning how to ask for money. I’ve had dozens of meetings with influential people who I hope will share my passion on the project. I’ve enthusiastically and passionately described my journey and the told the story with conviction. And literally every one of those dozens of meetings has ended the same way. Every person has said some variation of this:

“Wow, Chad, this story must be told, and you are the one to tell it. I don’t think I can help you, but I think I know someone who can. You need to speak to this person. Let me get back to you.”

And then crickets. Silence. Attempts at follow-up resulting in avoided phone calls, unanswered texts and Emails, and general silence.

Yet still, I’m moving forward. The interviews we are gathering on film are so authentic and powerful and real, and we will keep going forward.

Asking for money is painful and aggravating. It’s so difficult to not get discouraged. I keep finding ways to maintain my passion and enthusiasm. It feels like going through an endless maze and I just keep hitting dead ends, requiring me to retrace my steps and find new paths only to hit more dead ends. I’m determined, and I won’t quit, but I find myself regularly stalled and flummoxed when I want to be moving forward, ever forward.

And this, I realize, is the plight of the artist, the dreamer. Every writer, actor, musician, conductor, filmmaker, painter, sculptor, public speaker, and inventor who has a similar passion has to find a path forward against the odds until they find someone who shares their passion. They want a platform, an opportunity, and a benefactor to help them live their dreams.

I won’t quit. And I’ll keep asking. Because the alternative is not asking, which means the dream dies.

And this story must be told. I’m honored to be telling it.

And I, no less

Who am I to think I deserve good things
to think I am worthy of praise
that I ought to be discussed, thought about, regarded?
Who am I to think my words carry power
that they paint a picture
that they do anymore than capture a moment of my being
one that passes like any other?
Why would I want to be noticed or smiled upon
with patience and measured balanced time
with more than a casual mention?
What am I to do but
rise and toil
work and sow
plan and dream?
I, no more than anyone else, deserve such things.
And I, no less. expanse