Ocean Lonely

The sky is gray and rain is pelting my skin. The wind is heavy against me, but somehow I’m not cold. I’m standing alone on the bough of a ship, right at its triangular peak. As I stare straight ahead, the ocean is all I can see. It takes my breath. It always will. The water ripples powerfully, more water than I can ever imagine. And far from here, as far as my vision extends, the Earth curves, and it is ocean and ocean and ocean.

It overwhelms me, this sight. Rarely do I feel this small, so aware of myself. It its simplest form, this complicated set of feelings, this sense of myself, it just feels lonely. But of course it is more than that. I’m channeling the experiences of the past few days and the fullness of the world within me, one that is both at peace and at unrest. I don’t know what else to call it but existential.

In the waters beneath me, there is a massive and incomprehensible eco-system. Various life forms at every level of the sea floor, each with their own complex set of rules. Thousands of life forms, millions of them, cohabitating carefully. Plants that feed on light, fish the feed on plants, larger fish that feed on smaller fish, and thousands of breeds of each of them.

Just yesterday, we spent six hours, only six hours, in another country, a small island colony called Grand Cayman. Fifty thousand people on this beautiful stretch of land, and all I saw were the docked cruise ships and the jewelry and souvenir and seafood shops catering to the tourists. Just a few hours in the capital city, Georgetown, and I wanted to spend a week but already know I’ll probably never make it back there. My boyfriend, my two sons, my sister, her daughter, and I, we joined a small group of tourists at the back of a bus, and we rode to a beach where we boarded a boat that took us out to a nearby sandbar. There, a group (a pod? A school? A cluster?) of Southern Atlantic Stingrays had gathered. I look it up later and learn that a group of rays is called a fever. A fever of rays. And that stuns me as much as the creatures themselves. Dozens of other rays have other habitats in the area, the Lemon Ray, the Manta, the Spotted something. They feed on smaller animals and sharks feed on them. There were about 150 humans in the water, each carrying a bucket of squid guts to attract the Rays. The females of this species grow to have wing spans as wide as a grown man’s outstretched arms. They are accustomed to humans, to our grouping hands, our bouncing presence on their sand bar, to the sounds of boats. We were lectured on how to approach them, how to pet them, what parts to avoid. We donned vests and masks and we stepped into water. My children held tightly to me as I walked them toward an enormous ray, one that a man from Argentina from our boat was holding closely. We reached our hands out and we stroked its soft wing, its rubbery stomach. We looked it in the eyes. My youngest son started with fear, and then enthusiastically rubbed it, wondering if he should call it Fluffy or Flappy. And again, in the distance, the ocean curved, except this time I could see the island that I wouldn’t get to explore.

Before we stroked the rays of the wings, I give my children an encouraging lecture about how to approach the creatures. I invite them to describe how they would approach an unfamiliar puppy, or kitten, or bird, or fish. Every creature is different, I explain, as is this one. We only touch certain parts. We are calm and careful. We respect them. This reassures my kids and they gently rub their palms over the wings of the ray, respectful and kind, as they cling to me so the ocean won’t whisk them away. I clutch them tightly until we get back on the boat.

Shortly after that, at a local restaurant, I looked over a menu, one that brandished names of local creatures that could be purchased and consumed. Snappers, Groupers, Flounders, Lobsters. Crabs scuttled over a nearby rock. Gray-green iguanas sat in a nearby tree. A local told us how the invasive green iguanas were taking over the territory of the blue ones, and now the blues were in danger. I keep hearing roosters in trees and occasionally they strut by; my son is thrilled that there are wild chickens, and he wants to count ever one he sees. I ask the waiter what other animals exist here naturally and he sadly tells us that the others were mostly wiped out in the hurricane in 2004, nearly 15 years ago. He says there were snakes and rats that kept the chicken population under control, but when the waters rose, everything that couldn’t fly or climb just drowned. So now there are chickens everywhere, he says, and they breed too quickly and they are left searching for ways to survive because there are so many. They even eat themselves, he says, they eat the discarded waste of the Kentucky Fried Chicken downtown.

And I grimace, because we are the same. I immediately think of all of the tourists on the cruise ship. The humans with money who are looking for the perfect vacation, and so they spend thousands of dollars to ride a ship and eat too much food. They push others out of their way and wait in lines impatiently. They breed too quickly and have no natural predators, and they eat not what they must but what they can, long past the point when it is healthy. They roam and strut and crow in trees.

The ship itself is supposed to be indulgent, fancy, luxurious. But it feels sad to me. All of those employees, all of them from different countries, with huge smiles on their faces. 1100 of them on one ship. 1100 humans who just work there, live there, day after day, week after week. Every five days, thousands of new impatient and indulgent roosters climb on board and expect to be catered to. The workers sign six month contracts and work long days, 10 or 12 or 15 hours. They share rooms with others. They leave behind their families, their homes, their children. Some do it for adventure, others for survival. And each of them have stories, tragedies, places they come from, streets they have walked. They hail from Cuba and South Africa and Tobago and Herzegovina. They take these jobs and then break their backs at them for months at a time for, what I must presume, is a competitive wage. They fold clothes and cut vegetables, they swab decks and clear plates, they massage aching shoulders and stack chairs, they restock feminine hygiene products and they sing and dance on stage. Day after day. The ocean curves for them too.

And because that is how my brain works, I immediately start thinking of all of the things they must see, all they must have to deal with. On a ship this size, with this many people interacting every day, there must be so many protocols in place. How to clean bloody nose stains off of pillows. How to handle drunk and irate and aggressive men. What to do if a sea-bird lands on the deck and gets into the restaurant. How to handle a woman who has just suffered domestic violence. How to smile when a customer complains too loudly. How to handle the couple who is having sex on the deck near the pool. How to do CPR after a heart attack. How to handle the customer who attempts suicide by jumping off the edge of the boat. What to do with confiscated cocaine. How to handle the international person who tries to sneak on the ship during port. How to entertain 3000 people when the storm rages on for three days and the pools close down. How to disarm the man who snuck the gun on board. How to process the shoplifter. How to handle the customer with stomach flu or peanut allergies or a motorized wheelchair or cerebral palsy or anemia. How to assist the woman on her honeymoon who just found out her husband is cheating. How to break up a fight at the bar. What a complicated reality this all must be. And what must it be like to work in human resources on a ship like this, with a crew this size, with international people. How to handle the affairs, the depression, the illnesses, the complaints. What a massive operation it all is.

For me, this vacation represents relaxation, and family, and adventure. It represents giving my children something that I never had. It demonstrates love to them in a way I always hoped I’d be able to show, by showing them the world, by spoiling them, by allowing them to indulge. I planned this trip two years in advance. I want them to play and sing and leap and explore. I want to show them different foods, ways of life, and shores. I want to spoil them just enough. Just once in a while, I want them to feel like they are spoiled. I want them to grow up and tell stories about that time Dad took them on that epic vacation. And that feels wonderful, that part.

But this trip also quiets the distractions. Despite all the food and noise and entertainment, I’m cut off from the outside world for a time. I have to set my phone down. No constant media updates, no clients to listen to, no consistent routine. I’m here, instead, surrounded by indulgent tourists and cruise workers who have huge smiles on their faces. Everything feels like a transaction. It’s disorienting, in both good and bad ways. It’s uncomfortable. My insides rock and bob with the movements of the ship. And when I disembark, my body will be disoriented again, wondering why the ground has stopped moving.

Tomorrow we will eat more, and bury each other in the sand, and spread our toes in the soft silty soil as the ocean tides lap over us. And the day after that, we will pack up, get on a plane, and go home.

But for now, I stand here with the wind and the rain, in contemplation, and all I’m left with at the end is the curving and turbulent ocean.

And somehow that’s enough.

ocean

Advertisements

Tarot

I never thought I’d be back here.

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

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

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

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

“I haven’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TarotMoon

Silver Paint and Cigarettes

The man’s face was painted silver. Thick, shiny silver. He wore a black jacket over a flannel shirt, and he had a Saints ball cap pulled low on his head. Blue jeans, tennis shoes. He leaned against a wall and took a long drag on a cigarette, blowing the smoke out in a long stream, and a low sigh exited his lips as he stood there. Then I noticed that his hands were painted silver too.

I leaned over to Mike. “Look!” I spoke in an excited whisper. The man took another long drag on his cigarette, blowing the smoke out, and then he began walking down the block, away from us. Mike took brief notice, then looked back down at his phone, disinterested. But I was fascinated by this man.

“He must have been one of those guys who does street performances. He paints himself silver and stands there not moving like a statue and people stand in front of him and take pictures and give him tips and stuff. He’s one of those guys.”

Mike used his phone to navigate us to our destination, a little supper club space a few blocks off of Bourbon Street. We entered an old building with sparse decor. A band sat right inside the entrance, playing old blues songs, and the perfect mix of the percussion, the clarinet, the bass, and the piano arrested my senses. The man at the piano crooned softly into a microphone, his voice reminiscent of Louis Armstrong. (But somehow in this setting it made me think more of King Louis in Disney’s the Jungle Book). My foot started tapping as I surveyed the room. A simple bar with a bartender named Jory who was dressed like some kind of 1950s pin-up girl as she deftly mixed drinks for the small crowd. A few scattered tables and stools with six or so people spread among them, all listening to the music. No one had their phones out, and that struck me almost more than anything.

“Oh, this is perfect,” I whispered to myself. Just a few blocks away there were hundreds of people swarming up and down the street in vast crowds, tripping over each other, half-drunk. They clamored from bar to bar, shop to shop, on the street full of singers, crooners, and musicians, with a different club every thirty feet, each with its own oyster or crawfish specialities, its own drinks, its own music with horns and drums and lead singers. But this place, with this handful of people, just far enough of the beaten path, was somehow perfect.

I ordered a drink from the bar, something with rum and gin and ginger beer and cherry juice and orange peel, and as Jory began shaking it all together in a metal cup, the band started a new number. The piano shifted into the upper octaves, the bass thumped out a deep resonant strain, and the percussion shifted into some wood-block-tapping sound. I turned as the clarinet began its song, and my spirit soared with it. I took my drink and joined Mike at the table.

“This. Is. Perfect.” I repeated with emphasis, and he laughed.

“Happy 40th birthday vacation weekend,” he smiled, gripping my hand, and I laughed. We clinked our drinks together, and the clarinet soared around our heads as we sipped in celebration.

One song later, I looked up to see a cop ride by on horseback, clip-clopping through the French Quarter a literal head and shoulders above everyone else.

I leaned in to Mike. “Where else would you see that?

He twisted his lips up the way he does when he’s about to make a joke. Banter is one of the very best parts of our relationship. “Canada,” he replied.

“No, they ride moose there.” I wiggled my eyebrows.

Mike rolled his eyes. “You can’t tame a moose.”

“Well, I did,” I stated, then stroked his hand affectionately, like I was petting a dog.

“Hey! I’m not a moose!”

He jabbed at me as I simply took another sip of my drink. “Aw, I made the moose upset. Look at his cute little waaaaaaah-tlers.”

Mike broke, laughing, and the singer started crooning again. There was a growl in his voice, and it made me want to snarl in the very best ways.

We went for a walk after that, weaving around the side streets of the French Quarter, with its small and beautiful homes, its waving flags, its low lights. We passed no less than six gay clubs and fifteen supper clubs, and people were crammed into every one of them, watching the Saints play football. We heard whoops and shouts and laughter, and we held hands as we walked.

We ended up back at the same club, wanting just a bit more, and saw the band was on break. Jory waved at us as we arrived, outside on her cigarette break, and I smiled. Taking a seat at the same table. I watched the four men from the band at the bar. Two wore straw hats. The singer had dreadlocks. I wondered what their lives were like. They had wives and children, day jobs, families, and here they were on a Thursday night playing incredible music for this tiny crowd for no other reason than that they loved it. Between sets, they checked text messages, had idle conversation, had a quick drink. At the end of the night, they’d go back home by bike or in a cab, and they’d sleep before their alarms went off for the workday in the morning.

Soon after, Mike and I headed back to our Airbnb, tired from the long flight and the time change, the walking and the humidity. And I thought of that man, the statue performer. I thought of him posing with drunk people in photos for tips. The put on his jeans, his jacket, his hat, then snuck around a corner for a cigarette break, still in his silver paint. I thought of the silver paint from his lips on the cigarette, of the silver swirls that must permanently stain around his shower drain, of the canister of silver body and face paint that must stack up on the side of his bathroom, of the cigarette smoke rising slowly in the air before disappearing. Evanescent. Just like me.

Silver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille

sawdust

The floor was thick with sawdust, on purpose. The signs hanging on the busy walls (those filled with animal heads, kitsch, and signatures in black marker) described how the Red Dog bar in Juneau had been built in 1912, to entertain the gold rushers here. I pictured the classic Wild West setup, with girls named Kitty in scandalous clothing, men in hats playing loud poker at the tables, and swinging saloon doors. They’d done a beautiful job making this space feel just like that. Crowded walls, greasy food, cheap beer, and a man who looked like an old-timey prospector playing the guitar on the small stage up front.

He sang a melancholy Johnny Cash song while I ordered a rum and Coke, casually observing the other patrons. The employees were dressed in period costumes. I pictured them here every day, making drinks, fries, and oyster shots for the thousands of cruise passengers who docked in the city in for mere hours. The tourists hit this gem of a town like a plague of locusts, buzzing in and out, consuming everything, until they flew back to their buffets, drinks, and pools aboard the ship. Two or three ships every day, clogging the streets, then leaving the place quiet in the evenings, for just the locals and the more long-term tourists, the ones more like me.

Four white couples sat all around me, and at least three of them were shit-faced drunk. At 8 pm on a Sunday night. The other couple, they never looked up from their phones, and I never saw them sip their beers. I casually listened to the stutters of conversation I could hear around me, but I tuned them out and instead focused on the singer. His leathered skin, his twisting white mustache, the oak barrel country twang in his voice, it was all just delicious. I sipped my drink as he sang.

“This next song is a favorite of mine,” the singer announced. “It’s by my old friend, Kenny Rogers. He told me about this woman, the one named Lucille, personally. He wrote a song about her! Sing along with the chorus if you know it.” He clearly didn’t actually know Kenny Rogers, but it somehow added to the authenticity of the experience.

And in his beautiful register, he began “Lucille.” This song automatically conjured up a bitter and happy nostalgia within me. How many times had I heard this classic country song in my teenage years, when my stepfather was in one of his good moods, filling the house with joy, love, and consistency. But those periods always followed an incident of extreme violence. Someone struck with an open hand, or grounded for weeks for with no cause, or called names until they cried, and then on came the happy music. Into the room came “Lucille.” Had I even heard this song in the two decades of my life since my stepfather had been gone? It felt strange to hear it now.

He sang, using Rogers’ words, of the bar in Toledo where a lonely and overwhelmed Lucille walked in and sat on a nearby stool, pounding back a few drinks. You don’t learn until later in the song that Lucille is trapped in a bad marriage with four hungry children and an overworked farmer for a husband. But in the second line of the song, you learn how she takes off her wedding ring, and she shortly announces that she’s looking for a good time.

But the singer changed things, trying to get a laugh. He sang, “On a barstool, she took off her clothes.” He stopped playing, then said, “Oh, did I say clothes? I of course meant ring!” He cackled, then kept laughing as the drunk crowd just talked over his music. The words tell of the singer moving down next to Lucille, seeing an opportunity with a willing woman, but immediately the singer saw the woman’s husband enter, a mountain of a man with calloused hands. The first chorus echoed that man’s words to his wife, and I sang along loudly.

“‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille, with four hungry children and a crop in the field. I’ve had some bad times, lived through some sad times, but this time the hurtin’ won’t heal. You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.'”

After the chorus, the singer stopped, explaining that that wasn’t the way it really happened. In the real story, as Rogers had told it to him, he said, Lucille’s husband had come in and let Lucille just how he felt. He’d walked in yelling, telling Lucille exactly what she was.

“The real chorus goes like this. It’s almost the same, but just sing it like this,” he said. “‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.‘ Then you just call out what her husband called her in that bar. ‘You bitch! You whore! You slut!’ Those are the actual words used in the real story! See, just try it with me. ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut!’ Hey, you did great! Doesn’t that feel good! Let’s try the chorus all together now! ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut! ‘With four hungry children, and a crop in the field!'” 

I was astounded. The audience all around me screamed the words out enthusiastically, eager to slut-shame Lucille as much as possible, or perhaps just thrilled to get to shout those words in public. The girl in front of me, the whitest white girl of all, shouted the words extra loud and with enthusiasm, her middle fingers raised up for effect. “You bitch! You whore! You slut!” she repeated, before taking a swig of her beer, drunk laughing, then leaning over to her husband and whispering a secret. “That’s hilarious, that slut!”

The song went on, into the third voice. The singer ordered whiskey and took Lucille back to his hotel room, but was unable to go through with it, because he couldn’t stop thinking about what the husband said. Cue the second chorus, and the audience happily called Lucille a whore and a bitch one more time.

The singer took his hand off the guitar and leaned into the microphone. “Now, on the radio, that was the end of the song. Kenny Rogers couldn’t get away with publishing the fourth verse, the censors wouldn’t allow it. But he told it to me. Ladies and gentlemen, right here, in the Red Dog, you can hear the real ending of the classic song, Lucille, are you ready?” The crowd cheered. I felt a little nervous. This man was not treating Lucille well, and I just knew it was about to get worse.

In the secret fourth verse, he sang about how Lucille had left the hotel room, and so the singer had returned to the bar, where he had met two sisters. He took both sisters back to his hotel room, took of their clothes, and was about to fool around with both of them, when Lucille came back into the hotel room, still wanting to be with him, apparently. And to get her to go away, now that he had better prospects, the singer had repeated the husband’s words in a third chorus.

“‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut!'”

I walked out of Red Dog, my mind spinning with the whole experience. I felt disgusted. I felt strangely protective of Lucille, though she was fictional. She had once represented happy times in my home. I didn’t like how the crowd had slut-shamed her, blaming her for seeking an escape from her tortured marriage. I didn’t like the man in the song and how he’d shamed Lucille while he himself was trying to sleep with two sisters. I knew it was all supposed to be a joke, that people there had been laughing, but I kept hearing the crowd chanting bitch, slut, and whore, and I kept seeing that woman with her raised middle fingers. They shamed Lucille for sexualized behavior while screaming with enthusiasm for Kenny Rogers and his supposed debauchery. It was gross. Lucille didn’t deserve that, I decided. And then I remembered the venue, the atmosphere of the people there.

The floor was thick with sawdust, on purpose.

A Matter of Endorphins

I was uncharacteristically sad yesterday. There wasn’t any reason for it, I was just plain sad. I wasn’t down-in-the-dumps sad. I wasn’t depressed, or grieving, or heartbroken, or lonely. (My word, but there are a lot of beautiful shades of that emotion). I was just… blue. Down. Maybe a little melancholy.

The sadness continued this morning, meaning it lasted around 36 hours. I woke up and went through the motions of using the restroom, washing my hands, brewing my coffee, then reading a bit in a biography while it brewed. But the whole time, I felt like looking out the window and just giving a sigh, like those two kids on the opening page of the Cat in the Hat who can’t play outside because it was raining too hard. A breakfast of Greek yogurt with blueberries, a hot shower, a clean shirt, a hug from my boyfriend, still sad. I blended my lunch of protein powder and fresh vegetables (spinach, carrots, broccoli) then headed into the office, listening to NPR on my way, still sad. I saw my first client and talked about overcoming depression with him, still sad. And then I thought, “Okay, that’s enough. I don’t want to be sad anymore.”

I took a long walk through the park during a quiet hour from work, my office being just a block from a major city park. The birds were singing, there were hot shirtless runners, there was a light breeze, and the sun was shining perfectly. There was a lot to be grateful for. As I felt my body slowly come awake, I felt a familiar stiffness in my bones, and the blood flow through my muscle groups felt amazing. My bones popped, my spine expanded, and my head cleared as I breathed it all in, quickening my pace a bit.

I took a moment to take stock of my melancholy. On Sunday, upon leaving Philadelphia, I’d woken up sad. The night before, I’d had dinner (an incredible mushroom shepherd’s pie), drinks (two Old-Fashioneds), and dessert (chocolate creme brule) with my boyfriend as we listened to incredible live jazz music. I’d felt so alive. But then Sunday morning I’d woken up sad. I packed my suitcase, showered for the day, and then spent four hours at the local art museum before heading to the airport. A two hour wait and a four hour flight basically meant six hours of reading (a new biography on Tennessee Williams), and then finally home. Yet sad the whole time.

And then Monday, healthy food, several hours of work, and then a long evening of play time with my sons, who I hadn’t seen in five days. I gave them new animal toys to add to their toy zoo, a harpy eagle and a sun bear, and we played together in the backyard, laughing and having fun. I made them dinner, we played Twister, they were hyper and silly and it was a wonderful night. But the entire time, still, blue, and knowing it the entire way.

As I walked through the park, I did a little therapy on myself, as I often do when I have something to puzzle out. Were I to come to myself for therapy, with this set of problems, how would I counsel me as a client? What would I have to say? I would ask me to describe the sadness, what kind of sadness it was, and what I had to be sad about. Then I would remind myself that sadness is a natural state, that all humans are sad, even when life is really good.

It’s a matter of endorphins, I would say.

I would remind myself that the brain produces endorphins (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine) naturally, but it produces best in optimal conditions, with healthy nutrition and hydration, ample sunlight, low stress, and good sleep. And I would remind myself that if the brain has been producing endorphins at high amounts for a few days in a row, then it is natural for it to produce lower amounts for a period of time afterward, as a balancing measure. It is also normal to have a low when one hasn’t been sleeping well, or has been drinking a lot of alcohol, or has been eating a lot of sugary or salty foods, or has not been exercising. No one gets to be happy all the time, and blue has its place. Blue is safe. Blue is okay.

I just got back from vacation. I ate a lot of food, drank and danced, traveled, and hadn’t slept a full night in several days. Blue was normal, and it didn’t make my life any less wonderful. Even when sad, all of my joys were there: my children, my partner, my work, all of the things that give me balance and happiness. It was a blue hour, or perhaps a blue day, not a blue life.

I finished my walk around the park, ready to resume. I felt a little bit lighter (meaning my brain was producing just a few more endorphins), and I knew that after a nice meal, I would feel even better still. The world around me remained beautiful.

Blue sky, blue water, blue blood, and me.

Blue

Piranha: Reflections of First Love

Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?

The first time you drove to see me, from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City, a six-hour cut through desert and mountains, you listened to Lana Del Ray on repeat. You told me how her voice took you someplace else. She was your muse, you said once.

And so, when I sat down in a coffee shop today to write about something else, and one of those songs came on, one of those I know used to make your soul sing, my fingers stopped working for a minute, and my mind started working backwards, to all those little memories we created together.

I remember the last time I saw you, working at your little juicer in the Nevada hills, adorable in your apron. I hadn’t seen you in a year, and I knew we were all wrong for each other, but there was always a place in the back of my heart where we would set aside all of the complications and differences and just work it out. I entered the shop to surprise you and you instantly made me melt, all over again. Then, after a few minutes of speaking, you told me you were with someone else, and I bid my final farewell, then sat in my car and sobbed for an hour before I could drive away.

I remember our last real weekend together, holding hands in the rain and walking the streets of Seattle while talking about plans for the future. We pulled on stocking caps and, side by side, ascended to the top of a waterfall, where you just held me, and when a dog rushed by with its owner, you got that low growl of adoration in your voice as you looked at it in longing, muttering “Puppy!” with unbridled enthusiasm. We sat in the car later, and I told you “I love you” for the first time, and you said, “I love you, too”, and I told you not to say that unless you meant it. And when I wondered if we might be together, you shook your head and said you weren’t ready, and my heart broke, and  that night, with our arms and legs entwined and my head on your shoulder, you held me tight, and I somehow knew it would be the last time.

I remember months before that, when I sat in frustration, waiting for your text message back. There had been longer silences lately between us, as far away as the hundreds of physical miles, and though I missed you, I refused to reach out, just like you refused. You seemed to want me to prove that I could be with you. You needed some sort of bold gesture. But I had children, a job, and child support payments, and you wouldn’t move to be near me, and so we would wait, both of us, stubbornly, for the other to make the first move. And then I’d get lonely, or heartsick, or perhaps drunk, and reach out with how much I missed you, how much I wanted to be with you. We would fondly text for a few days, and then fall back into the same pattern of stubborn silence. And I remember feeling, even in those times, that no one would ever be able to make me feel the way you did.

I remember seeing you in St. George, Utah, during a massive blizzard. You drove to see me for a day, agreeing to give it one chance. You wore a leather jacket and you’d grown a beard, and you wrapped your arms around me as the snow tried to stab us, and we just held each other for five minutes, and it felt like home. We went inside without speaking, and we made love, and we just lay there laughing and feeling amazing, and you muttered “God, I missed you” under your breath. And then we had diner at some terrible cafe, and  you could barely speak, telling me how this couldn’t work, how you just weren’t ready, and then you left, too soon. But I held on to that hug in the snowstorm for weeks afterward, clutching it close, refusing to let it go.

I remember hopping on the porch the first time you drove up to see me, unable to contain my excitement, like a child on Christmas morning. We’d been texting back and forth for weeks, and during your family vacation, you’d locked yourself in the bathroom while everyone slept so that you could just keep talking to me that much longer. You made me feel desired, like I was worth it, and that week I paraded you around in front of my friends, eager to show off this beautiful, authentic man, this brilliant person who was there with me, not, them, but me. And you didn’t care about my baggage, my kids or my divorce, you only wanted to make me smile, and everything was just perfect, giving me a taste of a life I had never thought possible.

I remember meeting you that first time, in the Piranha club in Las Vegas. The room was full of men. My friends were all drunk and paired off with others in the club, dancing in corners, and there you were, blonde and blue-eyed, with dimples, in your button-down sweater and jeans, laughing with friends. We made eye contact, multiple times. I danced near you, hoping you would join me, and I took a shot or two for courage, then you finally approached me. We yelled our names out loud to each other, and danced, trading phone numbers as our friends’ gave us thumbs’ up signals of approval. We kissed and danced and held each other, to Rihanna and Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, and we both commented on how amazing it felt to find a connection like this in such a place. I went to sleep that night with you on my mind.

I wonder about you sometimes, Matt. Last I heard, you had moved to San Francisco with a new man. And I truly hope you are happy. I long ago deleted any and every way to contact you. I wiped out your phone number and Email so that I couldn’t reach out to you in a moment of vulnerability and see history repeat itself. You aren’t on social media in any format, so I can’t even be tempted to look you up. And the distance helps. Because what you represented to me then, you can no longer represent.

Like you, I’m with someone else now. He loves me, and I love him, and he makes me feel the way that you used to, except there aren’t long silences in between the snowstorms and waterfall hikes. There is no stubborn heel-dragging, no doubts that he wants to be with me, no apologies that he just isn’t ready. He’s some of the things you were, with his own wonderfulness on top of all of that, and he’s consistent, an adjective you lacked in your character composition.

Yet every time Lana Del Ray comes on, I’ll likely always think of you. Her voice is haunting, as your presence always will be. I’ll always think of finding a first love at the age of 32, one that would stretch on for years without resolution. I’ll think of headiness, of passion, of hopping, of waterfalls, of juice, of puppies, and of being held in a snowstorm.

And I’ll think of piranhas, silvery, slick, and sleek, until they expose their fangs.

Piranha

A Mystical Evening

mystic.jpg

The goose hissed at me as I stepped out of my car, turning its head before its body and focusing. It hissed again when I closed the car door, and the other geese behind it turned as well. Then it took tentative steps toward me, spreading its wings out menacingly and sauntering forward, giving off a sound like a clown squeezing the rubber horn on his lapel.

“Whoa, whoa, okay,” I muttered as I stepped quickly away, and the geese slowed their paces, backing off. I remembered a childhood story of a kid getting bit by a goose he’d been taunting at the park, and I certainly didn’t need that experience in my life.

I looked briefly around the property of Mystic Hot Springs, on the edges of tiny Monroe, Utah. I’d never been to this section of the state before, though I have been spending more time in central and southern Utah lately during my work on the documentary. Over in this little corner were towns with names like Elsinore and Koosharem, the very definitions of small-town America, the kinds of places where one has to drive to the “city”, a population center of more than 5000 people, to get groceries and gas.

Mystic was pretty in its way. Driving in, there had been a series of run-down cabins, uninhabitable, followed by a section of RVs, a small campground, then a long row of old busses that had been converted into hotel rooms of a sort. There were several buildings scattered throughout the property and, on one side, pens for goats, alpacas, and chickens, if I remember the signs correctly. Off to the right of my car was a trail heading upward, where different pools had been arranged to collect the hot springs water. To my left was the main office, where I was to register for my room for the night. I entered, after stepping over a few peacocks.

The ad for this place on Airbnb, and in local searches, used the word ‘hippie’ multiple times, a word that the few people who lived here clearly owned. The main room of the office extended off of the owner’s homes, as I could see the kitchen off to the side and doors marking private residence entrances, but the room itself was piled with ‘hippie’ merchandise, like crystals, specially blessed bags of salt, and hand-woven scarves. Signs all over the desk advertised that members of the staff could be secured for hypnotherapy sessions, table massages, couples massages, or chair massages.

A kind woman in a flowy blouse checked me in and described the property. She took payment and told me I’d be sleeping in one of the busses, all of which had been converted to camping rooms, with a community bathroom just feed away with showers and running water. She literally called it “the Grateful Dead Hippie Bus”, and told me “You’ll be staying in the white one. It’s the Ripple Bus but it isn’t labelled. It’s the one next to the blue bus.” Shortly afterward, she offered me a chair massage, and, I mean, how could I turn that down.

For 15 minutes, I sat in a chair while she worked on my shoulders, neck, and upper and lower back. She made casual small talk about growing up as a non-Mormon in Utah and moving around the state before finding a home here. She mentioned some of the quirkier corners of the Utah wilderness, like a pond where many Mormons had died seeking a buried treasure, and the Devil’s Slide rocks near where she grew up. She had surprisingly strong hands and it felt good to let the tension go for a few minutes. January had been a busy month. She informed me that the band, the Free Peoples, would be putting on a private concert that very night in this very room, and invited me to come back at 9 pm. I heartily agreed.

I left the lodge and pulled a protein bar out of my pocket, looking around. Making sure the path was clear of geese, I walked up the short hill to the hot springs, reading the signs warning against public nudity and alcohol. A few collected pools of hot spring water were on the lower edges, and slightly higher up were bathtubs (literally bathtubs) that had been placed to collect the water for a more… unique hot springs experience. There were several different bathtubs in various groupings around the hillside. A couple sat squished together in one while three women occupied three in a row on the other side. I pictured old Western movies, where the cowboy enters the brothel and sits in the hot tub in the middle of the room while the women bustle about. I walked up a bit farther to see the hot springs themselves, trickling down the hill, and I dipped my finger in it, feeling the warmth right from the earth itself. Then one of the three women cackled and began animatedly speaking.

(Warning: graphic language follows)

“Okay, so then, I’m squeezing right, but I’m not sure he’s really into it, and I’m wondering if this guy has ever even had a hand job before, he’s just there in his truck like just looking off in the distance, like he’s, like, watching something boring on TV, but I really like him, so I, like, keep going. I’m squeezing, I’m stroking, I’m pumping, and then all of the sudden, he just, like cums but, like the tiniest bit, like you could barely tell. And he never made a sound! Like not a sound! His facial expression didn’t even change! He just, like, pulls his pants up and we, like, go to the movies. But, you guys, I really, really like him!”

I made my way back down the hillside as the women continued laughing. Still wary of geese, I grabbed my bag and walked over the Hippie Bus I’d be staying in. I entered ‘the white one’ and realized there was no key and no way to lock the door. All of the many windows in the interior of the bus had been covered by hanging blankets and shawls, and I could slide a chain lock on the bus door when I was inside, but I couldn’t lock it from the outside when I left. It was surprisingly quaint in the interior, with a queen size bed against one side piled with blankets and pillows, one the blankets being electric; yellow lights were strewn around the top edges of the room; there were a few chairs, a lamp, and a small table with a game of dominos on it. A hanging side read ‘Take only Memories, Leave only Footprints.” It was cold inside, but I switched on the small space heater and kicked off my shoes, planning on reading my book on Truman Capote for a while.

Hours later, I took myself back out into the cold and walked up the hill to one of the empty pools. It was dark outside now. One pool over, an elderly couple embraced in a shadowy corner, and I could still hear the women giggling up on the hillside. It was too dark to read, so I sat alone with my thoughts. I looked up over the brown mountain ranges to a gorgeous full moon with a wisp of cloud over it, a perfect Halloween moon in January. It was stunning. The water was perfect, not too hot or cold, and I found an edge to lean into, where I could be alone with my thoughts for a time.

I learned a few years ago that I love traveling solo. When I don’t do it, I start to get uncomfortable, itchy in my own skin, and I need short getaways like this to recharge myself. I’ve discovered that I quite like my company and can go most anywhere, trying local food, seeing community theater, sampling live music, and entering storefront museums. But whenever I travel, there is usually at least one evening for a few hours where all of my demons claw their way to the surface. For just a bit, I feel pathetic. Dissatisfied. Frustrated. Furious. I grieve my past, I mourn my lost opportunities, I rage at my hardships. I hone in on unmet goals, inconsistencies in my love life, financial burdens, or family hardships. I’ve honed the ability to feel those feelings, to let them be part of me for a bit, to give voice to them. They are part of me. They are important. I need fear, anger, sadness, guilt, grief, and pain to be part of my ongoing narrative. And then, once I feel them, I release them, into gratitude and happiness. I remember the positive and wonderful things in my life. I looked up at the moon and smiled about the happy moments during my day: the phone call from my 9-year old to tell me he missed me, the morning hug from my boyfriend, the delivery of a copy of my book to an excited friend, singing sings while driving south, and a long sit-down conversation with a sheriff about my documentary. I thought of the good people in my life, the ones who show up and who mean what they say. I swished my hands around in the water and released myself into this moment, on this hillside, and everything was okay.

Another hour later, I entered the main office again, and found a five-man band playing on the stage set up on the side. They were… good. There were drums, guitars, and a saxophone, and two of the men took turns singing. They were incredible, a nice new-age electric bluegrass tone to their music. They finished a song about ‘the best 25 dollars they ever spent’, then turned to the room and said ‘thank you, thank you very much’, and I realized I was the only person there. I looked around and realized they were recording the performance. I sank back into a chair, as I wasn’t sure they had even noticed me there, and kept listening. During a break between songs, one of the band members yelled out, “oh come on, who was that?” and the other laughed back “Sorry man, I held it as long as I could!”

I took a picture of the band and sent it to my friend Meg, explaining the circumstances. She sent back an image of the animatronic band from Chuck E. Cheese, and I realized that the Free Peoples were basically in the same formation, and I laughed out loud. Suddenly, a small Chihuahua in a sweater jumped into my lap and began licking me, and I looked over to see the woman from the chair massage standing off to the side. Shortly after that, the three women from the hot springs, the girls who’d been cackling about the hand job, entered the room, still dripping wet from the hot springs, and they stood right in front of me, dancing. After one more song, a few more Chihuahua licks, and a bit too much of the wet bathing suit bottoms wiggling in front of me, I decided my weirdness level had reached its max, and I retired for the evening.

In my bed in my bus. I texted the boyfriend good night, and he messaged back that he had mentioned the hippie bus to a friend, and she’d responded “ooh, tell Chad to take disinfectant spray. They have so much hippie sex in those things.”

“I have a weird life,” I said out loud as I clicked off the light, then I went to sleep with a smile on my face.

Universal

universal-studios-orlando-review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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