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.

Meow

robot.jpg

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.

Asking for Money

money

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.

Embracing Failure

Failure

Like most human adults, I fear failure. It’s bred deeply into me, a primal fear, a distaste regarding the very idea of doing poorly at something.

As an American white kid, I grew up in a grading system that measured success with letters. For some kids, Bs representing horrifying failure, and for others, Cs represented great achievement and success. I figured out early on that senses of failure and success are very individual experiences, depending on upbringing and culture (family, community, religious, etc).

We measure success against failure in a million different ways. Through our appearance and level of fitness, through our career achievements, through our romantic pursuits, through our religious duties, through our children’s successes. We have specific ideas and roadmaps of what success should look like, and anything less is automatically felt and experienced as a failure.

I see this all the time in my office as a therapist. I may have a client who owns a home, has a thriving business, and is incredible shape, but he feels like a failure because his wife is struggling with depression; I may have a client who is in an incredibly happy marriage and three thriving children, yet she is consistently unhappy because she can’t lose ten pounds.

We are constantly putting forth effort to avoid failure. And we fail to realize that in our very essences, because we are human, failure is simply a part of our existence.

I read a lot of biographies. Most biographies are written about or by people who are remembered for being a celebrity in one realm or another. And consistent failure is a part of every story, every single one of them. And even when major successes are achieved, variable failures will still follow.

David Bowie went through several different bands and band managers before his music caught on, and it was after that that he struggled with drug addiction and failed relationships. Oprah Winfrey had a career of hits and misses before her talk show caught on. Harvey Milk lost several elections before he was ever elected to public office, shortly before his assassination. John Stockton missed a lot of shots with the basketball before he made it famous on the Jazz. I could give thousands of examples.

When I look at my own life, I am realizing that failure is not a word I am afraid of any longer. I have had many successes, most easily viewed in the accomplishments of my children, who are happy and well-adjusted and creative and beautiful. I have a Masters degree. I have published a book. I have lost 80 pounds. I successfully transitioned to a full and authentic life out of the closet. I have a lot of friends and loved ones. I am engaged in pursuits that inspire my mind and fulfill my spirit.

Lately, my old fears of failure have worked their way out of my subconscious into my life. I have put a lot of energy and effort into passion projects that have born little fruit. The sinking results of these ventures, which I have put time and money and collaboration behind, have left me with a sense of dread. This, in conjunction with the death of my best friend Kurt, have left me a little empty and withdrawn internally lately, and I’ve had to take time to sort out what that means to me and my journey.

And in truth, in the scheme of things, it means very little.

Musical artists can spend hundreds of hours composing what they feel is a masterpiece, putting their entire hearts and souls behind it, only to have no one purchase the product, while the bubble gum piece they produced years before is played on the radio every ten minutes. An actress can spend months in a role she is made for only to have the movie flop commercially, while a bit part in a science fiction show makes her immortally famous. A painter can take five years to complete a masterpiece that no one will ever see.

I’m 37 now and I’m embracing the parts of me that I have avoided much of my life. I am an artist. I am a writer. I am a historian. I am a creator with a hungry and passionate soul who strives and wants and desires.

And my long-term success isn’t in my financial prowess or my academic pursuits or my physical endurance. It is in my spiritual soundness, and in my inner balance and peace, and in the smiles of my children. And in doing things that I love. And that may make me a huge success in the eyes of the world, or it may just make me quietly happy in the here and now. And either way, that is enough.

And even when I’m “enough”, failure will still be part of the journey.

Comic Book Nerds

wired_angry-nerd-the-most-famous-female-comic-book-character-is-a-franchise-flop

“So, you work for Marvel Comics?”

I nod. “Yeah. Well, I used to.”

The girl is heavyset, wearing a Cookie Monster hoodie. She has acne, and she looks at me suspiciously as she takes bites of a pretzel. A few crumbs scatter off of it, landing on the books set up on my vendor table. “I bet I could beat you in a trivia contest.”

I give a small smile, but I’m annoyed. I would expect her to be excited by the Marvel connection, most are at least mildly impressed. “Well, please don’t eat over the books here. But go ahead, I’ll try out some trivia.”

She shoves the rest of the pretzel into her mouth. “I bet you can’t tell me what Northstar’s real name is.”

A few other customers walk up to the table, casually looking. I greet them. “Sure I can. Jean-Paul Beaubier.”

Her eyes narrow. I’ve made her angry. “Well, what super hero team was he on?”

I laugh. “Alpha Flight.”

She steps back, arms folded over her chest. “Okay, fine, well, which character besides Steve Rogers has been Captain America?”

I cock my head to the right. She was being downright obstinate. “There have been many. The Patriot. The Spirit of 76. Bucky. USAgent. Roscoe–”

“Okay, okay. Geez.” She turns and starts walking away.

“Thanks for stopping by!”

I love comic book conventions. They have this visceral energy about them, this ‘let your freak flag fly’ mentality. Fans will pay 20 to 50 dollars just to get in, then they will wander among the hundreds of tables, looking for their favorite books and artists, ready to spend hundreds of dollars on the things that they love. Conventions are often divided up into various sections, representing movies, television shows, video games, books, anime, action figures, and comic books. Hundreds of vendors and artists will print up materials featuring favorite characters, none of it authorized by the official companies, and fans will go nuts, paying cash to pick up their favorites. T-shirts, posters, sketches, small toys, and prints of every character that comes to mind from Deadpool to My Little Pony to Ninja Turtles to He-Man to Batman to Adventure Time.

I’m set up at my little booth in the middle of a row, my table covered with merchandise. Half of the contents on my table are Marvel books I worked on, back during my college years, Official Handbooks and Files of various kinds, as well as trade paperbacks that I was in on the planning process for. On the other half is my original comic book, the Mushroom Murders, a book I’m hugely proud of, that I planned and organized myself, working with an amazing art team. The Marvel works bring people to the table, but it’s my book that I’m there to promote first and foremost.

“Excuse me, did you write all these books?” I look up and my eyes widen at the woman in front of me. She’s dressed like a slutty version of Jessie from Toy Story. She must be fifty years old, with thick make-up and a whole lot of cleavage showing.

I smile. “I did, yes.”

She picks up my graphic novel. “What’s it about?”

I give my practiced sales pitch. “It’s rather like Law & Order meets Army of Darkness. It’s a detective story with supernatural elements and a lot of twists and turns.”

She gives a broad smile. “I’ll take one if I can get an autograph of the handsome author and a photograph with you.”

I sign the book, she takes the picture, kisses my cheek, and hands me the cash before walking away with a wave.

I love the people at conventions. So many of them dress-up, some in costumes they have worked on for ages. Bearded men in Wonder Woman costumes, super fit Superman, Deadpool in a business suit, baby Mystique, toddler Aquaman. Groups of friends will coordinate costumes, so that six members of the Justice League will be roaming together. Some costumes are so elaborate, they must cost several hundred to make. A man walks by dressed as a real looking Galactus, holding the planet Earth in his hands; a mechanized Sentinel walks by; an R2-D2 constructed of Legos stops to beep at my table, his owner behind him. I am constantly snapping photographs.

A 20 year old Asian young man stops back by the table, his smile wide and infectious. He had stopped by yesterday to chat for an hour before buying my book and rushing off. “Chad, hey!”

I stand and shake his hand. “Hi, Allan, welcome back.”

“You remembered me! That’s so cool!” He pulls open his backpack and pulls my book out. “I have to get an autograph! I finished the book and it was so amazing! I want to get an extra copy for my mom!”

These brief encounters at conventions make the whole thing worth it. Conventions are exhausting. It feels like three straight days of McDonalds’ rush hour in a row, working these. Constant smiles, handshakes, sales pitches, greetings, all while sitting in one hard back chair, grabbing food or bathroom breaks whenever possible. Most fans wander around a bit suspicious, browsing the merchandise but feeling like everyone is trying to get their money and attention (which in fact they are). Many are waiting to see their favorite writers, artists, or celebrities on various panels or for autographs. Some celebrities go from Con to Con, living off their fame. Lou Ferrigno charges 40 dollars per autograph, characters who were on the original Power Rangers or Star Trek, thirty years and forty pounds later, still find fans to greet.

But these brief encounters, like the one with Allan, make it all worth it, seeing someone enjoy the book I worked so hard on.

I look down the aisle at the other vendors. The man to my left draws beautiful sketches for 15 or 20 dollars each, commissioning specific pieces for those who pay him. The woman to my right has a table full of steampunk jewelry she has hand-crafted. The man across from me has his original art splayed over colorful T-shirts.

Allan rushes off, promising to bring his mom back later just as a woman with pink hair steps up to the table, dripping the ice cream she is eating on to one of my books. As I clean it up, I look up at the clock, realizing there are six hours left today. I sigh, a bit sleepy, just as a family (father, mother, and three kids) walk by, dressed as the characters from the Thundercats, the baby dressed as Snarf, and then I’m grinning again.

I love comic book nerds, and I fit right in.