Thursday, November 1, 2018

Eight Books I've Read in the Past Five Months

One of the things that motivates me to go to the gym regularly is listening to audiobooks. I pop in my earphones, listen to the next chapter I've been anxiously awaiting, and pretend there aren't a hundred other people there fighting off age, fat, and disease. For most of my life I've read and listened to fiction more than not, but recently I've been into non-fiction--mostly light topics like neuroscience, the history of human civilization, and the nature of reality. Here are the books I've read since June:

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker is one of the most eye-opening books I've read in... ever. Pinker uses data to illustrate the many ways human civilization has improved over the course of history, demonstrating that, despite the tendency of conservatives and liberals alike to catastrophize the evils of our day, now really is a better time to be alive than any point in history--by pretty much any measurement. We are safer, we are healthier, we live longer, we are richer, we have less war and violence (yes, really) than our ancestors. If you're not convinced, read the book. 5/5 enlightenments.


Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a fascinating look at how the abundance of data made available by the internet reveals more about human nature than we could ever hope to understand before. How racist are we, really? What are our secret hopes, fears, and desires? We tell Google things we wouldn't even tell our therapist, and looking at that data in aggregate tells us much about the human race. 4.5/5 lies.


The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker is a precursor to Enlightenment Now, covering similar themes but focusing specifically on the history of violence. I love his data-driven approach to understanding history and the rational optimism that comes from seeing the general trajectory of our species toward decreasing violence as we increase our circle of empathy. That said, he gets into a lot of detail and there were parts where I was like, "Okay, I get the point already, can we move on to the next one?" Still, I give it 4/5 angels.

The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons is all about the ways our brains trick us into thinking we know things we don't. The authors elaborate on their findings from the attention study that came out of this well-known video (watch it and follow the instructions if you haven't seen it before), then they go on to describe other types of illusions our brains create without us realizing it. I found the section on how memory works (and how it doesn't work) especially fascinating. 4.5/5 gorillas.

Reality Unveiled: The Hidden Keys of Existence That Will Transform Your Life (and the World) by Ziad Masri is... an interesting book. I got it because the title intrigued me (I'm a sucker for grand theories of everything even though I've yet to find one I fully believe), the description promised an evidence-based approach, and it only cost a couple of bucks. The book starts out reasonably enough, looking at recent findings in physics that suggest reality as we know it is actually some kind of hologram (I've read this in enough trusted sources to know it's a legitimate theory), but then he dives into some really crazy stuff about aliens and reincarnation and a complex quasi-theological hierarchy of planes of existence. I appreciate that he starts the book by suggesting that even if you don't buy everything he says, to at least consider the parts that make sense to you. I also like that he introduces each new claim with some evidence to support it, but the problem is that he is not an expert in any of the fields he's talking about, so this is a matter of a layperson reading a few random studies with odd findings, then jumping to some pretty wild conclusions as if they were irrefutable facts. 2/5 realities.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt should be required reading for anyone who engages in any topics more serious than cat memes or dinner photos on social media. Haidt combines history, anthropology, and psychology to delve into the origins of moral intuition--our seemingly innate sense of right and wrong that seems so blindingly obvious to us but so obviously wrong to those with a different moral intuition. He refutes claims that human beings are naturally selfish or selfless, proposing instead that, for better or worse, we are groupish. Reading this book made me step back and reconsider some of my own assumptions about religion and politics, as well as those of people around me. 4.5/5 righteous minds.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann is about the different ways our brains process information, whether we're trying to decide which stock is a safer bet or assessing how happy we are with our lives. He proposes a model of two systems, one that does all the quick thinking we need to keep us alive--identifying threats, drawing conclusions from readily available information, evaluating people and experiences--and another system that kicks in when we need to do slower, more complicated thinking--solving complex problems, identifying the need to gather more data, questioning the assumptions made by the first system. The book gave me a lot to think about and I learned a lot about how my own brain works, but I didn't find Kahnemann's writing style as engaging as some of the other authors mentioned above. 3.5/5 thinks.

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff is an old favorite of mine. I read it in high school and fell in love with Hoff's lighthearted use of Winnie the Pooh characters to explore the basic tenets of Taoism. His description of the Taoist way, cheerfully accepting reality as it is, has strongly influenced my own moral philosophy and approach to life. After seeing Christopher Robin this summer, I decided to read Tao of Pooh again (I actually read the print version of this one). I enjoyed the same things about the book that I'd enjoyed the first time, and it was a great reminder to practice what Hoff calls "the Pooh Way," but I also noticed something I hadn't remembered and didn't like so much: I don't know whether it's just this author's take on Taoism or if this is an intrinsic part of Taoism, but the book has a recurring tone of disdain toward modernity and rationalism. I personally find a lot of value in both, but nevertheless Hoff's version of Taoism speaks to me in many other ways. 4/5 poohs.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Flowers for Benjamin

Last month I developed a strange rash, first on my foot and then all over my body, that made me excruciatingly itchy. I tried every kind of anti-itch ointment, lotion, and moisturizer I could find, but nothing stopped the itch. I resisted scratching as much as I could, but gave in a few times and of course made it worse. The timing of the rash's first appearance, within a week of having a water softener installed in our home, along with the fact that showering consistently made me itchier, led me to believe that I was one of the rare few I read about online who have an allergic reaction to water softening chemicals. We switched out the sodium in the water softener for potassium, but a week later the itch was no better (which was a bit of a relief, honestly, because the potassium costs ten times as much as the sodium so I really didn't want to buy it regularly). I stopped showering at home, using gym showers instead, and washed my clothes and sheets at a friend's house to eliminate all traces of my house's water from my body. Nothing solved the problem.

A wiser person would have seen a doctor sooner. It took me almost a month, but finally I went to my dermatologist. He took one look at the original rash on my foot, which at this point was an oozing, puss-filled mess, and said, "Oh, looks like you have an allergy to Neosporin." He told me to use Polysporin ointment instead (which made the oozing stop almost immediately), shrugged off the water softener theory as highly unlikely (another relief), and--most importantly--he gave me drugs to stop the itch. He prescribed a stronger anti-itch ointment as well as Prednisone, a powerful oral steroid that he said would end the itch much faster, but would also come with a number of weird side effects, including nausea, high blood pressure, headaches, mood swings, insomnia, and bad dreams. Hesitant to take on those side effects, I opted to start with the ointment, but keep the Prednisone prescription as a backup. The next day when the itch was more miserable than ever, I filled the Prednisone prescription. (And it only cost $0.87--a rare win for insurance!)

Image result for drugs

The itch ended almost immediately. The doctor gave specific instructions to take the Prednisone over a two-week period, though, starting at four doses a day and then tapering down to one, and I sure didn't want the itch to come back, so I dutifully followed the doctor's orders. And you know what? Prednisone is a miracle drug.

The first thing I noticed is how happy it made me feel. I spent last week on cloud nine. As I understand it, the drug typically gives you an emotional boost at first, and then as it wears off you get the down that makes for a full mood swing. When I was on four doses a day and even three doses a day, there wasn't enough time for that down to hit--I just felt fantastic all day long.

Next, I started breathing through my nose. You have to understand, I have had clogged sinuses for as long as I remember. Off and on since I was a teenager, I've had various prescriptions for nasal inhalers, typically steroids, that helped somewhat, but I've never succeeded in breathing through my nose comfortably and naturally for any significant period of time. For the past week and a half I've felt my sinuses relax and expand, letting through more oxygen than my nostrils have ever felt. Every breath is a glorious rush, a cool sting of clarity as oxygen saturates my brain. Did you know that breathing through your nose stimulates your brain in ways that breathing through your mouth does not? It feels like someone supercharged my mind. (And it's not like I was an idiot before.)

The final life-changing effect of the Prednisone only kicked in fully this past weekend, as I was walking around the house and realized that I was standing on my foot differently. I've been told in the past that I have high arches, particularly on my left foot. This essentially means that I stand with the inside of my foot raised too high, which means my foot and ankle are angled outward instead of straight up and down. I had never connected this fact with another problem my left foot had, which was that it was perpetually clenched into a slight claw such that I could not straighten out my toes without using my hand or the floor to push them flat. This has always bothered me, but I couldn't do anything about it except force-stretch it now and then, with no real impact. But thanks to the Prednisone, even the most tense parts of my body have relaxed, including my left foot. Suddenly I'm able to stand with it flat, which makes a world of difference in the rest of my body--gone are the corresponding tension that until recently shot up my ankle, my calf, through my knee, outside my thigh and through my hip, then all the way up my spine and neck every time I took a step. Even my jaw has started unclenching as I've stretched out this foot over the past couple of days. So much chronic pain that was such an everyday part of my life that it was just noise for the past twenty years, and now suddenly there's silence.

I have never felt so relaxed in my life, physically or mentally.

Except now I'm on my final days of Prednisone. Today was my last day with two doses. In four more days, I'll be done completely. Even just reducing the dose, I've started to feel some of that congestion creeping back into my sinuses. And especially now that I have enough time between doses to experience the full range of emotional side effects, the thought of going back to chronic pain when the medication is gone is depressing. I feel like Charlie, the man whose IQ is doubled in a scientific experiment but then slowly, horrifically returns to his stupider self in the short story "Flowers for Algernon." I like the person I am now, with clear, brain-stimulating nose breaths and unclenched toes that allow me to stand up straight without back pain. I don't want to regress to that mouth-breathing, claw-footed man who's always hurting.

The blessing, of course, is that I know what the problems are and that they are solvable. My plan is to go to my regular doctor, explain the symptoms and tell him that Prednisone worked effectively, then work with him to find a permanent solution. I don't think Prednisone itself is a permanent solution because of the side effects--even with how wonderful I've been feeling, I could do without the way it's been messing with my stomach and my sleep cycle. But I'm hopeful we'll find something. If not, I suppose I'll always have this blog post to remember the two weeks I was a well-oxygenated, pain-free version of me. And if I'm grumpy next time you see me, you'll know this Ben didn't make it. Grumpy Ben will accept flowers on my behalf.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Dear White Men,

Hi. I'm Ben. Like you, I am a white man. Not only that, but I'm also married to a white man, so I guess you could say I'm pretty much an expert on the topic of white men. As such, it has come to my attention that lately a lot of white men are feeling a little downtrodden, maybe a little ganged up on by everyone else. It's disorienting to spend the first half of the movie believing you're the hero, and then suddenly feel like they've flipped the script and now you're the villain. You may be wondering what you did to deserve all the flack white men are getting lately. I'm here to tell you that I know how you feel.

I grew up in Hawaii where, at least at the schools I went to, being white made me a minority. I was also one of the few Mormons at my school, poor, nerdy, unathletic, being raised by a single mother, and secretly gay, so nothing about my experience with the world led me to believe I was in a position to oppress anyone else. I was the bottom of the food chain, and the school bullies made sure I knew it. Yet in ninth grade history, when we learned about the ways white men overthrew the peaceful queen of Hawaii and stole the land away from the native population, it felt like all eyes in the room were on me. In tenth grade, when we learned about the ways white men enslaved, lynched, and raped black people, I felt like everyone thought I was somehow to blame. By the time we got to world history in eleventh grade, two things were clear to me: White men were responsible for most if not all of history's greatest atrocities; and I would forever carry the weight of this guilt on my own shoulders. I wanted to scream, "But it wasn't me! I didn't do those things!" #NotAllWhiteMen!

My friends patiently listened while I complained about feeling singled out for crimes my ancestors committed and reassured me that I was, in fact, a good person and nothing like those other white men. I'm sure it helped that my friends knew I was born and raised in Hawaii, so I was exempt from the general disdain for mainland haoles shared by many locals. It also helped that I hadn't committed any genocides. (Yet.) I felt heard and understood, so I could go back to hearing and understanding others, even when what they had to say assigned blame for everything that's wrong with the world to my people.

Part of my disconnect was that I never truly thought of white men as "my people." At home I regularly listened to my mom complain about cold, prim and proper, heartless mainlanders, in contrast to the warm, casual, loving people of the islands. At school and church I was surrounded by the mix of Asians and Pacific Islanders that make up much of Hawaii's population. White people were truly haole to me--the Hawaiian word used for Caucasians literally means "foreign." As for men, they were equally foreign to me. There were no men in my home, so the only men I saw were two-dimensional characters on TV and in comic books, the occasional male teacher, and the seemingly perfect authority figures at church. I didn't relate to any of them because of the above-mentioned secret gayness, which in my mind made me fundamentally different from the universally straight men I saw in the world around me. My people were brown people and women, so when they complained of being victimized by white men, I was right there with them.

Image result for evil white men
I also watched a lot of Scooby-Doo.
Several years later, after I published an essay about being a gay Mormon married to a woman, I was attacked online by a feminist blogger who accused me of being a misogynist supporter of patriarchy. This was hard for me. Women were my people. How could anyone think I hate women? How could anyone think I support the oppression of women? At the time I was on my way out of Mormonism, and even as a Mormon I like to think I was pretty open-minded, progressive, and conscious of women's issues. It was something of an identity crisis to be told by someone who is an authority on the matter--a bonafide feminist--that I was in fact the opposite of who I thought I was. I lashed out a bit, learned some important lessons about how to handle online debates, and then eventually moved on, reassured by my feminist friends that I was not, in fact, a misogynist.

The difference between my feminist critic's view and my feminist friends' view rested in how much they knew about me. The critic knew only that I was a Mormon man in a straight marriage, so whenever my written words could be read in either a positive or negative light, she interpreted them according to her assumptions about Mormon men in straight marriages--which, based on her experience with that group of people, was not positive. My friends, on the other hand, knew all those demographic facts about me, but they also knew me as a human being who is generally a decent, non-misogynistic person, so they read any ambiguities of my writing in that positive light.

In both experiences, I felt judged based on my race or gender by people who didn't know any more about me, while those who knew me well enough recognized that the race- and gender-based judgments didn't apply to me. In essence, I had already proven myself to them, and I still needed to prove myself to my critics. This is essentially the place many white men find themselves in today: At least in certain circles, we are assumed racist and sexist until we demonstrate otherwise to the satisfaction of whoever is judging us. I'm not going to lie, it sucks to be treated as guilty until proven innocent. But guess what? Throughout the history of western civilization, this has been the case for women and people of color. I wanted to put "until recently" in that last sentence, but I can't. We've made progress, yes, but racism and sexism continue to pervade our society. So, my white male friends, if you feel like you're being judged for your race or gender, then welcome to the human experience.

But wouldn't an ideal society not judge anyone by their race or gender, including white men? Yes, definitely, but that's not our current reality; everyone has unconscious biases based on their experience. If someone makes assumptions about you because you are a white men, it's likely that they've had a lot of experiences with racist and/or sexist white men. Calling them hypocrites because they are judging you based on your gender or race does little to change anyone's mind, and it equates the relatively minor harm of being treated as a racist or sexist with the much greater harms of being denied employment, being paid less, being profiled by police, being sexually assaulted or raped, or being murdered because of one's gender or race. Let's be clear: Any unconscious biases you and I suffer from are not equivalent to institutionalized racism or sexism. Just as women and people of color have fought for centuries to prove white men's assumptions about them are not true, the only way we white men will change biases about us is by not being racist or sexist.

"But I'm not racist or sexist!" Two problems with that argument: First, very few racists or sexists describe themselves as such, so clearly self-definition is not sufficient here; the only way to know if we are racist or sexist is to listen to what women and people of color say about us. Second, it's not an either-or thing here. The options aren't either slave owner or not racist. As I mentioned above, we all have subconscious biases, and many of those biases are sexist or racist. I can march for women's rights, support the #MeToo movement, and treat my female coworkers with respect, and still say something that offends women simply because I didn't fully think through how my words might be interpreted. As an ally I can do my best to understand the experiences of women and people of color and respect their perspectives, but as a white man I cannot completely understand those experiences or perspectives. Not being racist or sexist doesn't just mean avoiding the big, obvious harms; it means listening when women and people of color tell us about the more subtle ways we are making life difficult for them. It means when someone tells me I screwed up, I get over my hurt ego, apologize, and do better.

Being judged unfairly sucks. Having to prove yourself sucks. Instead of feeling bad for ourselves, let's work to create a world where no one has reason to assume white men are racist or sexist--one not-racist, not-sexist white man at a time.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Finding Love's Limits

On Friday night my husband and I watched Believer, a documentary about Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds' efforts to fight the problem of LGBTIQ youth suicide in Utah. On Saturday night we attended the primary focus of those efforts, the second annual LoveLoud Festival--a concert featuring Imagine Dragons and several other performing artists raising money to support charities like the Trevor Project, the Tegan and Sara Foundation, and Encircle. On Sunday night we watched Love, Simon, a movie about a gay kid coming out in high school and dealing with various challenges that continue for gay kids even in today's world where homophobia is less and less socially acceptable. Saturday morning I stared at my reflection in the mirror and, for the first time in thirty-eight years, was able to look at that man with judgment-free love and saw the same staring back at me. It's been an emotional weekend.

I won't say more about Believer or Love, Simon except that both are excellent films worth watching and that both left me feeling a little emotionally exhausted. Neither, however, exhausted me as thoroughly as did the LoveLoud Festival. Last year's festival was an amazing experience that made me feel unexpectedly nourished in ways I didn't know I needed to be nourished. This year I had a markedly different response. Don't get me wrong; the festival was amazing. Some of the highlights for me were Grace Vanderwaal's endearing performance (the poor girl got stung by a bee on stage!), a surprise appearance by Mary Lambert, and pretty much everything about the two-hour Imagine Dragons set. As we entered the stadium there were people handing out free light-up bracelets; little did we know, these were controlled remotely to make the entire stadium light up in various color patterns in sync with each song. It was a gorgeous sight and a beautiful metaphor for the festival--the focus was clearly on Dan Reynolds, the charismatic, sexy, shirtless rock star on the stage, but he was using his time in the spotlight to help others shine their own lights.


Despite everything I loved about the festival and the amount of time I spent enjoying each moment, I also spent a good portion of the show feeling really, really angry that this whole thing exists. More precisely, angry that it needs to exist. Why on earth do we need to keep telling parents to love their children, to accept them as they are? Shouldn't this be obvious to any human being? Why do you need a rock star to protect your own children from your bigotry? They are your children! It's your job to love them and protect them; when someone else needs to protect them from you, you have failed as a parent and as a human being. As Reynolds and various other celebrities stood on that stage and told the LGBTIQ youth of Utah how much they are loved and how much the world needs them, it took me a while to understand why all this exuberant celebration of my existence was making me more and more upset, until finally I realized that celebrating my existence is just the flip side of the coin from apologizing for my existence, and I'm so goddamned tired of apologizing for my existence.

Recently, a dear friend started dating someone. I was excited for my friend to be dating someone she likes, and anxious to meet him myself. My friend is Mormon, but pretty progressive in her attitudes toward sexuality and among the most supportive of my husband and me; she has defended us to more conservative Mormons on several occasions. This open-mindedness is typical of the Mormons I am still close to, for obvious reasons of self-selection on both sides, so it's easy for me to forget that many, many Mormons are not so open-minded. So when my husband and I stopped by our friend's house and the boyfriend and his kids were there, we nonchalantly introduced ourselves as husbands because, you know, that's just normal everyday life for us. I was distraught to hear after the fact that the boyfriend found our surprise introduction off-putting, because we didn't give him a chance to prepare his kids or to decide how to frame our relationship to them. In other words, he would have preferred to raise his kids in a world where we don't exist and was annoyed that he'd been forced to do otherwise, without his prior consent.

I want to be clear here: I believe my friend handled the situation in exactly the right way. She responded with empathy, understanding that his discomfort comes not from hatred but from ignorance and inexperience. He hasn't had much (if any) personal experience with queer people in his life, so all he has to go on is what he's learned at church--that gay people are choosing to live in sin, in opposition to God's plan. Of course he wants to protect his children from us! My friend understands that with time, experience, and love, her boyfriend will come around, just as most good people do when confronted with a reality that challenges previously-unchallenged beliefs. I also know that she is a good judge of character, so if she says he's a good guy and he'll figure it out, I believe her. I look forward to getting to know him, after he's done working through those issues. In the meantime, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt enough to be polite and kind, as I try to be with everyone.

What I discovered while she was telling me this, however, is that I no longer have it in me to feel empathy toward people who want to pretend I do not exist. Believe me, I understand where they are coming from. I came from that place myself, raised to believe that only part of me deserved to exist, that my existence would only be valid if I repressed and hid that part of me. I understand that worldview all too well--too well for my own good. I have worked for years to overcome that belief in myself and in others around me. I worked hard to prove to my family that the full me deserves to exist. I worked hard to prove to my in-laws that I deserve to exist in their son and brother's life. I continue to work hard to prove to my conservative Mormon community that I deserve to exist here, that I am a valuable member of their community just as deserving of my place in it as they are. In each case there have been people who accepted my existence from the start, some even before I did. In each case there have also been people who started out with the assumption that I was guilty until proven innocent, who were unsure of my value until I showed that, guess what?, I'm a pretty decent guy, as heathen sodomites go. I did my best in each case to approach these people with love and understanding, because I sincerely believe that is the most effective way to change hearts.

I still believe that's the most effective approach, but what I hadn't considered until this weekend is how much empathizing with those people while they debate whether or not I deserve to exist is damaging my psyche, how much it keeps me holding onto those old toxic beliefs about myself. As I looked out on the crowd at the LoveLoud festival, imagining that a large portion of them are good-hearted, progressive Mormons, most of whom likely had a change of heart within the last five, ten, maybe twenty years, often because they had a beloved family member come out to them and they were forced to confront the bigotry of their unexamined beliefs, I felt sincerely happy for what these people are doing, that they are making Utah a more loving place for queer people, but at the same time I couldn't help thinking, "I'm glad you all decided I deserve to exist, but I stopped listening when you tried to convince me you had a right to any opinion at all about my existence." I don't mean to be callous; you just can't let yourself care about people who question your right to exist, and still love yourself. Refusing to empathize with them is not being closed-minded; it's survival.

Lately I've been thinking about when we should and shouldn't be civil with our enemies, which at least partly comes down to a question of when we should and shouldn't try to empathize with our enemies, to understand them and love them as fellow human beings. I've decided this weekend that the right course for me is to do my best to interact lovingly with people who have opinions I disagree with, to be patient with them, to listen to them in an attempt to understand, to be open to the possibility that their position comes from ignorance instead of hate, and do what I can to gently help them be more loving--except in cases where those people hold opinions that are directly harmful to me. When others hold opinions that are toxic to people I care about but not to me personally--whether it's opinions that are harmful to women, to people of color, to indigenous people, to trans people, or to any other disadvantaged group I am not part of--I am likely to be upset, but I can manage my emotions enough to approach the conversation rationally and objectively, to listen carefully to my friends who are being hurt and do my best to help the hurters understand and stop. This is what Dan Reynolds is doing; as a straight, cis-gendered white man he has privilege that I do not, and he uses that privilege to speak up for me and others like me. With that privilege, he can approach those conversations with tact and love, inviting others to join him rather than vilifying them for not having already joined him, in ways that it just isn't healthy for me to do anymore. So can my friend with her boyfriend, and so can all those progressive, queer-friendly Mormons who filled that stadium.

So here's what I have to say to my straight allies: Thank you. Whether you came to the conclusion that the full me deserves to exist in the same world as you yesterday, last month, last year, or last century, I am glad you came to that conclusion. If you never questioned my existence, I am glad for that. If you did but you've had a change of heart, no matter how recently, I forgive you. If you feel so inclined to lovingly help the less open-hearted around you, I am most grateful to you for making the world a better place, one person at a time. But that is a fight I am done fighting. I will no longer fight for my existence. I will no longer apologize for my existence. I will no longer celebrate my existence, at least not any more or less than any conscious being should celebrate the wonder of their own existence. From now on I'm just going to exist as if I live in a world where my existence isn't up for debate. Those of you who aren't living in that world yet can join me when you get here.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Secret First Meeting of Mr. Fob and Radon Spaceman

Ten years ago today, I met the man who would later become my husband. I don't remember talking to him at all, and we certainly didn't flirt--we were both married to other people at the time, he was fully closeted, and I was only halfway out--but we did, technically, meet.

It was the summer of 2008. My wife and I were in the process of moving from Seattle, Washington, to Davis, California, so logically we spent a month in Utah. She and I were both active bloggers at the time--she went by FoxyJ and I went by Mr. Fob, because this was before using your real name on the internet was cool--and we had a number of blog friends we saw in real life only rarely, as well as several we'd never met. To remedy both problems, we occasionally held blog parties where we invited these random strangers to meet us in person and eat food together. Considering that a large number of our blog followers knew of us because we'd been featured in a news article about gay Mormon bloggers in mixed-orientation marriages, which made us rather unpopular among conservative Mormons and liberal gay people alike, I suppose we're lucky none of the potluck food was poisoned.

One of the blog friends who came to the party we threw that summer at Kiwanis Park in Provo went by the blogonym Kristeee (you'll never guess what her real name is). She had been following both mine and Foxy's blogs since 2006, which I would learn much later was not long after she'd gotten married--in 2005. Her husband, whom I will call Radon Spaceman because it wouldn't be right for him to have a real name when none of the rest of us do, had told her before they got married that he was attracted to men but wanted to marry her anyway because, you know, Mormonism, so when Kristeee came across FoxyJ's blog through mutual blog friends, then learned that Foxy and I were living the same story much more publicly, she grabbed a bowl of popcorn and got comfy. I didn't know any of this at the time--as far as I knew, Kristeee was just some random Mormon mommy blogger who happened upon our blogs and thought we were cool.

So Kristeee came to our blog party and she dragged Radon Spaceman along. I remember meeting them. I remember talking to her a bit, since she was the one I knew online. I'm pretty sure I noticed that her husband was attractive; they would have had a seven-month-old baby with them, and I have a soft spot for men with small children as well as for very Mormon-looking men, so he would have checked off both of those boxes for me. At the time, though, I wouldn't have done anything more than notice a guy was attractive, and if anything that would have made me less likely to talk to him because I'd have felt intimidated. For his part, he was aloof. He was very Mormon (in beliefs as well as looks) and very closeted, and didn't know what to make of this strange guy who was openly gay while still in a committed, monogamous, straight marriage.

Kristeee, Baby K, and Radon Spaceman circa 2008.

It was probably for the best that we didn't connect at the time. I had a habit of forming friendships with guys, then wishing it could be something more, and I definitely didn't need any more of that anxiety at the time. Now that Radon Spaceman and I are happily married, I'm glad there's no question that our relationship started after our previous marriages were over. It was, in fact, another four and a half years before we met again, this time through OKCupid. At that point we only vaguely remembered having met each other previously, but I did have the advantage of going into that first date with the recommendation of Kristeee, who correctly guessed that Radon Spaceman and I would get along well.

FoxyJ and I with other fobulous blog friends at that 2008 blog party.

My one regret? We have no photo of us meeting that first time. I have other photos from the blog party, but none of Kristeee or Radon Spaceman. So the moral of the story is this: Always take photos with every random stranger you meet. You never know when you'll end up marrying them.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

My America

Patriotism has never sat well with me. I dislike the sentiment that America is the greatest country in the world because while patting ourselves on the back it insults everyone else, because it's a statement based in irrational emotion and not on measurable fact, and because there is and always has been so much about America that is not great--racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, economic inequality, political and religious tribalism, and on and on. I dislike the association patriotism has with the values of Republican, Christian, gun-toting, MAGA-hat wearing, straight, white, cisgendered people because I don't identify with those values.

While at a Janelle Monáe concert this past weekend, though, I realized that maybe there is a version of patriotism that I can get behind. In her song "Crazy Classic Life," Monáe describes herself as "young, black, wild, and free," then proclaims, "I am not America's nightmare / I am the American dream." I love how she, as a queer black woman, reclaims the traditional narrative of the American dream, the belief that all men and women are created equal, and insists that dream is not the property of straight white men. This vision of America is one that I find worth celebrating.

I celebrate the Enlightenment ideals of reason and equality that America was founded on. I celebrate the good that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and the other founding fathers gave us. I can do so while at the same time condemning the way they enslaved Africans, slaughtered Native Americans and stole their land, and treated women as property. The founding fathers may have been too ignorant to recognize the irony and the limitations of their version of "all men are created equal," but the system they built on principles of democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion made way for future generations to take what they left us and make it better. That is my America.

I celebrate Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and their fellow Sufragettes who led the movement to give women a voice in America's government. I celebrate Gloria Steinem, Betty Frieden, and other leaders of the women's liberation movement. I celebrate Ruth Bader Ginsburg and other women who have fought for women's rights within our legal system. I celebrate writers and artists like Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Nina Simone, and Beyoncé who speak to the experiences of black American women. I celebrate Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and Michelle Obama. I celebrate Roe v. Wade. I celebrate the #MeToo movement and the Women's March. This is my America.

I celebrate Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, and others who led us to the abolition of slavery in the United States. I celebrate Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. I celebrate Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and others who have fought for the rights and lives of indigenous people. I celebrate Joan Baez, Cesar Chavez, Nydia Velazquez, and others who have spoken out and fought for Latinos. I celebrate Margaret Cho, Maxine Hong Kingston, and George Takei. I celebrate Queen Liliʻuokalani, Duke Kahanamoku, Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, Kealiʻi Reichel, and others who have worked to preserve native Hawaiian culture and values. I celebrate Loving v. Virginia. I celebrate the Black Lives Matter movement. I celebrate the Families Belong Together marches that took place across the country this past weekend. This is my America.

I celebrate Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and others who led the Stonewall Riots that ignited the flames of the LGBTIQ rights movement. I celebrate Harvey Milk, José Sarria, and Chad Griffin. I celebrate Sylvia Mock, Dan Savage, Ellen Degeneres, and Anderson Cooper. I celebrate United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges. I celebrate the Trevor Project, the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, and other organizations that continue to fight for the lives and rights of queer people. I celebrate the Provo Pride festival, the Encircle LGBTQ+ Family & Youth Resource Center, and the LoveLoud Festival, which have created safe places to celebrate sexual and gender diversity in my conservative community. This is my America.

I celebrate similar progress that has been made in other countries all over the world. I celebrate those of my fellow Americans who see beyond our national pride and our tribalism to recognize ways that others may be doing better than us in areas such as education, healthcare, and human rights, and seek to apply those lessons learned toward making America greater than it currently is or ever has been. I celebrate immigrants and the strengths they bring to America.

Janelle Monáe ended her concert the other night with the song "Americans," which includes this powerful speech (emphasis mine):
Let me help you in here
Until women can get equal pay for equal work
This is not my America
Until same gender loving people can be who they are
This is not my America
Until black people can come home from a police stop
Without being shot in the head
This is not my America
Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful
This is not my America
I can't hear nobody talkin' to me 
Until Latinos and Latinas don't have to run from walls
This is not my America
But I tell you today that the devil is a liar
Because it's gon' be my America before it's all over
I celebrate an America that not only allows for voices of dissent, but listens to those voices of dissent. I celebrate an America where diversity makes us stronger. I celebrate what we are and I celebrate what we can become. This is my America.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Janelle Monáe Loves Me

My husband and I were so excited to see Janelle Monáe in concert last night that we dyed our hair pink in honor of her song "Pynk." On the way to the show, I joked that if she didn't specifically pick me out from the crowd and tell me she likes my hair, I'd be offended. Spoiler alert: She didn't call out me or my hair or, as far as I was aware, even notice me, but she created a concert experience so perfectly tailored to my tastes that it felt as if I'd been singled out.

Obviously the reason I went to the concert is that I like her music, and her performance in that regard did not disappoint. She performed every single song from her newest album, Dirty Computer, and several of her older hits like "Tightrope" and "Q.U.E.E.N.," and delivered beautiful vocals filled with sincere passion on each song. Whether singing the warm, fuzzy melodies of "Pynk" or rapping the hard truths of "Django Jane," her delivery was virtually flawless. Her band, likewise, is made up of talented live performers in their own right. I've heard from friends who were frustrated by the poor acoustics of the venue, with the extreme volumes interacting badly with the small space, but thankfully I'm an old man who can't tolerate concert volumes in even the best of acoustic situations, so I go prepared with earplugs and they served me well last night.

Another of the things I love about Janelle Monáe is that she is an extraordinarily talented dancer, which makes her music videos delightful to watch. Last night I was so caught up in the music that I kept on forgetting about this other talent of hers. Then she and her backup dancers would do something amazing, and each time it was like discovering this thing I love about her all over again. Nowhere was this more pronounced for me than in her performance of "Make Me Feel," which included an extended instrumental intro accompanied by a mesmerizing solo dance routine. My friend David captured part of that enthralling routine on video:


Speaking of things that make Janelle Monáe's music videos awesome, I would be remiss if I didn't mention her sense of style. She is always dressed in costumes that are uniquely her and surrounded by sets that complement her look perfectly, all comprised of bold color palettes that I could stare at for hours. Her live performance lived up to this high standard, with each costume and set chosen carefully to match the song. When her attendants dressed her in robes of royalty as they brought out her throne for "Django Jane," it felt like watching a queen being crowned.

The way Monáe presents herself as royalty--equal parts self-love, confidence, and "fuck you" to anyone who would think less of her because she is a queer black woman--is inspiring. 

Another thing I love about Janelle Monáe is that she is an album artist. Many albums are simply a collection of songs, and there's nothing wrong with that--I love a great song--but I especially love when musical artists release albums that tell a story when experienced as a collective, larger piece of art. Monáe's ArchAndroid did that for me, and she did it again with Dirty Computer; both are albums where I enjoy having the individual songs come up in my random mix of music I like, but I will also play the album from start to finish in order to enjoy that experience. When the concert started last night with the album intro, "Dirty Computer," playing as she came on stage, and then she proceeded to perform the next four songs off the album in order, I thought, "Wow, that's a fun way to do a concert, but will she play any of her old stuff?" Then she took a break from the album to play some older songs, then came back to the current album, and back and forth for the rest of the concert. She effectively performed the entire album with commercial breaks for previous hits, and in album order with the exception of the hit single "Make Me Feel" and "I Got the Juice," which appear together toward the middle of the album but she pushed closer to the end for the concert. I have never admired the order of a concert set list as much as I did last night.

It's common at concerts to see audience members singing along, and that was especially pronounced last night--it seemed like everybody there knew every word to every song. This fact made me self-conscious of how bad I am at remembering the lyrics even to songs I listen to over and over. As I awkardly sang along with half of every line last night, though, I realized this is just how I enjoy music. I'm not great at memorizing words, but I love lyrics for their meaning; I appreciate well-executed form, but I thrive on meaningful, thought-provoking content. This is, of course, one of the things I love about Janelle Monáe--the ideas so powerfully expressed in her lyrics--and the concert did not disappoint in this regard. From the line "I am not the American nightmare / I am the American dream" in the first song she performed, "Crazy Classic Life," to "This is a cold war / You better know what you're fighting for" in "Cold War" to "Hold on, don't fight your war alone" in the final song of the evening, "Americans," Monáe had me thinking about what it means to be an American and what it means to be part of a society of deeply flawed people trying to make the world better despite our frequent screw-ups.

Finally, what I love most about Janelle Monáe is that the core of her message is about love--love for self and love for others. She demonstrated that love throughout the concert, but never more so than during "I Like That," an anthem to self-love and individuality, when she paused to scan across the audience and call out things she liked about specific people. "Ooh, I like your bow tie." "I like your outfit." "I like your hair." Sadly, she did not look at me and tell me she liked my pynk hair, but the message of love and acceptance was received all the same. Thank you, Janelle Monáe.