Skunktrap

The air in Leamington was clear. Sometimes I forget how polluted the skies in Salt Lake City can be until I drive outside of it. It’s like my lungs just adapt to the smoky congestion, and when I get away I remember how to breathe.

Leamington is a little stretch of nothing in the center of Utah. There are no businesses. I saw a one-room post office as we drove into town, turned onto a dirt road, drove round some bends through farmland, and parked in a dusty outcropping of the house’s driveway.

Like the rest of Utah, Leamington was settled by the Mormons a few generations ago. I pulled up the Wikipedia page and read about the original settlers, establishing farmland, growing sugarcane to make molasses, rerouting water through a canal, and growing crops, which they would take to a local mining town (appropriately named Eureka) to sell. (I drove through Eureka later. It has a few gas stations, and more homes. The closest business to Leamington was a few dozen miles away). Eventually, the settlers built a little branch of the railroad. The Mormon church and the local cemetery are the only things listed as noteworthy to visit. Still, a few hundred people live here, which seems like so little until you realize that a few hundred is still a lot of people when you line them all up.

My friend Tyler and I got the kids out of the car and surveyed the rolling farmland around us. We could see cows in the distance, crops, shades of green and brown. I could hear songbirds and the sound of many buzzing insects.

“What kinds of animals live out here?” A, my 6-year old, asked.

“Well, lots,” Tyler answered, having grown up in the area. “Owls, birds, lots of voles, tons of bugs. Mule deer.”

“And what kinds of predators?”

“Raccoons, coyotes, red-tailed hawks.”

We knocked on the door of the farmhouse where we would be sleeping for the night. I’d confirmed this reservation weeks ago when we first planned to come to this remote area of the state. As I reminded the boys to be on their best behavior, our host opened the door.

She was a plump woman in her late forties, her hair pinned back, her granddaughter on her arm. She wore an apron over her white shirt and black pants. Beyond her on the wall, I could see a large picture of a Mormon temple, and a family portrait with she, her husband, and their six children. This was a salt-of-the-earth, hard-working family. I knew from the online profile that the husband worked nearby as an engineer, and that she was a housewife, though the older four children were all out of the house now.

“Hi, I’m Chad!” I said, enthusiastically, waving at the grand-daughter. I saw the woman’s smile slowly drop as she realized there were two men there with children. Her eyes flashed between us, one to the other, and her mouth dropped open. Her face paled. There was a long, pregnant pause as she tried to figure out our relationship. (I would later explain that while Tyler and I are both gay, we were not a couple and would be sleeping in different rooms. It’s quite possible we were the first gay people she’d ever met.)

After the initial awkwardness passed, she greeted us with a forced smile and invited us inside. She showed us the rooms where we would be sleeping in the basement. The shelves down there were packed with thirty years worth of clutter, almost hoarding levels of clutter. It was organized, but it felt like it would cave in on us. Board games, books, notebooks, old art projects, and Tupperware containers full of knickknacks. The beds were lacy and plush, with names of children stenciled onto pillows. Family photos, pictures of Mormon prophets, and pictures of Jesus lined the walls. Somehow, it was all incredibly comfortable, being in the home of this family, one who had carved out their entire existence in this stone farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.

After the kids settled down, I walked back outside to grab the suitcases and came face to face with a skunk. It was less than ten yards away, and I immediately felt my heart rate go up. It was quickly gobbling food up from a cat food dish, and it lifted its head to meet my gaze. I could see its jaw working, up and down, then it ducked to get another bite. It was strangely beautiful. It’s face was majestic in a way, and the pattern of black and white shaggy fur ran down its sides, with a thick tail flowing behind it. It was right in front of the car, and I stood watching it for a minute, calculating the risk of getting sprayed if I stepped toward it, but it scampered away after another bite, rushing down the driveway and up a hillside. It flowed as it moved somehow, and I had images of Pepe Lepew from Looney Toons rush through my mind, jumping gracefully as he chased the female cat.

After a good night’s sleep, the four of us woke to a hearty farm breakfast. As we sat to a meal of banana chocolate chip pancakes, sausage, fried eggs, fresh fruit, milk, and juice, the farmer’s wife told us about getting her degree in biochemistry before she chose to stay at home and raise her children. She talked about how much work it was to maintain a home this size in this location, and how much she loved living out here, yet how isolating it could be. I talked about my documentary project, Tyler quipped about science with her, and my sons bragged about how they wanted to grow up to a geologist and a farmer, respectively. It was a lovely meal,  and I could see her relaxing around us, perhaps realizing that gay people are just, well, people.

As the kids finished their breakfast, I packed the suitcases and went outside to load the car. I looked back over toward the car, and skunk was back but this time it was in a cage. The cage was small, triangular, and barely big enough to contain the small creature. It was panicked, scratching at the ground, unable to get free. It raised its head and I swear it made eye contact as it made a helpless little squeak of a sound. My heart pounded as I went the long way around, loading my suitcases in the trunk before heading back inside.

“There’s a skunk out there! In a trap!”

“Oh!” The farmer’s wife looked delighted. “Good! It finally worked! My husband placed cat food in the skunktrap several nights in a row to catch it. The darn thing keeps eating all of the cat’s food and scaring the grandkids. We used to get a lot of skunks around here, but this is the first one in a while.”

“What will you do with it? Do you take it out in the woods somewhere and let it go? Do you kill it?”

She grimaced. “Well, neither. If you get too close, it gets scared and sprays. In fact, as it starts to get hot outside, it will start to spray in panic. It’s going to smell around here today. But we will just wait for it to die. Skunks are nocturnal, they burrow during the day to stay cool and hunt at night. It won’t take long for it to overheat.”

A look of disgust crossed my face. “You let it cook to death?”

She frowned, sympathetic. “I don’t like it either. But if you see a spider in your house, do you step on it? Living in a place like this, we have to protect our space, and that sometimes means letting creatures die.”

When we left, I walked the kids the long way around, and told them that the skunk would be let go later. The looked at it with fascination and fear. It was getting warmer out, and it was sitting calmly now. I could see it breathing. We loaded ourselves into the car, and as we backed up, I took a long last look at it’s flowing tail, it’s frightening beauty, its helplessness. It was facing its inevitable end after seeking an easy food source in a dangerous place. And it had been caught. I humanized the creature, determining that it was facing its own fate.

We drove down the hillside, through the dusty farmland and back to the highway. I left Leamington, thinking of history, of humanity, of skunks, and of traps.

Skunk

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.

Sexual Predators

feral

“Am I a sexual predator? Are there people out there who think I’ve sexually harassed them?” and “Have I felt sexually harassed by others? Who, when, and why?”

I found myself wondering those questions over breakfast this morning, after a late night conversation with the boyfriend about these very topics. Lately, the news has been inundated with stories of sexual harassments and sexual assaults by celebrities and people in power. Social media has been full of outrage at Kevin Spacey, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and dozens more, all of them men who used power and manipulation to harm women (or in some cases men), or who excused their predatory behavior with “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing.”

But that leads me to think back to my own life and experiences, asking two questions internally. Are there times when I have felt sexually harassed, and are there times when others have felt sexually harassed by me?

Are there times when I have used “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing” as an excuse, and are there times when I’ve used those same excuses to explain away my feelings at the hands of others?

This is actually a really painful space to think upon. As a gay man, I’ve had plenty of evenings in gay clubs with loud music and drinks, where I’ve danced with a partner, and that can easily turn into kissing and groping. I’ve been approached by guys in a similar manner. And there is constantly either verbal or non-verbal consent or refusal happening. If someone grabs me in a club and I liked it, I might grab them back, feel flattered, or express mutual interest. If someone grabs me in a club and I didn’t like it, I might move away, give them eye contact to indicate I’m not interested., or feel disgusted or furious. Even more complex, if I flirt and someone doesn’t flirt back, I might feel angry, confused, or rejected, and they might feel things when I don’t flirt back. These basic encounters have sometimes left me feeling like a predator or like a victim, they just feel like part of the process.

But I can also recall times when guys have aggressively grabbed me in clubs. Strangers who have groped me while I walked by, or who have tried sticking their hands down my pants or unzipping my pants, times when guys from behind me have reached up between my legs from behind and grabbed hard. Those times have made me angry, downright furious, and I’ve forcefully removed hands and pushed guys away, giving very direct ‘NO’s with my voice or my eyes. Consent was much more apparent here. (And I’m never that aggressive in my own flirting).

That same feeling of discomfort has existed within me during more subtle encounters, however. I’ve felt anxious and angry at men who give too much eye contact or who aggressively follow me or pursue me at a party or a park. I’ve grown outraged with people who text too much or too aggressively, or who send unsolicited naked photos, or who brag publicly or privately with friends about sexual experiences they have had with me. These encounters have left me feeling unsettled and unsafe at times.

However, examples from both of the previous paragraphs have also been completely okay at times as well. I’ve had guys aggressively grab me and I felt flattered, men have pursued me or sent naked photos and I’ve liked it, guys have bragged about me and I felt happy about it.

It seems to come down to timing, trust levels, readiness, and level of attraction. And it’s difficult to know what will happen or how I will feel.

Self-inventory then ensues, and I begin to wonder about the times I’ve grabbed guys or have flirted too much or have followed a guy with my eyes in a coffee shop or I’ve complimented too easily. There are very likely people who have felt like I’m being predatory and who have felt unsafe, upset, or harassed by me. And that makes me feel worried and terrible.

Isolated encounters almost confuse me more. I think back to a time when I went on a weekend trip with a group of friends. We were in the Hot Springs together, and one of the guys got very handsy under the water, with his partner standing nearby. At the time, I found it enticing, and it went on for a while. It was only later that it bothered me. I never said no and I enjoyed the encounter, yet now when I look back I felt uncomfortable and maybe even a little harassed.

I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve appreciated it, and I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve been annoyed, sometimes avoiding them or even blocking them on social media because of it. I’ve had massage therapists get a little bit sexual and sometimes I’ve liked it and sometimes I’ve given a firm no and stayed furious about it. I’ve had clients flirt with me, and sometimes I’ve gotten angry and declared clear boundaries, and other times I’ve kind of enjoyed it and perhaps even subtly flirted back.

I once sat next to a friend during a movie, among a group of friends. During the film, I moved subtly closer until our legs were touching, then I moved my hand a bit closer to hopefully touch his. He responded by getting up and moving away, sitting on the floor, and later he’d told me that made him very uncomfortable. That had been hard to hear, but I respected that, and we are still good friends. I was happy he spoke up, and I was willing to listen.

Consent can be a bit confusing, honestly. And rather than saving my outrage for men in government and Hollywood who I have never met, who have preyed upon others, I’m taking the opportunity to do a bit of self-inventory. There are times when flirtations are just fun. And there are times when flirtations have caused me to feel unsafe and harassed. And there are times when flirtations have caused others to feel like I am harassing them.

I’m not sure what to take from all of these thoughts except to realize that asking is always better than assuming, that consent should be a part of every conversation and flirtation, and that I never like feeling unsafe, and that I don’t ever want anyone feeling unsafe around me.

Harassment and predatory behavior can show up in any space, through unwelcome compliments, eye contact, energy, or gestures. It can show up at work, in friend circles, and in bars. But it’s going to require us all taking stock of our encounters, apologizing when we need to apologize (without making excuses), communicating consent much more quickly, and setting clear boundaries when we need to. We are all sexual beings in our own rights, who experience attractions to others. But someone feeling like they have been marginalized or victimized, including myself, is never acceptable.

We live in a predatory community, and the way men treat men and especially how they treat women should never be focused on excuse-making and feeling rejected, but instead on conversations and consent. But it is very complex when we apply it ourselves. We all need to be using our voices and our ears much more. No one wants to be harassed, and no one wants to feel like they’ve harassed others.