Santa Fe, are you there?

“We met back in the days of Gay.Com back in the days of America Online, in the early days of the Internet. It changed everything, back then. Gay men had to go places to meet other gay men back then, parks or clubs or events. Before that, the only way to meet gay men from far away was through correspondence of some kind, a phone service or responding to a letter in a magazine. But they launched gay.com, and you could create a profile about yourself and start chatting with men from around the country. It was revolutionary. That was more than 20 years ago now.”

Ed took a sip from his homemade margarita as his partner, Joe, spoke. They were nestled in the corner of their balcony, two chairs pushed up next to each other. There were seven of us out there, chairs arranged in an abstract circle. We all had drinks, and plates full of tortilla chips and homemade guacamole, perfect for this Santa Fe early evening. I turned to look at the view behind me, the skyline stretching over brown rolling hills and brown adobe-style buildings. I could hear birds all of this city, and I loved it.

“It’s quite a view, isn’t it? We retired here earlier this year. And this is basically paradise for us, sitting out here and watching the sun set. It’s the perfect life.”

“So you started chatting online, and then what?” I asked, eager to hear more.

“Well, it was very apparent we were attracted to each other. But life was complicated. I had a wife, children, and a law practice. And Ed had the same, except hundreds of miles away, and he was a pharmacist. But after a few months, we just decided to go for it. We both told our wives we had a work conference and then we started driving. We met in the middle, in a town on the border of Texas and Colorado, and spent three amazing days together. It was just meant to be, I guess. But it took a few years of secret weekend rendezvous times before we could actually come out and be together. And now we’re married. We’re grandfathers. And we’ve retired to Santa Fe, our dream city.”

The other couple there, Wayne and Jason, told a similar story, reminiscing about meeting years before when they both had families. Though they still spent time in different cities as they pursued their own jobs, and both had children and families, they wanted to settle into Santa Fe themselves one day.

I’d connected with this group of men through a random Facebook connection. While I was visiting Santa Fe, a long-time online friend who I had never met had invited me out for drinks with his friends, and I’d eagerly said yes, always happy to make new friends.

“There seems to be a substantial gay community here.”

“Yeah, there is. There has been for years. Gay couples and eccentric artists, that’s Santa Fe. But it isn’t your typical gay community. There aren’t any gay clubs. The town is big enough to have everything you need or want, and there is always something going on, but it’s usually just local restaurants, comfy normal bars, and a show or movie. It’s quiet here.”

The birds chirped louder suddenly, almost seeming to emphasize the point. I’d noticed that over the past few days. Everywhere seemed to have people, every museum or venue that I’d visited, but the streets and shops were quiet. It was a strange combination.

“Years back, Santa Fe had to choose between putting in a university or a prison. The community chose the prison. They liked the jobs it brought, and the tax incentives, and the university would have brought with it a lot of young people, which would change the entire town. Anyway, you can find what you want here, or not. It’s one of the most romantic cities ever.”

“Well, if you are part of a couple, it’s romantic.” The other single guy on the porch, Gary, took a gulp of water. “I moved here three years ago from Europe for a job, and the entire city is idyllic, but it seems everyone here is older and partnered. It’s a difficult city to date in.”

I tuned out for a bit, my attention moving toward the clouds and the horizon. I felt the breeze and got a bit chilly in my tank top and shorts, wrapping my arms around my own chest for warmth. A few minutes passed as I just lost myself there, feeling the internal pressures of the past few weeks just kind of calm. Life could be so simple, or so complicated. It could be kids, bills, projects, and deadlines. Or it could be sipping margaritas and eating chips on a porch while watch the sunset. I needed this.

Ed talked about volunteering a few days per week at the local AIDS clinic, detailing that with the older generation of gay men living here, many who had survived the deadly AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the clinic was crucial for their ongoing health. Some of these men had been living with AIDS for two or three decades, he explained.

I tuned out again, my thoughts going to the history of everyone here, the various paths we had taken. The birds, the roads, the buildings, the hills, all of it coming from somewhere and moving somewhere else. In hours, this patio and this conversation would be part of the past and I’d be on to a new present, and somehow that felt okay right now. It was a strange sensation, one I’d been getting more accustomed to lately, this idea of dwelling only in the present moment.

I turn inward and realize the song Santa Fe from Newsies is playing there on auto-pilot. It’s been playing in the background of my brain ever since I planned my trip here. My brain always works this way, some random song in the background. I hadn’t seen Newsies in years, but I could still remember Christian Bale dancing through the streets as he dreamed of a better life.

Santa Fe are you there
Do you swear you wont forget me
If I found you would you let me come and stay
I aint getting any younger
And before my dying day
I want space not just air
Let them laugh in my face
I don’t care
Sante Fe
I’ll be there

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Meow

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Clutching my roasted eggplant veggie wrap and my hot coffee, I took a seat at the picnic table underneath the giant spider, setting myself in the shady part underneath the spider’s abdomen. The Santa Fe sunshine was perfect but bright, and I wanted to read.

A few minutes later, an older man, in his mid 60s, sat across from me. He was tall and thin, almost wirey, and he had a close-cropped grey beard and a floppy sunhat. He had a plate full of meat, rice, and potatoes, and a bottle of Orange Crush.

“Whatcha reading there?” he asked me through a mouth full of food.

I showed him the cover of my book, a mediocre autobiography by Elvis Costello, and smiled.

“Ah, he’s one of my favorites. And whatcha eating there?”

The conversation flowed easily from there as the man, overly friendly, asked several questions. He learned I was visiting from Salt Lake City, that I had a boyfriend and kids back home, that I had recently written a book, and that I was a social worker. He seemed astounded that I enjoyed taking little weekend furloughs for myself in unfamiliar places.

“Me, I never really planned on living here. It just kind of happened that way. I spent my career in California as an engineer, surveying land for big projects, and teaching at a few universities while my wife spent her time in education. We raised some kids, they moved away, and we wanted a fresh start. We came here for a visit, and we just kind of never left.” He took a large bite of potatoes and a swig of orange and kept going. “Now I spend my days doing stuff I love, and so does she. This place is weird, right? It’s perfect. She’s off painting this morning, and I just took an improv comedy class that they have down the road every morning. It’s all retired guys, and most of them are gay. Hell, most of Santa Fe is gay, which means we have the best neighbors.”

Then he seemed to remember where we were, and he indicated his fork at the giant spider above our heads, then over toward the other giant statues nearby, one a large metallic wolf, the other a building size robot smelling a flower. “And what do you think of this place? Did you go in? Tell me you went in.” I nodded, smiling. I always tend to get slightly quieter around those that are loud. He kept talking. “I’ve never been in. I’ve been meaning to. I just like to come down here on Saturdays after improv cause the food trucks are fantastic. But what was it like in there? What is Meow Wolf? I still can’t figure it out.”

“It’s… hard to explain,” I said simply, and I tried computing a way to explain it simply. “Have you ever taken your grandkids to McDonalds, to the play-land there? They climb up a series of platforms and end up in a big blocky room that has three different exits. One leads into a tunnel that winds up in a fake car with a plastic steering wheel; one leads into a room with an interactive tic-tac-toe game; the third has a slide in it that lands in a ball-pit at the bottom. Conjure that image, except multiply it by a thousand, and make it big enough for adults.”

The man listened intently as my voice rose in enthusiasm. “It was so weird. I felt curious and full of wonder the entire time, and I was in there for over three hours. They have this whole storyline that they tell you about a family that has gone missing, and then you go in to explore their house, except that their house has been hit by a reality-altering alien entity and all of the rooms are portals into little Twilight Zone dimensions. There were over 72 different rooms connected in the most bizarre ways, and all of them are interactive art displays.”

“How strange,” he said simply as I continued.

“Like I went in and saw the house and I read the family’s mail in their mailbox, then I went down a sidewalk and turned a corner, and suddenly I was in a passage of neon trees with fish swimming in the tops, and past that was an alien ship. Then a minute later, I found this narrow spiral staircase that I could barely squeeze myself through, and at the top I had to push this door open and it made a woman scream. Well, I climbed through the door and looked back and realized I had climbed out of the washing machine that was in the family’s home on the upstairs!”

The man listened as I continued describing the house. The family photo albums, the bizarre images in the mirror, the portal in the fridge, the room of robot hands, the cartoonish room, the mechanical hamster, the harp made of lasers that I actually got to play.

“But then about a thousand kids came in all at once, and I realized I was ready for lunch,” I laughed, noticing the four school busses now parked in the lot.

“It sounds like you need to bring your kids back here,” he laughed.

“Oh I had way more fun without my kids today,” I admitted. “But I would love to bring them back here.”

“You really seemed to have fun in there! I’ll have to bring my wife back next week.”

“You should!”

Out of words for a minute, we both cleaned up the last of our plates, A silence hung in the air, and I looked forward at the Santa Fe skyline, rolling hills in the middle of the desert. Despite how busy it was, I could see green everywhere, and I realized how many birds were singing.

Then the man burst out with one loud laugh. “God, Santa Fe is weird!”

“It really is!” I laughed back, excited to explore more.

“And it’s perfect just the way it is,” he said, excusing himself shortly after. He got on his bike and rode off, past the flower-smelling robot and into the dusty roads beyond.

Reservations: the Well-Meaning White Man

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“Welcome, everyone, to today’s competency training! To begin, we will have an exercise. I want everyone to stand somewhere in the room. Spread out, make sure you have plenty of room. There are about one hundred of you here, so you should be able to stand with enough space to spread out your arms and turn in a circle without touching anyone. Make yourselves pretty comfortable.”

I did as instructed, watching the crowd spread out around me. I didn’t really know anyone, so it was nice to have space.

The woman spoke back into her microphone. “Okay, now that a few minutes have passed, We are going to take away half of your space. One entire half of the room is no longer available to you. Everything from this line of chairs to the door. Everyone please move to that side of the room.”

We all did as instructed, cramming together in the smaller space, not touching each other still, but with much less space between us. Then the woman shrank the space by fifty per cent one more time, placing us all into one quarter of the room, where we were now standing shoulder to shoulder.

“Okay, please meet your neighbors, get comfortable. We will just leave you there for a few minutes.” But after only thirty seconds, she spoke again. “Just kidding, I know this is uncomfortable. But I have bad news. We are taking away half of your space once again. You must now fit between this section of wall and that space on the floor. Please move closer to accommodate everyone.”

And with that, we crushed ourselves into each other in the corner of the room, feeling desperately uncomfortable. She only left us there for a few seconds, but it was enough time to feel humiliated, frustrated, angry, and, for some, panicked. But then the woman finally instructed us to take our seats, with all of us wondering what the point had been. She taught us quickly.

“This is what it was like for Native Americans over time. For hundreds of years, our ancestors had the rule of the entire land. But when settlers came, their land was taken, and taken, and taken, and taken. Many thousands were killed, and their religion was mocked. They were called savages. Their children were forced to covert to Christianity. Their resources were pillaged. They were given alcohol to appease them, and they were subjected to hard labor for little pay, and finally poverty. Then, when there was little left to take, they were crushed into the corners of the room, placed into reservations. And while they struggled to survive in these harsh conditions, the white man mocked them, calling them drunks and wife-beaters, and resented it when they spoke up and wanted to govern themselves. They laughed about how easy the Natives had it while the life of the white man was much harder. And that is the story of our people, crushed into the corners and resented for trying to succeed.”

Back in 2007, when I underwent this training, it had a profound impact on me. For the following four years, I worked as a mental health clinician on a reservation, with a population of people I’d scarcely given thought to. When I think back hard enough, now in 2018, I can still feel the goosebumps on my skin from my co-worker singing a family chant while playing a hand-drum, I can still watch the sunrise over the distant corners of the reservation’s sacred lands, I can still picture the grieving Native families rubbing sage on themselves to honor a deceased loved one as the coffin sat in front of a Christian cross, I can still recall the bravery of the young woman who fought the system to get herself a full-ride scholarship in an attempt to honor herself and her family.

Today, just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, I walked among the Petroglyphs. In the hills around the city, Native Americans lived for hundreds of years, and they carved on rocks. People, birds, images, animals, arrows. Some of these faded drawings date back to the 1300s, the signs say. The European settlers came, slowly trickling in over the following few centuries, and the Natives were forced to change with them. The white men brought diseases, money, conquest, and unfamiliar customs, with words like ‘rape’ and ‘pillage’, ‘kill’ and ‘exploit’. I think of my own childhood in the 1980s, still playing leftover games of ‘cowboys and Indians’, with the cowboys always being the heroes as they stole the land.

I stood on a hilltop today and looked across the brown New Mexican landscape. The plants are unfamiliar here. They are sharper, dustier, with needs and crags. They are the desert and the mesa. I look down and a small spotted lizard no bigger than my pinky finger rushes across the rock, leaps into the grass nearby, then scampers out and into the rock face. It it foraging for food, watching for rattlesnakes around it and birds above? Nearby, a dove of some kind gives a long trilling call, over and over again, and I shiver with the loneliness. The rock behind me has a drawing of some kind of man on it, or perhaps a woman. I have no idea what it means. No one can possibly know. But it is beautiful because it is old, and because it is all that remains.

A sign nearby references the original settlers of this land, the Pueblo. It talks about the honor paid to ancestors, who built a layered city around the banks of the Rio Grande, sharing the water source for survival. Even from here, I can hear the electric buzz of the buildings and the impatient bustle of the cars, and my phone buzzes in my pocket.

I turn back to the petroglyph, and I think back to my first days working on the reservation, far from here, but a place with a similar history. A strong woman I worked with, a Native American grandmother, grew frustrated with me one day. I had been complaining about the long list of clients waiting for drug and alcohol assessments, frustrated that I might never catch up.

“We are paying you to help us here. These are people. Not a list of names, but people. They are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. And they need your help.” And after I’d apologized, she’d smiled affectionately, and said, “Don’t apologize. Just help. You have your heart in the right place. Well, as much as a well-meaning white boy can.” Then she laughed, a loud cackle that I can still hear.

I turn back to the petroglyph again, and I grieve.

Animal Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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