Europe, in Reflection

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Someone brought out a stack of family photos and slapped them down on the kitchen table. “Have you looked at these yet? They are from the family vacation to Europe, back in 2001.”

I grabbed the stack of pictures and began leafing through them. My first impression was of how young we all looked. 18 years brings a lot of change. I am 40 now; I was 22 then. My younger sister, Sheri, is now 36; she was 18 then, right out of high school. My father and mother, now 80 and 75, had been 62 and 57.

For Mom and Dad, 18 years brought with it a lot of age and health struggle, graying of the hair and a lowering of the posture. But it also brought new grandchildren and great-grandchildren, new marriages for both of them, new perspectives. Times were changing, and we with them.

And for Sheri and I, 18 years meant finishing college, starting our families, losing weight, leaving Mormonism, and coming out. It meant leaving an old life behind and beginning a new and authentic one. The differences were startling.

I viewed 22-year old me in the photos with kindness and understanding. Chad then was just off his mission and attending an all-Mormon college. He knew he was gay, but he felt he was broken and beyond repair. He was resigned to a Mormon fate of temple marriage and children, never knowing the touch of a man. He had determined he would never be happy because that isn’t what God wanted for him. He held on so tightly to that.

I flipped through these photos and I saw a young man full of ambition, with a clear heart and head, so ready to embrace the big world out there. But his soul and spirit were so locked up. He had bright brown eyes and a careful but happy smile. He had thick hair that curled when it grew long. He wore baggy shorts and tent-like shirts over his Mormon undergarments. He so hoped to be seen by the world around him. He so badly needed the world to notice the space he occupied. He smiled so wide, but was so sad.

Sheri walked up behind me. “Whoa, look at these!” She sat next to me and we laughed about the pictures. I looked over at her now, the skinny, vibrant, blue-eyed, short-haired beauty next to me. She runs now, for health, because she loves it. She watches what she eats. She i married to an incredible woman. She loves herself.

And then I looked down to the Sheri from those old photos. Her hair was longer and parted down he middle, and it hung limply on the sides of her face. She had headphones in, using them to drown out the world around her. She wore baggy clothes, shielding herself in them. Every photo in the series, one after another, showed her glowering at the camera. Not just not smiling, but refusing to smile. She looked so unhappy, so closed off, from everyone around her and from herself. It broke my heart to see the differences.

Sheri gently jostled my arm. “Do you remember that day on the trip when you threatened to punch me in the face? I was so mad at you!” Sheri was looking at the photos and ha mirth in her voice. She was teasing me. But I felt a sharp jab of pain at the memory.

I kept the humor in my voice. “Do you remember the whole story? Do you remember why I said that?”

Sheri shrugged. “I think so. But it definitely wasn’t okay, especially after what we went through with Kent when we were younger.”

Kent was our abusive step-father, the man who had terrorized us when we were teenagers. I felt another jab of pain.

“Okay, hang on. Here’s the story. We are in Europe and everything is fucking beautiful, all  Swiss Alps and Black Forests and ski chalets and cuckoo clocks. And you are all up in your music for days at a time while we sat on the bus for hours. I’d grab your arm and be like ‘look at those mountains!’ and you’d just ignore me. Meanwhile, Mom is back there crying because for some reason she agreed to go on a European vacation for two weeks with the man she has been divorced from for over a decade, and Dad never has a word to say, and I’m all locked up inside like a good little Mormon boy.”

Sheri looked up, a bit defensive. “Hey, I had my own stuff going on!”

“Oh, I know. I’m not saying you didn’t. We both had a lot going on. So no blame. Just setting the picture. I’m in the prettiest place I’ve ever been and I want to share it with someone and you keep ignoring me!”

“Well, I didn’t want to talk to you!”

We both laugh and smile. We are close enough to have conversations like this and have them remain light-hearted.

“Okay, anyway,” I continue, “we were in Austria, and I was really fucking lonely, and I asked if yo would go explore a church with me, and you said no, and I was like, ‘Sheri, please!’ and then you told me to fuck off! And I quote, ‘Fuck off, Chad,’ like so unnecessarily. And I was all Mormon so language super-offended me back then, so I responded with anger. ‘If you ever tell me to fuck off again, I’ll punch you in the face.’ That’s what I said. And of course I didn’t mean it! I could never hit someone! It was just the thing I said to get my point across. And I did, and then I immediately regretted it and apologized, but you ignored me for, what, five more days after that?”

Sheri looked me in the eyes and a bit of shock passed there. All the details came rushing back to her. “Oh. Yeah.” She was quiet a moment. “Well, I ignored you cause you pissed me off!”

“Oh, I deserved it, probably. I was pretentious back then.”

We changed the subject and kept looking at the pictures. My eyes kept switching back and forth between the sad looks on our faces and the amazing scenery. The Eagle’s Nest resort, set in the Alps. Sheri’s headphones. The green rolling hills of Salzburg. My fake smile. The centuries-old Gothic cathedral. Sheri’s glower. The intricate woodcrafting in a local shop. Dad’s stern and sad frown. Flower boxes filled with colorful blossoms on Bavarian homes. Mom’s pain hidden so carefully behind her smiles.

Minutes later, Mike and I walked outside, taking a few hours to ourselves before the big family dinner that evening. I got behind the wheel of the car and closed my eyes briefly. I was shocked to find tears suddenly cascading down my cheeks.

Mike gripped my hand. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. Nothing’s wrong. Just… that conversation with Sheri, remembering who she was, who I was, who we all are now, all that pain in a place of such beauty. I’m just–remembering.

Grieving.

Happy.

Changed.”

 

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All your Moose-Bucks

“Wait, why Saskatoon?”

Every Canadian who learned who were on vacation from America asked us this question with shock, in a way that showed that they loved their city but they wouldn’t understand what would bring an American there. (I think it would be like a person from Ogden, Utah wondering why a man from Australia had chosen that particularly city for vacation, it just didn’t compute.)

Even Sonja, the kind Canadian woman who worked the WestJet check-in counter at the Saskatoon Airport, wondered why. “What did you even find to do here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

We’d done lots of things. Live music, beers, nightclubs, art galleries, live theater, long drives through the lush Saskatchewan farmland, historical exploration in small resort towns, long walks and talks, exploration of local neighborhoods and universities, coffee shops, and window shopping. It was difficult to explain that we’d chosen it to see a different side of life in a different place, somewhere far away but somehow just close enough to home. And in Canada, familiar to the culture of the United States but just one parallel universe away, with customs and currency just one degree off from the familiar. A place where people spoke the same, but the vowels were just a bit longer, giving an almost Irish lilt to the accents. (Example, instead of home, they say hohme, the oh just a bit longer.)

Sonja understood. “It sounds like you just chose a city with a great and unique name. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.”

I gave her a wide smile back. “The best name. And a place I’ll probably never make it back to.”

Adapting to the culture here had been mostly easy, with just a few rare exceptions. Without WiFi accessible on the phone, due to international data plans, we’d been left to use an ancient GPS in our rental car to get us places, and in at least one case it directed us to a spot around 160 kilometers away from where we’d needed to be, keeping us in the car an extra 2 hours to get back to where we needed to be. (But we’d seen an awful lot of wheat fields, flat horizons, and farm houses along the way, even stopping for some Rum Raisin ice cream at a random business built on a field, and served by a lovely woman with terrible teeth).

One day, we’d visited Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to take some old tours of the city’s tunnels, built back in the 1920s and 30s, one about Al Capone’s alleged boot-legging business and one about the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants for decades during the construction of the local railroads and the years afterwards. The tours had been run by local actors, all short and squat, who mostly seemed bored with their jobs as they recounted fascinating history in a character voice. Yet parking in Moose Jaw had been impossible. Most places in the province had allowed us to use credit or debit cards to pay for parking, but this city only had old-fashioned parking meters, and we had to stop into several places to first get Canadian dollars, then to make change for Canadian quarters. (Now I have a collection of Canadian coins and bills, what seems like play money with pictures of British royalty on it, in my wallet, and I’m not sure what I’ll do with it).

We’d gone to the two local gay clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, to see what the local culture was like. One Friday, at Diva’s, we had been the only ones at the bar, and finally left at 11:30, baffled. But on Saturday, at Pink, the bar had been packed with men and women in flannel, all with thick bushy hair, some even in mullets, wearing styles that were reminiscent of the mid-1990s in Idaho and Utah: backwards ball caps, cigarettes tucked behind ears, baggy jeans, and hoodies over untucked flannel shirts.

We’d seen a local play, a first viewing of a production written by a local gay man, one that featured gay parents struggling to raise a son with schizophrenia all while getting in touch with their own roots. It had been moving and wonderful.

We’d watched a local band, the Royal Foundry, a husband-and-wife pop/folk duo whose songs are newly gracing radio stations across Canada, give an incredible concert for a group of 30 people in a small jazz club. The singers’ parents and grandparents had been in attendance, and we’d clapped and tapped our feet to their incredible energy and music, sipping on Old Fashioned drinks and continually commenting on how amazing the band was.

On Sunday, I’d taken hours to walk through the rain through the local University of Saskatchewan, weaving in and out of buildings, watching students study and write in quiet corners of the library and classroom buildings. I read the placards about local Nobel Peace Prize winners, and had admired the “collegiate gothic” style of the buildings. It had been beautiful, and filled me with a longing for my academic days.

We’d been picked up and dropped off by a Vietnamese immigrant, whose car we had rented for the week through a phone app. Nguyen, as he’d asked to be called, talked about this Christian family in Viet Nam, black-listed in their home town for being Catholic. His parents had worked for years to afford a Western education for their son, and now he was here working on a PhD in business, in his sixth year of school. He discussed his “maybe girlfriend” who lived hundreds of kilometers away, a girl he was interested in because he had met her at a college Bible camp years before.

So why Saskatoon? For all of those reasons. These random encounters. The music and art and theater, the rain, the buildings, the farmland and history, the never-ending niceness of the locals, and the wonder that we’d had this weekend to explore and be parts of these things.

When we first landed, my best friend Tyler and I had laughed that we didn’t understand local currency, and I’d joked that they must use Moose-Bucks.

Now that we were leaving, Tyler asked if ‘d wade the experiences in, if I wished we had gone somewhere different instead.

“I wouldn’t trade them,” I said with conviction. “Not for all my Moose-Bucks.”

moosebucks

Losing my lube in Canada

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“Everyone here is no nice!”

I had only been to Canada a few times before, once to Victoria, Vancouver Island as a teenager on a brief family vacation, and a few times to British Columbia during my married Mormon years. Yet now I was on my way for an epic (well, epic on my own terms) five day vacation to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a city I had kind of chosen at random a few months before when I wanted to plan a trip to look forward to.

“They are nice!” Tyler said back, and I thought of the dozens of South Park and How I Met Your Mother episodes I had seen making fun of Canadian niceness.

My best friend Tyler and I had arrived at the airport in Salt Lake City in plenty of time, and we’d been surprisingly moved to the “premier” section of the small plane, a watered down version of first class, with drinks delivered in glass containers with ice, a small pillow and blanket, and a bit more leg room. The flight attendants and many people on the plane were clearly Canadian and proud of it, many wearing maple leaves on their clothing or apparel showing off their favorite Canadian sports teams.

We heard plenty of “Oh, sorry!” and “Hey, no worries” in our interactions. When Tyler accidentally spilled some of his complimentary water on himself, the flight attendant, adorable in a black skirt and white top and with her hair in pigtails, handed him napkins. “Here you go, sorry about that, no worries, no worries.” And he and I had laughed.

“Maybe you’ve finally found your people!” Tyler joked.

I have a weird way of pronouncing certain words. I grew up in south-western Missouri, where they have thick hillbilly drawls, and then spent my teenage years in eastern Idaho potato farming country, where the locals talk more like farmers and hicks, with long vowels and lazy consonants. I have a nice strong baritone voice, but I give those long vowels to certain words, and I have a bit of a drawl sometimes, so I tend to say a few words funny, like “soar-y” instead of “sorry” and “to-moar-ow” instead of tomorrow. I’ve been asked many times before if I’m from Canada. The flight attendant had said ‘soar-y’ and ‘no woar-ies’, causing us both to giggle.

“Maybe I have found my people!” I laughed back, just as we heard a woman from somewhere behind us yell “Oh my Goad!”, and we giggled even harder.

We walked off the plane into the Calgary Airport for our layover, and noticed beautiful artwork along the walls, much of it celebrating local wildlife, like geese and moose. We checked out handsome men in flannel and kept bantering back and forth.

I jabbed Tyler with an elbow. “Is it safe for you to enter the country again? Weren’t you on the Canadian Mounties Ten Most Wanted list years ago? If they catch you, I don’t have nearly enough Moose Bucks to bail you out.”

If anyone was annoyed with the giggling American gay male thirty-somethings, we didn’t notice, just excited to be in a new space. We lugged our luggage down the long line toward customs, our declaration forms and passports in hand, and some very polite agents, one a brown-skinned man with a thick beard and a turban, ushered us through quickly and without incident.

Then we made our way back toward the security line to re-enter the airport for our connecting flight. I slipped off my shoes, unpacked my laptop into its own bin, removed my coat, and then hefted my large carry-on bag up onto the conveyor belt. A nice man ushered me through the metal detector, but then something in my bag raised concern on the X-Ray machine.

“Excuse me, sir, is this your bag?” The Canadian TSA agent (although I’m not sure that it is called the TSA in Canada) was a short man in his early 30s with thick glasses and a large bald spot. “Please step this way.”

He led me to the end of the row as people continued passing through security. He informed me he had to look for something in my bag. “Do you have anything sharp, hazardous, or liquid in the bag?”

“Nothing sharp or hazardous. I do have some liquids in my toiletry bag. But I had this bag on my flight from Salt Lake City to Calgary and everything was fine.” I did a mental inventory of the contents of the bag as he unzipped it. Toothpaste, moisturizer, deodorant. And then I remembered I had packed a bottle of lube. The boyfriend and I keep a large 8 fluid ounce bottle of lube, that cost about fifty dollars, next to the bed, but it was more than half empty. I had packed it for… well… personal reasons (come on, my mother reads this blog) thinking that it was empty enough to be safe.

Sure enough, the man with the bald spot opened my toiletry bag and held up the bottle of lube in front of his face. Then he held it up in the air a bit, as if to show his fellow employees. He turned to me, a bit too loudly, and said, “Well, sir, your personal lubricant exceeds the maximum number of allowed milliliters.” My brain seized a bit, having no idea how to compute milliliters.

“I, um, it was fine on the last flight.”

“It’s against federal regulations.”  He continued holding it up in the air, and I felt my cheeks start to turn scarlet. “You have three options. You can be escorted out through security and recheck your bag, because this personal lubricant is not allowed on the flight, then come back through security. You can choose to have me discard this after you surrender it to me. Or I can give you a mailing package and you can mail the lubricant to yourself.”

Flummoxed and stuttering, embarrassed at the idea of mailing a bottle of lube to myself, I instructed him to simply throw it away, and he placed it in a container behin him as I repacked my bag and wanted to get away from there as soon as possible. He just stood there watching. This particular Canadian had no intention of saying Soar-y.

As we walked away, Tyler kept giggling, teasing me, but I was red faced and wanted to be out of there. I pictured the security technicians watching on their cameras at the American tourist with the giant bottle of lube.

Then Tyler tapped me on the shoulder. “You realize that man back there is totally going to take that lube home and–”

“No! No! Enough!” And finally I giggled again, ready for a weekend of new experiences in the land of nice.

Trump Towers

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“Well, there it is,” the older woman said in her thick European accent. “Trump Tower.”

“Well, it’s more like a hotel. Do you think it will be used for hosting foreign dignitaries?” The younger woman looked sad as she said it, snapping a shot of the building on her phone. “I didn’t realize how close it was to the White House.”

“I’m sure many diplomats will try to stay there to impress the president. But maybe he will let them stay there for free.”

Both women stood thoughtfully silent for a moment before I chimed in. I had been standing nearby, on a long walk through the streets of Washington D.C. I had taken my own photos of the Trump hotel as they had been talking.

“I don’t think he will be letting anyone stay for free,” I scoffed.

The older woman laughed. “We can pretend. I’m trying to comfort my daughter. She is college-aged and living here in America currently.”

The daughter continued staring at the building. “I just can’t believe it is happening. I keep looking at all of the states, even here in the District of Columbia, and I see how the majority supports Hillary Clinton. How could this man have won?”

“Well, speaking for a lot of Americans, we can’t believe it either.”

I introduced myself to the two women, Annaliese, attending college locally, who was showing her mother Linda around the city. Both women were from Armenia. I explained that I was a tourist to the city also. There was heaviness in the air as we became basically acquainted. They asked what I had been doing in the city, and I told them about my adventures.

“And then yesterday, I went to the Holocaust Museum. Have you been?” I asked.

Linda looked down, a sadness heavy on her face for a moment. “I have no need to go there. My mother’s generation was that of the first genocide, the Armenian genocide.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say, and there was a pregnant silence for  a moment. Then Annaliese asked me what I thought of the museum. I looked back over at the Trump hotel, and sighed.

“The first part of museum was dedicated to the political circumstances at the time. It told of Germany, struggling with political sanctions after World War I, and how the economy was slow to rebuild and the people were dissatisfied. Despite all of that, Germany had a lot of cultural things happening. It was becoming a safer place politically for homosexuals and for women, for Jews and other religious groups. It seemed to be changing, slowly, for the better. And then Hitler happened.” Both women looked at me and seemed to want me to continue. “Watching those exhibits, I saw how Hitler surrounded himself with people who admired and emulated him, and how he used the plights of the average German to propel himself into power. He used propaganda and political loopholes within the German system to seize larger and larger pieces of political influence. He exploited crises to gain sympathy and seemed to operate on a message of ‘Make Germany Great Again’, and then he took over and appointed others just like him into positions of power. And then the world watched what happened next.”

Annaliese looked at the hotel and then at me. “That sounds painfully familiar.”

I nodded twice. “Yeah, the museum was extremely uncomfortable for me. I must have had 75 moments of ‘oh my god, that sounds like America right now’. Political campaigns built on propaganda that exploit the disenfranchised. Anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-women. Fear-mongering and gas-lighting.”

Linda stuffed her hands in her pockets, avoiding the cold wind. “And the rest of the museum?”

“Well, the rest of the museum was all that happened next. I cried lots of times reading about the people killed, and how they were killed, the people experimented upon, the ones who barely escaped with their lives. It was horrible. The museum was so beautifully built, and we must remember what happened, but it was horrible. I’m sure it was similar to the stories your mother told you of the Armenian genocide.”

We stayed silent for a moment again, and I felt the need to clarify. “Look, I don’t think we are headed for genocide in America. I don’t think that would happen again. But I do worry about what comes next for us. It’s a heavy time here after things have been going so well.”

The conversation lightened up for a few minutes and we talked instead of food and music and entertainment, of aspirations and climate and family. And then the women headed along their way, after having me take a photo of them in front of the Trump hotel.

I continued my walk then, past incredible buildings full of history. I saw names emblazoned in plaques and pavement: J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass. The sheer history of these streets. The sheer weight of the footfalls of the men and women here who have influenced a world’s destiny and changed billions of lives for better or worse, from right here on these streets.

I came around the bend and saw a few handsome Secret Service agents screening the credentials of four men and women dressed like Christmas carolers, admitting them to the White House grounds for some sort of event. I looked at a construction crew building a stage for the upcoming Inauguration of a new President. I watched a crowd of Americans gathered at the perimeter staring at the White House in all its grandeur, realizing, as I was, that it is just a building like any building, and a small building at that. A Muslim family stood arm in arm, the women with their heads wrapped, the men with heavy beards. A black mother held the hands of her three daughters, all in pink snow hats. A lesbian couple hugged each other tightly. An elderly father pushed a stroller while his daughter carried the child inside. We watched, all of us, the silent grounds around us, wondering in unison what the future holds.

Provo to Hollywood

It’s 9 am and I’m sitting in a crowded plane on the tarmac at the Provo, Utah airport, and everyone is white. Literally, everyone on the entire plane is white. I’m not sure why things like this startle me any longer. It’s Utah, I know, but there are billions on the planet.

I’m in the middle seat toward the back of the plane, squished in between two blonde girls. The one on my right is a little bit daft. She keeps looking at me and smiling and not looking away when I do. She’s wearing shorts that literally start just above her butt crack and end where her hips meet her legs. The one on my left is a brooding soul. She has a notebook open in her lap and she’s drawing pictures in her notebook of skeletal girls with speech bubbles coming out of their mouths, saying things like “what’s the point?” and “maybe tomorrow.”

I try propping up my laptop on my lap during the flight, and I can barely open it. The seats don’t recline and my knees hit the seat in front of me. I try typing, but I have to bring my elbows up to my shoulders and bent my wrists weird. I take out a paper and pen instead. I’m sleepy, but adventure beckons.

It’s 11 am and I’m in a new time zone, now in California, and I’m in the back of an Uber car. My driver is Azer and he’s from Armenia, and I realize to myself that I know literally nothing about that country. I couldn’t even pin it on a map. We make small talk, and he tells me of his wife and two adult daughters. He tells me how he used to own a kebab restaurant in Little Armenia, a section of town near Hollywood Boulevard, for 15 years until it got too expensive to maintain, but oh how he misses it.

I got off the plane with all the other white people just a bit ago, and got lost in a sea of bustling humanity in the airport. Every shade of skin, people of every shape and size. And I have a big smile on my face because this is exactly why I needed to be here, or at least somewhere. I needed to be anonymous, to go missing in a new place, to think and to read and to write and to experience.

I close my eyes briefly as Azer talks, feeling a mix of proud of myself for taking another adventure, and a little bit lame for doing it by myself. But I’m okay with being a little bit lame when it means I get to adventure on my terms.

It’s 1 pm and I’m sitting on the couch where I’ll be sleeping for the next four nights, talking to Mazie, my Airbnb host. She’s already among my very favorite people. 5’5, beautiful black skin, hair in multiple braids. She is dressed in a gorgeous yellow summer dress adorned with flowers, and she looks incredible. She has a cute brimmed hat on her head. She is bustling about the apartment setting things up for her week. She made me a welcome basket with towels, a throw blanket, and a fresh toothbrush. She tells me she is a scientist, and when I ask what kind, she tells me how she analyzes fluid samples in the hospital and gives the doctors the results, so that the doctors can pretend they knew what was going on all along. She says this with a laugh, and I’m laughing too. I don’t know her story, but this woman is a powerhouse.

It’s 3 pm and I’m sitting in a Starbucks on the quiet end of Hollywood Boulevard, if there is such a thing. I walked over the golden-edged stars adorned with the shining names of celebrities. There are many I know. I’ve been drowning myself in LGBT history research lately, and here mixed in with the other names are Ellen DeGeneres and Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift and dozens of others, and I’m thinking about how each of them had to pretend to be straight, publicly least, in order to get their careers going. Many of the stars are empty, waiting to have a name immortalized.

Outside the window, I see a Hispanic man holding a microphone and praying loudly, publicly calling those around him to repentance. “Dear Lord Jesus, though I be unworthy, I ask you to help me, Lord, help those around me to realize, Lord, that we, all of us, are sinners, that our time here is fleeting, Lord. Help me inspire them ot change their lives, Lord, and to find peace, Lord.” I look down and realize he is standing on the Hollywood star of Adam Sandler, and I literally laugh out loud at the deliciousness of that fact.

I make small talk with the man sharing the table with me. He’s jotting down complex notes, some sort of music set he has for an upcoming show, but I don’t ask questions. I think he’s flirting with me a bit. He asks me what my plans are while I’m in town, and I get a huge grin on my face as I reply.

“Nothing and everything. I have no concrete plans. I will see where my feet take me, and I will experience life.”

He nods respectfully, and soon packs up his things and leaves. And I open up my computer and write about my day as I sip my coffee and water, and watch the people passing by, the thousands of them, walking on the names of the famous. empty-hollywood-star-01.jpg