Cartoon Devil

October 2015

“I’m here! Plaid shirt and blue jeans, corner table, what can I order you?”

I had butterflies when I sent the text message. I hadn’t been on a date in a few months and it was nice to be back on the market. I was so, so sick of dating. It exhausted me. Maybe I was picky or impossible, or maybe I kept hoping to find that unobtainable unicorn out there. I wanted someone with a job, who took care of himself physically, who was good with kids, who was charming. I also wanted someone with some self-confidence, and a sense of humor, who was out of the closet, and had themselves figured out when it came to their family and religion. Utah was so full of these guys who didn’t like themselves, who berated themselves because of their religious upbringings. They were the way I used to be, but once you have got your own shit together, there is nothing quite so threatening or annoying as someone who hasn’t.

By this point, four and a half years after coming out of the closet, I’d had dozens and dozens of terrible and weird dates. Admittedly, sometimes I was the terrible and weird date. I went through a phase where I was too codependent, or where I expected others to put in all the effort while I coasted along. I fell in love too quickly a few times, and fell apart too quickly a few others. I even turned down a few really amazing guys in the hopes that I might find something just a bit better out there. But I was now ready for something to stick, to last more than a few weeks. I think seven weeks in a relationship had been my longest record since coming out, with someone who was 14 years younger than me, but that hadn’t worked out either; he moved to another state to go to college, and there was no way I could do long distance while I had two little kids.

And so, for a time, I had given all of my energy to just being single. I focused on my career, my hate crimes research, my blog, and went to the gym. I took myself on dates and little trips. I spent time with friends, I hosted my own movie nights, and I, of course, spent every possible moment with my incredible sons, at this point ages 7 and 4, two little men who delighted me constantly. They were with me every other weekend and a few nights per week. I loved my time with them, but I also grew to love my time flying solo.

Tonight, this was my first attempt back into the dating scene after over two months of focusing solely on myself. I met the guy over OKCupid just days after I’d reactivated my account. My first impression of his pictures elicited an out loud ‘DAMN!’ I sent the first message and he answered within minutes. He was witty, funny, handsome, employed, cute and fit, but in that guy-next-door kind of way, not in that ‘I stare at myself in the gym mirror for ten hours per week’ kind of way. And then on day three of chatting, I invited him out for coffee. He responded with enthusiasm, in an “I thought you’d never ask” kind of way. I hired a babysitter, got to the coffee shop ten minutes early, and texted him promptly at six that I was there.

6:10 rolled around. 6:15. 6:20. No message, no word. People played chess at a nearby table. Other people studied. We were getting past the point where it was acceptable to be late without some sort of notice. I sipped my decaf coffee and waited, wondering if there were too many red lights maybe, or maybe he’d forgotten an appointment. But maybe he was just standing me up. Lord knows this wouldn’t be the first time.

Finally at 6:32, my phone dinged. I grabbed it in a hurry. The text said, “This is terrible, but I can’t do this. I went there, but I couldn’t go in. You’re a good guy, Chad, but I’m still in love with my ex, and this isn’t right. I’ll understand if you never want to talk to me again. Best of luck, Chad, I don’t expect to hear back from you.”

I felt my upper lip rise into an involuntary sneer, and my nostrils flared with frustration. And then I set my coffee down, put my head in my hands, and… pouted. The old interior voice I had worked so hard to contain came back with a vengeance. All of my demons came back to the surface.

You’re pathetic. You knew it would be like this, but you tried it anyway. There are no good men out there, none. And if there were, do you think one would want to be with you? A guy who waited until he was 32 to come out? You have two kids, you’re in debt, and you are hardly in the best shape of your life. Why would he want to be with you? And of course you’d pick a guy who is still hung up on some guy. If there’s a pathetic guy out there, you’ll find them every time, it takes one to know one.

I lifted my head, pursed my lips, furrowed my eyebrows, and said, “No!” out loud, but not loud enough for anyone else to hear. That voice inside was dark. It was that little devil that appeared on Bugs Bunny’s shoulder in the old cartoons. I instead willfully gave voice to the angel, invisible on my other shoulder.

No! You’re a good guy, Chad! You get to be happy! You don’t get to beat yourself up for trying to find someone! Now you don’t give a second thought to that loser. You live for you! You hired a babysitter, you can do whatever you want tonight, you just enjoy your own company.

Yes. I would do that! I would take myself on a date! Fuck that guy. I was allowed to be happy.

I tossed my remaining coffee in the garbage, marched myself right outside, and noticed the movie theater next door. I would do that! I would go to the movies! I triumphantly entered, got the attention of the man behind the counter, and triumphantly said, “I’ll take a ticket to whatever movie is next, please.”

I was in the Tower, an old indie theater with broken seats, sticky floors, and a balcony. And I was about to see a movie at random, this was my kind of adventure. “And I’ll take that bag of popcorn,” I said.

The ticket agent explained that the next movie would be the ‘Oscar Animated Shorts’, or short cartoons that had been nominated for an Oscar in the upcoming season. I had a night out and I was going to see… short cartoons, apparently.

The devil returned. Oh my god, cartoons, you loser! It’s a Wednesday night! You’re going to the movies by yourself on a Wednesday night and you’re going to see cartoons! You could be doing that with your kids! You’re going to die alone!

No! No, no,  no! You are brave and courageous, and you are doing something nice for yourself on a hard day! You are a good person who deserves to be happy!

Apparently unable to see the talking devil and angel versions of me on my shoulders, the ticket agent took my money and handed me the random bag of popcorn I had pointed to. Then I noticed the flavor. Coconut curry. Well, what the hell.

The movie was starting in 15 minutes, he said. I went in and took my seat, my brave face was on. I was determined to enjoy myself this evening. I opened my phone and played some Pokemon Go  as I sat there, feeling like a real winner. I would watch cartoons and play Pokemon Go and eat Coconut Curry popcorn instead of bantering with a handsome man like I’d planned. Positive self-talk was working!

In minutes, the lights dimmed and I looked up to see the screen come on. There were multiple previews for upcoming indie films, and none of them looked interesting. As the film prepared to start, I opened my bag of Coconut Curry, and it gave off a loud crispy plastic sound. I quickly looked up to make sure I hadn’t disturbed anyone. Then I realized there was no one else in the movie to disturb.

Oh my god, you pathetic loser! You are in a movie theater, seeing cartoons, after getting stood up by a date who is still in love with his ex, on a Wednesday night, planning to eat an entire bag of popcorn, and you’re the only one here! What the hell is wrong with you! You’re going to die fat and old and alone, who lives like this!

No! No, you are a brave and beautiful soul who deserves the very—

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” I told the angel voice. I grabbed a giant handful of salty disgusting popcorn and shoved it into my mouth until my cheeks puffed out, and then I ugly cried as a Dutch cartoon called ‘the Single Life’ started on the screen.

when you’ve stopped looking

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Because I’m me, and you’re you, and we are perfectly different from each other and exactly the same.

At times, I grow weary of the human capacity, and I end up sitting down at a blank keyboard and typing existential thoughts about human existence and human experience and human sacrifice and human vulnerability and human trust.

When I get in these moods, I know that I have had too much work lately, too much dwelling upon the pains of others as a therapist, and too little time for self-care or adventure. And this week would qualify as such.

And thus my opening statement. I have a whole human universe within me, and everyone has the same capacities in them. If I sat and made a list of the issues that have afflicted my family during my 37 year old lifetime, it very likely wouldn’t look that much different from yours.

abuse, divorce, drug addiction, religious shame issues, coming out of the closet, communication issues, parenting stress, passive aggressiveness, depression, anxiety, diabetes, aging, loneliness

I could keep the list going for pages as we all could. I take a wider look at my family as they exist right now, and I think of how much we have all changed in ten years, five years, one, even just a few months. My mom now has been watching her husband, in his early 80s, get dizzy and fall, while dealing with her own chronic headaches. My sister is balancing out the deadlines of her college assignments with her work responsibilities, all while trying to find time for exercise and her wife. My nephew, after dating unsuccessfully for a few years and putting himself through school, is suddenly planning a wedding to a beautiful girl. Another sister, who spent years with no children and who has now adopted three, is chasing three boys around, running herself ragged in an attempt to keep up and provide a happy home for her busy boys. My son, well-adjusted in his school, homework coming easy to him, reading and learning and exploring and asserting his independence, yet still struggling a bit with anxiety and finding his place in the world.

And me, in a great place in my life, building and building, incrementally, over time, changing and growing and ascending, yet never quite settled, never quite satisfied, learning to embrace the hunger and drive that are parts of me. I’m lonely lately, and bored, even as I’m feeling powerful and accomplished. I’m pushing myself back into history and forward into potential all at once. I’m exercising, and slowly getting out of debt. I have wonderful friends, my sons are thriving, I have important family relationships. And yet, I still seek and yearn.

I have to remind my clients sometimes, after they have come through a crisis, that the problems they are facing now are normal and typical. After all the car crashes and custody trials and funerals and suicide attempts and bankruptcies, what a relief and honor to feel basic sadness, discomfort, anger, and pain.

And I’m supremely grateful for the good things in my life, I am. Yet with all of that, I still grieve and strive and push.

I’ve been out of the closet five years now. In past years, I have celebrated. But this year, I let the anniversary pass quietly by. I worked, and wrote, and exercised, and poured myself a glass of wine and watched House of Cards and went to bed by 9. I was content and bored and satisfied and hungry and lonely and confident and impatient and settled all at once.

I had a friend tell me recently, in a discussion about a few unexpected heartbreaks I went through this past year, that I’ll probably find a relationship now that I’ve stopped looking for one. I’ve been told this before, but this statement bothered me this time. When people say that, ‘now that you’ve stopped looking’, what do they really mean? Now that you have contented yourself? Now that you’ve been hurt enough times that you don’t want to risk getting hurt anymore? Now that you’ve stopped being romantic or spontaneous or asking anyone else out? Now that you have stopped having expectations of anyone you meet, and you generally expect that they will flake out or lie or be inconsistent after a date or two? Now that you are turning all of your energy toward yourself instead and have grown content with the idea that you will likely not be partnered for some time?

And that’s sad to me somehow. I mean, I’m stronger and more resolved, but I’ve lost my naivete a little bit as well, that’s what happens when the heart scars over a few times I suppose. I’m proud of myself. I don’t see a relationship as an accomplishment, or something to be acquired. In fact, my accomplishments are in the smiles and smarts of my children, and in the professional world I’ve created for myself, and in the cultivation of my talents. That said, it is still hard to be the single guy in a room full of couples. It’s difficult to look at the miracle of my sons playing together and to not have someone to share it with. It’s difficult to think of the dozens of dates, and the few times I’ve been in love, and to still be here on my own.

And all of that brings us to this simple moment. 4:24 pm, where I sit in a coffee shop with a half empty cup of coffee and a full glass of water, strangers all around me, classical music playing, two nicks stinging on my chin from where I cut myself shaving earlier, my back aching from sitting too long, my head and heart as complicated as they ever are, typing this stream-of-consciousness blog on a white screen. I will soon post it and no one will read it, or a handful of strangers will read it, or loved ones will read it, or hundreds will read it, and some will be sad and some bored and some annoyed and some inspired.

And soon I’ll leave here and step back into my life, the one that is still the same, yet different from ten minutes ago, as I am always the same and ever changing.

Because I’m me, and you’re you, and we are perfectly different from each other and exactly the same.

Sleeping naked

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I’m still getting used to the space, depth, and sound of my new bedroom. The way the air fills these four walls, the darker depths of the closet doors, the worn path between the door and the desk and the bed. It’s a new bed, too. My bed is different, too. I’m higher up off the floor, the mattress is softer, and there is a set of shelves on the headboard behind me. The shelves are empty, except for  a lamp.

My laptop is laying on the mattress behind my head, the surest evidence that I am single. It’s so easy to flip it open and turn on some mindless brainless fluff to fall asleep to. I always choose things I’m interested in learning about, but sleep comes within seconds of my laying down in the night. I fall asleep soundly, quickly, heavily.

And then, almost without fail, about four hours later I wake. A sore muscle, an errant thought, a full bladder, something to disturb the slumber, and then I’m generally awake for an hour or two. I can try various tricks to get me back to sleep–a few bites of some food and a couple of Tylenol tend to do the trick sometimes, soft music others. But if I can’t fall back to sleep within thirty minutes or so, I’ll often just get up. I’ll surrender to the wakefulness and get things done. I always have things to do.

I scan my body, surveying myself. My toes are cold. I’m on my right side, a pillow tucked between my knees, another pillow clutched in my arms. My right shoulder is sore from being suspended up underneath my head, where a third pillow is wedged and folded. My right arm is straight out, hanging off the bed. My chest and shoulders are aching, sore from last night’s push-ups, and my glutes are sore from last night’s stair-climbing cardio. I’m warm and snug, in between sheets with two big blankets on top, one of them made by my grandmother before she died, and one of them knitted for me by my mother twenty years ago when I was in high school. I’m nude, and warm, and snug, and the air outside my bed feels chilly on my exposed ear and cheek.

It’s been a long time since someone shared my bed, since I could hear familiar and even breathing behind me as I lay awake, since I felt the weight and heat of another body, since I had my arms around a body instead of a pillow. I could move my cold toes over beneath his feet to warm them. I could convince myself to stay there until I fell back asleep because I wouldn’t want to disturb him. But there is no one there.

And so I rise. And stretch. My vertebrae gratefully expand and pop. My back is always sorest in the mornings. I stretch my hips, turn my neck back and forth, touch my toes, press my shoulder blades together, raise my arms in the air. My body shivers in the cold as I slide on a pair of sweatpants. The room is dark, but my eyes are adjusted and I can make out the hamper full of clothes, the stack of books on the floor, the desk and chair, the unfinished paperwork, the charging cell phone, the lamp, the laptop cords.

I stand there for a bit, my feet cold against the carpet, and I listen. I hear the gentle hiss of the air vent, but all else is silent, heavy, dark and chilled. I expand my awareness to outside, to the trees and concrete outside, and I can make out the crunchy sounds of a garbage truck down the road. It must be 3 AM.

On occasion, I do therapy sessions with my clients about the science of sleep, helping them realize how much goes in to their sleep cycles. Some sleep too long. Some, like me, fall asleep quickly but can’t stay asleep, waking quickly and abruptly. Some stay awake for hours, lying there as sleep eludes them, until they fall heavily out until the alarm blares and then they can’t wake. Some are lonely, some are stressed, some are anxious or frightened or sad or in pain or horny or numb or grieving or empty. Some struggle with weight and can’t breathe well, some with blood sugar and they keep a snack nearby.

We discuss the psychology of sleep in these sessions. The temperature of the room, how many blankets are on the bed, what is worn, when they last ate or exercised or showered or washed their sheets, what sounds are in the room, how dark it is, when they last had alcohol or caffeine, what methods they use to wind down. We discuss how they trick their brains into letting rest come. Some, like me, expect insomnia the majority of the time, and when a good night’s sleep comes, it is like heaven on a pillow. (And it is only on these nights of rest that I dream.) I do my best to help them find answers.

I don’t always practice what I preach.

I turn on the lamp and close my eyes tightly, letting them gently adjust to the garish ugly light that is now interrupting the darkness of the room. I look at my empty bed. I see the unfolded laundry and unsubmitted bills, shrug, and think why not. I use the restroom, get a glass of water, turn on a podcast, and get to work, cold toes and all.

 

 

When you don’t know what to write

Sometimes I don’t know what to write.

I’ve made it a regular habit for me, a muscle that needs to be regularly exercised, and I have felt myself growing stronger as a writer. I even keep a list of topics I want to write about. But sometimes I just stare at the list, and stare at the screen or page, and I’m stumped.

It isn’t like writer’s block, where the writer is stymied, not knowing what direction to take a story. It’s more like a lack of current inspiration. I have plenty to write about, but I like to be in a particular mood or frame of mind when I sit down and put pen to paper, or fingertips to keyboard. I like to feel the anger, the sadness, the loneliness, or the love when I put words down.

Today, though, I just feel here. Not numb, not apathetic, not empty, just present.

The old man at a nearby table is scraping frosting off of a plate with his fingers, the last sugary remnants of his cinnamon roll. In my mind, he snuck out this morning for a treat, and his wife can’t find out because it’s bad for his diabetes.

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A woman overdressed for winter (it’s 40 degrees out and she’s dressed like it’s below zero in thick coat, hat, scarf, gloves, snow pants) is devouring a triple-berry muffin, and she can’t stop talking about it, loudly. “Oh, this is delicious! I had no idea you guys made muffins like this! This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten!” She’s not talking to anyone, and in my mind, she’s maybe talking to the ghost of a loved one, someone who’s been gone for months but who follows her around and only the woman can see the ghost.

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A petite young blonde woman has one side of the restaurant to herself. She has an adorable little blonde baby girl with pink cheeks, and the woman is feeding her small spoonfuls of baby food. She looks at her daughter with such love and affection, like that little baby is her entire universe, like she can’t remember what the world was like a year ago when that child didn’t exist. In my mind, she has a husband far off somewhere, perhaps in the Middle East, and she’s working hard to keep everything together.

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I realize that I’m doing it again, and I smile to myself. I am always making up stories about those around me, turning simple events into life dramas. It happens unbidden. And when I realize it’s happening I smile.

I take a sip of my coffee, something billed as a Peruvian Medium Roast, and the bitterness on my tongue is delicious. I look outside. It’s just below freezing and snow is falling loosely, haphazardly. It’s clinging to every surface, from tree branches and roofs to car bumpers and sidewalks. The sky is the same color as the snow, a rich, thick, opaque white, and only the colors of things offset it–the browns of tree trunks, the reds of trucks, the tans of buildings–everything else is white. It is its own kind of beautiful, but it brings with it a sadness, a longing for the sun. I think of my clients and how their depressive tendencies increase in a winter like this, and how the problems all seem to go away or diminish when the whiteness in the sky gets softer and the blue shows.

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My eyes turn back to the flashing cursor on the empty computer screen. I remember a trick I learned when I was back in high school. The teacher talked about how the best way to get started on an essay or assignment was to just start working on it. You can always go back and change something later, but just beginning a project can inspire ideas and motivation.

The blonde woman uses a spoon to wipe dribbled baby food off her baby’s chin.

The man literally licks his plate clean.

The woman with the muffin gives off an orgasmic sound of pleasure. “It’s so good!”

And I, smiling, place my fingers on my keyboard and begin to type.