Small-town Drag

Portlane, Maine had a different smell in the air. It smelled floral, and salty, and fishy, and the air on my skin was wonderful. Every second business advertised lobster in some form or other, be it bisque or sandwich or roll. And, most surprising of all, there were Pride flags everywhere.

“God, I love these north-eastern towns, with their progressive, inclusive attitudes, and their fresh air. I swear, anytime I come to Vermont or Connecticut or Massachusetts, everywhere is perfectly lovely and being gay just isn’t a thing. I always forget what it feels like until I make it back here.”

My sister Sheri smiled. She lives in Massachusetts with her wife and has been out here for years. “It’s pretty great, isn’t it?”

We rounded the edge of Back Cove and headed into the downtown area of Portland. We’d been gabbing constantly, about family dramas and life changes. She and I connect on a deep level, having grown up together, and sharing the experiences of adolescence and life. We understand each other.

Sheri understands why I travel. I spend very little money, in the scheme of things. Plane tickets, lodging, and the ability to just walk the streets of a new place. It’s spiritual to me. It’ grounds me, quiets the demons, awakens my spirit. I write more. I find little pieces of myself. I make no plans, and instead just see what I find. Local coffee shops, hikes, restaurants, and bars. I watch people. I listen, think, center, and get inspired. It’s fantastic what I find what I didn’t realize was missing in the first place. And Portland was already teaching me things.

The night before, my best friend and I had delicious food while listening to amazing jazz music. Then, while he went off to a national forest for a day, I went into deep contemplation mode, something I hadn’t realized I’d needed. At a local coffee shop, I sat with a warm mug and a blank sheet of paper and I set goals. I looked backward and then forward. I watched the cute gay couple who owned the space interact with their customers. I saw a woman with a puppy in her lap seem so sad. I watched an elderly couple take turns sipping form the same mug as they read the newspaper side by side. The ocean air blew in and a falcon soared outside and it was all exactly what I needed.

Sheri and I wandered in and out of bookstores. We ordered mushroom ravioli. I had a nibble of an edible, and then we headed to the local gay club, a place called Blackstones. This was one of those old gay bars, one that had been around for decades, since the late 80s. In a place like Portland, gay people could go anywhere and just be integrated, part of the community. But back when this bar was built, it was a refuge for them, a place to meet other people like them. It had a crowded long bar, a small dance floor with a pool table, and two bathrooms. On this particular evening, they had pushed the pool table up against the wall and turned it into a stage for the drag queens to perform. The room was small but a few dozen people crowded in and I happily took my seat against the wall to watch them all.

2000 miles from home, and in a relatively small city, yet dozens of gay men and straight women (so far as I could tell) were here to watch campy local drag. There were young college guys, heavyset older men, nerds and jocks and yoga instructors, black and white, one man in a wheelchair. Some clutched drinks, some sat solo, some hooted and hollered while others watched the show silently. Many pulled out dollar bills to toss up on the stage when they wanted to show support.

The first performer was a drag queen that I gathered had been performing at this bar for literally decades. She called herself a transexual (a label that should only be used when the individual chooses to use it), and clearly had had breast implants. She held one arm to her side protectively, and as time went on I realized she had likely had a stroke of some kind and was performing her in spite of it. She was likely in her mid-60s, and she opened the show in a blonde bob wig and a sparkly dress, lip-synching belted out Barbra Streisand tunes as she strutted up and down the stage posing. She came back in a new dress and wig for a Lady Gaga medley, then later in a school girl outfit to sing Oops, I Did It Again, by Britney Spears. She was… adorable. Startling. And clearly having the time of her life.

“She is living her best life,”: I whispered and Sheri laughed and agreed. I can only hope to be living my truest self when I reach that stage in life.

Three other drag queens performed. One desperately needed help with her costuming and makeup, but my word could she sing. Another wore skimpy bathing suits as she did agile stunts across the floor. The last looked drunk and like she’d dressed with her eyes closed; she missed many words while lip-synching, then belched into the microphone when she was done. I winced, then laughed loudly. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Sheri and I walked the two miles back to our lodging afterwards. Tyler was already in bed, and Sheri and I were sleeping in the living room on mattresses against each wall, like we were kids having a sleepover. We talked idly in the dark, about how much the world had changed for each of us. She fell asleep with a fidget toy in her hand.

As I drifted off, I became aware of the rain on the roof. I fell asleep to the steady percussion, my heart lost in the unfamiliar.

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Totem

Whale

My brain has gone quiet lately. I haven’t written in weeks. Usually, my head is a landscape of questing, goal-setting, gratitude, frustrations, and rushing thoughts. I divide my time between clients, kids, boyfriend, friends, and self. But lately, it’s all been quieter. I’m just living for moments instead of all the rest.

Today, I stood on the top of a boat and watched the circle of life. I saw northern humpback whales spout water out of their blowholes, the water turning into a little geyser stream of vapor due to the speed of the rushing water. Displaying their humps and then their tails, the whales took great gulps of air as they deep-dived beneath the surface, giving off little echoing sounds that stunned the fish around them. As those fish bobbed to the surface, soaring gulls rushed down to grab them. The whales would disappear for five to ten minutes before coming up for another blow, another gulp, another flip of the tail, and down they went again.

The tour guide explained that the sun and glacier water at this time of year enrich the populations of phytoplankton, then plankton in the water, creating breeding grounds for several species of fish. Enormous schools of salmon, trout, and others return to Alaska to feed in the cold waters, leading the whales to return to feed on them. These particular whales spend a lot of their time in Hawaii, to bear their young. The males race, frolic, wrestle, and sing to get the attention of the females, who carry their calves for a year before giving birth to an infant that weighs a ton.

We saw the brown heads of sea lions poking their heads out of the water, fighting for a place on a small buoy in the distance, hoping to get warm. The males in this species can reach a ton, she says. I hear one of them growl. I check my phone and discover a group of sea lions is called a raft, a group of seals is called a harem. Whales are in pods, crows in murders, ravens in unkindnesses, porcupines in prickles, weasels in confusions, swallows in flights, and eagles in convocations. These seemingly random, sometimes bizarrely clever, names for the groupings of animals swim around my mind, fighting for attention, bringing a half smile to my lips.

As she spoke, I could see sloping mountains, the blue edges of Mendenhall Glacier, skimming Surf Scooters and soaring Bald and Golden Eagles and obnoxious Crows and impatient Sea Gulls all watching for the fish. She described how one island, 1600 square miles, had a vast population of bears on it, nearly one per square mile, while the other across the bay had no bears, because the salmon streams were only close to one, thus humans lived on the other. Helicopters and seaplanes soared overhead, and on the distant highway cars buzzed by, while thousands disembarked from their cruise ships to explore the isolated city.

I’ve only been in Juneau a little over a day, and I’m already realizing how this city is always here, going on with these throngs of people and animals. It’s only different now because I’m in it, here to feel the air and hear the sounds. The sun rose at 4 this morning, and it didn’t set until 11 pm the night before, and the lesser amount of light is messing with my head. I feel ethereal, and I think of how impossible it would feel to be here in the winter, when the light lasted mere hours while the darkness stretched on endlessly. Would I only want to sleep too much, as now I wanted to be awake too much?

I pull my scarf from my bag and wrap it around my neck, then wrap my arms around myself. The ocean air blows against me, around me, as the boat lurches up and down on the wake of other boats. “It’s an Alaskan roller coaster!” our guide shouts, and I laugh, wondering again if she is a lesbian. If she is, I’m somehow more fond of her, and I realize that fact is strange. She seems to love her job, and I realize how rare that is.

The boat is called the Awesome Orca, and on the wall is a long row of certifications and safety protocols. One for safety trainings, life jackets, rafts, signal flares, and fire extinguishers, another for the proper protocol in approaching humpack whales in the wild. This is her job, I realize, looking for whales every day. And it is someone else’s job to make sure she does it right. I ask a question, and she says she can recognize some of the whales by the patterns on their tails, and that astounds me almost more than anything else. She has names for them, she says.

We see six separate whale tails in a row, the entire pod presenting for us as they throw themselves down for more food, yet the thought in my head is “Chad, why haven’t you been writing lately?” My brain is tired, I think. I need sleep. I recount recent domestic distresses at home, how my kids were with me for two weeks straight, the crises I’m managing for my clients consistently, and my failure to meet my nutrition goals and how I keep making excuses. I think of the things that bother me, that stay on my mind week after week, and I wonder how to sort them out again. I wonder about writing, and where this is all leading. I wonder about better ways to be successful. I think of the totem poles looming over my bed in the room I’m staying in, and how I could only see the edge of a glacier that extends for hundreds of miles, and how the entire world used to be covered in ice. I think of how Alaska is bigger than California, Texas, and Montana combined, but they make it look so much smaller on the map. I think of how the ocean, despite its vastness, smells like gasoline from all of the boats and flying crafts.

And I think of how I’m standing here, and how no one else is sure I’m here at all.

Asking for Money

money

I hate asking for money. I’ve never been the type to ask for money. I’ve always been the kid who paid his own way and who contributed to others.

As a teenager, I worked after school to save up money for my mission. On occasion, I would slip extra money into my mother’s purse to help her pay for groceries. Sometimes at work, I would clock out early and keep working because I felt like it would help the owners out. I even made a deal with my local comic book shop where I would work for free and be paid in comic books, so I could keep reading them without spending money.

In college, I used student loans for my tuition and books, and I had a full time job to pay for my housing, meal plans, transportation, and leisure. It took me years to pay all those off. Even now, in my 30s, I run my own business and pay all of my bills on time, helping out others when I can.

I don’t think I’ve ever, as a standard, asked for a cent or expected anyone to provide for me.

But making art is impossible without money.

Years ago, I wrote a comic book. I hired artists myself and printed the book myself. But when expenses ramped up, I asked for financial help for the first time. I ran a campaign through the website Kickstarter and promised people prizes in exchange for donations to printing the book. I was able to raise about $1000 of the $5000 I needed to print the book, then I charged the rest on my credit card. The money I made from book sales barely paid my card off. Overall, it was an exhausting process, but I got to see my book in print and share it with others, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Now, a few years later, the Mushroom Murders remaining copies fill boxes in my basement.

And now I’ve reached a place where I’m not asking for $5000, I’m asking for a few hundred thousand dollars. I’m making a movie, and movies take money.

A few years ago, I discovered a forgotten man, a gay Mormon guy who was violently tortured and killed for being gay, back in the late 1980s. No one remembers him, and I want him to be remembered, because he was special and authentic and his life was cut short, and because no one ever deserves to die like that. I started seeking out his loved ones. I researched the lives of the men who killed him, and I started meeting their loved ones as well. The story is insane, with so many twists and turns. It’s a story about being gay and Mormon, about murder, about the death penalty, about miscarriage of justice. It’s a story about people whose lives were altered forever because they lost a loved one, or they saw a loved one go to jail, and it’s a story about how they moved on with their lives and yet how they never moved on.

The last few months, I’ve travelled all over Utah, and into Nevada and into Montana (where I write this from) to interview these amazing, brave people. I have a professional film crew at my side, talented filmmakers with top-notch equipment, and they believe in the project too.

Making this movie fills me with passion and creativity. All of my skills, as a father, as a social worker, and as a writer, come to the forefront as we tackle this wonderful and painful project. I shed tears and my heart aches as I weave these pieces together, but I come alive doing it because it is work that simply must be done.

This is a story that has changed my life, and has placed an entirely new path before me. This is a story that can change the lives of others, one that when they view it will alter their views, make them reach out to their loved ones with messages of ‘I love you’, one that will help them live for today and want to make a difference in the world.

Yet, without money, I’m self-funding the project, charging trips to my credit card because I believe in it, because I believe in myself. With this approach, the project will take years instead of months. And facing that fact gives me angst and anxiety.

And so a big part of my journey in 2017 has been learning how to ask for money. I’ve had dozens of meetings with influential people who I hope will share my passion on the project. I’ve enthusiastically and passionately described my journey and the told the story with conviction. And literally every one of those dozens of meetings has ended the same way. Every person has said some variation of this:

“Wow, Chad, this story must be told, and you are the one to tell it. I don’t think I can help you, but I think I know someone who can. You need to speak to this person. Let me get back to you.”

And then crickets. Silence. Attempts at follow-up resulting in avoided phone calls, unanswered texts and Emails, and general silence.

Yet still, I’m moving forward. The interviews we are gathering on film are so authentic and powerful and real, and we will keep going forward.

Asking for money is painful and aggravating. It’s so difficult to not get discouraged. I keep finding ways to maintain my passion and enthusiasm. It feels like going through an endless maze and I just keep hitting dead ends, requiring me to retrace my steps and find new paths only to hit more dead ends. I’m determined, and I won’t quit, but I find myself regularly stalled and flummoxed when I want to be moving forward, ever forward.

And this, I realize, is the plight of the artist, the dreamer. Every writer, actor, musician, conductor, filmmaker, painter, sculptor, public speaker, and inventor who has a similar passion has to find a path forward against the odds until they find someone who shares their passion. They want a platform, an opportunity, and a benefactor to help them live their dreams.

I won’t quit. And I’ll keep asking. Because the alternative is not asking, which means the dream dies.

And this story must be told. I’m honored to be telling it.

Embracing Failure

Failure

Like most human adults, I fear failure. It’s bred deeply into me, a primal fear, a distaste regarding the very idea of doing poorly at something.

As an American white kid, I grew up in a grading system that measured success with letters. For some kids, Bs representing horrifying failure, and for others, Cs represented great achievement and success. I figured out early on that senses of failure and success are very individual experiences, depending on upbringing and culture (family, community, religious, etc).

We measure success against failure in a million different ways. Through our appearance and level of fitness, through our career achievements, through our romantic pursuits, through our religious duties, through our children’s successes. We have specific ideas and roadmaps of what success should look like, and anything less is automatically felt and experienced as a failure.

I see this all the time in my office as a therapist. I may have a client who owns a home, has a thriving business, and is incredible shape, but he feels like a failure because his wife is struggling with depression; I may have a client who is in an incredibly happy marriage and three thriving children, yet she is consistently unhappy because she can’t lose ten pounds.

We are constantly putting forth effort to avoid failure. And we fail to realize that in our very essences, because we are human, failure is simply a part of our existence.

I read a lot of biographies. Most biographies are written about or by people who are remembered for being a celebrity in one realm or another. And consistent failure is a part of every story, every single one of them. And even when major successes are achieved, variable failures will still follow.

David Bowie went through several different bands and band managers before his music caught on, and it was after that that he struggled with drug addiction and failed relationships. Oprah Winfrey had a career of hits and misses before her talk show caught on. Harvey Milk lost several elections before he was ever elected to public office, shortly before his assassination. John Stockton missed a lot of shots with the basketball before he made it famous on the Jazz. I could give thousands of examples.

When I look at my own life, I am realizing that failure is not a word I am afraid of any longer. I have had many successes, most easily viewed in the accomplishments of my children, who are happy and well-adjusted and creative and beautiful. I have a Masters degree. I have published a book. I have lost 80 pounds. I successfully transitioned to a full and authentic life out of the closet. I have a lot of friends and loved ones. I am engaged in pursuits that inspire my mind and fulfill my spirit.

Lately, my old fears of failure have worked their way out of my subconscious into my life. I have put a lot of energy and effort into passion projects that have born little fruit. The sinking results of these ventures, which I have put time and money and collaboration behind, have left me with a sense of dread. This, in conjunction with the death of my best friend Kurt, have left me a little empty and withdrawn internally lately, and I’ve had to take time to sort out what that means to me and my journey.

And in truth, in the scheme of things, it means very little.

Musical artists can spend hundreds of hours composing what they feel is a masterpiece, putting their entire hearts and souls behind it, only to have no one purchase the product, while the bubble gum piece they produced years before is played on the radio every ten minutes. An actress can spend months in a role she is made for only to have the movie flop commercially, while a bit part in a science fiction show makes her immortally famous. A painter can take five years to complete a masterpiece that no one will ever see.

I’m 37 now and I’m embracing the parts of me that I have avoided much of my life. I am an artist. I am a writer. I am a historian. I am a creator with a hungry and passionate soul who strives and wants and desires.

And my long-term success isn’t in my financial prowess or my academic pursuits or my physical endurance. It is in my spiritual soundness, and in my inner balance and peace, and in the smiles of my children. And in doing things that I love. And that may make me a huge success in the eyes of the world, or it may just make me quietly happy in the here and now. And either way, that is enough.

And even when I’m “enough”, failure will still be part of the journey.