skinheart

at times, my heart seems made of skin

bared for breath or covered for protection

reacting to ever-changing boundaries and limits,

sounds and space,

climate and condition.

soft and pink,

white at the center when gently pressed,

blanched in panic when squeezed too hard,

and, when set free, pink and pooling as safety is restored.

soft mostly, but also

callused where worn,

scarred where cut,

evidence of healing where bleeding used to be.

gooseflesh at just the right gust or whisper.

tightly sealed for protection,

or weeping in times of fever, times of pain or burn or blister.

layers deep,

each one durable, pliable, paper-thin,

each blood-red at the center.

it curls over me, around my skull, down my spine, stretching to my extremities.

and then, at the certain place, for the certain person,

it trusts,

staying soft and smooth as fingertips trace its edges.

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Discontent at Back Cove

BackCove

“Sometimes I wish I could go back in the past,” I said as I looked over the waters of Back Cove in Portland, Maine. A colony of seagulls flitted about over the far shore, and a few large birds of prey, likely falcons I considered, soared over the green horizon.

My best friend, Tyler, walked at my side, hands in pockets, thoughtful. He’s one of the few people I can engage in deep conversation with. “Like to try and change your life?” he asked.

“I mean, yes. But that’s not what I mean.” I scratched my own head, trying to sort out my thoughts. “I don’t mean to relive my own life. Just in a weird way, it would have been amazing to live in a different era.”

Tyler waited for me to sort my thoughts, listening as a few joggers passed us.

“It would have been amazing to live in a time when trends were being set. Back in the late 1980s or early 1990s. To be a gay man in that era, who was on the front lines implementing change. Advocacy, exploration, pushing forward against all odds.” A pang of guilt hit me for even thinking that way, so I clarified. “I love living in this era. I love the skin I’m in. I love my life. And I respect and appreciate all who fought to make this world better. Just sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be a, I don’t know, a trendsetter. Back then, gay people we celebrate now were still living hidden lives. And then the AIDS crisis happened and Harvey Milk and all the Pride marches. I don’t even know what I’m saying, I just wish–it would have been cool to see all that, you know? To have lived through all that.”

Tyler laughed, but stayed silent as my thoughts raced. These words, these feelings, had been building up in me for a while, and now they were cascading outward, trying to find some sort of clear path from my soul to my mouth. It was jumbled.

And so we walked in silence for a minute. I felt the ocean breeze against my skin, thick with the scent of blooming flowers. It was so green and lush here. My first time in Maine, a new city to explore, new ground under my feet. My soul always comes most alive during these times. I gave thought to what I was even trying to say. I wondered if feminists sometimes wished they could go back to help in the Suffragette movement, or if my Black friends wondered what it would be like to fight for Civil Rights among the Freedom Riders. A sense of nostalgia washed over me. Not nostalgia, gratitude. Not gratitude, envy. Not envy, hope.

I exhaled a deep sigh. “I’m not sure what I’m trying to say.”

Tyler chose a park bench to sit down on, facing the water. A large puddle sat at its base and I carefully placed my feet to avoid getting them wet.

“You wish you could be some sort of trendsetter?” he asked. Tyler understood me in a way most people don’t, and he could somehow sort through the nonsense.

“No? Yes? I don’t know. I want to make a difference. I want to do something huge.”

“That’s what she said,” he responded, and I rolled my eyes and laughed. Then he grew a bit sober. “You already are a trendsetter.” He listed off the things I’m doing, the things I’ve done. The book, the graphic novel, the story-telling performances, the advocacy and interviews, the upcoming documentary, and, above all else, raising two amazing kids. I smiled. Tyler knows me well. And he understands. He works himself hard and dreams big as well, in his classroom, in his advocacy work.

“Thanks,” I responded simply. “I just–I’m all in a jumble. I want to see the history. I want to face it head on. I want a huge success. I want a big win. I want to change hearts and minds. I want to matter. I want to feel it, the quest, the journey, all paying off.”

Tyler gave me the gift of his listening ear as I listed out the things I’d tried, the small successes I had achieved that had relatively low yield, and the many failures and unfinished projects along the way.

“2016 was about learning to follow my passions. 2017 was about doing the impossible, and seeing that I could do it if I put my mind to it. 2018 was about learning that quality goods don’t mean quality results, and that people who say they will show up don’t always show up. But it was about more than that, about pushing hard for myself and realizing that it is within me to build and sustain.”

Tyler nodded, knowing my journey well. “You’ve always been more of a fire-starter than a fire-tender. You still need to learn how to get the right people in your camp and keep them there, and then ask for help.”

I wanted to argue with him, but I couldn’t. I was great at sustaining some things, and terrible at others. Then I surveyed all I’ve learned this last year, and took stock of those who were now in my camp. Volunteers, critics, story-tellers, film producers. I had a lot of plates spinning in the air, and realized I wasn’t spinning them myself any longer. I was platform building, yes, but I wasn’t the only one with a hammer.

More silence as I let the frustration seep out of me. I visibly sighed, then put my head in my hands with my elbows on my knees.

“Ah, the plight of the artist,” I said dramatically, and Tyler laughed. “There are a thousand alternate worlds out there. In one, I’m the faithful Mormon father, unhappy in my skin. In one, I’m the successful author, never home. In other, maybe I own a coffee shop or a bed and breakfast. But in all of them, I’m discontent, wishing for more, even while loving the life I have. I don’t think that part of me changes.”

“Well, maybe the quest, the search for a fire to start, is exactly what keeps you going. Maybe it’s that desire for something more that keeps the artist in you alive.”

And I kept those thoughts in my head as we continued walking around Back Cove. I thought of blue herons and mosquitoes, tides and shorelines, cloud and city skylines, of all I’ve done and all I’ve yet to do. The sun fell on the water and on me in equal measure, and for once, I welcomed the discontent, letting it grab hold of me and push me forward.

My Father’s Grave

There it was. My name etched in stone. On the back of my father’s grave. My father’s grave. My father is still alive, yet he has a grave.

His headstone is in a family plot east of Idaho Falls, Idaho. It’s a remote pretty cemetery, the kind of Rocky Mountain Cemetery I’m accustomed to, with simple headstones in long rows with plenty of space, lush green grass everywhere.

As I walked through the rows, I realized that times and customs are changing, even when it comes to how people die. Headstones like this, family plots, are a thing of the last generation. Now everyone, for the most part, seems to be getting cremated. People are being sprinkled into lakes and on hillsides, or kept in vases, or put into pots for plants to grow out of. (Just this morning, I saw a headline about the state of Washington legalizing the compositing of human remains as another alternative. I mean, there are 8 billion of us now…)

My relationship with my father is difficult to talk about. It’s hard for me to even make sense of internally, and I do therapy for a living. It’s a big void, a question mark in my center. And this cemetery brings that to life more acutely than even being around him.

My last name is Anderson. It is the last name of both of my sons. It was my father’s name. He had five brothers and one sister; I’ve only met half of my aunt and uncles, and then only once. It was my grandfather’s name. Justin Anderson was a sheep farmer in southern Idaho, and I met him a few times when I was a child before he died. And Justin’s father was… I don’ know. My knowledge pretty much ends there. But there is my grandfather’s grave, just down he row from my father’s. My grandmother Alice is there. A few of my father’s brothers. And then cousins, children, infants, names I’ve never heard or seen before.

In some ways, I respect my father’s choice to purchase a headstone. It shows foresight. He chose the stone himself and paid for it. He had it etched with his name and birth date and the names of his children. It mentions both of his wives by name as well, acknowledging that those marriages took place, although he is divorced from my mother and not living with his second wife. He paid for the plot of land as well. When he goes, he will be buried near his parents, his family, the ones I never knew.

I look like my father. I have the same build, the same coloring, the same grey on the temples, the same baby face. Once when I was 22 (I’m 40 now), I was living in the mountains of a rural area of Idaho and performing as an actor in a dinner theater for the summer. A man and his wife attended the play, and afterwards they approached me. I’d never met them, at least so far as I remembered. The man asked me if I was K. Anderson’s son, and I told him yes. Then he introduced himself as my uncle. He said I looked just like my father. I had the same walk, the same laugh, the same way of carrying my hands, he said. I asked a few questions, bid farewell, and then went home and cried that evening, because that void at my center made no sense.

It still feels that way now. Yet my name is still on the back of his grave.

In the early 1970s, as I understand it, my father had the mad urge to leave his home, his parents, and all that was familiar, and buy a cattle ranch in the rural Missouri Ozarks. Idaho sheep farmer to military man to school teacher to Missouri cattle rancher. A strange symmetry, I supposed. My mother reluctantly consented. They sold their home, packed everything they owned, loaded up the five children, and left the potato fields of Idaho for the green, lush, Mormon-hating country of small-town Missouri. He never bought that ranch, but they did start life over. He took a job in a cheese factory, and stayed for years. I was born in Missouri in 1978. My little sister followed in 1982. We were the sixth and seventh children in the family line. (Years later, both of us would come out as gay. Maybe we can blame Missouri.)

As I understand it from my older siblings, my father was a pretty happy man. He smiled and laughed, played hard, spent time with his kids. But by the time I came into the picture, something had changed. He grew sad and serious. Sometimes angry, but never happy. He seemed haunted. He was hot water, forever waiting to boil, and stuck at that temperature. He worked, he cried, he grew angry with my mother. Mostly he sat silently. No board games. No tickle fights. No camping trips or tossing the ball in the backyard. A serious, sad, haunted man who was doubled over in half due to the stress of raising and providing for seven children. A man who bit off far more than he could chew, who followed all of the rules of Mormonism yet somehow couldn’t experience any of the happy things. A stranger in my home.

I adapted. I wrote stories and played games, collected toys and made treasure hunts for my mom and siblings. I excelled in school. Dad was around but never seemed to notice or care much, and so I just got on with the process of growing up.

And then, in 1990, when I was 11, my mom made the boldest decision of her life, and she left. She went back to Idaho, after nearly two decades away. My dad stayed behind. And I remember being relieved. The world made more sense without him around.

Life got complicated for all of us after the divorce. My mom remarried, but he was mean. My dad ended up in Las Vegas. Months would go by without a phone call, and there were no visits. There was always a birthday card, and another at Christmas. Kitschy greeting cards from the grocery store with a check for one hundred dollars inside, and a short sentence. Surprise, Dad  or Happy Birthday, Dad. That was it. Those small gestures of love meant very little, though, without the relationship to accompany it. He remained closer to my five older siblings, yet put no effort into me or my little sister. When my stepfather grew violent, my dad had nothing to say. When I starred in community and school plays, he wasn’t there (except perhaps once, when he was in town). He didn’t know my friends, my interests, my struggles. And then there was the time I heard my mother tell him over the phone that his children wanted to see him. And my dad responded that he had no children.

When I grew up, I made a few passing attempts to get to know my father, and I sensed some gestures in return. He wrote a few letters when I was a missionary, and I wrote back. He took Sheri and I on a bizarre trip to Europe; he and I shared a room for two weeks, and never really spoke. He showed up at my wedding. My older sisters always encouraged me to put more effort in, to try harder, to seek understanding. He’s different than you think, they said. He tries and shows love just not how you can see it, they said. Maybe he can’t express anything to you, they said.

Maybe, I would think back. But the man whose name I bear can’t tell me the names of my own children, and that tells me everything I need to know. Four decades in and not much has changed.

My father just turned 80. I’m 40. I drove down with my partner to celebrate dad’s life, meeting the rest of my siblings there in Las Vegas. Conversations were superficial. He seemed genuinely happy, in his way, to see his children there to honor him. He told a few terrible jokes. He thanked everyone for being there. I left silently, overwhelmed by the experience.

A week later, I got a card in the mail. It was more than a sentence this time. “Thank you for coming to surprise me,” he said. “I’m glad we can seek common ground, despite our differences. Love, Dad.”

Our differences, I thought. What common ground, I thought. I set the card down. And again, I cried.

But at his grave, I didn’t cry. My name is on the back of his headstone. Etched there, permanently. I’m sixth in a list of his children. And one day, a death date will be carved into the front, and my father laid beneath. But my name will already be there, unchanged, like it has been all along, even before I knew about it.

Once, a therapist asked me how my father had impacted me the most. And I surprised her by answering that he made me an incredible father to my sons. I show interest in them, I said. I listen. I tickle and sing, dance and play, travel and teach, set boundaries and enforce routines. I’m there. Every day. There are no question marks in their center spaces. When I tell them I love them, they roll their eyes and say,  “Dad, we know! We love you too!” I’m there, and he wasn’t. He taught me to be an incredible father, I said, by never teaching me anything at all.

grave

So Carefully Contained

Lately, I feel fingers scratching at the edges of reality. 

It’s like those moments when you first wake, 

when you slowly come aware, 

when you remember you have a body and a bed in the darkness

when everything downloads itself back into your brain

and then you pick up where you left off. 

There is more to all of this

(there has to be)

meaning behind the madness

not God but… something. Something out there that I can make sense of. 

 

I created these walls around me. I painted them brightly. They protect me. 

When I grew weary of boundaries, of need, of being hurt by others, 

I changed myself. I made it so that I would reduce hurt, 

so I could expect more from myself and less from others

I set my own terms and began dreaming bigger and achieving more. 

And here I am, in the dwelling I desired

Full, ripe, plentiful, rich

So carefully contained in this space

the one I created

and wondering what else is out there to be discovered. 

I love it here, but I’m outgrowing it, I can feel it. 

The old itch is returning, the one that tells me I need to change. 

I need. To change. I need. More. I need. (What is it I need?)

Desire, lust, forgiveness, sanctification, release, horizons, animal passion, to be seen, to be heard, to feel loved, to forgive, to change the world.

I need. 

 

Lately, I feel fingers scratching at the edges of my reality. 

They mean something. Some success, some discovery, something

Right around the corner. 

And it’s going to require me spilling over the edges of this container I’ve built and embracing.

Embracing. Risking. Trying. 

It’s right there. 

(I need.)

 

 

Milk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Stan, the Man

If I give it a bit of thought, I realize Stan Lee was likely the greatest influence on my creative ventures, more than anyone. There are other influences, sure. Robert Jordan and C.S. Lewis and Carolyn Keene and my own mother, as well as all of the authors of my beloved Choose Your Own Adventure books from childhood. But Lee, he created the universe I would spend my lifetime with. He set up an entire age that would capture me for decades. More than anyone, he inspired my awe.

I’ve learned a lot about Stan Lee’s life over the years, but for the purpose of this blog, I’ll focus on his creative endeavors, the one that impacted me the most. For years, the comic book industry had been dominated by super heroes, ones who transcended all of the romance and cowboy and war and monster books that filled every shelf in America through the 40s and 50s. Superman and Batman are the most widely remembered. The stories were simple and short on substance. Super hero keeps his identity secret from his friends and foils plot by fill-in-the-blank villain, be they mad scientist, alien warlord, or misunderstood monster.

But then, in 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put together the Fantastic Four, and they changed the industry completely. They made their heroes flawed. They were fallible, they made mistakes. They overcame overwhelming odds in order to triumph over villains. And the villains suddenly became relatable, with variable motives and intentions. The lines blurred, and suddenly everything felt more human.

Stan Lee gave us the Thing, a man who hated being transformed into a lumpy orange monster, and one who took his rage out on the world even while being as lovable as can be. He gave us Spider-Man, a young man who dedicated himself to good after one of his own mistakes resulted in the death of his Uncle Ben. A line-up of X-Men, who were hated by the world for being different. Daredevil, who was a blind attorney by day, a hero who could jump off rooftops by night. The Hulk, a scientific Dr. Jekyll with a secret Mr. Hyde he was ashamed over. Iron Man, a selfish playboy billionaire with shrapnel near his heart. Thor, an arrogant God of Thunder who must learn humility at all cost. Stan Lee was an idea machine, giving the world more and more heroes to wonder over. Ant-Man and the Wasp. Dr. Strange. The Silver Surfer. Magneto. Green Goblin. Dr. Doom. Dr. Octopus. The Human Torch. The Inhumans. The Black Panther. Captain Marvel. The Skrulls. Loki. He brought back Captain America, and then he grouped up random heroes into the Avengers. And it was later he added more characters that he loved, ones who hadn’t had titles of their own: Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Quicksilver, Black Widow.

It’s been over 60 years, and these character names still headline comic books, multi-million dollar movies, toys and clothing lines, and cartoons. They’ve become household names, some gaining more notoriety than ever in just the last few years.

Now granted, reading these old 60s comic books from the year 2018 can be a bit uncomfortable. The heroes are overwhelmingly white and male. When girls did show up, they were often given passive powers and, when not fussing over their hair or outfit, were generally relegated to the kidnapped and tied-up damsel. And characters of other races, including Asian and Black, were generally characters. But over the years, that would evolve, as the comics addressed more relevant issues.

I didn’t start reading comic books until the mid-1990s. By then, many of these series were numbering in the hundreds, an impressive feat when you consider most books produced about 12 comic books per year. Picking up Amazing Spider-Man #300 meant the book had been running for 30 years. Stan Lee wasn’t really writing anymore by then, a man near 70 years old. The company had changed. Some characters had surged in popularity and added entire franchises. Characters died and came back. Storylines became complex, frequently saturated with complex and intricate plot devices. Was Spider-Man the clone or was his clone the clone? Cable was the product of Cyclops marrying the clone of his love, Jean Grey, and bearing a child, and sending that child to the far future to be raised, and then that child coming back to the present followed by a clone of his own. There were alternate dimensions and timelines, time travelers, shape-shifters, and teleports to save any character from seeming death. There were secret shadow organizations, and characters still alive from World War II who should have been dead decades ago. Marvel invented a sliding time scale, basically stating that although the characters debuted in the 60s, you could just presume that they had been around for ten years or so before you picked up the book. And as long as you didn’t mind the decades of history, the suspension of disbelief, the occasional continuity gaff, and the fact that you couldn’t possibly afford every book on the shelf, well, you had a whole world you could get lost in.

And that was exactly what I needed at the time. Things were getting tough at home. My step-dad was lashing out with anger more frequently, and it was getting more difficult to hide the fact that I was gay and pretending to be straight. I desperately needed an escape. And so, one weekday, I bought an X-Force comic book off the grocery store shelf. And it was amazing. Within a few years, I was working at a local comic book store by special arrangement: they paid me in comic books. And by the time I left on my Mormon mission at the age of 19, I’d collected thousands of them, meticulously preserved in bags and lined up alphabetically and numerically in dozens of cardboard boxes that lined the walls of my room.

And on that mission, for two years, reading comic books was my secret sin. I could buy them when no one was looking, hide them under my mattress at the apartment, read them when my companion was sleeping. Again, I could escape. All through college, I raided back issue bins in comic book shops, carefully scanning for every issue that I didn’t have. And always the hardest to come by was the original Stan Lee stuff, the primordial works from which an entire universe developed.

Even now, comic books are a part of my life. Everything for me is digital nowadays. I don’t keep my books in boxes, instead I keep them on hard drives. Every week, dozens of new Marvel books come out, still charting the stories of these classic characters and their extended families. The heroes from the 60s should be elderly, or dead and gone, but we readers just pretend they are perhaps in their late 20s or early 30s. I still love the X-Men, although their school has blown up 35 times by now, and every one of their members has died and come back from the dead at least twice. I’m still captivated by these classic characters. I sip my coffee and click through my pages with love and excitement. My brain auto-plays the sound effects of Thwip and Snit, and the classic phrases still leap off the page at me. Flame on! Hulk Smash! With great power comes great responsibility! It’s clobbering time! By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth! By Odin’s beard! Oh my stars and garters!

Everyone who followed, all the other big names that have also become something, they only succeeded because of the platform Stan Lee created. Luke Cage. Iron Fist. Wolverine. Punisher. Moon Knight. Cable. Elektra. Ghost Rider. Deadpool. The universe got a lot darker for a long time, then it got lighter again. And in the new comics, the world looks a lot different. There are gay characters running around everywhere now. Women play a much more prominent role. Many of my favorite titles star characters that Stan Lee must have been proud of. Moon Girl (a 9-year old black girl, the smartest person on the planet) and Devil Dinosaur (her big red T-Rex). Ms. Marvel (a Pakistani-American teenage girl, a Muslim). Squirrel Girl (a plucky computer nerd with a squirrel tail). I sit down with my children now and read these stories, sharing with them the joy of these characters, ones who make us laugh and smile.

I got the news today that Stan Lee died at the age of 95. I haven’t given him much thought in recent years, except to smile whenever he’s made a cameo in a Marvel movie or show that I love. Before I got that news, just this morning, I read the latest Spider-Man, and just last week I looked at the last episode of Daredevil on Netflix. And it dawns on me how much he transformed my life.

Thank you, Mr. Lee, for giving me another world to escape to. It was a complicated world, a rich one that expanded far beyond your original concepts, but then again, you started it all. You built a civilization under the ocean, and another beneath the surface of the Earth. You made up entire countries, some that floated in the clouds, some that nestled between existing borders. You gave men and women powers from a myriad of sources: alien experiments, exploding chemicals, radioactive spiders, godly interventions, magical training, Gamma bomb explosions, radioactivity, or just an accident of birth. You made me believe anything was possible, and that, no matter how complex and flawed the world might be, that good always triumphed and there was always another adventure beckoning.

Thank you, Mr. Lee, and Rest in Peace. Excelsior! 95 was a good long time, and your universe lives on.

Stan

 

Calgary Loft

IMG_3531

I’m on the 17th floor

It’s dark outside

I’m standing in a pair of black briefs

looking at the neon city against a dark sky

as the cars drive on bridges over the river

But mostly I catch my reflection in the glass

I can see through myself and into the city

and that awakens the poetry corners of my brain

I’m only renting this penthouse

but for many this would be the realization of a dream

Hardwood floors, marble counter tops

a grill on the balcony overlooking the river

It’s easy to picture red wine in goblets on coasters

laughter as the sun sets

lentil pasta in steel pans, fresh flowers in vases

and homegrown coffee in the morning

And the vision of all this haunts me in its way

because its all so fleeting, so temporary

Those preconceived ideas

about happiness, joy, success

Because some day, someone else would own this space

and make it theirs

and the landscape would change. 

I can see through myself and into the city

and then the light flicks off

and I can’t. 

Quiet Love

Heart

Going into these types of things

You learn to expect fireworks

And fields of flowers

And big bass drums.

But he doesn’t love like that.

He loves in small gestures,

Carefully, steadily.

A hand on your leg during a film,

An ‘I miss you’ on lonely days.

He doesn’t write poems,

But he listens when you read yours.

He loves with tomato plants,

With homemade risotto with red wine,

And by taking up half the sock drawer.

And so, in those moments

When threatened by the silence

Remember

You fell in love with his sweetness,

His consistency,

With good morning hugs

And your hand resting on his hip as he falls asleep.

Remind yourself

That because he loves differently, quietly,

Doesn’t mean he loves less.

And it’s still okay to need fireworks sometimes.

Write Night

Blank

“All right, so we open with our heroine tied to a chair. She’s disoriented. Close-up of her face, there is dried blood on her forehead, pan back to reveal a gag in her mouth. She strains at the ropes, moans in fright. She looks around the room and sees its contents, wood floor and walls, creepy paintings, old furniture. A good 45-60 second establishing shot as we see how frightened and helpless she is.”

My voice had an air of drama to it as I set up the scene.

“Then we flashback to earlier in the night. We have to call her Amy Knox, right, and she has to be an investor? So she is out on a date with Jason, the handsome guy she’s been seeing, and they are having wine with a few friends, toasting Amy’s new accomplishments, a major acquisition for her non-profit. Charming dialogue, laughing, wine sips. Then we cut back to the present.”

“Wait, so there would actually be a flashback?” Amber, the gorgeous actress in her early 30s asked, applying makeup in a mirror.

I wrinkled my brow. “Um, yes. We only have one day to film all of this, right? So we can do the house stuff in the morning, and we can film the double date stuff later and then edit it together.”

“Oh, okay.” She rubbed her lips together, spreading the lipstick.

“So we are back on Amy and she’s managed to get her hands loose. She rips the gag out, considers screaming, changes her mind. Gets up and is searching the room, knocks over a candelabra. (We have to use a candlestick in this, right?) The floor creaks, the light hits the walls in frightening ways, she’s disoriented, there’s blood. The door is locked, the window won’t open, she enters the kitchen and screams. And then flashback again!”

The director, Tony, a thin man in his mid-forties, his hair tied back in a ponytail, wrinkled his nose. “The genre we drew was thriller, correct? This should be a suspense thriller. There should be dialogue. Very smart dialogue. There should be a lot of nuance and psychology behind it. Major revelations. Perhaps this woman, Amy, this is all a dream? Or, oh! Maybe she has the power to, um, see what is ahead. What is that called?”

I cocked my head, confused. “Precognition?”

“Yes! Precognition!”

“Wait, wait,” I muttered. “I’m open to ideas, but let’s finish the basic outline first. This is just a rough sketch, a skeleton I put together in ten minutes. These are just loose initial ideas we can build on.

“So Amy and Jason leave their date, and he mentions how things are going so well between them, and he asks if maybe she’d like to come back to his place, and she nods. They get to the porch and they are kissing and–”

“Wait, wait,” Amber interrupted, closing her make-up mirror. “I can’t kiss. I act in shows and plays and commercials and stuff, but that is the one thing I’m not allowed to do is kiss.”

I simply looked at her, dumbfounded for a moment, then went on. “I, okay, so it’s implied that they are kissing. And they head inside his house, where she has never been before, but there is a man in the shadows. Then we flash back to the present and she sees Jason in the kitchen, on the floor, dead, and then there is the scream.”

Tony furrowed his brow. “Wait, so who tied her up if Jason is dead?”

“The intruder. The guy in the house.”

“So there are two guys?”

“Yes!”

“Well, but, why would he tie her up?”

“We can figure that out. Maybe we never tell the audience that. Maybe he fancies her, maybe she jilted him. Maybe he’s just a robber.”

Amy interjected. “I don’t feel like I understand my character’s motivation. What is she doing there? And she just doesn’t seem to have a lot of depth. I think–oh! I love-love-love the idea of her having a dark side! What if she was secretly the killer!”

Tony picked up her idea and ran with it. “So she has precognition and she’s a killer. Do you see this picture of this creepy old tree hanging here? I have to use that in the show. She sees the tree when she’s tied up and it alludes to a larger tree outside, one that hangs down with heavy branches and–”

“And that’s where she puts the bodies!” Amy punched both fists out in front of her in enthusiasm.

Tony turned, wild with ideas. “And maybe this whole date she is on with Jason is just all in her head, and we see it play out there, and we can hear her thoughts in a voiceover, and she’s scared, and she realizes that if she never went on the date in the first place, then she would never be tied up and Jason would never attack her, and at the end she calls the police to have Jason arrested when he knocks on the door for the date because now she never goes on it.”

“Guys, I–” I tried to get back on track, seeking to finish laying out the story points I’d put on paper.

Amber slapped her leg in excitement. “Oh! And there is that creepy old church down the road! What if she is like running from her intruder and she is running through the church yard at night!”

Tony stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I do like the symbol of crosses and what they represent. Maybe we use a cross instead of a tree. Also, if we are doing scary, I love involving kids in that. There is nothing scarier. Maybe some kids are ding-dong-ditching at the house and one of them goes around back and never comes back.”

Amber pulled her hair back. “But why is she killing the men in the first place? Is this an Arsenic and Old Lace thing where she is putting guys out of their misery? Oh! We have another actress! What if instead of Jason, we have Julie? What if Amy is a lesbian, and she invites her date home and–”

Tony clapped. “I like that, very progressive. And the lesbian can confront Julie about the money she stole and then when she denies it there is a wine bottle across the head and then she wakes up tied up and gagged, back where we started.”

I had a wide-eyed look on my face when they finally turned, remembering I was in the room. I sat back in my chair, the outline papers having fallen from my grip and to the floor.

“I, wow. Just wow. Look, I think this might have been a bigger ask than I realized. We are supposed to make a 4 to 8 minute movie in 48 hours, right? We have the assigned elements, and the randomly assigned genre of thriller. And we have this old house. And I was asked to swing by for a couple of hours to help put an outline of ideas together. For a friend. But this is an awful lot of ideas.”

Amber picked up her phone. “Oh! Super sorry, but I have to go. I’m doing a photo shoot, but I’m back in the morning. If you get any of the dialogue put together, send it over, that helps me get into character. See you guys tomorrow, so excited to work with you!”

Tony sat back, propping his chair against the wall, folding his arms over his chest. “I think if we can pull an all-nighter, we can get this puppy in good shape. This is going to be award-winning shit. We just have to figure out what her precognition powers are doing first.”

I blinked, as if I hadn’t been heard at all. “I’m a writer, yes. I blog. I have a book. I’ve done comics, and I just finished a documentary. I’m not– you want a screen play–But I–I can’t hang out with you here all night to write this. I work in the morning and it’s already late here.”

“Well, if you have to run home, just load us up on Skype and we can keep chatting and generating ideas. This is the hardest part, but it always turns out the best product.”

I sputtered, my brain spinning. “But it’s a date, and then lesbians, and the candlestick, the body in the kitchen, the old church, the tree, and the buried bodies, the fundraising scandal, the-the future powers but it’s all in her dream, and–”

“And the best part?” Tony looked over, smiling a wicked smile. “We probably won’t use a lick of this. We are only just starting. But isn’t this fun?”

“I–I gotta go home. I’m sorry. I can’t help.”

A few hours later, I lay in my bed, baffled by the long evening. What had just happened? What this what professional writing was like? I closed my eyes, determined to shut my brain down, but I found myself worried about Amy, and how she was going to get out of a predicament that I’d never gotten her into in the first place.

Your Villain

villain

“You’re the villain in my story.”

You said this with derision

With a gnashing of teeth

And a wringing of hands

And exasperated wails

Memories of everything we’ve shared

Replaced

Tossed into a bag labelled “PAIN!”

And selectively viewed from behind

Only the darkest of glasses.

 

And after you finished

Listing my sins

You finally looked at me

I saw you there

You seemed wounded

But also

Smallhurtpatheticshallowmean

Incomplete

Like you were still rooted

Fixed tightly

In the past.

 

I responded with a list of facts

Rebuttals

Keeping it clinical at first

Until I started to shake

And then the tears

Big crocodile tears

(Why crocodile? Named such

For their size?

Or for their sharp teeth?)

And then the gasps for oxygen

The tight shaking stomach

My spoken words coming out

Jagged, with too many syllables.

 

“You-have-no-idea-

what-it-is-to-come-out-

to-lose-everything-

to-start-over-

to-change-every-relationship-

to-redefine-yourself-

my-mother-my-sisters-my-nephews-

my-sons-my-friends-my-clients-

my-home-my-job-my-marriage-

my-God!”

 

And then I looked back at you

With my hands clutched

Protectively

Around my center space

And my eyes went cold.

 

“Make me a villain if you must

If you need someone to blame

To shame

To toss aside

To justify your pain

Make me the villain

And never change

Never forgive

But if I must be your villain

I will be the very best kind of villain

With complex motivations

Contradictions of character

With love and ego and worth

And triumph

And progress

And strength.

 

“You can see me forever standing there

Twirling my moustache

Cackling ‘Muhahahahahaha!’

Over the melodramatic organ

As the train barrells down on you

At top speed

And you, the damsel

Tied down and only able to call out

‘Help me! Save me!’

 

Do this if you must

But recognize,

When you are ready

That there is no train

And I have no moustache

And there are no ropes.

 

It’s just you there

Lying down on the tracks

Screaming for help

And never looking up to realize

That I haven’t been standing there

For years.”