Animal Doctor

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“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.

Saskatoon Shines!

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Years ago, I learned to find peace when I traveled, respite from life. Parts of me would come alive when I left my home in Utah and stepped into a new and unfamiliar place, where I could place my feet upon new streets and breathe new air. Travel became crucial for me and for my development, and my soul cried out for it. I traveled to survive.

Now I travel simply because I enjoy it. I like frequent getaways to new places. I enjoy walking and seeing what I can discover.

Saskatoon snuck up on me. It was a word that merely escaped my lips after a stressful day at work, and suddenly I had booked plane tickets for a few months later. And now I’m here, looking out at the expanse of the flat Canadian prairie country and farmland around me. I’m staying on the 21st floor of a tall building, and my view overlooks the river and a few bridges, into the distance and over the city. The skies are grey and I can see the Earth curve on the far horizon.

There is something about being somewhere I haven’t been before, and with a place like Saskatoon it is likely a place I will never be again. The city isn’t particularly magical. It’s drab, all browns and greens and grey and blues that seem muted, like Kansas in the Wizard of Oz. The people are kind, and funny, and go out of their way to be helpful. The architecture is normal. A cold breeze blows across the river. It feels like a normal metropolitan western city, with many of the same restaurants and department stores that I would find back in America.

But for me, it isn’t about the city, it’s about the experiences.

It’s wandering into a city government building to explore and having a long conversation with the security guard about canola farming and the changing temperatures of the northern farm land and the tax incentives for farmers who are looking out for their families’ well-beings generations down the line.

It’s stopping in the tourism office and chatting with a delightful potato bug of a person named Debbie about her passion and love for the city.

It’s stepping into a random restaurant and having a friendly Asian man with much too long fingernails serve you thick noodles in vegetable broth with freshly sliced mushrooms, eggplant, and cabbage, and talking about how good life is with your best friend.

It’s seeing Canadian geese on a Canadian river in Canada.

It’s sitting down and clutching a cup of coffee for warmth as two women loudly cackle while another man rushes into the place looking like he forgot where the bathroom was, and then realizing that look never quite leaves his face.

It’s going out to a nightclub in the late evening and hoping to interact with locals and then leaving two hours later, having been the only ones in the establishment.

It’s repeating a joke to a Canadian woman: “I heard that in Saskatchewan you can watch your dog run away for three full miles.”

And hearing her take it far too seriously: “Well, I suppose, but that is more in southern Saskatchewan, we get a few hills here and there up here.”

It’s complimenting a woman on her niceness, and indeed the seeming niceness of all Canadians, and having her respond, “Well, we are nice, yes, but we are sarcastic too!”

Travel sings to my soul. It takes me to a spiritual place in my own head where I can be anonymous in a crowd and just absorb. I didn’t travel, much, until just a few years ago, and now the memories I can capture in my journal or blog or just in my own head resound within me constantly on a playlist. Ocean Beach and Provincetown and Missoula and Reno and Fillmore and Little Armenia and the Castro and Pike Market. The list extends, and each place brings a smile to my face, though nothing note-worthy happened in any of those places except for long walks and life on my own terms. Community theater, vegan restaurants, saloons, beaches, live music, coffee shops, book stores, and strangers.

Travel releases me. It puts me in tune with myself. It gives me voice. It sings to my soul and through my fingertips. It slows me down and brings me back into my own self.

Yet travel also exposes me. It strips me bare. My insecurities, fears, doubts, shames, regrets, and worries work themselves out of me. At some point on every trip, I feel small and scared. I worry about insurmountable tasks. I think of my children and get tears on my cheeks. I grieve for losses. I think of the unfinished: the book, the documentary, the fitness goals. I shift to gratitude and I wonder if I’ll lose all I’ve gained. But even these parts of me are valid, vital, crucial. They are always within me, the bones upon which I build myself, and it is freeing to feel them there and let them breathe.

When we landed in Saskatoon, the welcome sign said “Saskatoon Shines!” But I haven’t seen the sun yet here. On the first night, the sun was setting, and pinks and oranges blended in with the grey clouds.

“It’s beautiful,” I muttered, and a woman nearby took notice.

“Oh, that is pretty, yes, but we get much better sunsets than that one. That one is just okay. Sorry ’bout that. Keep watching, no worries.”

She apologized for the quality of the sunset. And somehow that single moment captures the essence of this trip for me.

As I type this, the sky is still grey, and river still flowing, the colors still drab.

And the Earth is still curving, and me with it.

Saskatoon may not shine much, but it shines for me.

Judy/Frances

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This morning, I finished the biography of Judy Garland. Man oh man, was it sad.

Judy died at the age of 47, of a pill overdose. She had been using pills for three decades–pills to wake up, pills to fall asleep, pills to quiet pain, pills to numb depression. She developed a dependency on them in her teenage years when, in her mid-teens, she was signed by MGM and was told she was homely and overweight. The studio began restricting her food and feeding her pills to get her to slim down so that she could properly play the girl-next-door, the one with the pretty voice that the leading man could fall for instead of the beautiful girls, like Lana Turner. By the time she made her most iconic movie, the Wizard of Oz, at the age of 16, she was already extremely addicted.

But Judy Garland wasn’t her real name. Judy Garland was a guise she created for herself, both outwardly and inwardly, a person she could be that the public wanted to see. Judy Garland was the heartfelt, soulful girl-next-door with the voice that could make you feel everything, who could then stand up and smile and dance and make your heart skip with joy. Judy was a character, a mask she wore.

Deep down, she was Frances Ethel Gumm, the youngest daughter of Frank and Ethel. Frank had owned theaters where Vaudeville performers could show off for the public, and Ethel had been a domineering mother who had had her own aspirations to be a star. Frank liked young men, and had trysts with some, leading him to move from town to town when he was exposed. And Ethel dressed up her daughters and had them sing for money, performing for strange men in bars and small town theaters. Little Frances had been a performer, surely; she loved to sing and she loved to show off. But ultimately she was a child with deep insecurities and a desire to be loved by her mother and her father. But Frank died, and then Ethel depended on Frances to be the breadwinner of the family. So she became Judy, and then spent a lifetime searching for Frances.

And thus began the regimens of pills, 16 hour work days, consistently competing for roles against beautiful women while being told she wasn’t pretty enough and that she had to keep her weight between 96 and 98 pounds, and public appearances non-stop.

While Judy sang and worked, Frances looked for love. She married five times, each time believing in the beauty and purity of love and newness, and each time quickly having her heart broken. And Frances didn’t do well when left with her own demons. She spent more than two decades smiling for the public while falling deeper into debt, being ravaged by taxes, and screaming for the attention of her husbands (two of whom were gay). She had multiple psychiatric hospitalizations, public and private suicide attempts, collapses on stage, medical complications, and near overdoses. Judy, her appearance ranging from skeletal to obese, strutted and sang for the public as flowers were tossed at her, while Frances was torn apart in the newspapers. Judy put forth the image of the perfect family while Frances struggled to know what it meant to be a mother to her three beloved children: Liza, Lorna, and Joey.

Although it sounds a bit stereotypical, since I’m gay, I have always loved the Wizard of Oz. But it wasn’t the movie that enchanted me initially. In fact, there are many movies from my childhood that remain very near and dear to my heart (Labyrinth, Annie, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Clue, Pete’s Dragon, the Sound of Music, and many others). It was the Oz books that drew me in, the epic fairy tale stories from L. Frank Baum. I loved all of the books he wrote on Oz (more than a dozen) but it was the first three that captured my childhood and left me plotting sequels on notebook paper.

I didn’t resonate with Dorothy the character all that much, but I loved her as the heroine in the first Oz book. Not a super man or a private detective, but a simple little girl from Kansas whose most heroic traits were her determinedness and her ability to win over friends with logic and a good heart. After reading the books and then going back to watch the film, it is easy to see Judy Garland’s talent at acting and singing and dancing and stage presence… but the vulnerability, the raw quality that makes Dorothy seem both brave and sad and relatable all at once? That wasn’t Judy. That was Frances.

And so as I finish her story now, I’m left feeling a bit empty and sad, like I just finished an intensive therapy session. Her younger years, she was the product of a deadly system and an unsupportive family. And then she grew into a woman who was her own worst enemy and who just couldn’t break the habits, addictions, and depressions that took her life.

And so I close this with what I find to be the most iconic quote attributed to Judy/Frances. Ironic because perhaps if she could have been a little more Frances and a little less Judy, then maybe her story wouldn’t have been so sad.

“Always be a first rate version of yourself instead of a second rate version of somebody else.”

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Friends of Dorothy

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FRIENDS OF DOROTHY

In 1909, L. Frank Baum released the fifth of the Oz books, called the Road to Oz. In the book, Dorothy has returned to Oz, continuing her usual misadventures with a motley crew of companions, including her dog Toto, a homeless bearded man in curled clothing called the Shaggy Man, and a cherubic little boy in a sailor suit named Button Bright. In chapter five, they meet Polychrome, a colorful sky princess who is the daughter of the rainbow. Polychrome, who is dancing about to keep herself warm, looks at the group and says “You have some queer friends, Dorothy.” Dorothy innocently replies, “The queerness doesn’t matter so long as they are friends.”

Before and after this, the Oz books were filled with stories about accepting and loving all, even misfits like a lion who is afraid or a tiger who is constantly hungry, but the books also frequently challenged gender stereotypes, with women nearly always in positions of power, like Princess Ozma and Glinda the Good, and telling stories like one with an entire army of women.

Groups of queer people began to refer to themselves as Friends of Dorothy, and the phrase caught on. On many cruise ships, even now, special events for gay people are planned using this phrase; rather than advertising a “gay brunch” it will advertise “brunch for the Friends of Dorothy”, for example. Meeting groups in big cities would be set up using this name as well. The phrase became even more popular and relevant when Judy Garland became a gay icon, given that she had played Dorothy in the blockbuster film of the Wizard of Oz.

In one humorous anecdote, Naval officers sought to ferret out gay military men. Hearing the term Friends of Dorothy, the investigating officers concluded that a woman named Dorothy was organizing rings of gay service men and they went on a hunt for the woman. Another potential origin to the term Friends of Dorothy is a reference to the parties held at Dorothy Parker’s home in the early days of Hollywood. Parker was a poet, critic, and writer who was well-connected in the industry.

Wizard of Oz

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In 1900, author L. Frank Baum wrote and released the popular children’s novel, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In the book, Dorothy Gale of Kansas is taken to a magical fairyland in a cyclone along with her dog Toto. She meets a living scarecrow, a man made of tin, and a talking lion; kills an ugly and evil witch with a pail of water; follows a road of yellow brick into a city of emerald; and exposes a purported wizard as a fraud. In the end, she uses a pair of magical slippers to wish herself home. The book, considered the ultimate American fairy tale, inspired Baum to release over a dozen other books featured in Oz, many of the books featuring Dorothy as well as introducing other popular characters to readers, including Tik-Tok, the Patchwork Girl, the Hungry Tiger, the Wogglebug, and Princess Ozma herself.

Various books from the Oz series were turned into plays in the early 1900s, and dozens of books have been written by other authors, exploring the lands of Oz with both beloved characters and new additions.

Then in 1939, MGM spent millions creating the Wizard of Oz movie, based on the book with different formatting and character portrayals, starring box office hit Judy Garland. Filmed in Technicolor and with a new musical score, the film just broke even upon its release, and it lost its Best Picture nomination to Gone With the Wind; however, it was re-released in theaters 10 years later to huge critical acclaim, and in the mid-1950s it was broadcast on television annually, and has remained a family classic ever since. The film has inspired multiple sequels and adaptations on the screen and stage, notably including the films Return to Oz and Oz the Great and Powerful, and the Broadway show the Wiz, written for an all-black cast. In addition, Gregory Maguire wrote the Wicked series, exploring the lives of the Witch, the Cowardly Lion, and others in adult fiction, and Wicked was turned into a wildly popular Broadway musical that is still touring. In 1970, a small theme park dedicated to Oz even opened.

Partially due to the gay community’s love of Judy Garland along with a combination of powerful music, colorful imagery, a magical fairy land where anything is possible, and the idea of leaving gray dusty Kansas for a magical life of acceptance and love in another world, the Wizard of Oz has been deified by the gay community as an archetypal film, and the Rainbow adopted as the primary symbol of the gay movement.