Tarot

I never thought I’d be back here.

When I came to New Orleans a few years ago, on a random night, I’d ended up in a voodoo shop where a man read my coconut shells while channeling the spirits of the Congo. It had cost forty dollars, and despite my entering the room with a lot of skepticism, I had had a surprisingly spiritual experience.

And now I was here on a weekend away with my boyfriend, and when we walked by the same voodoo shop, I thought it might be great to get my fortune told again. The woman behind the desk told me that the psychic this evening was “Jacob, who does Tarot readings.” She told me it would be a five minute wait, swiped my credit card, and invited me to explore the store. So for the next thirty minutes, I looked at small statues representing patron saints, examined various beads and charms, smelled rows full of incense, and flipped through a book on “psychic defenses” and one on “animal totems”. It all felt very Harry Potter somehow.

And then, finally, it was my turn. Jacob invited me into the back room, the same place I had had my coconut shells read years earlier. I took a seat across the small table, covered in a white table cloth, and Jacob sat to face me as Mike sat to my side. Jacob was probably thirty. He was handsome, in a billowy white shirt and with long shoulder-length chestnut hair. He wore a white bandana around his head. He had kind eyes and uneven teeth. He shuffled the cards idly as he talked.

“Have you ever had your tarot cards read before?”

“I haven’t.”

Jacob explained that he tended to provide the best guidance for those who were seeking general counsel in a particular area of their life. He had a slight Southern drawl. “You could look for advice regarding what to do about a relationship or a career decision or something more personal. Then the cards will help determine a particular path for you to move forward with. What area would you like to focus in on?” He shuffled again.

I spoke without hesitation. I hadn’t given it thought earlier, but there was only one area in my life I needed guidance on. “I need to know where to place my creative energy. I’ve had an incredibly fulfilling creative year with multiple ventures, but I’m finding my efforts are either yielding small results or moving into spaces where I have to wait for months upon months for other people to keep commitments and obligations. I have a lot of creative energy and I don’t know where to place it.”

Mike grinned. “I knew you were going to say that.”

Jacob gave me a solemn nod then shuffled the cards a few more times, seemingly centering himself. He looked down and breathed evenly. I found myself wondering what his day-to-day life was like. He was almost certainly gay, and working as a tarot reader on Bourbon Street by night. He pulled cards from the deck and placed them on the table.

The Moon card went first, placed upside down in the center. Then the Tower (upside down) and the Ace of Swords (right side up) on either side of it. Above that, the Four and Six of Wands. Jacob took a long look at the cards and gave a frustrated sigh at the placement of the first two cards. He considered things for a long moment, and then began to explain.

The Moon card, he explained in great detail, pointing out the various images on the card and what they stood for, represented being lost in the darkness and struggling to find a path. He described the chaos of this path, and all of the influences that kept the person in the darkness, but he pointed out that since the card was flipped over, it meant that the way ahead would soon be clear, and the path out of the darkness soon revealed. He went on to talk about the Tower card and its placement, ultimately stating that it represented a sudden and chaotic shift, and he believed that for me, this meant a positive shift, with something bearing fruit in the near future.

Jacob reviewed the other cards, and they felt more vague in their interpretations to me, but as he spoke, he gave indirect advice. He encouraged me to be patient with current projects, and then challenged me to find a new venture, a new space to put my current creative energy toward, with the idea that it is more likely to be successful. He recommended a more personal venture, something breaking ground that I might have been afraid to face before.

As he concluded his reading, Jacob inquired what my past ventures had already been.

“I’ve had a number of big projects, some which have fallen to the wayside with little success,” I stated, remembering my in-depth research into the LGBT YouTube channel I had run and, well, this blog. “And others have had some rudimentary success, such as a published comic book and memoir, both with great reviews, and a documentary that I spent years making that is now finished. All of these have fallen into categories where I have to wait for others to pull through before I can continue, like literary agents, film editors, and fundraisers. I’ve interfaced with a lot of incredible people, but ultimately the speed at which things go is out of my control.”

Jacob nodded, listened, then spouted off more advice about not losing hope, trying new things, and going to new places, and I felt myself grow more frustrated with each word. Soon the tarot reading was over and he shook my hand, asking if I had any questions, and I said no.

Mike and I walked out of the voodoo shop and down the street, talking about what it must be like to be a tarot reader. “It’s probably a lot like doing therapy,” he said. “This guy has to learn his cards and how to read them, and then the real skill comes in how to interpret them for the individual in front of him.”

I realized there was some truth to this. He could have used those same cards, the Moon and the Tower and the others, to talk about relationships or careers, life choices and existential crises. And, I realized, that more than anything, the reading had brought to the surface my feelings of frustration and stagnancy. I was walking away wrestling with things that I hadn’t given voice to in some time. And, well, when I do therapy, that is how many of my clients leave the room, facing their own demons.

We kept walking. I looked up and couldn’t see the moon. The sky was dark and cloudy, and light rain dripped down on me. The Moon card flashed back into my brain and I pictured myself on that path, looking for the light. Maybe there was something to this Tarot business. Or maybe I was just searching for a path to be on.

TarotMoon

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Seeking Discreet Hook-Up

CL

I saw the ad for “discreet hook-up”, in the Men Seeking Men section on Craigslist. It was alluring.

“Discreet local athlete. Looking for discreet encounter with regular or semi-regular partner. Want someone who is fit, who knows what they want, who doesn’t ask questions, and above all, is discreet. Discretion is a must!”

Three “discreets” and one “discretion is a must”, complete with exclamation point! This guy was more paranoid than I was!

Back in 2011, I had only been out of the closet for a few months, and I was still too scared to show my picture in situations like this. I was only selectively out of the closet at that point, meaning only a few people knew that I was gay. If someone on the other end of that computer screen saw me… what if they knew me? What if they were in my ward, or worse what if they were a former client of mine? No, the risks were far too great.

So instead of sending the requested photo, I sent a description of myself. “5’11’’, 175. Not in perfect shape, but regularly go to the gym. Recently out. Seeking connections and could be fun to meet up.”

And when I checked my Email the next morning, he replied. “If you’re real and interested, send photos. I would send one, but I’m discreet.”

Discreet, okay, I get it already! I sent a quip back that I was uncomfortable sending a photo without seeing one in return. Then he replied, “Fine, but you better be good-looking. I’ll meet you in the front lobby of my apartment building. But don’t tell anyone you are coming. What time should I expect you?”

And so, after getting off work that afternoon, I found myself driving to an unfamiliar address. I’d passed this building a thousand times and never had reason to go inside. As I parked the car, I wondered what I was doing. This could be a woman, a troll, a con artist, an older man. Anyone can use any description from behind a keyboard. But in a situation like this, where we were both scared of exposure, it seemed that we both had a lot to lose, and that equal playing field gave me bravery.

Sex with men was still something very new to me. At this point, I’d only met up with a half-dozen guys, and all of them had been brief encounters with guys who, like me, had a lot to lose. There was the college student who’d looked like a grown-up Harry Potter, the tall model looking guy here on vacation, the rugged carpenter guy. All of them one-time meetings with guys I would never see again.

I was living in a fairly rural area of north Idaho, and meeting guys seemed difficult and confusing, especially since I wasn’t looking to date yet. The novelty of meeting random guys was already wearing off, but after decades in the closet, finding physical connections was proving to be a bit addictive. All those years of holding myself back, and now my adolescent self was screaming, and the hormones just wouldn’t quit. Kissing was amazing, touching was incredible, skin-to-skin contact was bliss. Orgasms now no longer brought with them crippling shame and nausea. Who knew sex could be this fun! All the previous versions of me from every age, 13, 16, 20, 25… they were all celebrating within me with every experience, shouting out, ‘Finally, Chad, finally!’ A quick encounter, even if unfulfilling, was titillating, sexy, a bit risky. But after a few days, I would already be wanting more. It was a little easier to drive west to Spokane, Washington, where they had a few clubs, places I could actually meet guys, but that meant late nights when everyone but me was drinking, and a long drive home. For now, random encounters would have to do.

After sending the stranger a quick Email saying that I was there, I headed into the apartment building lobby. I didn’t know a name, what he looked like, or even if he was married, and I would avoid asking any questions on purpose. If I could just shut down the ethics in my brain, maybe I could kick back and enjoy this. God, I hoped he was cute.

In the lobby, I took a seat, and casually looked at the décor. A minute later, the elevator dinged open and a very cute black guy walked out. I mean, very cute. Frizzy hair, caramel skin, full lips, athletic build, gorgeous brown eyes, lean and muscular with a perfect butt. He was wearing grey sweat pants and a black tank top. He stayed in the elevator as I stood up, looked me over for a minute, then made eye contact. Without speaking, or even smiling, he craned his neck, indicating I should enter the elevator, then he stepped back inside. I followed and looked over at him, extending a hand to introduce myself. “I’m Chad—“ I started, but he just shook his head no.

“Not yet,” he said.

The elevator rose to the seventh floor, then I followed him down the hallway, confused but also very interested. A few doors down, we entered his apartment, and he closed and locked the door behind him. The place looked more like a hotel room, not like a place that was lived in. It was too clean, too sterile, with black furniture and the kind of art on the wall that could be purchased at a place like Bed, Bath, and Beyond. We stood there in the entryway and he finally looked at me.

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear your name. And I’m not going to share mine. If this goes well, it could be a more than one time thing for you. I don’t live here, but I come use the company apartment a lot, and can host when I’m here. But if you ever see me out in the streets, you just keep walking. I don’t want a hello, a wave, or anything. I won’t know you either. Don’t try it. Seriously, just don’t.” He paused, looking me in the eyes, then he pulled his tank top over his head. “Now you.”

I unbuttoned my own shirt as I looked over his very nice body. Lean, strong stomach, chiseled chest, a bit of curly chest hair. He kept talking.

“I’m a runner. I take care of myself. And I like the guys I am with to take care of themselves also.” He watched as I slid my shirt off, twisting his lips upward as he appraised me. “Not the kind of guy I usually go for. But I can tell you try hard, and you’ve got a cute face.” His eyes shifted up. “You’ve got some grey hair. How old are you?”

“33.”

“I’m 26. I like that you’re older, that works in your favor. Follow me. Leave your shirt there.”

I followed him into the sparsely furnished living room, avoiding flashing thoughts like ‘axe murderer’ and ‘narcissist’. He took a seat and looked at me. “You can go ahead and take your pants off,” he indicated, and I could tell he was a little bit aroused. I was confused, appalled, and intrigued by his orders all at once. A guy this handsome, maybe he could get away with it.

“If we are going to do this, I’m going to want lots of kissing,” he said as I unbuckled my belt, and I indicated that would be fine. “Before we do anything, I also want to make sure we are both clean. I’d like to shower first. Why don’t you join me.” It was a statement, not a question.

As we headed toward his bathroom, my brain flashed back to my first time at a gay club in Spokane just weeks before. It had been a freezing cold night, and there had been a line to get inside, with the club at full capacity. It had been after 11 pm and I’d been standing there shivering for 30 minutes when a very drunk gay man came stumbling out of the club with a couple of his friends, struggling to put on his own coat. He began talking loudly to the line of people outside.

“Sorry everyone, the club is full! They are only letting hot people in now!” As he walked by, he began rating everyone, in a very effeminate voice. “You aren’t hot enough. You don’t get in. You definitely don’t get in. But you, you can go inside right now! Look at you!” As he’d walked away, I’d been both secretly flattered to be the one pointed out as hot, and horrified at how he had treated the others. The newly out gay man who liked attention, and the social worker part of me that demanded social justice, were at war with each other.

Those parts felt at war again now, as I entered the shower with this man, feeling both intrigued and judged. He kept surveying me, as if wondering if I was worth his time, and that was a terrible feeling, and then he’d smile a bit and seem interested, and that was a fantastic feeling. And he looked very, very good naked.

When the water was warm enough, he handed me the bottle of shower gel and instructed me to wash him. I gave him a confused look, and he turned his head impatiently. Clearly, he was used to giving orders and having them followed. After I washed his back and he rinsed off, he handed me a straight razor. “Why don’t you go ahead and shave my back?”

He turned his back to me and I could see long, straight, shaggy hairs, haphazard across his back and shoulders. “You want me to shave your back?”

He didn’t turn around. “Yeah. It’s not like I can see back there. What, you can shower with me, but not shave my back? It’s no big deal, dude.”

This had to be some kind of joke. I hesitated with the razor in hand, and quickly plotted my exit strategy. I’d have to leave the shower, dry off, get dressed, and run away, ride the elevator back down to my car. I was here already. This was weird, but I was here already.

So for the next few minutes, I shaved his back. The razor was dull, cheap, and I worried more than once that I would cut him. I didn’t know this man’s name, and here I was engaging in this incredibly intimate act. Moderately long isolated hairs washed free, more than I had initially noticed, until his back was smooth and clear. When I finished, he turned around, clearly pleased, like I’d passed the test.

We kissed a bit there, then he pulled back. “Remember, after this, you see me, you don’t know me.” I rolled my eyes, agreed, and then started kissing him again. He interrupted one last time. “All right, daddy, now you’re in charge.”

Thirty minutes later, I left the apartment, after denying the sexy stranger a few very uncomfortable things he’d demanded. He’d been disgusted that I wouldn’t concede to his every request, even though technically I was supposed to be in charge at that point. But after shaving his back, I was done conceding. I never saw him again, though I did see that same “discreet hook-up” ad back up a few weeks later.

I drove away, smiling and teary eyed both over this new secret life of mine, and wondered what it would take to live, out and proud, and find encounters, ways to be true to all parts of myself, without shame. But the entire community seemed to be full of complicated guys, closeted guys, judgmental guys. I didn’t know where I fit in all of it yet. Eventually, I wanted a long-term relationship, but for now, Craigslist would have to do.

Animal Doctor

Animaldoctor

“GrrrhissgrrhssssgrrROARslurp!

A, my 6-year old son, lurked down the hall in a crouch, curling two fingers on each hand into twisted claws. He rounded the corner, making a series of growls and hisses before he made a small roar. He finished off the monster song with a long slurping sound of spit being sucked through teeth.

When he noticed me sitting on the couch and looking at him, he immediately straightened up to a human posture and began explaining. A can talk for several minutes without interruption, and I’ve developed the skill to patiently listen and give him all of my intention, letting him know that each word of his is important to me.

“Oh, hey, Dad, I was being a raptor. You know, like those little T-Rex creatures from Jurassic Park? They walk differently than humans so I was putting my butt back and sticking my head out and then kind of walking like with my feet forward and out like this.” He gave me a quick demonstration of his posture again. “And then I was sticking my fingers like this for claws. I was pretending that I was like hunting some prey down a hall here and then I hissed to scare it and then roared when I attacked it, and did you hear that like spit sound at the end, that was me eating the creature. I had to make a wet sound because that was the sound of the creature’s blood and wounds and stuff.”

I winced a bit at the graphic nature as he continued talking. A has been fascinated by predators his entire life. He loves all animals, but, rather like Hagrid from the Harry Potter series, he has the most fondness for the ugly, toothy, craggy creatures, and he automatically sees them as cuddly and misunderstood all at once. Tigers, sharks, hyenas, falcons, gross bottom dwellers and fierce meat-eaters. Anything with claws or rows of teeth automatically makes his favorite list. Yet at the same time, he coos and fawns over baby animals of any kind, but especially mammals. A tells stories constantly, and his epic tales generally star a baby mammal of some kind with a fierce predator of another kind who comes to protect it. He stories commonly result in bloodshed of some kind or other, but it is almost always evil humans who meet grisly ends. It’s never animals.

At the same time, A has a tremendous sensitivity about him. Violence in any form, particularly directed toward animals, leads to long piercing cries. He despises cruelty. I’ve been reading my sons the Wonderful Wizard of Oz books recently, the original ones from 1900 and on. In the original book, in one scene, the massive Kalidahs (with heads of tigers and bodies of bears) attack Dorothy and her friends, and the Tin Woodsman casually lops off the heads of the beasts; in another chapter, the Scarecrow rings the necks of 40 crows and the Tin Woodsman kills forty attacking wolves. Each of these details has caused a crying spell in my sensitive son, who now hates Dorothy’s companions for their wanton violence. “I hope the Tin Woodsman never gets his heart!” he yelled after yet another beast, a wildcat, was killed.

“They didn’t have to do that!” he exclaimed. “They could have just hided or scared the animals away! Why did the author let that happen!”

A has been telling me recently that he wants to be an animal doctor, a veterinarian when he grows up. I’ve been telling him that he’ll have to go to college and learn a lot, how he’ll have to choose an area of specialty.

“Some veterinarians work with small animals and pets, like cats, dogs, birds, and lizards. Some work on farm animals. And there are special kinds that work on zoo animals, like elephants , and they have to get special training. Some work on big cats, some work on predator birds, some work on large fish. What kind of veterinarian would you want to be?”

I assumed his answer would be all about predators. But he surprised me. “I think I’d want to work on cute little animals and kittens.”

Just yesterday, I found A, and his brother, J, playing with their collection of animal toys. My boyfriend and I have been slowly getting them a collection of rare animals: a black rhino, a cassowary, a rhinoceros hornbill, a lynx, an octopus, a water buffalo. The boys have dozens of them. From the next room, I heard them playing out a scenario.

“Doctor Otter! The wolverine has been injured! He needs a surgery!” J said.

A put an official tone in his voice to respond. “Well, luckily, I am specially trained. I can treat his wounds, open him up, fix him, and then tuck his meat all back in. He’ll be better in no time!”

Friday night, I had friends over to my home to watch an old movie, Out of Africa. In the middle of the film, A came to sit on the floor, watching as Meryl Streep led her allies on a trek across Nairobi. As the humans slept, a pair of lions attacked, scattering the oxen and killing one of them before the beasts were scared away. A stood up in the center of the room.

“Wait, did those lions actually kill that ox?”

“Not in real life, but as part of the story, yes.”

“WHY! WHY DID THEY DO THAT!”

“Well, it was part of the story. You know how lions hunt zebras, gazelles, wildebeests, and other animals, right?”

“Well, yes, but they didn’t have to show it!” He began shaking and crying as he climbed up into my lap in tears, snuggling me tight for comfort. “They didn’t have to show it!” he cried again.

“Son, they didn’t actually show anything. But really, lions should only hunt when we can’t see it!”

“Do you think the humans should hunt down the lions now?”

“No! Of course not! They were only trying to survive!”

A few minutes later, nestled into me, no longer crying, he muttered softly. “I just don’t want anyone to get hurt. I don’t want to see it.”

This from my raptor child who mimics the sounds of meat being eaten, from my carnivore who pretends to be Dr. Otter packing the meat back in, from my sensitive child who cuddles into his father for comfort. This, from my complicated, beautiful son.

“I don’t want anyone hurt either, son.”

And soon he fell asleep.

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.

Universal

universal-studios-orlando-review

One day, an executive for a company sat down and thought, Hmm, people love the movies. And people love parks. What if we made a movie park. Disneyland did it with Snow White and Cinderella and all that. They have rides and castles and people in costumes. What if we did that for beloved movies?

And so that executive pitched the idea, and it was accepted, and a giant plot of land was purchased, and worlds collided as giant rides and structures, food stations and shops were built around common themes. Jurassic Park, King Kong, the Simpsons, Marvel Super Heroes, and the newest crowd draw, Harry Potter. They built the parks, and they came up with marketing strategies, and they opened the doors, charging hundreds of dollars per person to come inside. And soon, billions were pouring.

On our first day in Universal Studios, all 30 members of my family wore matching shirts, black and white striped prisoner of Azkaban shirts emblazoned with our names and prisoner numbers, and the employees gushed at our creativity. We waited in a long line to park, walked a long distance to the park entrance, and waited in line to enter. Friendly employees scanned our tickets (my two sons and I cost nearly $700 for park tickets for two days, not including parking, lodging, airfare, or food), and then we started to walk. And walk. And walk.

The large family group had agreed to meet for a photograph on the bridge in front of Hogwarts, in the Harry Potter section of the park, and it took us a full hour for everyone to assemble. We smiled for our photos, then moved into Hogwarts itself, where we stood in line for an hour to go on an incredible motion ride with Harry Potter and his friends. Hungry, we moved to a nearby food line, where we waited for 40 minutes to order, and the kids fell asleep on the bench while eating, already exhausted. We browsed the shops, displays, and decorations, then waited in line to enter the wand shop to see a magical display.

The kids were troopers, standing still and staying good-natured and staying quiet during the long line waits, but we were all a bit worn down already and the day wasn’t even a third over. Over the next 7 hours, we found dinosaurs peeking through trees, avoided some long lines while standing in others, purchased snacks, splashed in Dr. Seuss structures, rode the Hogwarts Express to the other side, snapped photos of SpongeBob Squarepants, and eventually trundled back to our cars and back to the hotels, where we soaked in the hot tub for a few minutes before passing out.

A second day in the park seemed daunting, especially as a few family arguments erupted and one of the kids seemed to be having tummy troubles. As we parked again, there was tension in the air and we waited in the long line to enter the park again. I kept a giant smile on my face, telling the kids how excited I was for King Kong and Shrek and the Minions and they stayed smiling. We walked through the park quickly, knowing the lines would be mounting, and I had to do some quick calculations.

As a conservative estimate, I guessed there were 10,000 people at the parks on any given day, who each paid about $150 for admission, that was $1,500,000 per day, before the cost of food, parking, and souvenirs. I don’t have a great business brain, but I calculated that many of these rides and structures had been running for several decades, and I was flummoxed by the amount of money rolling in at this place.

We rushed to King Kong just after the ride opened and stood in line for over an hour to ride it, then another 90 minutes later for the Spider-Man ride, and another 45 later for the 3-D Shrek film. I pictured people back home, blaring on their horns over a few extra seconds at a stoplight, or haggling over the nickel cost increase on their box of cereal now here maxing out there credit cards for an $8 cup of root beer and a 90 minute wait for a 3 minute decades-old ride.

We left the park early the second day, our feet and backs tired, ready for a good night’s sleep. And then we lost our car in the parking lot, unable to remember where we had parked in the tension of the morning. 45 minutes later, we finally drove out of there, our souvenirs clutched in our hands and our stomachs full of heavy foods.

I sat down with the boys that night and recounted our favorite parts of the last few days as we had tried to get our money’s worth in the busy parks. Added all up, we had a great time, but it cost a lot of money. There are a lot of ways to vacation, I thought, and I wasn’t sure this was my favorite way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Supernatural elements in Religion

angels

I grew up in a religion that actively taught about supernatural forces directed by God for the good of mankind. I was taught that everyone who has ever lived on Earth existed in a spiritual form prior to coming to Earth and receiving bodies. In that pre-mortal form, we had relationships and interactions and intellect, and that we made the choice to come to Earth, knowing we would have spiritual blinders placed on us to restrict our memories of that pre-mortal life. Any spirit who didn’t choose to come to Earth could roam the Earth and was called an “evil spirit”, and there were potentially billions of them, all who worked for Satan. Mortals were meant to choose religion and God and sacrifice, and after dying, spirits would go on existing in another realm called the Spirit World, where they would wait for resurrection (or unification of the spirit with the body) and then judgment, so God could send them on to Heaven and Hell accordingly. In addition to that, God, who lives on another planet, had a planetary spiritual force, called the Holy Ghost, through which he could send messages in the form of thoughts and inspirations to his believing children.

Also, I believed in the Priesthood, a magical type of authority passed from one man down to another, so long as they are worthy according to Church standards. The Priesthood had various levels of authority mixed in, and the men who held it were authorized to channel some of this godly force to perform tasks on Earth, such as blessing the bread and water of the sacrament to performing a valid baptism to laying hands on the heads of another to give them a blessing, or special individualized message from God. Again, very supernatural in its essence.

If the spiritual forces, the spiritual realms, and the Holy Ghost weren’t sufficient, I also grew up believing in spiritual gifts, immortal creatures, and mystical artifacts. Each individual (but mostly the men) has inherent individual spiritual gifts that can be enhanced through belief, things like the spirit of discernment or the power to heal others, gifts that, like mutant powers in a weird way, could be discovered and utilized for the good of God with his blessing. Angels appeared all over the scriptures and in Church history, performing miracles and giving advice and causing mortals to speak in tongues, and the devil tried to possess or influence mortals through duplicity and temptation. And prophets used magical stones to translate ancient records or to light up ancient wooden submarines on ocean voyages,  and golden balls to give directions in the wilderness.

As I look upon all of this with a critical eye with a grown-up, I am a bit taken aback by how fantasy novel it all seems. There are such elements of story-telling to the whole belief structure. Epic franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter and the Wheel of Time and the X-Men that so beautifully explore the concepts of destiny and prophecy, and that allow certain characters to be born with special powers so they can fight against the forces of evil. But somehow when we toss the word God in to the mix, these concepts are taken serious. There is a suspension of disbelief in mortals who belief in virgin births and men being raised from the dead, and who use those beliefs to form and shape entire societies through narrow interpretations of rules.

I now consider myself a very spiritual and non-religious atheist, if I have to use a label, and I have a difficult time understanding supernatural religious belief structures in a world that avoids scientific interpretation and quantifiable evidence and results. I do still believe in elements of “supernatural”-ness, however. When I examine my beliefs, I do believe that individuals have special skills and talents that others do not. I do believe that human energy exists after the body expires, not as a ghost or spirit necessarily but perhaps as a consciousness, even if only in the memories of forms of the people and places they lived among.

Regarding individual skills and talents, for example, I have a unique capacity for empathy: I can easily read the energy and emotions of most people around me, particularly when there is eye contact and communication happening. I am also a quick study, and can often make sense of complex human stories across history and find truth and enlightenment in them. I think I also have a talent for teaching, for facilitating groups, for presenting information, and for writing. Other people are builders, or organizers, or are amazing with machines and industry, or are nurturers. The lists of skills is endless.

After my grandfather died, my mother would often speak of being able to feel him around, near her, especially during times when she needed comfort or guidance. While I never felt his presence, I believed her when she said this. And I think anyone who has ever lost a very close loved one has that capacity, to feel the energy of their loved ones, even to hear their voices, in particular places or during particular times of need. I had this same experience after Kurt, my best friend, died in a car accident last April.

This blog entry is a bit more free-form, but I needed a chance to organize my thoughts and experiences in this matter, and it is all here to set up a blog I will write tomorrow. About a month ago, I had a woman reach out to me stating that Kurt’s spirit had reached out to her and that he had a message for me. And a few weeks ago, I met with this woman, who called herself a medium. I went into the meeting skeptical and open-minded all at once. And it turned out to be a wonderfully healing experience. I’ll be back tomorrow to share more.