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.

Betty and Banana: raising very different kids

“I had a nightmare about princesses,” A, my six-year old son recently told me. He had a look of haunted exhaustion on his face, like if he heard one more word about princesses he might just give up on life completely.

A prefers monsters. Like the character Hagrid from Harry Potter, he finds the most ferocious creatures to the be the most worthy of his love. The more fangs, or claws, or poison sacs, or dragon wings, or spiky dinosaur ridges, or lava-spewing pustules the better. Lately, he’s had a particular affinity for the two-foot tall white-furred ferocious yeti that he received on his birthday. That day, he spent hours letting the yeti defeat each one of his super hero toys in turn, then the heroes returned for more rounds in greater numbers, yet the yeti stood triumphant in the end.

I recently came across a video of A when he was three. In it, he looks at the camera with his bright blue eyes while he lovingly pets the spiky back of a green T-Rex.

“His name is Terminus,” he says when I ask him. “He eats mommy snakes, baby snakes, and one spider.” When I ask him if Terminus has any friends, he tells me, “No. He ate all his friends.”

Terminus lined the toy shelf for years next to A’s other favorites, with names varying from Apples Juice to Ocean to Shrug. He always chose names out of the blue, but the names always stuck. But it wasn’t just dinosaurs, it was tigers, rhinos, trolls, ogres, snakes, dragons, and man-animal mutated hybrids of any kind. They soared and swooped through the house unendingly, A always perfecting their roars.

Yet A had nightmares of princesses. I read between the lines, hearing him say that he had nightmares of girl toys and girl things, anything less than roaring and horrid beasts that devoured anything before them. To him, princesses were sweet and pink and they sang songs and wanted to kiss boys, all terrible things that, to him, were much more frightening than a monster.

Yet A’s older brother, J, age 8, prefers princesses. Even as a baby, he reached for toys that would be considered more nurturing, like baby dolls, soft rabbits, and cute mice. More recently, he’s had a slight obsession with horses, and girls who ride them shooting arrows. He’s always been thrilled at the small and innocent being able to be the most powerful of all, saving the world against impossible odds and perhaps falling in love along the way.

Several months before, I had purchased him a collection of child versions of the Disney Princess toys, and, in order to make the set something the boys would play together, we endowed each princess with her own super power, so they could band together to form the Princess Patrol and fight evil. Belle was the leader and was super smart, Cinderella could make boys fall in love with her, Pocahontas was a natural hunter and tracker, Mulan knew kung-fu, Snow White could control animals, and Ariel was a super fast swimmer. There were 11 of them in all, and the boys took them on a myriad of adventures before the princesses, like every other toy for children these days, ended up on the bottom of the toy box because a new toy was receiving all of the attention.

My sons are being raised by a gay dad and a straight mom in two households, and we are a united front when it comes to parenting. Rather than enforcing any sort of gender or cultural norms, we have always let our sons just be themselves. We encourage kindness, fair play, honesty, teamwork, sharing, and listening, but we have never tried to change their interests. And for years now, their styles of play have melded together seamlessly, monsters fighting alongside princesses, instead of against each other. Just the other day, the giant yeti was helping to protect the little girl’s horse farm they had set up in the backyard, and all helped in the attacks against them. (I often play the villains).

Lately, I’ve been encouraging creative thinking and teamwork skills between my sons while embracing their individual play styles. I sat them before me, telling them they were going on an epic quest.

“You will be the Mystical Monkeys,” I told them. “Please select your names.”

J, excitedly wringing his hands, couldn’t pick one. “I, um, oh gosh, I don’t–um, I choose, um–”

“Speed it along, son.”

“Okay, I’m Betty!”

“And I’m Banana!” A followed.

And so the adventures of Betty and Banana, the Mystical Monkeys, began. They were each given one super power, passive powers I chose to encourage thinking. Betty was granted the power to change the color of anything, and Banana to turn invisible for a few seconds at a time. They retrieved a magic coconut from a treetop after fighting off an army of tarantulas (though A called them “try-ranch-ulas”) before swimming across a sea full of kissing mermaids. After a series of quests, Betty could then grow rabbit ears to jump high, and A developed a fire fist and a rock fist. They braved the Valley of the Stone Trolls, unscrambled the words to a magic spell, and entered a cave to answer riddles from a witch.

As they fell asleep, I contemplated their intersecting worlds. Dinosaurs and bunnies, super heroes and little girls, poisonous snakes and brave ponies. Betty and Banana. Their three baskets of toys overflowed, signs that they are well-loved and a bit spoiled, with both vampires and fairy queens, yet they both slept, breathing the same air heavily.

Every parent wants to give their child what they didn’t have. For me, that means raising my sons with a strong sense of identity, asking nothing more from them than to be exactly who they are and to know that they are loved.

The Man I Love

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Hey there, Man I Love,

I’m pretty sure I haven’t met you yet. I mean, it’s possible that I’ve met you and there haven’t been any sparks, or I just don’t know what’s going to happen next. But I’m erring on the side of “haven’t met you yet.”

Anyway, wanted to sit down and write you a letter since you were on my mind. (When you read this, and after you eventually get to know me, I presume that you’ll be charmed and find it totally adorable that I would take time to write a letter like this. I mean, if you don’t find this charming, chances are you and I wouldn’t work well anyway).

The image I put up on the top is a screenshot from that old 1940s movie starring Ida Lupino (how amazing was she!) where George Gershwin wrote that song, “The Man I Love”, and it’s all sweet and sappy about a girl waiting around for that perfect guy that is going to give her the perfect life. (You know the song, right? Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James all sang it later. If you don’t know it, give it a listen before you keep reading).

Super sappy song, right? But totally sweet and hits you right in all the feel goods. The major difference being that I’m not sitting around.

Anyway, where the hell have you been? I mean, I’ve been keeping an eye out for a while now. My kids were toddler and infant when I first became available, and now they are both school age. (They are seriously growing so fast). Six years! I haven’t exactly been idly waiting. I’m running a business, getting in shape, making plans for a future that may well be solo, and generally loving life. I fell in love a couple times, briefly at least, but nothing took. I’m living the hell out of life, solo, and I quite like my company. Still hoping you’ll show up though.

I think I know a little bit about you already, because I know me so well. I have no doubt that you are going to surprise me all of the time with who you are and where you come from. I look forward to that, to constantly being taken aback by the person you are and the life you have lived.

I presume you will be the kind of guy who texts back, and who not only enjoys spending time with me but makes an effort to do so, and that you’ll be bold enough to start a conversation and invested enough to keep one going. I assume we will have similar interests that overlap: old Hollywood movies, live music, hearty laughter, delicious food in small quantities, a love of random selection and the human story, a desire to travel the world, and a nice blend of introvert/extrovert to us. I presume you’ll want to build something together, steadily and consistently, over time. I presume you’ll have heart and soul in equal measure, that you’ll do nice things and enjoy it when I do nice things back.

I presume that you are balanced, and that you have a life apart from mine, one that is full and fulfilling, with a job and family and friends and interests, and that you’ll want me to be a part of that life, and that we can work together to keep ourselves strong individually so we can be stronger together. I presume that my kids think you are hilarious and someone worthy of their trust.

I don’t care what you look like. I mean, obviously I do care what you look like, but I don’t have a type, as long as you take care of yourself. I am way more attracted to a man who can banter, who can hold a conversation, who can make me laugh, and who is kind to others. And a man who can stand for social justice, who can appreciate a powerful woman and who can embrace those who haven’t had it as easy as we have because of skin color or ethnicity or gender identity or country of origin or religion, well that is a man I can stand next to proudly. I prefer a man who can talk it out when things get tough, who can ask for what he needs, who can admit when he makes a mistake, and a man who listens, who doesn’t give me ultimatums or push me too hard before I’m ready.

And if you can enchant me with a pair of eyes, kiss me like I liked to be kissed, and hold me tight in a pair of strong arms, well, I have a feeling the rest is going to happen pretty naturally, and regularly, and repeatedly. Ahem. Better change the subject.

Anyway, mister man, wherever you are, I’m standing here rooted in place with my two little saplings, and growing upward, ever upward. I’m guessing the taller I get, the easier it will be to see me.

Anyway, I’ll close up with a few of Gershwin’s words. I almost look forward to those little silent moments between us the most.

“He’ll look at me and smile; I’ll understand.

And in a little while, he’ll take my hand.

And though it seems absurd, I know we both won’t say a word.

Maybe I shall meet him Sunday, maybe Monday maybe not.

Still I’m sure to meet him one day.”

See you around? Soon, maybe?

Sincerely, the Man You Love

President Trump

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Yesterday, a client asked me if I was nervous about the election results. I replied confidently, with spirit and heart and mind all in a line, and with a smile on my face.

“I’m not nervous at all. I believe in my heart that Hillary Clinton will win the presidency. Because she is qualified and competent, because she stands for positive values, because it is long past time in our history when women had a turn, and because all the polls support her triumph. And I cannot conceive of a world where Donald Trump is the President of the United States.”

Then, hours later, I watched with shock as the poll numbers started to roll in. I couldn’t believe even a few states were going for Trump. Then a few more. And over the next few hours, a deep dread and shock settled into my system as I realized the gap was closing. I stayed awake until nearly 2 am, fighting to fall asleep while the television droned on in the background, waiting with all hope that Hillary would pull out a victory at the end. But she didn’t. The American people, as a majority, voted for Donald Trump as President.

In two months, Donald Trump will be President. President Trump.

I tossed and turned all night, trying to come up with an optimistic view of our future. I’m not sure I can, I thought. My stomach was upset and my head hurt and I kept getting tears in my eyes. I would drift off to sleep for 15 minutes, exhausted, and then wake up for 45 more, my brain spinning and spinning.

To me, this election felt like all our hard work had paid off. All of our years of screaming to be noticed. So many incredible things happened in the last 8 years to give me hope, to make me trust. It’s like I spent 8 years in college and just knew I was going to get into the medical school I applied for. But the letter came back and I was denied entry. And I didn’t have a back-up plan.

I sat down with my sons last night, ages 8 and 5, and we had a conversation about the election, about how girls make great leaders and about how it isn’t okay to be a bully or to do mean things to people. And I so looked forward to showing them that the principles I am teaching them are corrupt, that the bad guys don’t win in the end. And I laid in bed last night in abject fear, not knowing how to have this conversation with them today, about how the bully won.

As I try to take my brain to the big picture, first I go to history. This country was founded on freedom for white men from oppressive religions and taxes. It was also found on the owning of Black people as slaves, the slaughtering of Native Americans, the denial of rights for women, and the heteronormative idea that there is only one way to love. Our most historic moments in the last 200 plus years have all come out of protest and strength: women picketing for the right to vote, black people marching for Civil Rights. We have survived the Depression and the Civil War, Viet Nam and Iraq, Watergate and the AIDS crisis. And I think the disenfranchised have found a voice, a movement in all of that to latch on to, to demand equality and freedom and a place at the table. And none of that changes today. We must still fight and organize and stand tall and lead our lives and demand equality and respect.

I then take my brain to this election itself. And I realize that I’m not sure there is much I/we could have done differently. The votes were close in those key places that would have made history different, like Florida and Pennsylvania. But the public voted for Trump, ignoring the Access Hollywood tapes and the lack of political experience and the mocking and violent rhetoric and the Twitter account, and they seized on Hillary’s Emails and her untrustworthiness. They equated the competent and professional woman with the billionaire reality television star with the rape allegations. I don’t know if there is a single thing that could have turned out differently.

I’m feeling a lot of things as I type this. In the past 12 hours, I have ranged from outraged to devastated to anxious to horrified to exhausted to crushed to baffled to despondent to numb. I remember September 11, 2001, being a young college student and waking up to the news feed as a reporter stood in front of the Twin Towers. On the live news feed, the second plane struck, and I fell back on the couch with an empty pit in my stomach knowing that everything had changed in that split second. I walked around in a daze for hours afterwards. And that’s how I feel today.

I have a friend who once attended an American-themed party in France. The European guests there dressed in baggy flannel shirts and jeans and Duck Dynasty beards, they carried toy guns, they ate popcorn by the handful and drank cheap beer out of plastic cups. They laugh at Americans, the rural white men with Southern drawls who thump Bibles and shame anyone who doesn’t look like them. This morning, I feel like we are an international joke because this is exactly what we look like today. The new president incited violence at rallies, encouraged revolution, and was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Hillary is going to be fine. America isn’t.

All this said, I always fall back on optimism. I expected to wake up this morning to a sunny beautiful day. Instead, it was a massive snowstorm. And I can spend time railing and screaming at the snow as it continues to blanket the earth. Or I can put on my coat and earmuffs and boots and grab my snow shovel and start putting the back work into clearing the sidewalk, knowing I’ll have to do that same work again in a few hours. I can get snow tires put on the car and I can drive more carefully to get to the places I need to go.

In another harsh reality comparison, imagine getting diagnosed with cancer. That is devastating. There will be grief, emotional and physical pain. But there must be a plan of action. A clear understanding with medical professionals about how to move forward with full knowledge about diet and stress levels and sleep patterns and medication routines and social support. If this is cancer, we need a clear path moving forward.

So today, I’m going to hug my sons, and take gulps of fresh air, and I’m going to put one foot in front of the other and walk forward as I grieve. Because the next four years are going to be the worst reality television show ever made, and I have a life to live.

Spoon seeking spoon

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I miss being married.

It took me a long time to get there. As a young Mormon man, I spent two years after high school knocking on doors as a missionary. After that, there was tremendous pressure to marry, constant and consistent from all sources. Marriage was defined as the ultimate destination in life, to marry young and to have children and to stay married until old, then die and still be married to each other in the Heavens. I don’t believe any of that now, but back then it was the only way to go for young Mormon men.

I was caught in a massive trap. I didn’t yet have the ability to have anything but shame about being gay, and thus couldn’t date men, and so I could only date women, who I felt no attraction toward. I coped by focusing on personality traits rather than physical appearance. I knew what type of wife I should want, but ultimately I just didn’t have any drive. I was scared to death to marry, and yet knew it was my only option. At the time, being gay or being single were both spiritually forbidden.

When I finally married my wife, I was 27 years old, and I had never held hands with or kissed anyone, male or female, up to that time. I found a girl with a tremendous personality and a huge heart, a beautiful woman who wanted to spend her life with me. We had a brief conversation about the fact that I was gay once during the six years (yes, six years) that we dated, and then we took the Mormon plunge and married in the temple.

And honestly, except for the whole gay/straight thing, marriage was awesome. (And yes, that played itself out in many ways, from me being the kind of husband who planned themed dinner parties to a very strained aspect to certain parts of the relationship). It was wonderful, for both of us, to have someone to come home to at the end of the day. We went to church together, we had friends over for dinner, we went to each other’s family holiday parties, we vacationed. We had silly rituals, like playing board games at night and the loser having to do the dishes. We painted bedrooms and planted gardens. We set and achieved financial goals together. Since I was already done with school, I helped her get through school financially, and then we both worked and supported each other. We bought a house and worked on the yard together. We talked, we laughed, we binge-watched television shows on DVD, we gave each other back massages. We were best friends.

And then we had our first son, and he was a miracle, and we both loved being parents. We worked hard together and we resolved conflicts well. Had it not been for the absolute demon of shame and pain dwelling inside me due to me hiding from who I really was, we could have lasted forever. In fact, when we got divorced, after the birth of our second son, a dear friend told us, “but you two were perfect! If you can’t make it, no one can!”

It’s coming up on six years now since I’ve been single. (She has moved on, by the way, and is very happily in love with a straight guy this time; I know readers are wondering that). And I remain single. Exhaustingly and determinedly single.

The first few years out of the closet were incredible and difficult. Being a newly out gay man navigating a divorce, a new job, a new city, and now free from a religion that harmed me, I had to figure out dating with a toddler and an infant who owned my heart, and all of the financial, emotional, and time responsibilities that come with that. Still, single has been good to me too. I’ve learned how to take care of myself. I’ve learned to travel, to set and achieve goals, to self-validate, to spend time alone and appreciate it. I’ve learned how to make friends and live authentically. I’ve learned how to be true to myself. I’ve learned how to be a single father (with shared custody) and how to embrace my time with my children and put them first while still putting me first.

Yet despite consistent efforts to the contrary, I remain single (which is something I’ve written about that an to an obnoxious degree over the years). Today it dawned on me that it took me six years to marry after I returned home from my Mormon mission, and now I’ve been out of the closet and single for nearly six years.

The major difference this time is (well, outside of being closer to 40 then 30, as well as all of the other obvious differences) that I’ve put effort into dating this time. That’s something I had to learn how to do: date. I missed all that as a teenager, so I had to learn to fall in love, to leave when it wasn’t right, to have my heart broken, to compromise while keeping clear boundaries, to be lonely, to know what I’m looking for.

Dating at this stage of my life, with two grade school age children, is relatively simple. You feel a connection with someone, you ask them out for coffee some time. If there is interest back, they’ll say yes. If the guy says yes, and if coffee goes well, and there is conversation and interest on both sides, I’ll invite them out on an actual date–a play or live music perhaps, and dinner. Here is where it tends to fall apart: if the date was fun, I’ll say something simple like ‘I would enjoy seeing you again’, and then… that’s it. There is the expectation that they will initiate the second date. Days will turn into weeks and the guy generally remains silent. And for me, if there isn’t reciprocity and clear communication, well, then I’m not interested.

And that, in short, is my dating life this past year, with a few exceptions. There are the guys who show way too much interest way too quickly, and the guys who don’t have their lives together (as in lacking a job or going through a major crisis of some kind). And then there are the guys who seem interested but are too passive to ever express direct interest. And there was one guy I fell for pretty hard for a few months, but that didn’t turn out well at all. And I’ve certainly broken a few hearts and have had my heart broken a few times. Who knows, maybe I’m picky. But I know what feels right, and I’m absolutely unwilling to sacrifice my authenticity for an unhealthy coupling.

And so, single remains incredible and lonely. I get to set and achieve goals, and travel on my terms. I spend incredible times with my sons, having all kinds of adventures. And yet, I do miss being married. It would be wonderful to have all of those things that you see happy couples having: someone to come home to at the end of the day, someone to host parties with, someone to cuddle up to on rainy days, someone to raise the kids with.

And until that day when/if that relationship happens, well, I have a big comfy pillow that fits right under my arm where the little spoon should go.

when the kids aren’t there

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Even after 8 years of this parenting thing, I still have no idea what I’m doing.

Being a dad challenges me at my very core. It challenges the way I view my present and my future, and the way I interpret my past. It influences my dating, my travel, my freedom, the way I exercise, the way I spend money, the ways I choose to spend my time.

It honestly tears me into exhausted shreds sometimes. It is my fondest wish to create a nurturing and supportive home environment for my children. I have a nice home where they have their own bedroom filled with toys… a bedroom that is empty more than it is full due to a custody arrangement that places my children with me about six days a month.

I used to keep a cupboard full of snacks for the kids. But then I found myself eating the snacks when they were gone. So now I just buy fresh snacks when they come over.

Recently I purchased a small cat for my older son’s birthday. He’s been asking for a dog or a cat for, literally, years, and I figured now was the right time to provide that. I took myself over to the animal shelter and I sat in the corner of the cat adoption room, and a small little grey-and-white thing, a 5 year old cat, plopped itself into my lap, then climbed up on my shoulders. I adopted it minutes later. My son named the cat Lilly Potter.

A friend asked me if I enjoyed having the cat, and I said yes, that it was kind of nice to have the company. The friend then joked, wondering if I got the cat for me or for my kids. My response to him was a bit sad, a bit sober. It surprised him.

“The cat is for them, definitely. And the cat represents both of my worlds, strangely. It is my job to provide a safe and nurturing home for my sons when they are with me, and to also create a full and fulfilling life for myself for the nights they aren’t with me. So now, I have a cat. And the cat is for them, but in ways it is for me, cause now I have a bit of company around.”

This seemed to help the friend understand me a bit better. My situation isn’t always easy to describe. There are a lot of divorced moms and dads out there, and many of them don’t get to see their children nearly often enough, and many of them have difficulty finding their lease on life while they balance out the time and money commitments of parenting, the struggles in raising kids, and the heartbreak and loneliness that can set in during times when your kids aren’t around.

I’ve gotten a bit accustomed to sharing holidays now. My sons went on a trip for a week with their mother recently, and my phone contact with them was limited. I don’t always get to see them on their birthdays, and I’ve done Christmases alone, Thanksgivings alone, and, tonight, Halloween alone. They are out trick-or-treating. And when they are done, they will call to tell me good night, and then tomorrow I’ll pick them up and we will do our own little celebration.

I am told often by people who don’t have children, or by people who don’t see their children often, how lucky I am. And I agree completely. I am richly blessed and insanely fortunate to have these two beautiful boys to raise. Anyone who knows me knows how much they define me and how much I love them. That aside, though, it is a major area of struggle.

One of the hardest parts is interacting with people who don’t have kids. Most of my friends are gay men. They travel and hit the gym, they own homes, they date and have parties, they go out drinking and dancing. And, obviously, I date within this community as well. Having kids means I don’t have a tremendous amount of financial freedom. It means I can’t hit many of the parties, or pursue the relationships, or be available for dates. It also means my time is precious and valuable, and I try to make the most of it when I have it.

It also means profound loneliness sometimes, with sounds bouncing off of empty walls, and watching the phone to see if the person you are reaching out to is texting back, and trying not to be unreasonably sad when they don’t. It means inserting myself into social situations haphazardly, when I can, and seeking human connection while I remain a bit aloof from those around me.

The loneliness has been getting to me lately, and it feels a bit pathetic to recognize that, but I think other parents will understand when they read this. I’m lonely when my kids are home, because I want to be around other people and to connect, and I want someone to share the raising of them with. And I’m lonely when my kids are not home, because I want them there, and heading out into the big world of single men when I know I have to pick up my kids in the morning, it’s strange and isolating.

And so tonight, I sit with my fingers clacking on a keyboard, a decaf coffee and a glass of water at my side, in a coffee shop full of strangers because that feels less threatening to my own house, and I type out my thoughts on a blank screen for a handful of strangers and loved ones to read… while my sons, dressed as a Jedi and Harry Potter, knock doors and ask for candy. And in an hour, they will call me and tell me about their night, and there won’t be a hint of loneliness in my voice. I’ll be thrilled, and interested, and ask about every detail of their days like what they learned at school and what they ate for lunch and what they played at recess and if they had fun trick-or-treating. And then I’ll tell them how much I love them, and I’ll hang up. I’ll turn on music and crack open a beer and fold laundry and maybe watch an old Halloween movie by myself, and then I’ll head to bed and listen for the sounds of my sons’ breathing even though they aren’t there.

hummingbirds

Hummingbird.jpg

I woke up in someone else’s house this morning.

It was peaceful and I had the realization that it felt more like home than my home does.

I sat out on the veranda at 6 am, clutching my hot cup of coffee in my hands, and I watched the sun rise over the valley. The house is up in the hills, behind the Capitol Building in Salt Lake City, and offers a beautiful view of the valley for miles and miles around. I looked at long stretching roads toward the south, rolling hills to the east, lights and buildings and distant traffic, clouds and atmosphere.

My heart literally skipped when I looked up to see hummingbirds at the feeder. Two of them. Their wings flapped swiftly, in little blurs, as the birds launched themselves several feet in one direction, then hovered there in the air before launching somewhere else. I watched them for a full 15 minutes, these small and fragile and amazing creatures.

Back inside, I looked at the home itself. Hardwood floors and marble countertops. Soft lighting. Black and white photos of trees in snow on the walls. An espresso machine. Freshly picked lilies on the table. Comfortable chairs with pillows. Wide spaces and high ceilings. Air conditioning. I looked behind me and the hummingbirds were still there, visible with the entire world behind them.

I’m alone here, and that is appropriate. I’m house-sitting for a friend of mine, a man who came out of the closet around the same time as me, a man who also has two children, although his children are much older than mine. A man who fell in love with another man right away, a relationship that lasted two years. And now he was in love again, going on another two years, and he and his boyfriend had moved in together, in this beautiful home in this beautiful place, with hummingbirds and lilies.

In some alternate world, this was my fate. A beautiful home, a partner, a yard and a view, a place for my children to feel grounded and at home when they come over. My path has taken its own turns, though, to an apartment filled with furniture and toys that doesn’t feel like home, like the one before it didn’t and the one before that.

I sat down in one of the chairs, sipped my coffee, and contemplated where I am at in life right now. Things are changing all around me. Of my two best friends, Cole is in love with someone now, and Kurt is gone. My ex-wife has been in a new relationship for over a year. My sons are entering kindergarten and second grade soon, and the younger one is having his fifth birthday in just a few days.

And here I am, feeling more at home in someone else’s home than my own.

It’s a strange realization that I’ve been out of the closet for over five years now, and that I have achieved so much, yet I still haven’t found a home. I’ve lived in 8 different apartments in two different cities in that time span, searching for that grounding, that sense of belonging. But it simply isn’t there yet. I’m grounded in my own skin, that part feels wonderful, but I haven’t found a place to belong yet.

Much remains elusive to me, and it may always be so. Satisfaction, love, financial success, nutrition and fitness, things I continually strive for. My path is my own now. It feels like my own. I enjoy being hungry for more in my life. I enjoy the balance of the pursuit of knowledge and success and raising my children, at least so far. Despite all of that, it’s been a rough and strange year.

I look back at the hummingbirds. One of them is at the feeder now. It looks almost serenely still for several seconds as it drinks, it’s body not moving. But it’s wings… it’s wings are going one hundred miles per hour in order to hold it in place.

Then a huge smile crosses my face as I watch it, and realize maybe it and I are just a little bit alike.

Fireworks

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

But the fireworks were beautiful nonetheless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

firework

transgender stick figures

trans

J, my seven year old is growing, and quickly. He’s a brilliant child, full of imagination and love for life. His hair is long in the center and combed over to the side, the sides shaved down a bit, making him look more grown up. He has a dusting of freckles on his cheeks, and both his front teeth are loose. Just last week, he graduated first grade and got a certificate for his achievements in math. He can be a little bit shy, but he’s also bold and very sweet. He will walk up to strangers and offer his hand, ask their name and introduce himself, with first, middle, and last names. He likes baby bunnies and feels bad that they get eaten by eagles and foxes. He draws pictures endlessly. He names his toys and creates stories with them nonstop. He dances, moving his entire body around the room, just because. He sings in front of crowds, into a microphone, without fear. He is an incredible child.

My sons live with their mother most of the time, and with me a few days per week. She’s dating someone seriously now, and the boys are spending more and more time with him and his two children.

Last night, as I made dinner, J came in to the kitchen to talk.

“Hi, dad, I have a question.”

“All right, monkey, what is it?” I stirred the spaghetti sauce in the pan.

“Well, if mom gets married, I’ll have a step-dad.”

I smiled, nodding. I genuinely like the guy, so that helps, but it is jarring to add another parent into the mix. “Yes, that’s right. And you would have a step-brother and step-sister who would live with you every other weekend.”

He moved around the room without looking at me while he talked. “Yeah. I like them. So I would have a mom and a dad and a step-dad. That sounds fun.”

I laughed. Ever the optimist, this one. “Yes, that does sound fun.”

“And if you got married, then I would have two step-dads.”

“Yes, that’s right, too.”

He crinkled his nose, like he does when he is thinking. “I would have three dads and one mom. Are there kids that have three moms and one dad?”

“Absolutely. Some kids have one mom. Some kids have four moms. Some kids have three dads and two moms. There is every kind of family out there.”

He grinned again. “Yeah, that’s cool.”

“It is cool, isn’t it?”

“Are some kids in my class gay, do you think?”

“I bet there are. But they are probably too little to know. Boys and girls who are gay sometimes figure it out when they grow up. It’s the same for transgender people.”

J tried the word out. “Transgender. What does that mean?”

A few minutes later, I had the food finished, and I sat down with J at the table with loose leaf paper and a pen. I drew four stick figures, a small depiction of our family, three boys and a girl.

“Okay, here is me. My body is a boy. How do we know a body is a boy body?”

“It has a penis.”

“Right. I’m a boy on the outside, and I’m also a boy on the inside. My spirit is a boy. I’m gay, which mean I like to date other boys. Now here is Mom. She has a girl body, and girls have a vagina. And she is also a girl on the inside. She’s straight because she likes to date boys.  And here are you and your brother.”

J smiled, catching on. “We are both boys on the outside and on the inside.”

“That’s right, monkey. Okay, now look at this.”

I drew another little stick figure. “This is my friend Jamie. When Jamie was born, she had a boy body.”

J crinkled his brow. “You said she.”

I grinned. “Yes I did. Even though Jamie was a boy on the outside, she was a girl on the inside.  Her spirit was a girl. So when she was little, she thought she was a boy for a while, but when she got older she realized she was really a girl. So now she is a grown up. She uses a girl’s name, Mary, and she wears dresses and has long hair and she likes makeup and she is a girl.”

J looked at the images for a minute. “So she still has a boy body?”

“Well, that part doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if she has a penis or a vagina. It just matters that she is a girl and we treat her like a girl. And sometimes there are people who are born with girl bodies who are really boys on the inside.”

“Like maybe a baby girl named Sue growed up and became a boy named Sam instead?”

“Yeah, kind of like that.”

J looked at the drawings for a few seconds. “That’s cool,” he repeated. “Can I go show my brother this?”

“Of course, monkey. Go ahead.”

J grabbed the paper and went skipping out of the room. “A! Come here! I want to show you transgender!”

“Daddy, am I going to Hell?”

Hell

“Daddy, am I going to Hell?”

I looked up to the rearview mirror in shock, my eyes open wide. I looked at my four year old son, A, in the backseat, his hair tousled from a hard day of play at school, a jelly stain on his beloved shark shirt. His eyes are so blue.

“A, of course you aren’t going to Hell! Why would you ask that?”

My eyes flashed over to J, my 7 year old, on the other side of the backseat, strapped into his booster seat. He looked over at his little brother, ever the supporter. “Yeah, A, y would you ask that?” He must have noticed the touch of concern in my voice.

A shrugged, not disturbed, just curious. “Well, Heavenly Father created Heaven for good people and Hell for bad people.”

I grimaced internally but didn’t show it on my face. Now more of an atheist, I was raised an active Mormon, and remembered growing up with the vision of sunlight and clouds for the angels, and torture and fire and brimstone with the evil laughing devil over them for the bad guys. I try hard to instill in my children a wide world view of living happy lives and understanding all religions. They attend the Unitarian Church with their mother now, but they still visit their grandparents regularly, their grandparents being active Mormons who pray and still teach them about Heavenly Father and Jesus and Heaven and Hell. And they naturally have questions.

“A, you are definitely a good person. You are a great kid.”

J chipped in, still concerned. “Yeah, A. And you have a good family who loves you.”

A was looking out the window. “Well, I know why there is a devil.”

“Yeah? Why is that, A?”

“Well, cause Heavenly Father created one. And he lives in Hell. He’s a really really mean bad guy. He’s more mean than the Joker or Loki or Green Goblin. But he’s kind of like the Joker.”

“How is he like the Joker?”

“He likes to joke! And they are mean jokes!”

I made eye contact with him in the mirror and suppressed a laugh. A has the most serious little look on his face when he’s being dramatic like this, talking about sharks or super villains.

“Yeah, he is definitely a mean guy.” J interjected, looking up at me to back him up.

Before I could respond, A switched topics. “How come there aren’t dinosaurs anymore?”

I smiled, keeping my eyes on the road. “Well, dinosaurs lived a long, long time ago and they all died.”

A talked right over me. “They were born even before Grandma. And Heavenly Father created them, too. But I wish they were still alive. Then I could fight a T-Rex. I’m faster and they have tiny little arms.”

The boys chattered on for a minute, hilarious and random as they usually are, as I thought silently. When there was a lull in conversation, I went back to the concerning topic.

“A, how come you asked if you are going to Hell?”

He looked at me this time, in the mirror. “I was just wondering.”

I gave him my intense dad look, conveying seriousness and pride and silliness all at once, my eyebrows knit down and my eyes on his. “Well listen up, little man. There is no way you are going to Hell. And even if you did, you know what I would do?”

“What?” He asked in wonder.

“I would get all of my friends and everyone who loves you and I would lead them down there and we would rescue you. We would fight the devil and everyone and I would win. Then I would put you on my back, piggy-back, and I would carry you back to Earth.”

He had an expression of adventure on his face. “You could fight dragons! And–and dinosaurs!”

“Yes! I’ll fight them all because I love you! And J would help me! He would use all of his super powers and his super brain and we would rescue you!”

A sat up taller. “Yeah, and after you get me out of my Hell cage I could fight with you, too! I’ll punch the devil right in the face cause I’m so strong!”

J joined in now, sitting up taller as well. “Yeah, and I will dance and run all over and so fast! We will save you, A!”

A few hours later, after a pancake with peanut butter dinner and pretending we are sharks in a swimming pool and bath time and pajamas, I cuddled my boys, one on each arm, and made up stories to tell them about giant frogs and fairy princesses and sabretooth tigers. I sang them their favorite lullabies and tucked them in to sleep. I walked in a while later and looked at them sleeping. J lay in the shorts and tank top he had chosen to sleep in, underneath the three blankets he had pulled around his frame. A lay in thick wool pajamas he had chosen, with no blankets, flipped upside down with his feet on the pillow. I listened to their breathing and wondered about their dreams. But I hoped that if they dreamed of monsters or villains or devils, that perhaps I appeared in some form as their ally, as their dad, as their rescuer.

Because they have certainly rescued me.