Thursday, December 7, 2017

Growing Into Batmanhood

The Batman I was first introduced to as a small child was the swashbuckling, dry-humored adventurer of Super Friends and the 1966 Adam West TV series. This Batman was based on the character as depicted in comic books from the 1940s through the 1960s, a cross between an overgrown child and a child's fantasy of a father figure. He was everything a young boy could hope for in a dad--a rich, powerful man who adopted the orphaned Robin, spent all his time having fantastic adventures with the boy, had a ready-made solution for every problem imaginable, and constantly spouted trite wisdom, often in the form of bad puns. For all his fatherliness, though, this Batman was a child emotionally, with his black-and-white morality (everyone in his world is either a hero or a villain), his disregard for any kind of real-world responsibilities outside of fighting crime (Bruce Wayne's profession is "playboy"), and his disinterest in romance (he constantly rejected the advances of supervillainesses, superheroines, and damsels in distress alike, claiming that women would be a distraction from his mission, but he may as well have said, "Girls have cooties").

Image result for batwoman kathy kane romance batman
Even in the "imaginary" stories where Batman got married, he behaved like a bratty child.

In the comic books of the 1970s through 1990s, Batman "grew up," as more realistic stories and artwork depicted him as a dark avenger, constantly brooding over his parents' murder. I was introduced to this grim and gritty Batman first through Tim Burton's 1989 film, which debuted when I was nine, and then through the comic books I started reading when I was twelve. Going into my teenage years, I loved how "adult" this Batman was, as this allowed me to continue enjoying a childhood favorite while distancing myself from the elements of the character I now saw as childish. In retrospect, I see this Batman as a teenage fantasy of adulthood, in reality an emotional teenager himself. He obsessed over a childhood tragedy as only a teenager could, distanced himself from the people who loved him with claims that he works best alone, and constantly flirted with femme fatales like Talia al Ghul and Catwoman without ever daring to commit to anything resembling a healthy relationship.

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Batman got married once in the 1980s, but only because Talia slipped him a roofie. 

In the 2000s and 2010s, it has been refreshing to see Batman grow up emotionally along with me. It started in the comic books with the character embracing his family of Robins and Batgirls, like a young man realizing he really does love his family after spending his teenage years trying to avoid them for fear their lameness would rub off on him. Slowly, self-aware humor has crept into the stories, as when Ben Affleck's Batman says in Justice League that his superpower is being rich. This is a man who recognizes that dressing up as a bat to fight crime because you made a promise to your dead parents when you were eight is kind of silly, but embraces it because it's who he is. This is a man who enjoys what he does, knows himself, and acknowledges that he needs others. I've particularly enjoyed recent Batman comics, written by Tom King, where after 78 years of flirting Batman has finally proposed to Catwoman and they are exploring their relationship with surprising emotional maturity. They open up to each other, they make themselves vulnerable, and they go beyond melodramatic, angsty, adolescent sexual tension to actually making each other happy.

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What? Batman admitting he has emotions like fear and love? This is new. 

I don't know where Batman will go from here, but I hope the character continues to grow up with me. Here's hoping Batman comics of the 2060s explore the challenges of wearing adult diapers under spandex!

Thursday, November 23, 2017

My Thanksgiving Post

I've never felt inclined to post one thing I'm thankful for each day of November, as many of my Facebook friends like to do, but since today is Thanksgiving I'll give you twelve things and count that for the entire month:

  1. I am thankful for my husband. He makes me feel loved in all the ways--with words, with acts of kindness, with gifts, with touch, with his time. I've always been very attracted to him, but lately he is sexier to me than he has ever been, in large part because he intentionally dresses and grooms himself in ways he knows I find attractive, and knowing he does it for me makes it that much hotter. He makes me so happy that every now and then I need to do a reality check to be sure I'm not locked away in a padded cell somewhere, hallucinating this amazing life I have. 
  2. I am thankful for my children. I loved how cute and cuddly they were when they were little and I have a sense of loss as the littlest one gets bigger, but at the same time I absolutely love getting to know them as they form their own identities. I look forward to the relationship I hope to have with them when they are adults. I love when I see things they got from me, like my love for superhero cartoons or my quirky sense of humor, and I love when I see things they couldn't have possibly gotten from me, like their musical talent and the emotional maturity it took me years longer to attain. 
  3. I am thankful for my stepdaughters. I am still figuring out how to be a good stepdad, which forces me to learn and grow in ways I wouldn't otherwise. These girls have a manic appreciation for life's delights that will hopefully rub off on me. 
  4. I am thankful for my ex-wife. She is kind, patient, and cooperative in our co-parenting relationship, and she is an amazing mother to our children. So many of the things that I love in them come from her, like their willingness to try new foods, their encyclopedic knowledge of geography, and their love for reading. 
  5. I am thankful for my ex-wife-in-law. She is a great co-parent and friend to my husband, and I appreciate that she has extended that friendship to me. Our ongoing competition to see which of us can succeed in making the other more uncomfortable with awkwardly inappropriate jokes is one of the joys of my life. 
  6. I am thankful for my friends. In the past couple of years my husband and I have become part of a great group of friends and our nights spent in drunken conversation and laughter with them are always something to look forward to. In particular, I love that we have a best friend couple that we share many of life's adventures with, sometimes with our combined group of nine children and sometimes just the four of us. 
  7. I am thankful for my family. Even when we see each other infrequently, those times bring back years and years of happy memories and a sense of comfortable familiarity. I don't have an actual childhood home to return to, so family is home. 
  8. I am thankful for my job. This year I transitioned into a new role that I enjoy ten times as much as my previous role, and my employer was fully supportive of me making this move to improve my job satisfaction, even at the inconvenience of having to replace my former position. Meanwhile, I continue to enjoy the flexibility of working from home and the opportunities that affords me as a parent with young children. 
  9. I am thankful for this beautiful, mind-blowingly amazing universe we live in. In the past year I've come to love sunsets like I never did before, and I love learning new things about the way our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, and the entire universe work. 
  10. I am thankful for evolution. The human race is the product of millions of years of adaptation and natural selection doing their thing, and when you think about all the things our bodies and our brains can do, it's pretty awesome. 
  11. I am thankful for technology. This is kind of a sub-point of #10, because this is a product of those brains evolution gave us, but it warrants its own point nonetheless. There are so many ways our lives are better now than they were even twenty years ago, because of advances in technology. Way to go, smart humans. 
  12. I am thankful for me. In the past year I have gotten to know myself better than I had in the previous thirty-seven years, and I am coming to love myself more and more, including all my flaws and peculiarities. I am happy in ways I didn't believe possible, and I am thankful to be alive. 
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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

My F*** You Boots

Last year I bought myself a pair of tall black boots. When I wear them, I feel fabulously powerful, like Batman or Beyoncé. Also, just about every time I wear them I get comments on them. The comments are pretty evenly divided between "Ben, I f***ing love your boots!" and "Ben, I love you, but what the f*** are you thinking with those boots?" Many people I love and respect happen to share my aesthetic sensibilities in this particular case, and many people I love and respect do not. At first I felt self-conscious about making such a controversial fashion choice, but over time I have come to love the boots even more because so many people hate them. So much, in fact, that I have decided that henceforth the boots shall be known as my f*** you boots.

If these boots had a theme song, it would be performed by Cee-Lo Green.

For context, you should understand that I have always been a people pleaser, often to an unhealthy extreme. I thrive on positive feedback. When people tell me I'm good at my job, I glow. When I get compliments on being a good dad, I eat them up even though I know I'm being complimented for basic things moms do every day without fanfare. On the flipside, when my high school English teacher scolded me for making an inconsiderate joke, I could barely hold back the tears. When I receive critical feedback on my writing, even though I'm the one who asked for it, I struggle to convince my brain that the criticism doesn't mean people don't like me. Hell, when a friend tells me they just aren't feeling one of my favorite songs, my knee-jerk reaction is to feel like there's something wrong with me. The people-pleasing impulse is so strong that sometimes I'm not even sure whether I think something or if I just think that's what people want me to think. 

Much of my adult life, particularly the past five years, has been spent learning to be myself rather than being whatever the people around me want me to be. I struggle with this largely because I've seen people who, tired of being doormats, swing all the way to the other side and become narcissists. No, I don't want to neglect my needs in favor of others' needs, but I also don't want to prioritize my needs to the point that I'm harming others. In the wise, drunken words of Tina Fey's character on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, "Happy people value their needs as much as others’s." The key is to find that balance. 


With this in mind, it brings me joy to find things that please me but displease other people without actually harming them. It's an ethically safe zone for me to practice authentic self-building. "Ben, I f***ing hate your boots," someone might say, and I can respond (in my head, usually), "F*** you, it's my body and I get to choose what I put on it." The fact that family, friends, and colleagues regularly question my decision to wear these boots is a nice reminder that this is one thing I'm doing for me, not for anyone else. It's a very empowering feeling, especially because I know I'm not in danger of hurting anyone with my choice of footwear. There are times when it's difficult to find the healthy boundary between my needs and others' needs, but thankfully this is not one of them. So if you have a problem with my f*** you boots, you are welcome to say so, and when I silently smile at you in response, you'll know exactly what I'm thinking.

EDIT: I lied. My boots do have a theme song, and this is it:

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Live Trying

I have spent most of my adult life trying, to various degrees, to become a published novelist, but never as much as I'm trying this year. Over the past twenty years I've written eight books, started many others, written short stories and essays, published a few of those, completed two degrees in English with emphasis in creative writing, attended and volunteered at multiple writing conferences, and participated in and started several writing groups, but up through 2016 I'd only submitted a dozen or so query letters to editors and agents. In 2017 I've sent out 106 queries so far.

In case you're not familiar with the process, here's how it works: You write a book. You revise it until it's good enough to publish. Then you find a literary agent, send a query letter introducing yourself and your book, maybe include a few sample chapters if that's what they ask for in their submission instructions, and you wait for them to respond. Ideally, the agent likes your query, asks to see the rest of the manuscript, likes the book, and agrees to represent you. Then the agent starts the process of trying to sell your book to a publisher. I've not yet gotten that to that point. So far this year I've received 48 rejection letters. The vast majority are form letters: "Thank you for submitting your query. Unfortunately, I'm not the right agent to represent your work, but the publishing industry is very subjective so keep trying!" Many agents let you know up front that if you don't hear back from them in X weeks, you should assume they aren't interested, so add to those 48 letters another 30-40 de facto rejections.


At any rate, rejection is just part of the game. If you are serious about getting published, you have to deal with rejection--lots of it. J.K. Rowling, Shannon Hale, virtually any published author will tell you stories of the numerous rejection letters they received before finding success. So as emotionally draining as this entire process is, the rejection also gives me a sense of accomplishment, like I'm paying my dues. I'm also doing my best to make it a learning experience, experimenting with different approaches and testing the waters with different books.

At the end of the day, I can't control whether agents will like my stuff and want to represent me. I can't control whether editors will want to publish my books, or whether readers will want to read them. All the things I can't control are kind of overwhelming, so instead I focus on the things I can control: I write regularly--admittedly September will be the first month this year that I hit my goal of 10 hours per week every week of the month, but I have hit the goal frequently throughout the year and even the weeks where I don't quite make it, I've written more than I would have without the goal. I submit queries regularly. I stay focused, which can be hard because the more you write the more writing ideas you have, but starting a hundred different new things without finishing anything does not get you published, so when those new ideas come I jot down notes, then get back to the project I'm working on.

Rejection is hard. Not having complete control over this thing that means so much to my sense of self is hard. Nonetheless, this year I feel better about myself--as a writer, and therefore as a person--than I ever have because I'm more focused on working toward this goal than I ever have been. I may or may not achieve my lifelong goal of becoming a published novelist, but I will live trying.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Choosing Happiness

When I blogged a month ago about learning that I can make choices to make my life happier, I didn't realize that in the following weeks, I'd be putting my money where my mouth was.

Nine years ago I completed a master's of library and information science, which was my second master's degree. My first was in English, but when I realized I wasn't making any money with my hard-earned creative writing skills I went back to school for a more practical degree. I'd been working in libraries for five years by the time I finished the MLIS program, and my plan was to settle into a long-term library career. As I was searching for a library job, though, I happened upon a part-time work-from-home opportunity as a web search evaluator. The work looked interesting and the part-time work-from-home flexibility was ideal at a time that I'd be moving to two different states within a few months and then taking care of kids while their mom started a PhD program. As it turned out, I loved the work--I got to look at random web pages all day, see what people were searching for online, and work at whatever time of day I found convenient. Best of all for an introvert like me, I didn't have to go anywhere, which meant I didn't have to talk to anyone.

A year later, my then-wife decided the PhD program wasn't for her, so I let my project manager know I'd be leaving as soon as I found full-time work--presumably at a library. The PM didn't want to lose me, so she recommended me for a full-time lead position. I was happy to continue working for the company, as I enjoyed the work and they were treating me well. A few months later I was promoted to associate project manager. A year after that, project manager. A couple years later, senior project manager. Then, three years ago I was promoted to director. Throughout it all I continued to enjoy the work we did--it's fun to be at the cutting edge of machine learning technology--and it's been a really great company to work for.

But.

But last year I stopped and said, "Wait, how did I end up in management?" As much as I like the people I work with and the stuff we're doing, human interaction stresses me out, and managing relationships had become like 90% of my job. This realization was a large part of my impetus to re-focus on writing this year. I was going to return to my original dream of being an author, and once I had just enough of a writing income to supplement my husband's full-time salary, I could move out of the management career I'd fallen into. It was a long-term exit strategy, likely years out, but I was okay with that. After all, I wasn't miserable; I just didn't particularly enjoy much of what I was doing.

My role model when I was the boss.
And then I wrote that blog post about making happy choices last month, reassessed my life choices, and realized how much managing people was stressing me out, and decided I needed a more immediate exit strategy. Unfortunately, I had no idea what that was. Would I go back to libraries? It would have to be just the right job--nearby, and light on talking to people. Who knew how soon that ideal library job would open up?

Within days of deciding I needed something different, I was interviewing candidates for an instructional designer position, and suddenly I knew what I wanted to do. As an instructional designer, I wouldn't have to manage people. My English degrees, my teaching experience, and my nine years of subject matter expertise all made me a pretty good candidate to design e-learning modules for our employees and contractors. It would be like teaching, which I enjoy, but without having to talk to students, which was my least favorite part of teaching. And best of all, it would be an opportunity for me to be creative, which is my lifeblood. So I talked to my boss, who agreed I'd make an excellent instructional designer and was happy to get me into a role where I'd be happier (this really is a great company), and badabing badaboom, now I'm an instructional designer. It's a bit of a pay cut but it's worth it to be doing something I wholeheartedly enjoy.

I'm incredibly fortunate to be in a place where I could afford to take that pay cut, and working for a company willing to move me into a position better suited to me. I don't pretend that happiness is a simple matter of making good choices, because some people don't have any good choices available to them. But within whatever limitations life gives you, whatever range of choices you have available, why not make the one that makes you happiest? At the end of the day, that's what life is all about.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Loved Loud

I have always been an outsider in one way or another, but never more so than in 1997 when I moved to Provo and started attending Brigham Young University as a closeted gay Mormon. It was incredibly isolating to feel that I was different from everybody around me and I couldn't talk to anyone about my private struggles. I remember sitting on the steps outside a building on campus one Sunday afternoon, pleading with God to send someone to talk to me, to hold me, to take away this miserable loneliness, and getting nothing. Nine years later, in 2006, I attended a rally in Provo hosted by Soulforce, a group traveling around the country protesting anti-gay policies on college campuses. The rally was attended by a little over 100 people. By this point in my life I was publicly out as gay even though I was married to a woman, I had many gay friends and straight allies, and I was on my way out of the church. The rally produced a jumble of conflicted thoughts and feelings in me, but one of the strongest feelings was the warmth that surrounded me as this large group of people sang the Mormon hymn "I Am A Child of God" together, all in unity with conflicted gay Mormons like me. Despite being in the process of losing faith in the religion itself, it was soul-nourishing to feel, even for a moment, like I was a wholly-accepted member of the religious culture I grew up in.

The Soulforce rally in 2006. I'm right of center in a brown jacket, next to my then-wife, our then-unborn son, and our then-two-year-old daughter sitting on a friend's lap. Photo courtesy of http://www.soulforce.org.  

What I experienced 11 years ago pales in comparison to what I felt at last night's LoveLoud Festival in Orem. I bought tickets for the concert because I generally enjoy concerts and my husband generally doesn't, so the opportunity to see two bands he likes (and I liked well enough) within walking distance of our home was too good to pass up. The fact that the cost of our tickets would benefit good causes like The Trevor Project and Encircle added an extra feel-good aspect. I didn't realize that what I was actually signing up for was a cathartic evening that would go such a long way in healing the broken soul of the seventeen-year-old closeted BYU student inside me. People around me were laughing, cheering, having a great time, and I did plenty of that as well, but I also spent a good portion of the concert sobbing. While the 2006 rally attended by 100 was a powerful experience, last night's concert attended by 17,000 and headlined by major bands Imagine Dragons and Neon Trees, all focused on showing love for at-risk LGBTQ youth, made me feel loved and accepted within my current home community and my childhood religious community in a way I have never felt before.

Some of the moments that made me cry:

  • Hearing Tyler Glenn and Dan Reynolds sing the Mormon children's primary song "I'll Walk With You" and being reminded by my husband that this song was written by Carol Lynn Pearson in honor of her gay husband. 
  • Remembering that my friend Rhonda was part of the choir singing along with Glenn and Reynolds. 
  • Hearing twelve-year-old lesbian Mormon Savannah bear the testimony that her church leaders did not allow her to bear in church. 
  • Listening to Tyler Glenn talk about what an emotional experience this concert was for him. Can you imagine, attending BYU as a closeted gay kid and then coming back years later to perform to such a huge crowd as an out gay musician? 
  • Seeing the video clips about the brave LGBTQ kids at Encircle. I was so inspired by their courage to be vulnerable in front of such a huge audience, and grateful for the people who have made a safe place for them at Encircle. 
  • Watching a beautiful seventeen-year-old bisexual girl from Provo sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" for an audience of 17,000. (For context, consider that the population of Orem is less than 100,000.)
  • Realizing, for once, that trying to look young didn't matter. If a single gay kid saw 37-year-old me there dancing with my 38-year-old husband and felt hope for their future, then I am happy to look my age. 
  • Realizing how much more powerful this experience was for my husband, who grew up here in Orem and never dreamed that he would see anything like this in his home town. 
As I've written before, I'm at a really good place in my life right now. I'm happily married and I have a solid network of friends and family both Mormon and non-Mormon who love and support me as I am. I had no idea I needed community validation like I experienced last night, but apparently the seventeen-year-old and the twenty-six-year-old inside me needed it. If you run into me and see my soul glowing, now you'll know why. 

At last night's LoveLoud Festival with my husband. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Evolution is My Religion

In my experience, many religious people don't understand how atheists find any purpose or meaning in life. Without God, they ask, what's the point? Every atheist will have a different answer to this question, and even I could come up with several answers that ring true to me, but lately my answer is this: Evolution is my religion. My purpose is the preservation of the human race. My meaning is derived from knowing I have a place in this grand venture.

Stripped to the barest roots, you could say I served my evolutionary purpose by reproducing--three times, in fact. Beyond that, I have a responsibility to ensure my offspring survive to adulthood and have the means to survive after I'm no longer caring for them. So is that it? The purpose of life is to make babies and raise them? While many--myself included--find fulfillment in parenting, it doesn't make sense to me for that to be the be-all, end-all. Do people who have no children, by choice or by circumstance, serve no purpose? I simply can't believe that.


The key lies in the one thing that separates human beings from every other species that we know of--our intelligence. The most amazing thing evolution has ever achieved is producing a species intelligent enough to overcome the physical limitations of evolution. Sure, fur might keep some animals warm during the winter, but having the brains to start a fire or build a house or develop the technology for central heating is much more adaptable, capable of solving many more problems than just being cold. We've evolved to the point now that we are no longer limited by the survival of the fittest; we have the means to keep all of our species alive, including the weakest. This is actually an evolutionary advantage, because the traits that are valuable to our species' survival today may not be the same traits we need to survive tomorrow. Diversity is strength.

So on a macro scale, we contribute to the survival of the species through advancements in science and technology. On a micro scale, each of us has a purpose, even if we aren't Einsteins or Newtons. The thing about intelligence is that with it comes self-awareness. We are smart enough not only to survive, but to ask whether we want to survive. The only way the human race will continue surviving is if we have motivation to do so. In short, it's our job to make life worth living. I can do this for others by finding ways to make their lives happier, more meaningful. It's equally important that I find ways to make my own life happier and more meaningful.

Evolution's dictates, then, are (1) be happy, and (2) help other people be happy. Maybe you've come to a similar conclusion via religion, but for me it comes down to doing what my genes programmed me to do. That is my purpose. That is my meaning. Evolution is all the religion I need.