Stan, the Man

If I give it a bit of thought, I realize Stan Lee was likely the greatest influence on my creative ventures, more than anyone. There are other influences, sure. Robert Jordan and C.S. Lewis and Carolyn Keene and my own mother, as well as all of the authors of my beloved Choose Your Own Adventure books from childhood. But Lee, he created the universe I would spend my lifetime with. He set up an entire age that would capture me for decades. More than anyone, he inspired my awe.

I’ve learned a lot about Stan Lee’s life over the years, but for the purpose of this blog, I’ll focus on his creative endeavors, the one that impacted me the most. For years, the comic book industry had been dominated by super heroes, ones who transcended all of the romance and cowboy and war and monster books that filled every shelf in America through the 40s and 50s. Superman and Batman are the most widely remembered. The stories were simple and short on substance. Super hero keeps his identity secret from his friends and foils plot by fill-in-the-blank villain, be they mad scientist, alien warlord, or misunderstood monster.

But then, in 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put together the Fantastic Four, and they changed the industry completely. They made their heroes flawed. They were fallible, they made mistakes. They overcame overwhelming odds in order to triumph over villains. And the villains suddenly became relatable, with variable motives and intentions. The lines blurred, and suddenly everything felt more human.

Stan Lee gave us the Thing, a man who hated being transformed into a lumpy orange monster, and one who took his rage out on the world even while being as lovable as can be. He gave us Spider-Man, a young man who dedicated himself to good after one of his own mistakes resulted in the death of his Uncle Ben. A line-up of X-Men, who were hated by the world for being different. Daredevil, who was a blind attorney by day, a hero who could jump off rooftops by night. The Hulk, a scientific Dr. Jekyll with a secret Mr. Hyde he was ashamed over. Iron Man, a selfish playboy billionaire with shrapnel near his heart. Thor, an arrogant God of Thunder who must learn humility at all cost. Stan Lee was an idea machine, giving the world more and more heroes to wonder over. Ant-Man and the Wasp. Dr. Strange. The Silver Surfer. Magneto. Green Goblin. Dr. Doom. Dr. Octopus. The Human Torch. The Inhumans. The Black Panther. Captain Marvel. The Skrulls. Loki. He brought back Captain America, and then he grouped up random heroes into the Avengers. And it was later he added more characters that he loved, ones who hadn’t had titles of their own: Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Quicksilver, Black Widow.

It’s been over 60 years, and these character names still headline comic books, multi-million dollar movies, toys and clothing lines, and cartoons. They’ve become household names, some gaining more notoriety than ever in just the last few years.

Now granted, reading these old 60s comic books from the year 2018 can be a bit uncomfortable. The heroes are overwhelmingly white and male. When girls did show up, they were often given passive powers and, when not fussing over their hair or outfit, were generally relegated to the kidnapped and tied-up damsel. And characters of other races, including Asian and Black, were generally characters. But over the years, that would evolve, as the comics addressed more relevant issues.

I didn’t start reading comic books until the mid-1990s. By then, many of these series were numbering in the hundreds, an impressive feat when you consider most books produced about 12 comic books per year. Picking up Amazing Spider-Man #300 meant the book had been running for 30 years. Stan Lee wasn’t really writing anymore by then, a man near 70 years old. The company had changed. Some characters had surged in popularity and added entire franchises. Characters died and came back. Storylines became complex, frequently saturated with complex and intricate plot devices. Was Spider-Man the clone or was his clone the clone? Cable was the product of Cyclops marrying the clone of his love, Jean Grey, and bearing a child, and sending that child to the far future to be raised, and then that child coming back to the present followed by a clone of his own. There were alternate dimensions and timelines, time travelers, shape-shifters, and teleports to save any character from seeming death. There were secret shadow organizations, and characters still alive from World War II who should have been dead decades ago. Marvel invented a sliding time scale, basically stating that although the characters debuted in the 60s, you could just presume that they had been around for ten years or so before you picked up the book. And as long as you didn’t mind the decades of history, the suspension of disbelief, the occasional continuity gaff, and the fact that you couldn’t possibly afford every book on the shelf, well, you had a whole world you could get lost in.

And that was exactly what I needed at the time. Things were getting tough at home. My step-dad was lashing out with anger more frequently, and it was getting more difficult to hide the fact that I was gay and pretending to be straight. I desperately needed an escape. And so, one weekday, I bought an X-Force comic book off the grocery store shelf. And it was amazing. Within a few years, I was working at a local comic book store by special arrangement: they paid me in comic books. And by the time I left on my Mormon mission at the age of 19, I’d collected thousands of them, meticulously preserved in bags and lined up alphabetically and numerically in dozens of cardboard boxes that lined the walls of my room.

And on that mission, for two years, reading comic books was my secret sin. I could buy them when no one was looking, hide them under my mattress at the apartment, read them when my companion was sleeping. Again, I could escape. All through college, I raided back issue bins in comic book shops, carefully scanning for every issue that I didn’t have. And always the hardest to come by was the original Stan Lee stuff, the primordial works from which an entire universe developed.

Even now, comic books are a part of my life. Everything for me is digital nowadays. I don’t keep my books in boxes, instead I keep them on hard drives. Every week, dozens of new Marvel books come out, still charting the stories of these classic characters and their extended families. The heroes from the 60s should be elderly, or dead and gone, but we readers just pretend they are perhaps in their late 20s or early 30s. I still love the X-Men, although their school has blown up 35 times by now, and every one of their members has died and come back from the dead at least twice. I’m still captivated by these classic characters. I sip my coffee and click through my pages with love and excitement. My brain auto-plays the sound effects of Thwip and Snit, and the classic phrases still leap off the page at me. Flame on! Hulk Smash! With great power comes great responsibility! It’s clobbering time! By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth! By Odin’s beard! Oh my stars and garters!

Everyone who followed, all the other big names that have also become something, they only succeeded because of the platform Stan Lee created. Luke Cage. Iron Fist. Wolverine. Punisher. Moon Knight. Cable. Elektra. Ghost Rider. Deadpool. The universe got a lot darker for a long time, then it got lighter again. And in the new comics, the world looks a lot different. There are gay characters running around everywhere now. Women play a much more prominent role. Many of my favorite titles star characters that Stan Lee must have been proud of. Moon Girl (a 9-year old black girl, the smartest person on the planet) and Devil Dinosaur (her big red T-Rex). Ms. Marvel (a Pakistani-American teenage girl, a Muslim). Squirrel Girl (a plucky computer nerd with a squirrel tail). I sit down with my children now and read these stories, sharing with them the joy of these characters, ones who make us laugh and smile.

I got the news today that Stan Lee died at the age of 95. I haven’t given him much thought in recent years, except to smile whenever he’s made a cameo in a Marvel movie or show that I love. Before I got that news, just this morning, I read the latest Spider-Man, and just last week I looked at the last episode of Daredevil on Netflix. And it dawns on me how much he transformed my life.

Thank you, Mr. Lee, for giving me another world to escape to. It was a complicated world, a rich one that expanded far beyond your original concepts, but then again, you started it all. You built a civilization under the ocean, and another beneath the surface of the Earth. You made up entire countries, some that floated in the clouds, some that nestled between existing borders. You gave men and women powers from a myriad of sources: alien experiments, exploding chemicals, radioactive spiders, godly interventions, magical training, Gamma bomb explosions, radioactivity, or just an accident of birth. You made me believe anything was possible, and that, no matter how complex and flawed the world might be, that good always triumphed and there was always another adventure beckoning.

Thank you, Mr. Lee, and Rest in Peace. Excelsior! 95 was a good long time, and your universe lives on.

Stan

 

Animal Kingdom

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As I child, I poured through the pages of encyclopedias for fun. I was endlessly fascinated with words themselves, with their variable origins and meanings. Crisp letters here and silent, hidden letters there. Synonyms and homonyms, syllables and participles. I was amazed by the very structure of them. Even as a young child, I had an incredible sense of understanding that not only would I never know all of the words in my own language, but that there were hundreds of other languages out there, each with words that could never translate into mine. This realization left me awestruck.

I remember being similarly overwhelmed by the vast kingdom of animals out there. As animals evolved in different environments, they adapted with skills and shifts in their very biological chemistries in order to survive. A spot, a ruffle, a horn, a tuft, or a pouch generally meant a completely different species. Turtles could be painted, box, or snapping; trout could be rainbow, brown, or brook; owls could be white-plumed, tiny and burrowing, or fierce and screeching. In every biosphere, there were creatures that dug deep into earth and trees, those that flew above and stretched their wings to the sky, those that nibbled on the green growing grass, and those that fed on all. The circle of life, from bottom feeder to great predator, in every realm from desert to ocean to cave. And it all adapted around water, and sun. I could flip through a book full of butterflies and look at the hundreds of wing pattern variations, and wonder for days at how they all happened that way and where they came from.

When I first became aware of the super powers animals contained, my brain was arrested with the sheer possibility of it all. Chameleons camouflaged, monarch butterflies flew the length of the world in a span of generations, and cicadas slept for years at a time. Squirrels foraged using cheek pouches to carry extra, spider monkeys had tails that could be used liked hands, and camels could go for days without water. And the more obscure the animal, the more I was fascinated by them. There were sword-billed hummingbirds, binturongs that smelled like buttered popcorn, and bizarre red-lipped batfish that lurked on the ocean floor.

My love for heroes began shortly after that. Not surprisingly, the majority of them seemed to be based on animals and their abilities. Batman, Penguin, and Catwoman. Spider-Man and Ant-Man. Wolverine. Ninja Turtles. Black Panther, Cheetah, Killer Croc. And, as always, the more obscure the character, the more I rejoiced in them: the Beetle, the Vulture, Kangaroo, Leap-Frog, Puma, Squirrel Girl, the Mandrill, the White Rabbit, the Owl, and the Walrus. From there, I found myself creating my own heroes and villains, with their own animal powers. It was so easy, as there were so many to choose from. The electric eel, the angler-fish, the goblin shark, the monitor, the ocelot, the maned wolf, the mosquito, the starfish, the capybara, the ibex. It was as if the possibilities were endless. My ideas filled entire notebooks.

Since having children of my own, my love of animals has been reawakened. My sons J (9) and A (6) are endlessly asking questions about animals. We pick up educational videos on them and talk about the special skills of each. We discuss endangered species, habitats, and species diversity. They make me think and learn even more. A year or so ago, we started playing a game initially called Farm, then Farm and Zoo, then Farm and Zoo and Aquarium. Now we just call it the Animal Kingdom. We began collecting animal toys, little plastic figurines, realistic in their detail, and we began arranging them by habitat. It started with the obvious, pigs, cows, and horses, then diversified into black bears, Siberian tigers, and timberwolves. We have adventures with the creatures, and the human characters who come to visit them with nefarious plots.

Lately, though, the game has turned more complex, as the denizens of the Animal Kingdom continue to grow. The boyfriend and I have been giving the boys new animals every other weekend or so, creatures to add to the ranks, and it’s almost as we are having a contest to see who can go the most obscure. We don’t just hand the boys the animals, we take time to learn about the creatures together, we draw pictures, and we have active conversations. Three weekends ago, I gave the boys a wombat and a wallaby; the next weekend, Mike gave them a reticulated giraffe and a gharial; I followed that up with a cassowary and a rhinocerous hornbill. We fully admit that it is we, the adults, who are the most obsessed at this point, but I find myself planning out how I can teach the boys about the pygmy hippopotamus, the giant anteater, the pangolin, and the kudu in the following few months, and it fills me with joy.

This weekend, I took a solo trip to New Mexico. With a few hours to kill between the landing of the plane and the check-in time for my hotel, I took myself to the zoo. I wandered, a grown man in love with animals again, and I watched with fascination, still amazed at the variance and complexity. The baby chimpanzee wrapped itself in a blanket and turned somersaults for several minutes while its win sibling cuddled tightly with a grandmother chimp in the corner. The polar bear danced back and forth in a repeated rhythm, taking a measured number of steps, sticking out its tongue, turning around to march back to the front, then repeating all over again. The baby American alligators huddled on top of each other in a pile at the corner of the pool. The warthog inhaled its pile of vegetables with its great hinged jaws, reminding me of a muppet. The peacock startled me with its loud guffaw of a song, shouting across the zoo for all to hear.

Inspired, I left the zoo, sat down at my computer to blog about animals, and promptly logged into Amazon to mail order more creatures for the Animal Kingdom. The orders were for my kids, I told myself again. But, frankly, they were more for me, and for the little boy version of myself that flipped through encyclopedias to take notes.

Pokemon Shaming

Poke Ball

“Your son is a beautiful child. He’s just so emotionally young, the youngest in his class by far.”

Mrs. Barnes pulled out a folder A, my 6 year old son, had made, and placed it on the table. It was full of his artwork and assignments.

“We instructed each child to draw a cover for their personal folders. Many children drew their families or farm animals or a picture of Earth. But look at what your son drew here.”

I looked at the cover and saw a huge green dragon, covered in spike, breathing fire. The dragon had a fierce expression on its face and its wings were spread wide. A had drawn it in crayon.

“It’s a dragon!” I said, with a hint of excitement in my voice. “One of his best, I’d say. He’s practiced hard.”

Mrs. Barnes nodded. “Well, yes, but we don’t really do dragons in this school. We try to stick to realism. All of the children are asked not to wear cartoons on their shirts and to not have screen time during the week, no television or video games. I know you are doing your best to abide by that, but everything for A must be an adventure, an epic quest. Everything is story-telling to him.”

I nodded, struggling to understand the concerns. “A is my storyteller. He’s brilliant. He remembers details and puts together elaborate adventures. He loves when small creatures save the day, Lord of the Rings style. He is also a bit like Hagrid in Harry Potter in that he has particular affection for the most ferocious of creatures. I do understand that he is emotionally young. He hates transitioning from one thing to the next, he hates eating vegetables, he hates coloring within the lines. But he only turned 6 in July, and school started in September. Many of the kids in his classroom turned six several months or even almost a full year before him. He’s the smallest guy in the classroom, and he’s obsessed with everything being fair and balanced.”

Mrs. Barnes smiled, nodding and taking a few notes. “You certainly know your child well. Here at the charter school, we try many activities that focus on the five senses, healthy play, and physical movement, while putting them through the education. It is a wonderful method of learning. Here, the children plant plants in gardens, they learn about animals and mythology, language skills, hand-eye coordination, plants and culture.”

“I love your methods here. I have loved it for my sons and they love it also,” I said honestly.

“But A is really struggling. He takes a longer time to adapt than the other kids. Particularly in the afternoons, and especially during transitions. It takes a long time to get him to focus on tasks that he isn’t already good at. He takes a lot more attention than the other kids. And that’s okay, because we want to individualize the educational process for each child. But that is why we called this meeting, so we could strategize ways to help your child succeed.”

An older woman sat to the left of Mrs. Barnes, likely in her mid-60s. She was thin and wore a blue skirt and a dark blue top, both of which fit her well but were somehow billowy at the same time. Her hair was gray. She had discerning eyes and had been listening to every word carefully.

“Chad, I’m Meadow,” she said, extending a hand. “I haven’t actually met your son, but I’m one of the founders of this school.” Over the next several minutes, she analyzed A’s artwork, showing me how he was struggling with complex concepts. If he was shown a coloring technique, like say making a tree trunk with a broad stroke using a chalk-like crayon, he would instead take a regular crayon and draw the outline of the tree, then shade it in. She reviewed many of these concepts, and talked about methods in the classroom to help him, and ways we could practice techniques at home to reinforce expectations.

“He is a beautiful child, like all children are beautiful. Why don’t you tell me about these adventures A loves? Where does he get these concepts?”

I proceeded to tell her about a typical afternoon with my sons. “They will choose to be some kind of animal or creature, and we go on epic quests all around the park, or swimming pool, or neighborhood. They have to collect pine cones on the hill, solve riddles to pass the old witch, find a little girl hiding in a park, dig for rocks, and create potions to save the world. A is very focused on fights, like Batman or Spider-Man style, so I always try to incorporate physical activity. He loves pretending to have super powers, so instead of laser eyes or giant fists, I try to give him powers to change colors or grow plants or see through things, and help him use his reasoning skills to get through the quests. He adapts well. It gives us a lot of ground to work from, and it is fun quality time with him. We do things like this often.”

Meadow clicked her tongue. “So he gets his story-telling from you and your interactions?”

“I’d say so.” I was smiling.

“And yet he is obsessed with adventures.”

“Well, growing up, he has had a healthy diet of kids’ cartoons. He loves super heroes. He loves Pokemon.”

“See? That.” Meadow had a disappointed look on her face. “Pokemon. He needs less Pokemon and more time outdoors. Children his age need to milk cows and slop pigs. They need to count sticks and smell pine trees and dip their toes in the water. They need to jump over rocks and learn how to catch themselves if they fall. They need what children in previous generations had.”

I was nodding, enthusiastic. “I love all of these ideas. And I’m definitely open to them.”

Prairie looked me right in the eyes. “And yet someone introduced him to Pokemon in the first place.”

There was a heavy silence in the room, filled with awkward tension, and I felt she had just told me that I’m abusing my child. She kept eye contact with me as I felt ashamed briefly. My brow furrowed in confusion. Suddenly, I was angry, but I kept it tightly contained. What kind of name was Meadow anyway?

The meeting continued and we discussed strategies to keep A invested in the classroom, to practice skill-sets at home, and particularly to help him with transition times in the classroom.

Mrs. Barnes turned toward me just at the end of the meeting. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you. A isn’t eating the school lunches. I’ve tried but we just can’t get him to eat. He just kind of picks at his food. I meant to send you an Email weeks ago, but I’ve been busy with work and family. Maybe you should pack him a lunch from now on.”

And then I was furious. “He’s been telling me that he’s been eating. But if he isn’t eating, no wonder he is struggling! When he doesn’t eat, he acts more like a young 4 year old than a child his age.  His cheeks get red and he can’t focus! He needs food! He’s been super hungry when he gets home but I thought that was normal!”

Mrs. Barnes placated me. “Yes, well, let’s have you pack a lunch for him from now on and see if that makes a difference. Pick foods that he likes that can sustain him.”

I walked away from the meeting, a mixture of determination, embarrassment, gratitude, and rage. A woman who had never met my child clearly had very strong feelings about Pokemon, and another who knew him well had failed to mention that my child wasn’t eating, and failed to connect that to his struggles.

The next day, I packed A a lunch, and when I picked him up from school, Mrs. Barnes commended him on how well he had done with transitions that day. Then A and I went home and played. We jumped in the backyard, we smelled leaves, we gathered sticks, we climbed a hill, we watched the sun and clouds.

Then we went home and watched Pokemon.

Bloodkill and Bobcat Man

bobcat

“Dad. Dad! I saved your life!”

My eyes blinked away suddenly, and I quickly became aware of my surroundings, out of a sudden sleep. I was in my room, in my bed. It was dark still, cold with the window open, and I could hear birds outside, so I assumed it was early morning. My eyes flashed to the clock and I saw it was 5 am. I shifted my attention suddenly to my five year old, A, standing at my bedside.

“I saved your life, dad,” he repeated himself, waiting for me to acknowledge him.

“What do you mean you saved my life?” I asked. I was surprised he hadn’t awakened me. On nights when my sons are here, I’m hyper-aware of every sound. A squeak of the bed, a car horn, a scratching on the wall, the sound of their door opening… I usually shoot awake before they can get out of bed. But he had snuck into the room without me noticing. His brother must still be in the next room sleeping.

“Well, it’s simple.”  He raised his voice a little bit, full of a quiet morning energy. He had been burning to share this information with me, and I guessed it was all based on a dream he had had. “I heard some bad guys outside of the house, so I waked up and became a super hero to save your life. I growed a cape and a mask and I flied out the bathroom window and I fighted all the bad guys away with my fists!” He punched the air as he pressed his body down into a fighting crouch, springing up to uppercut an imaginary villain.

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I sat up a bit in bed, turning to face him. I reached a hand out in the grey dark room and rubbed a finger against his cheek in an ‘i-love-you’ line. “Oh, you turned into a super hero, and then you saved my life? Thank you, son. What was your super hero name?”

He furrowed his brow and narrowed his eyes, giving his fiercest ‘tough guy’ look, and then lowered his voice to a harsh whisper, speaking like Batman does in the old animated series we watch together sometimes.

“Oh, that’s easy. My name was Bloodkill.” He emphasized the first part, then drew out the last syllable a bit, making it sound more dramatic. He shot away from my hand, doing some uncoordinated gymnastics, moving about the side of my bed with a few crouches, kicks, and punches to the air again. Oh to have that kind of energy at 5 am.

Wait, strike that. I don’t want that kind of energy at 5 am.

“Bloodkill?” I yawned, stifling a smile.

“Yes. And Bloodkill hunts!” He still had his Batman voice.

I turned on my side, laying down, my head propped up on my elbow now, and yawned again.

“Listen, buddy, thank you for saving my life. But it is way to be someone named Bloodkill. Can you think of a nicer super hero name for the early morning time?”

A stood now, flummoxed momentarily. “Well,” he negotiated, “I can be Bloodkill later, how about I can be the Killer Shark Man!”

I smiled. “Something a little nicer maybe.”

“Well, I can’t be a zombie or a vampire then. Maybe I can think of something.”

“How about a different animal man?” I asked. “You know, like Batman or Catwoman, but a different animal that hasn’t been used before.”

He put a finger against his lip, thinking briefly. “I’ll be Bobcat Man!”

I smiled. “Perfect. What is Bobcat Man’s powers?”

“Well,” now A was climbing up into the bed with me, finally looking for his morning cuddles. He spoke quickly as he climbed. “Bloodkill could fly from his cape and he had sharp claws on his gloves and some weapons on his belt. But Bobcat Man is kind of the same except different. He has his own claws and he is so fast in the air and on the ground, and he can turn little or big but not too big. And, well, he can still have a cape.”

He laid against me now, his little body fitting perfectly, his head on my chest, his arms around me, his legs stretched all the way down to my knees.

“That’s perfect,” I smiled. “Thanks again for saving my life. But how come you are up so early, buddy?”

“Well, I wanted to tell you all that, but maybe we can cuddle and go back to sleep now.”

Soon he was softly snoring against me. The room was still dark and the birds still chirping, and I was smiling silently about Bloodkill and Bobcat Man having adventures in his brain.

Hillary Clinton as the Bachelorette

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At 6 am in a coffee shop, I overheard one of the best conversations ever, my fingers clacking nonchalantly on my keyboard to keep up.

Okay, picture it. Hillary Clinton. As the Bachelorette.

She’s already married.

No, no, like the show. Like the Bachelor, except when a girl is one it. The Bachelorette. 

Dude, she’s, like, 70.

Duh, I know. Come on, just hear me out. We all know she’s going to win the presidency. I mean, she’ll win the Democratic nomination, that’s what all the polls are saying. It’s gonna be close, but she’ll pull out on top and then everyone will vote for her over any of those Republican buffoons. And I mean, I don’t like Hillary. At all. But she’s gonna win and I’ll vote for her because she’s the least terrible choice.

I know, I know. I swear her whole campaign is like some whiny platform she built. ‘Look at me, I’ll Hillary Clinton, my husband was the president, so I should be the president, too. Oh yeah, I was Secretary of State, too, waaaaah.’ She drives me nuts. 

Yeah, me too. But listen to this, listen to this. After she wins, we hold a Bachelorette competition to figure out who her vice president is going to be. All the current presidential candidates will try to get her vote. And every week, she gives a rose to some guy who will end up crying as his career comes to an end, and they drive him off in some hearse.

That’s dumb. 

It’s brilliant! Hillary gives great facial expressions, she’ll be awesome. Each episode, she’ll go on some date. She can, like, hot air balloon with Ben Carson. They’ll be floating over the Earth and Carson could talk about how the Earth is really flat even though it looks round from the sky because that’s how God wants us to see the world. 

What? That doesn’t make sense.

I know, that’s the point. Carson has some whacked out theories. So Hillary hands him the rose and two guys come and put him in a straitjacket and pull him off to the crazy house.

Okay, yeah, I’d watch that. 

And then Chris Christie would take her to, like–oh! They could go bridge-jumping! In New Jersey! And he would be like non-stop talking about why he shut that bridge down that one time, and Hillary would give a classic look to the camera that’s almost an eye-roll. That guy is annoying as hell. 

Okay, calm down, man. You’re way too excited about this. 

It’s hilarious! Tell me you wouldn’t pay to see Donald Trump and Hillary on a date. 

This show would be way funnier if it was Trump as the Bachelor. That guy is funny.

Yeah, but that would mean we would have to elect Trump president.

No thanks. I’d move to Belgium and laugh at the Americans. 

So Trump and Hillary…

Okay, I’ll play. Trump would sit back over champagne and caviar and talk all about all of the beautiful women he’s been with. He’d be like, ‘I have dated some of the most beautiful women in the world and my daughter is the most gorgeous woman I have ever seen. They like me because I have money. But you can’t even keep your husband away from the interns. That’s why you should choose me, Hillary, because I would make you look good.’

Oh man, that’s golden! And–and they could go wig-shopping!

Okay, yeah, this is a fun idea.

So then… I don’t know, like… horse-back riding on the Bush ranch with Jeb, and–oh! Salsa-dancing with Marco Rubio! That would be awesome!

What about Carly Fiorina? It could be a hot lady candidate date. 

Why not? It’s 2016. Oh my god, they would hate each other so much. 

No one hates Hillary more than Bernie Sanders, though. They all pretend to respect and like each other, but you gotta know that they are just seething with hate. I mean, they both want to be president so effing bad and the other person is the one stopping them the most. So on their date, Bernie would be like ‘Hillary, congratulations on the nomination’ and he would look all happy but on the inside he is like ‘I hate you so much’ and she would be like ‘thank you, Bernie Sanders, you deserved it too’ but on the inside, she would be all ‘hahaha, I won, you crazy old man.’ You just know she and Obama were like that back in 2008. 

But in the end, she would totally pick Sanders as VP. 

That’s because the Republican candidates are all basically comic nook super villains. They are all ridiculous caricatures of humanity. She might as well be running up against Lex Luthor, Skeletor, the Joker, and, like, Dr. Doom. All ‘I’m going to rule the world!’ when really none of them have a chance. At all. 

I can’t think of even one single Democrat candidate besides Bernie and Hillary though. Weird. 

I–wait. Wasn’t there some guy named Chaffee? Oh, Martin O’Malley. What happened to that guy? He just disappeared. 

Yeah, he can’t be on our show. No one knows who he is.

We’ve totally got to pitch this idea. 

Man, we’d make a million. 

And it’d be tax deductible, right? I mean, it’s politics.

HiIlary Rodham Clinton

 

Men with Two Faces

It takes a certain kind of man to lead two lives. And we all know at least a few of them.

Some men have the ability to lead one life in private and a very different life in public. Sure, women can do it too, but this is far and above a male problem.

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Take Don Draper, from the show Mad Men. In the first episode of the series, we meet a very successful advertising executive with a high rise office and a gorgeous girlfriend that he meets for an afternoon tryst. And then, at the end of the episode, Don goes home to his beautiful and faithful wife and children at their house in the suburbs. Don has the uncanny ability to carry on a long-term relationship with two separate women. It’s as if he enters the office, and sets his family on the shelf; then he returns home to pay with the kids and cuddle his wife while his work life stays in the city. And we learn, later on, that when he doesn’t have someone on the side, he actively seeks someone; it’s an obsession, a compulsion.

Those of us who aren’t Don Draper might be fascinated, confused, or outraged by this, but most of us simply don’t understand how this could happen, and how it could be sustained. What makes a man capable of both having a family and an entire other life, cheating on them on the side?

My stepfather, Kent, was a different kind of man with two sides. In public, he was a stalwart Mormon family man with a big heart, showing up at church every week with a firm handshake, a hearty laugh, and a genuine smile. Yet behind the closed doors of our home, he had a violent and explosive temper, and would use violence and words to manipulate and control the members of the household.

Perhaps the most extreme example I can think of is Dennis Rader. I read his biography a few years ago. A God-fearing, church-going family man with a wife and children and a full-time job, baseball games and barbecues and family outings. Yet he had a secret, decades-long life in which he would violently murder others as the BTK Killer, taunting police with clues along the way. When he was arrested, his family had absolutely no idea about his double life.

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I often have clients come in to my office (I’m a therapist) who have just learned about the double life of a spouse. A man married for ten years has learned his husband has been cheating on him the entire time. A woman with five children finds her husband arrested for sexual molestation of a young teenage girl down the street. A 60 year old woman finds a note in her husband’s pocket, calls the number, and learns about a five-year long affair. A young wife discovers a bank account her husband never told her about, and learns about his addiction to gambling funds on the stock market.

The first emotion is shock. Then a deep sense of betrayal. How could he do this to me? Then there is a deep pain, a combination of rage and hurt and grief and shame. How could I not have known? Why did he hurt me? Maybe I’m not meant to fall in love. I did everything for him and he betrayed me!

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Many times, the client has confronted their spouse before they come in. And it often looks something like this.

Maggie: Mark, I know about Jenny. I saw her text messages.

Mark: What? I told you not to go through my phone! I warned you!

Maggie: Don’t yell at me. I’m so angry with you. You cheated on me. 

Mark: Oh please, we were just texting. We didn’t actually do anything. 

Maggie: Mark, I know you’ve been sleeping together. I saw the content of the messages. 

Mark: I don’t know what you think you read, but you’re wrong. It’s not a big deal. 

Maggie: If it wasn’t a big deal, why didn’t you tell me about her?

Mark: Because I knew you would act like this!

Maggie: I’ve packed my bag. I’m going to my parents. 

Mark: What! Oh my god, you’re over-reacting! 

Maggie: Goodbye, Mark.

Mark: Wait! Don’t go! Okay, okay, I’m sorry, okay? Is that what you want?

Maggie: I want the truth.

Mark: Okay, okay, I slept with her. Once. But then it was over. It didn’t mean anything. Then I called it off. 

Maggie: You texted her this morning. She said you were with her last night. 

Mark: She’s lying! Nothing happened!

Maggie: Goodbye, Mark. 

Mark: Fine, go! I make one mistake! Nothing I ever do is ever good enough for you!

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There is no easy way to measure out the long-term effects of a betrayal. When you trust someone that much and build a life with them, a wide wound opens up, a rift within, when you learn about this secret life divided.

And there is no easy way to understand how someone can live these lives. It happens far too often. Small secrets and lies lead to larger and larger ones. People divide themselves into pieces and, with practice, become very good at it. It requires a certain sense of narcissism, a heavy sense of entitlement, an ability to take advantage of a person deeply loved and trusted mixed with an ability to think more is owed or deserved outside of the relationship.

For any who have been betrayed, you can live a happy and healthy life with love and passion and success. You have to allow your wounds time to heal, you have to learn to put your needs up to the surface, to prioritize and to take care of your self and obligations. It’s a long process, and you’ll come out the other side stronger as the wounds heal.

And for any who have done the betraying, it is likely you’ll hurt another person without help. The compulsion to have your cake and eat it too, or to have the two separate lives you want… it isn’t sustainable, it isn’t something you can keep doing over time without consistently hurting the ones you love. You have to learn to be accountable and empathetic, to sacrifice your needs and compulsions in order to have the stable and happy family life you want and crave. And you have to want to stop hurting the people you care about.

No man can easily wear two faces. Not for long. And not without hurting everyone he loves.

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Comic Book Nerds

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“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.