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 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  

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.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Dora the Explorer vs. Donald the Trump

The children's picture book Dora Saves the Enchanted Forest, published in 2011, is the book America needs in 2017. In this book, Dora the Explorer and her monkey Boots, known for their skill at climbing tall mountains and counting in Spanish, confront Owl, a cruel despot who is clearly a prophetic metaphor for President Donald Trump.

At the start of the book, the Enchanted Forest is a land of seemingly limitless freedoms--honeybees sing, puppies try to fly, and oak trees play hide-and-seek--obviously a metaphor representing our own land of the free, America. The Enchanted Forest is ruled over by King Unicornio, who we can tell is Latino because of his name, and we can tell he's gay because he's a unicorn. This will be important later. 

King Unicornio is deposed by Owl, who's clearly a jerk. With a complicated plan involving a wall that our Latino hero has to pay for, Owl takes power.

Once in power, Owl immediately starts throwing crazy laws around and banning specific groups from the Enchanted Forest: scarecrows, crows, elves, and fairies are all unwelcome in Owl's Enchanted Forest.

Thankfully Dora, who is also Latina, sneaks in despite Owl's travel bans. She then hires some illegal immigrants--the elves--to fix Owl's wall so King Unicornio can worry about more important concerns.

Now free, King Unicornio reclaims the kingdom and proclaims the Enchanted Forest is for everyone! He also forces Owl to stop being a jerk and do some community service for his crimes.

So what can we learn from this prophetic book? Clearly, if we're going to rid America of our own cruel despot, Donald Trump, we're going to need our own King Unicornio. But who could fill this role? Who will be our gay Latino hero?

Save us, Ricky Martin!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ben's Search for Meaning

Last week I lay in bed in our vacation rental in Hawaii, my head resting on my husband's chest, and my brain broke. "Does not compute," it said. "This much happiness is not possible." Being in the middle of a week-and-a-half-long vacation with our children in a beautiful place where I have many happy childhood memories certainly contributed to my bliss overload, but the truth is I have felt the same thing on several occasions in the past couple of years, often when I wake up next to him in our bed at home or while snuggling on the couch, watching TV. My brain simply doesn't know what to do with the fact that I am married to a man I'm intellectually, emotionally, physically, and sexually attracted to, and that we have a really good life together.

Image result for unexpected error

My mom did not have a happy life. She had a difficult childhood in which she felt she was expected to raise her younger siblings, she left her first husband because he beat her, her second husband left her, she raised seven children largely on her own, she worked hard as a waitress to support us, after finally getting a college degree and a good job she suffered through health problems that forced her into early retirement, and then she passed away after a painful battle with pancreatic cancer. Despite her seemingly constant challenges, though, she often smiled and laughed. Growing up, I learned from her that life sucks but you can choose to be happy anyway. One of her favorite books was Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, which is about (among other things) how Frankl found ways to remain positive even while imprisoned in an Auschwitz concentration camp.

The coping skills my mom taught me proved incredibly valuable as I struggled through a pretty difficult childhood myself. We were poor, my dad lived an ocean away and I had no meaningful relationship with him, my mom constantly fought with my older sisters and I was often called on to mediate, I was bullied for being white, and I was gay in a religious environment that taught me being gay wasn't even a valid option. Looking back on it now with a bit of objectivity, I feel like I had a pretty crappy childhood. Yet, as I said above, I have many happy memories of that childhood. Of course part of this is that there were genuinely good times mixed in with the bad times, but it's also thanks to the positive thinking philosophy my mom taught me. If Viktor Frankl could be happy in a concentration camp, after all, surely I could be happy through my relatively minor struggles.

The thing my mom didn't teach me, because I'm not sure she really believed it, is that sometimes life can be really good. Sometimes you can just be happy without trying. The problem with believing that life will always be horrible, that it's all about the trials and tribulations, is that you're less likely to work toward making your life happier than it is. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can't change, by all means, but don't forget the part about the courage to change the things I can. As a child, there wasn't a whole lot about my circumstances I could change, so learning to have a positive attitude regardless of my circumstances was a necessary survival skill. As an adult, I have a lot more control, but it's taken me years to learn to exercise that control rather than just accept whatever circumstances life hands me.

Given my mom's experience with marriage, it's no surprise that I was cynical when it comes to finding happiness in a romantic relationship. You're never going to find someone that you're perfectly compatible with in every way--intellectually, emotionally, physically, sexually--so you might as well just pick someone you get along with well enough and choose to be happy. There's some truth to this, because there really is no such thing as a perfect relationship, but I went to an extreme when I allowed religious influence to make me devalue the physical and sexual aspects completely, marrying someone I connected with emotionally and intellectually, but who wasn't even the gender I'm attracted to. I later came to realize that yes, I am capable of choosing to be happy in fundamentally unhappy circumstances, but that's no reason not to change my circumstances when I can. I still had a lot of my mom's cynicism about relationships, though, so honestly I'm lucky to have married someone who makes me as happy as my husband does. My requirements were basically someone I could get along with and who I was attracted to (I added a second requirement to the one I'd had the first time), so as the years progress and we get to know each other better, I'm delighted by each new way I discover that he is customized to specifications I didn't dare hope for. Life will never be perfect, but it turns out it can be pretty darn wonderful.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Invasion of the Imposters

Yesterday as my husband and I rode around in a tour bus, playing the role of tourists in a place I spent half my life, I realized there is a term for the relationship I’ve always had with Hawaii: imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is typically used in other contexts to describe successful people who secretly fear their success was not rightfully earned, and if they are not careful they will be exposed as a fraud. I didn’t do anything special to earn my status as a resident of Hawaii—I was just born here, and lived here for the first eighteen years of my life, when I had no say about where I live—but then neither did anyone else from Hawaii. Yet whenever I’m here, or whenever I talk about being from here with anyone who knows Hawaii, I’m constantly worried about being exposed as a fraud, that I’m not truly local like everyone else.

When I was twelve, I moved across town and transferred to a new middle school. On one of my first days, a teacher was talking about an upcoming field trip and explaining that we could either bring lunch from home or order a bento box. Because I was haole—white—she assumed I had moved not from another part of the island but from the mainland, so she paused, singled me out, and started to explain, “Ben, a bento box is a plate lunch in a to-go box, with—” Embarrassed to have all the other kids thinking I was from the mainland, I stopped her and reminded her that I had just moved from Hawaii Kai, so of course I knew what a bento box is. She laughed, apologized, and moved on.

The truth is, before that conversation I didn’t know what a bento box was. My ignorance probably came from a combination of two things: although I was born in Hawaii, my family had come from the mainland just a year before I was born, so our home wasn’t as saturated with local idioms, food, and culture as homes of families who’d been in Hawaii going back several generations; and we were poor, so it would have been pretty rare for us to go to a restaurant and buy a bento box rather than just packing peanut butter sandwiches in a paper bag. Whatever the case, I didn’t know it, and I felt like I should, and if people found out I didn’t then they’d know I was a fake local, just like they assumed from the moment they saw my pasty white skin.

Growing up white in Hawaii, it’s hard not to feel like an outsider. Everyone is hyper-conscious of race, whether it’s simply used as a descriptor (“You know that one Tongan guy, the really big one?”) or in jokes based on racial stereotypes (“You’re so stingy, why you gotta be so Chinese?”). Adults may mean it harmlessly, and they typically do, but children have a tendency to be cruel. In 10th grade P.E. class, one day a boy who was just a couple shades darker than me asked, “Why are you so white?” I joked, “Same reason you are,” and he immediately body-slammed me, knocking me to the ground. Later, he attacked me again in the locker room. In history class we’d learn about the atrocities committed by Europeans and Americans against the Hawaiian people—not to mention atrocities committed against Native Americans and Africans—and I felt all eyes in the room on me, blaming me for things done hundreds of years before I was born. Toward the end of high school, my friends nicknamed me Slappy White and White-White Boy, and I embraced it because I was tired of feeling like there was something wrong with me because of the color of my skin, and joking about it was the best way for me to own it.

A flip side of my imposter syndrome here is that I feel like a fraud talking about my childhood as if I were a victim of racism, when in fact I’m part of one of the most privileged classes in America, as a cisgender white man. There’s truth to this, because apart from a couple of bullies my life was never in danger, I had no barriers blocking me from education or career (being poor actually helped because it qualified me for Pell grants and scholarships), and changing my minority status was a simple matter of moving to any one of the other forty-nine states, which I did immediately after high school. But my experiences, mild as they may be in comparison to harsher ones, did have a psychological effect on me that extends beyond my feeling like a fake local in Hawaii. At work, I constantly fear my colleagues will figure out I don’t really know what I’m doing, or that I don’t work as hard as everyone else, or that I don’t really deserve my position. When friends make a joke I don’t get or a reference to current events that I’m unaware of, my immediate reaction is to laugh or smile and nod instead of asking them to explain.

At the end of the day, everyone has things they know and things they don’t know, regardless of where they grew up or how smart they are. I don’t need to pretend I know the way to that one beach all the locals know, or that I like poi, or that I talk Pidgin (I don’t). I am who I am, and that includes both my knowledge and my ignorance. If you’ll allow that of me, then I’ll return the favor. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Everyone's a Little Bit Sadist Sometimes: An Argument for Moderation (Most of the Time)

Last night I was chatting with a neighbor about politics, as one does, and we were lamenting the radical polarization of politics, also as one does. "What does it say about us,"  I asked, "that we keep electing these politicians who are so incapable of compromising with the other side?" And it's not just compromise; our politicians are incapable of having rational conversations with their opposites. If you look at political discourse on social media, it's not terribly surprising that these are the people we elect. We as a human race seem to take pleasure in ridiculing those we disagree with. Like, if I can just get one more jab in, you'll finally see how superior my point of view is--and therefore how superior I am. We all know how fruitless this effort is, but we engage anyway.

And yes, I mean we. I know I do it. If you can sincerely say that you don't take pleasure in mocking or arguing with people who are wrong, then my sincere kudos to you. You are more mature than I am. I like to think of myself as a moderate liberal, capable of engaging in productive conversations with people I disagree with, and sometimes I pull that off--the conversation with my right-of-center neighbor last night was quite friendly and I learned about his point of view--but a lot of times I don't. I tend to swing far left and become combative in certain trigger situations. These triggers include my hot-button topics, which for the most part are cases where I perceive people being hurt; especially when those people are part of the LGBTQ community, women, or people of color, all of whom I broadly think of as "my people," even though I can only claim membership in one of those groups (why I don't think of straight white men as my people despite being a white man and having several straight white male friends is a topic for me to explore another day). Other triggers that make me dig into my ideologies and become obstinate are when I'm engaging with an obstinate person from the other end of the spectrum, when I'm engaging with a stranger on social media so I have nothing to lose, when I feel attacked or threatened, when I'm grumpy for unrelated reasons, or when I just have a really good joke that happens to be at the expense of people I disagree with.

My perceived correlation between the political spectrum and niceness. An admittedly oversimplified view.
Generally speaking, I see a correlation between political moderation and niceness, and between political extremism and meanness. This is absolutely true of me: When I'm more moderate, I'm more willing to listen to other people, to speak respectfully and be nice. When my more extreme political views take over, that's when I get belligerent, sadistic, just plain mean. I'm making it sound like I believe the solution to all the world's problems is for everyone to be more moderate, and to a certain extent I believe that, but unfortunately it's not so simple. There are situations where it's not appropriate to be nice. When people are actually being hurt, sometimes the only way to make it stop is to dig your heels in and forcefully say NO. If someone's pointing a gun at my children, I'm not going to worry about hurting his feelings--or his body--as I do whatever it takes to stop him and protect my children. The difficult thing is identifying the threshold for those gray situations between "you're pointing a gun at my children" and "I disagree with your personal beliefs" at which point it becomes appropriate to set aside niceness.

The key, I suppose, is being honest with ourselves about our motivations. If I'm being a jerk just because my ego is threatened, because I'm hangry, or because I'm reverting back to that basic human tendency to take sadistic pleasure in being mean to others, then I'm part of the problem. If I'm being a jerk because it's legitimately the most effective way to stop someone from being hurt, then I will be that jerk. And maybe some problems take both the moderate approach and the more extreme approach. Both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X were fighting the same injustices, but the two fought in very different ways. I believe both were necessary. I'm going to work on being Martin whenever I can, and being Malcolm when I need to.

Sunday, June 25, 2017


Last night my husband and I watched To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar with some friends. I'd seen it before, but that was more than twenty years ago when I knew next to nothing about drag culture, trans culture, or gay culture, so it was fascinating to watch it again with a new perspective. It's such a great movie with such a great message, but I had a hard time getting past the way they blur the line between being a drag queen and being transgender. The lead characters, played fabulously by Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo, start out by explaining the difference more or less accurately:
Noxeema Jackson: When a straight man puts on a dress and gets his sexual kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man's body and has a little operation he is a Transsexual.
Miss Chi-Chi Rodriguez: I know that.
Noxeema Jackson: When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender he is a drag queen.
Vida Boheme: Thank you.
Noxeema Jackson: And when a tired little Latin boy puts on a dress, he is simply a boy in a dress!

But then the movie goes on to get one fundamental thing about drag queens wrong: The three leads are in drag for the entire movie, including while driving cross-country, while getting ready for bed, and while playing basketball. As Ms. Jackson notes above, drag queens are not women; they are gay men who dress as women. They transform into a character for a show or a performance, and then they go back to being a man for their everyday lives. They do not actually identify as women--if they did, they would be transwomen, not drag queens. So the movie got that wrong, but it got so much else right: the way both drag queens and transgender people are treated in our culture, the courage and confidence it takes to be yourself when society tells you that what you are is wrong, and the way that courage and confidence can inspire others to make the world a better place.

I've been thinking lately about how works of fiction are like constellations, and this movie is a great example. When our ancestors looked to the stars in the night sky, they connected those glowing dots to make great bears, heroes, gods, and monsters. The mythological creatures they saw in the sky weren't actually there, of course, and in fact the stars that make up each constellation are typically light years apart, with no real-world relation to each other. That said, if you were to conclude that because constellations are entirely made up, they're useless, you'd be wrong. Arranging the stars in constellations allowed our ancestors to better navigate the seas and to identify patterns in the sky that led to a better understanding of the universe and our place in it. In other words, we took individual truths--the stars themselves--then made up false connections between those truths in order to illuminate other truths.

Related image

Great fiction does the same. It doesn't matter whether a story is about drag queens, children competing in brutal survival games, or Amazon princesses; so long as the characters behave like real people would and the fictional world reflects fundamental truths of the real world, we can gain a greater understanding of humanity through those stories. Maybe we're making up the connections between the dots--and maybe sometimes those made-up connections are completely wrong--but if the dots themselves are real then the story will illuminate truth for us just as constellations lit the way for ancient sailors.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Writing With My Own Voice

Lately I have been spending a lot of time sending queries to literary agents, looking for someone to represent my work. This means I've been spending a lot of time reading agents' websites, particularly what they are and aren't interested in reading; it's a waste of time and shows a lack of professionalism to blindly send out queries without doing your homework first to find out whether the agent is interested in the type of book you're trying to sell. A common thread I see among many agents, particularly those who represent young adult literature, is a desire to find #OwnVoices authors, meaning authors who come from a minority class and write books with protagonists from that same minority. Many agents will tell you to put the #OwnVoices hashtag in the subject line of your query email, with the promise that they'll give your query higher priority.

I have conflicting feelings about this trend. On the one hand, I absolutely agree with the motivation behind it: all readers, but especially children, deserve to see themselves represented in literature, both by the characters and the authors. We've had hundreds of years of western literature primarily written by straight, white, cisgender men, and it's vital for the health of our pluralistic society to make room for other voices. On the other hand, I'm a white cisgender man and (a) I also have stories to tell, and (b) many of those stories I want to tell are about people who are different from me. Of the two books I'm trying to sell right now, one is about a Hispanic Mormon girl and the other is about a straight black boy with a speech impediment. The next book I'm anxious to write features a Native American trans lesbian as the protagonist. I struggle with questions of authenticity--I have legitimate fears that Hispanic, black, or Native people will read my books and say, "Who the hell are you to represent my identity?" I include a rather self-conscious line in one of my books where one black teen accuses another of talking as if he were speaking dialog written by a middle-aged white dude, because my usual response to discomfort is making a joke of the thing that makes me uncomfortable. At the same time, I don't want to be boxed into writing characters who are just like me. For me it's important that literature--whether I'm reading it or writing it--is as much a window as it is a mirror.

The real sting comes in the fact that I have a legitimate claim to minority status thanks to my sexual orientation, but I'm not capitalizing on it. As I mentioned last week, although I pretty much always include gay supporting characters, most of my protagonists are straight. Of the eight books I've written so far, only two have gay protagonists. This is partly because of what I was saying above, that writing characters who are different from me is important to me, but also, I think, because when I started most of these books ten to fifteen years ago, I was still in a place where I was figuring out what being gay meant to me. When I tried to write gay characters during that time, I found it extremely difficult because the subject was too raw to me--I didn't have enough distance to gain any perspective.

I'm in a better place now, though, and if writing gay characters will make me more marketable, then that's what I need to do. I'd feel cynical coming to this conclusion if it were really just about marketability, but it really isn't. Writing gay characters is very much in line with my personal mission as a writer, and I'm looking forward to exploring what it's like to be a gay teenager, now that I have some perspective. So I've decided the next book I polish and shop around to agents will feature a gay protagonist. I could polish up one of those two I've already written with gay protagonists, but neither of them is speaking to me at the moment. I could write a brand new book--honestly, I could claim #OwnVoices with the trans lesbian book I've been plotting, especially since her two best friends are a couple of gay Mormon boys--but it's important to me to polish up and sell the books I've already written, so that I don't end up spending my life writing rough drafts and never finishing anything. My husband suggested I just make the protagonist gay in one of the two books I'm shopping around now, and I considered it, but it doesn't feel right for either of those. But that made me think of the next book I was planning to revise, and making that protagonist gay works quite well. He already has a girlfriend and a gay best friend, so I just need to switch their relationships so that it's a boyfriend and a female best friend. And his coming out process will fit quite nicely with the existing themes of the book.

And if, at the end of the day, all those years of gay teenage angst pay off in making me a more marketable author, I won't complain. I deserve something for going through all that.

Friday, June 9, 2017

My Catalog

I don't love talking about writing. It feels so pretentious to talk about myself as an author when my publishing credits include only a handful of short stories, personal essays, and scholarly articles. I fear I come across as some delusional dreamer with an over-inflated sense of self-importance. One thing that separates me from the average Joe who calls himself a writer but hasn't actually written anything is that I have written quite a bit--I think more than most unpublished authors--but that claim begs evidence to back it up, and I despise talking about things I've written even more than talking about writing in general. My stories are so close to my heart, and attempting to sum them up in short taglines invites scrutiny that I'd rather avoid; I fear that no matter how good the actual book is, my attempt to describe it will just sound dumb.

That said, a necessary step toward becoming a published author is selling my work--to literary agents, publishers, and eventually readers. To do that I need to be able to describe it, to catch people's attention with a very short pitch. So, as an exercise in learning to sell myself, I give to you my catalog of unpublished novels (each is complete beginning-to-end, but some are more finished than others):

  • Temporal Integrity (2002- ). Sixteen-year-old sci-fi geek Mike learns that until a time travel accident massively damaged the timeline, he was actually in his twenties, married to a beautiful woman, and working alongside her as an agent of Temporal Integrity Maintenance and Enforcement, whose mission was to prevent just this type of disaster. Or, possibly, he's just crazy. 
    • This was the first novel that I finished. With that in mind, it wasn't great, but I loved the story enough to rewrite it from scratch in 2012, approaching it as a more experienced writer. This will be the next one I polish and shop around to literary agents. 
  • Don Quimby of BYU (2002-2006). College freshman Adonis Quimby becomes convinced that he has superpowers and drags his roommate, Santiago Pérez, along for his quixotic superhero misadventures. 
    • I wrote this with a Mormon audience in mind but had no luck with LDS publishers. I still think it's a fun book but I doubt I'll ever put in the effort to rewrite for a general audience. 
  • The Posthumous Adventures of Charles Dickens (2003-2005). The ghost of Charles Dickens visits his descendant, fourteen-year-old Joey Dickens, and dictates to him the sequel to one of his most beloved works: The Posthumous Adventures of David Copperfield. The book is good enough and Joey's claim about its authorship controversial enough to propel Joey toward fame, until Joey has to decide between claiming that fame for himself or standing by the truth he knows. 
    • This novel was my master's thesis for my creative writing degree, which means you can find a copy of it at the BYU Library
  • A Little More Than Kin (2004- ). While directing his high school's production of Hamlet, Rick Sorensen devises a plan to get revenge on his uncle-stepdad Hal for supplanting Rick's father at home, at church, and in the community. 
    • I haven't touched this one in ten years but I think it has potential so I'll likely return to it eventually. 
  • Xscape (2004-2017). Remy Johnson is the only powerless child of the Johnson Five, a family of teen superheroes who rose to fame three decades ago. When Remy's uncle J.J. is killed in action, Remy embarks on a quest, along with his superpowered cousins, to discover the truth behind J.J.'s death--and his life. Along the way, Remy will also uncover secrets about himself, and learn whether he has what it takes to be a hero, with or without powers. 
    • This is the book I most recently polished, and now I'm shopping it around. 
  • Sacred Fall (2005- ). While on a Boy Scout camping trip, Jacob gets lost in the mountains of north Oahu along with one of the Scout leaders--who Jacob happens to be in love with. 
    • Pretty much all my books have gay characters, but this is the only one so far with a gay protagonist. (EDIT: Ha ha, that's totally a lie. Kenji from Freerider and Boost below is also gay.) We'll see if I feel inspired to return to this unpolished draft after returning to Hawaii this summer for my high school reunion. 
  • To Zion: A Love Song (2006-2017). Dora Pérez wants nothing more than to sing on Broadway. When Dora’s little sister Toto stows away on her trip to New York, Dora gets swept off on a cross-country adventure in search of Olyvia Zion, a reclusive pop idol Dora’s never heard of, and before she knows it she’s part of a hip-hop/metal/folk fusion band and competing in a nationally-televised talent competition.
    • Recently polished and currently shopping around. Incidentally, Dora is the little sister of Santiago, one of the main characters in Don Quimby above. I like the idea of my books existing in a shared universe. 
  • Freerider and Boost: The Beginning of the End (2008-2010). After discovering an ability to telekinetically control--and talk with--his snowboard, Kenji Nakayama joins a cult of superheroes preparing for the end of the world. 
    • This is meant to be the first in a five-book series, my personal Harry Potter. After polishing it I shopped it around a bit, but gave up pretty quickly. I should probably try again, but feel like I should do another revision first, since I'm a different writer now than I was seven years ago. 
  • Alice's Restaurant (2017- ). This one doesn't belong on this list because I haven't written even a rough draft yet and I'm not ready to talk about the plot, but it's the first new concept I've been excited about in years. I've been plotting it for almost a year now and I'm anxious to dive in to writing something brand new, after focusing so much on revision lately.  
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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Raising Wonder Woman in Man's World, Redux

Wonder Woman opens in theaters this weekend and I'm excited for a number of reasons: Gal Gadot was the best part about Batman v. Superman, so an entire movie devoted to her sounds fantastic; early reviews suggest that the DC Cinematic Universe finally got one right on their fourth try; and this film leads us toward this fall's Justice League, which I've been waiting for since I was twelve. Above all, however, I'm excited for Wonder Woman because, nearly forty years after Richard Donner's Superman and nearly thirty years after Tim Burton's Batman, it's about damn time the boys stepped aside to let their female counterpart shine.

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I haven't always called myself a feminist, mostly because I wasn't sure I had a right to the title. I read Xavière Gauthier in college and applied her theories to feminist critiques of Batgirl comics and E.M. Forster novels, but in my mind I was an outsider borrowing ideas from someone else. When a feminist critic publicly attacked me for perceived misogyny in essays I published in 2005, I was flabbergasted because gender equality is a concept so deeply ingrained in my value system, but still in defending myself I didn't dare to call myself a feminist, for fear of being called out on my ignorance of the full body of feminist literature. I didn't understand at the time how diverse feminism is, or that not even the most educated feminists have read all the literature. 

I don't remember how or when, but eventually I came to realize that, despite the fact that I'm a man and despite the fact that I don't know everything that every feminist theorist has ever said, I can still be a feminist. To me, being a feminist means that I believe men and women should be treated equally, and that I recognize the many ways we are not treated equally. It means when I see injustice I speak out and do what I can to change it, even especially when that injustice favors me. It means I question the assumptions we as a society and I as an individual make about gender. 

At some point in my process of coming to identify as a feminist, I published an essay that I'm still quite proud of, "Raising Wonder Woman in Man's World." At the time I was in a mixed-orientation marriage and, ever since that feminist critic had attacked me five years earlier, questioning how my decision to marry heterosexually would be perceived by others, particularly my daughters. I was worried about inadvertently sending a pro-patriarchy message when that was the opposite of my intent, and concerned that my life was too enmeshed in patriarchy to successfully teach my daughters anything but. In the comics, Wonder Woman was raised on Paradise Island among the Amazons; how could I raise girls to be strong like her in my world of men? 

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THIS is not the version of Wonder Woman I wanted to raise.

Seven years later, I can't say that my home, headed by my husband and myself, is any less of a Man's World. We do our best to teach gender equality and oppose patriarchy, but at the end of the day it's two men calling the shots. Nonetheless, our daughters and our son seem to be doing pretty well when it comes to understanding the wide range of options available to them. The conclusion I came to in my essay still holds true: I do what I can, and where I fall short others step in. My children have a number of great female role models, between my ex-wife, my husband's ex-wife, aunts, grandmothers, school teachers, music teachers, dance teachers, church leaders, and friends. And now they have a kickass live-action Wonder Woman to look up to as well. We still have a long way to go, but today is a good day to be a feminist. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Lighting a Lantern for Mom

Last week on Mother's Day, I flew to Seattle for business. The business I was there for didn't actually start until Monday morning, so Sunday evening I visited my alma mater, the University of Washington, and walked from there to Green Lake. I walked around the lake, taking pictures of the gorgeous sunset. And then I happened upon something unusual: A group of four women releasing floating lanterns into the sky above the lake. It was such a beautiful sight, I couldn't help watching and taking photos. But then I felt creepy for photographing these people I don't know doing something that appeared to be some kind of intimate ceremony. So I approached them afterward, apologized for taking photos without permission, and offered to delete the photos and/or share them. The women gratefully accepted my offer to share the photos with them. They explained they had been sending the lanterns off in memory of their mother, who had passed recently. I told them that my mother had also passed recently, about a year ago, and they unexpectedly offered to let me light a lantern for my mom. I was touched by their willingness to share this experience with me, and thankful for the opportunity to participate.

As I watched the lantern float away into the sky, I thought happy thoughts about my mom and imagined those positive feelings going out into the world, my mom making the world a slightly better place through me and others she touched for good. I remembered laughing with her, I remembered how she worked hard as a waitress and single mother to support me and my siblings, I remembered how she gave me her love for learning and for music.

After I thanked the women and started walking away, another take on the experience occurred to me: Sending that lantern into the sky could just as easily be symbolic of me letting go of the more negative effects of my relationship with my mother. I won't detail my mom's shortcomings here because that's not my purpose, but I will say that in many ways she was not emotionally equipped to raise children. I believe she did the best with what she had, but I have spent much of my adult life realizing how abnormal and deficient my childhood was, and how unhealthy my relationship with her was. My life can be split into three parts: The first eighteen years I spent unable to distinguish my mom's emotional needs from my own, the next eighteen years I spent slowly separating myself from her emotionally, and now since she passed I finally feel free to be myself completely, with my own needs and all. In the past year I have come into my own more than I ever managed to before. From that perspective, letting that lantern fly away was cathartic, like releasing the baggage that my mom left me with.

I am not ungrateful for all my mom did for me and all she gave me. I love her and I miss her. I also feel relieved to be free of the more difficult aspects of our relationship. No human relationship is all good or all bad. Perhaps the contrast between the good and the bad in my relationship with my mother is more stark than in most. Regardless, it was nice to say goodbye to Mom--both the good parts and the bad parts--one more time. She is part of who I am, and now more than ever I'm happy with the person I've become.

Thursday, May 11, 2017


Recently, my husband and I have become connoisseurs of quality music videos. At least that's what I tell myself to feel better about how much time we waste on YouTube. Sometimes we feel like watching something but don't want to commit to a full-length movie or even a TV episode, so we've been building a playlist of music videos that we enjoy watching over and over. Randon has even written a computer program that downloads new videos as we add them to our list, so that we can watch them offline and without ads (and without paying a premium for ad-free viewing). The list is about half Mika videos, with the other half from a variety of artists ranging from Janelle Monae to Pentatonix to Scissor Sisters to OK Go. The best videos have great music, of course, but they typically also have visual appeal, make an interesting point, or tell a good story.

Take, for example, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's "Same Love." We have several Macklemore videos on the list because most are hilarious, but this one has a different appeal. Or, I should say, different appeals, plural. The song itself sounds great, between Ryan Lewis's masterful production, Macklemore's smooth rapping, and Mary Lambert's beautiful chorus. The lyrics argue for gay rights and marriage equality, which makes the song personally meaningful for me. The video tells the story of a gay man from birth to death, including his difficult coming out process and his joyful wedding, which is a story I can relate to. And to top it off, the cinematography is top-notch, with nearly every shot a delight to view.

The other day we were watching Adele's "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)." We've watched the video before with friends and have discussed what a technical feat it is--for the choreographer to come up with multiple dances that look good when overlaid on top of each other, and for Adele to learn those multiple, similar-but-not-quite-the-same dances well enough to pull it off. And whoever chose that dress knew what they were doing; the intricate design adds a complexity to the overlaid images that makes it even more fascinating to watch. So as we were watching the video the other day and I was thinking of these conversations we've had about the technique behind it, I thought, "It's a shame most people who watch this don't realize what must have gone into making it." And then I immediately thought, "That's stupid. In the first place, it's pretentious to assume that I, with no training in choreography or cinematography, am capable of understanding anything 'most people' wouldn't, and in the second place whether or not you are conscious of the effort that went into making great art, you can still appreciate the end result."

That's the thing about great art--it appeals to many different people because it has multiple layers of appeal. When I was a library science student at the University of Washington, I took a class from Nancy Pearl where she talked about the different ways books appeal to readers: through plot, character, setting, and language. Her point was that different books have different appeals--some have strong characters, some have beautiful language--and so we can find books people will enjoy by understanding what appeals to that particular reader. As I thought about it, though, I realized that the books with the widest appeal are strong in all four aspects. The Harry Potter series, for example, has a captivating plot, memorable characters, unique settings, and clever language. Some would argue that popular literature is a very different thing from good literature, and I agree that the two are not necessarily the same thing, but I would also argue that the two are not mutually exclusive.

As far as I'm concerned, the best art appeals to the masses as well as to us snobs who are interested in the craft behind the art, in uncovering deeper layers of meaning. As an artist, my goal is to communicate. If I can appeal to different types of readers in multiple ways, then I am simply using multiple frequencies to broadcast my message. Whether you are listening with AM radio, FM radio, or broadband internet, if I connect with you on your personal frequency then I've succeeded.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017


It took me two years in this house before I started painting it to make it my own. It took me thirty-seven years in this body. For much of my life I had no interest in tattoos, but in the past year or so I've become more and more intrigued by the idea of transforming my body into a canvas for my art. It wasn't until this past February that I came up with a design that I wanted to put on my body, and then I waited three months to be sure this wasn't a passing whim. I now have two tattoos and I love them.

As I thought about what kind of tattoos I'd be interested in, I knew that the design had to be my own--I wasn't going to point at someone else's tattoo and say, "I want one of those." The whole point of it for me is artistic expression. I also knew I wanted something bright and colorful. Most importantly, whatever I put on my body needed to have meaning.

I came up with a pair of complementary tattoos for my two shoulders:

On the left shoulder I have the Justice League. More specifically, I have the Justice League shield with the emblems of what I consider to be the most iconic members of the League: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and Green Arrow. There are few things so intrinsic to my core identity as my love for superheroes. I realized last week that April was the 25th anniversary of my first superhero comic, so I was happy to get this first tattoo done before the month ended. Originally I drew the design in Paint just as a mockup, but I decided I really liked the imperfectly-proportioned, assymetrical, cartoony look. To me that captures the fun, youthful energy I was going for--I didn't want a tattoo that took itself too seriously or looked like I was trying to be a badass. The color palette was also important to me; I went with magenta instead of red in Superman's shield because I wanted bright pastels, and I chose purple for Hawkman's emblem even though it's traditionally red because I wanted all the colors of the rainbow. It's my way of showing gay pride without something as obvious as a rainbow flag or an equality sign (although I considered both).

On the right shoulder I have a heart-shaped, rainbow-colored globe. Again, I went for cartoony rather than realistic, and kept the same color palette as the other shoulder. The globe represents my love of travel; as I travel to new countries and continents over the course of my life, I plan to add dots to those locations in the tattoo. The heart shape is a cheesy reference to global unity, peace, love, granola, all that. The seven continents also remind me of the seven most important people in my life: my husband, our five kids, and myself. I intentionally included myself there because sometimes I need a reminder to love myself and to value myself as much as I value others, so now I will have that reminder every time I look in the mirror.

I couldn't be more pleased with the work Chris Corvi at My Pride Tattoo did. He took my design, stayed true to my vision, and improved on it. I love the shadows and the gleam he added to the blue backgrounds--both were elements I'd crudely represented in my mockup, and he made them look fantastic. I love that I have art on my body now. I'm already starting to think of what I'll do next.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Batman and Me

Twenty-five years ago I bought my first superhero comic book. The cover date was April 1992, which means it was actually published in February 1992, for reasons that are unclear to me, but I'm going to go ahead and call April 2017 my 25-year superhero anniversary. The book was Batman 476, and the cover featured Batman revealing his secret identity (gasp!) to Vicki Vale.

I was twelve. I had always loved Batman, whether on reruns of the 1966 Adam West TV series or on Super Friends. When I was little I'd had pajamas featuring Batman and Robin, and another set featuring Superman. My older sister had made me a reversible cape that was Batman on one side and Superman on the other. When the Michael Keaton movie came out in 1989, I got special permission from my mom to see it even though it was rated PG-13 and I was only nine. That movie kicked off a renewed phase of Batmania in American culture, and I loved that it transformed a beloved character from my early childhood into a kickass character my pre-adolescent self could appreciate.

I don't remember what inspired me to pick up that Batman comic. I know I was fascinated by the cover of this particular issue because of the seemingly seminal moment it portrayed; was I getting in on Batman comics just as he was going to reveal his most guarded secret to the woman he loved? As it turned out, no, I wasn't--the story shows Batman imagining what it would be like to reveal his secret identity, but he doesn't actually get around to doing it.

Despite the mild disappointment of the cover fake-out, I was hooked. The gorgeous art by Norm Breyfogle portrayed a sexy, muscular, dynamic Batman. He wore the familiar blue and gray colors that recalled the campier Batman of my young childhood—as opposed to Michael Keaton’s black rubber suit—but Breyfogle made that costume look cool with its long bat ears, pupil-less white eyes, and skintight fit over an athletic physique. Breyfogle remains my favorite Batman artist to this day. The story itself, written by Alan Grant, was dramatic and exciting in a way that connected with me, even though it was the final part of a multi-part story. The story felt very grown up to me, compared to the Batman of my early childhood, and that made me feel grown up. Like Breyfogle, Grant also became one of my favorites.

Batman was a gateway drug for me. From there I quickly branched out to the Justice League, the Teen Titans, and every other DC character I could afford to follow with my meager teenage income. I loved the brightly-colored costumes (shocking, I know) and the perfect male physiques (also shocking), but more than anything I loved that these characters had fifty years of history behind them, and that history was continuing to unfold in a shared universe. You never knew when a Batman story might reference a Superman story from a decade prior. I spent the rest of my adolescence digging through back issue bins to fill in the gaps of that history that I couldn’t fill in at the library. I spent lunch recesses in the school library, reading and rereading the few collections they had there. I took frequent bus rides to the state library to check out their collections, as well as a superhero encyclopedia I checked out so many times I may as well have owned it.

I could psychoanalyze my reasons for diving so deeply into the world of superheroes. The universe these characters shared was a fantasy I could fully immerse myself in when the real world sucked—as it did for me through much of my teenage years. The characters became friends I could connect with at times that I was afraid to connect with real people. One of the primary conceits of the genre, the secret identity, was something a deeply closeted gay Mormon kid could relate to. And so long as I was unwilling to let myself fall in love with real men, being in love with fictional characters was a safe outlet. (One of my sisters once expressed concern that I was attracted to men because all those scantily-clad, large-breasted women in my comic books had desensitized me to female beauty. All I could think was, Do superheroines have large breasts? I hadn’t noticed.)

(Yes. Yes they do.)
Honestly, I don’t know why I fell in love with superhero comics, and I don’t know that it matters. I’ve been following these characters through twenty-five years of ongoing stories. I’ve seen favorite characters die and come back to life, grow old then get retconned young again, get married and unmarried and married again, and have children who’ve grown into new favorite characters. I’ve been through three Robins in my comics-reading life and have gotten to know three others through the back issue bins. I always thought I’d eventually grow out of this thing, but twenty-five years later that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it’s just that my reasons have changed—as a teen the stories made me feel grown up, but as an adult they make me feel young again.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Chasing Immortality

Last night I finally watched Passengers, which I'd been meaning to see for months, because Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Honestly, I could have watched those two talk to each other for two hours and I would have been fine--have two more likable people ever existed?--but it turns out the movie itself is pretty great too. If you haven't seen it and don't mind spoilers, the premise is that two people have woken up too early on a 100+ year interstellar flight where everyone is supposed to be in suspended animation. There's no way for them to go back into hibernation, so basically they're going to die on this spaceship while all the other passengers and crew continue sleeping.

I particularly identified with Lawrence's character, Aurora Lane. Aurora is a writer planning a round trip so that she can return to Earth a couple hundred years in the future, the first writer to go to the colony worlds, come back, and write about the experience. Except now she's woken up early so that's not going to happen. So what does she do? She writes. She documents this horrible experience of being alone with a stranger on a spaceship full of sleeping people. As I watched this, I wanted to shout, "Yes, she gets it! Writing makes you immortal!"

There are a lot of reasons to write, I suppose, but as I've examined myself recently I've realized that it all comes down to my massive ego. I believe that what I have to say is so interesting, so important that not only will people besides my immediate relatives want to read it, but people who haven't even been born yet will want to read it. Not only will they want to read it, but the world will be a better place for generations to come if I can just get these amazing, wonderful, earth-shattering ideas out where people can read them.

The urgency of this need to speak to future generations has grown significantly since I stopped believing in an afterlife. I am quite honestly terrified of ceasing to exist. I wish I did believe in heaven, because living forever sounds nice, but I simply don't see the evidence to support that theory. This life is all I've got, so I am going to do everything I can to make my mark while I'm here. And what better way to achieve immortality than by writing, so I can live on through my words?

As much as I humor my ego with these grandiose plans and beliefs about my own importance, though, part of me still recognizes that dead is dead, published writer or not. William Shakespeare, Vincent Van Gogh, and Michael Jackson are not any less dead than an unidentified John Doe in the morgue. So at the same time that I plan for the inevitable future, I try to stay grounded in the present. If this life is all I've got, then I'm going to live it well, to enjoy this short time I have with my family and friends, and, if nothing else, have a positive impact on those close to me. Mika expresses this idea beautifully in "Last Party," his tribute to Freddie Mercury:

If it’s the end of the world let’s party
Like it’s the end of the world let’s party
Wrap your arms around everybody
If we’re all gonna die let’s party

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Velvet Fish

My husband likes to point out that fish is one of the few foods where the best thing you can say about it is that it doesn’t taste too much like what it is. “Give this a try,” people will say, “it doesn’t taste very fishy at all.” No one says, “Try this steak; it’s not very steaky,” or “Mmm, this pork isn’t porky at all!” If fish were good, my husband argues, then having a fishy taste would be a good thing, not a bad thing. While I enjoy fish quite a bit more than my husband does, I have to acknowledge he makes a valid point.

Exhibit A

A lot of people, straight and gay, treat being gay like being fishy. “He’s gay,” a well-meaning straight person might say, “but he’s not one of those flaming, in-your-face gays. He’s just a normal guy.” You can blame it on homophobia, but the truth is that gay men do this as much as anyone. No one is more guilty of worshipping masculinity and devaluing femininity than gay men. “Does he have to talk like that? Does he have to walk like that? It’s limp-wristed, lisping fags like him that make the rest of us look bad.” Is there an acceptable range of variation from straight masculinity beyond which we’re too gay?

I recently started listening to the audiobook of The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Downs. In the book, Downs questions why so many gay men are obsessed with fashion, decoration, and all things fabulous. Is there a gay creativity gene? Downs postulates that these over-the-top self-expressions are making up for years of deep-seated shame from growing up in a world that invalidated a core part of who we are. Most of us have overcome the belief that being gay makes us broken, but there still remains a deeply entrenched belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. So we attempt to drown out the shame with sex, with drugs and alcohol, with having perfect bodies, beautiful homes, successful careers. We hide the shame behind a façade of fabulousness.

Exhibit B

Appropriately enough, I started listening to The Velvet Rage while painting my kitchen in bright pink, yellow, and aqua. The juxtaposition of thought-provoking audiobook and on-the-nose home decoration activity certainly made me question my motivations. While working with a therapist through some unresolved childhood issues recently, I discovered within me that shame Downs is talking about: a belief that at my core I am flawed, unlovable, wrong. Maybe my recent obsession with decorating my home and body in bold, bright colors is an attempt to cover up that shame, but I think it’s more about moving beyond the shame. For me it’s about reclaiming an identity that I spent years trying to hide. Pretending to be straight was exhausting and now I don’t have to pretend anymore; what better way to celebrate than by embracing the fabulous? That doesn’t mean I’m going to adopt stereotypical gay mannerisms or hobbies just for the sake of proving I’m gay. It means I’m going to be 150% me and I’m not going to apologize for it. And I sure as hell am not going to criticize other gay men who do the same—whether for them that means being a glamour queen draped in pink feather boas, a leather-clad muscle daddy, or a nerdy computer guy who couldn’t care less about fashion or home decor.

Thankfully, I’m surrounded by people who get this. When one of my best friends and I were discussing my newly-painted kitchen the other day and she said jokingly, “Well, it is kind of gay,” she couldn’t have given me a higher compliment. Yes, it is kind of gay, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Alternate Realities

Sometimes I feel like I wasted my twenties. In high school and into college I had serious aspirations of writing and publishing. I majored in English, got a master's in creative writing, won contests, published in small literary journals, briefly considered moving to New York and doing an editing internship just to get a foot in the door of the publishing world, but somewhere along the way I got sidetracked by real life. I married young--a woman, because that's what my church told me was the only viable option--and we started a family not long after that. With a wife and kids to support, practical concerns took precedence over lofty dreams. I needed a real job that paid real money, so I went back to school to get a more practical degree, and then I landed in my current job. It's a great job that pays well, treats me well, gives me the flexibility to be actively involved in parenting my kids, and I'm very good at what I do. For the most part, I enjoy the job--the work we do is interesting, and I love the people I work with. And yet here I am, 37, just barely trying to launch a writing career that I put on hold more than a decade ago. Isn't this what I told myself I'd do in my twenties?

The reality is that very few people have a writing career. Many people write, a few publish, and a very small fraction of those people make enough money to call it a career. For most, writing is a hobby, at most a side job. The frustrating thing for me now is that my husband makes more than enough to support us; in an alternate reality where I married him first, maybe I'd be a stay-at-home dad who writes while the kids are at school, and any publishing success I have would be extra income, not essential. Maybe I would have gotten a jump-start on my writing career ten years ago if I hadn't felt the need to be the family's bread-winner. But in this reality, I did feel that need ten years ago, and now my husband and I both have ex-wives and kids to support, which means both our incomes are essential.

Another part of me recognizes this is all first-world, upper-middle class, white male privileged whining. Many, many couples both work multiple jobs just to support their single family household, leaving little time for a hobby that maybe one day could possibly turn into secondary income. Many, many women put their dreams on hold in order to raise a family, and end up starting their career of choice ten, fifteen, or twenty years later than their male counterparts. To the extent that I can as a man, I identify with those women who felt pressured to fill a role that perhaps wasn't exactly what they would have wanted for themselves.

At the same time, I also identify with those women who are grateful for the good that has come from their choices, whether or not they would make those same choices again. I love my kids; in that alternate reality where I married a man the first time, I have no doubt that we would have had kids and loved them just as much, but we wouldn't have had these kids. I am grateful for ten years of memories with a great friend who continues to be a wonderful mother to our children. I am lucky to have the job I do, with all its benefits, financial and otherwise. And I'm privileged to be in a place now where I can focus on my writing again, even if it's just a stolen hour here and there--it's more than many have. So I'll give myself a minute to mourn lost opportunities and imaginary alternate realities, then plant myself firmly in the pretty fantastic reality I've got, and forge ahead.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

On Being Both Beauty and The Beast

My ex-wife recently wrote a beautiful blog post about how Disney's Belle was a hero for her as a socially awkward, bookish teenager who felt she had no sex appeal to boys--she saw in Belle a message that a girl's value could be in other things besides her looks. I'm glad that Belle exists for this reason, and I'm glad that my daughters (and my son) are growing up in a world where there are a lot of female protagonists in pop culture who display other admirable traits besides physical beauty: Hermione's intelligence, Rey's courage, Katniss's don't-mess-with-me attitude.

I'm also glad that Emma Watson, who so beautifully portrays Belle's bookish bravery, is not afraid to embrace her own sex appeal. Looking at Belle from the perspective of my ex-wife's essay, I can understand why some feminists are upset at Emma Watson "betraying" hers and Belle's ideals to appear in a sexualized photo shoot in Vanity Fair*. Even though I can understand this argument, I solidly side with those other feminists who support Watson's right to use her body as she pleases.

I didn't understand this issue until a few years ago. For much of my life, especially when I was a gay man trying to make a straight marriage work, I devalued sexuality. I insisted that my love for my wife was purer because it was non-sexual--my feelings for her weren't clouded with any desire to objectify her. Why would anybody want to be objectified by their significant other, I wondered? I felt very progressive and feminist in this belief.

And then I got divorced and started dating men, and I discovered what it was to be objectified. In those first few months of going on dates, clubbing, and going to parties with gay men, I learned for the first time that I'm a decently attractive guy. I had never found myself attractive, so when men told me how young I looked and complimented me on my looks, I was pleasantly surprised. I liked it enough that I started working harder to cultivate my looks--working out every day, having fun with various hairstyles and colors, buying tighter-fitting clothes. The first time I wore a skimpy European-style swimsuit, I was self-conscious about wearing it, but showing off the body I'd worked so hard to improve was thrilling. My body ain't perfect and it never will be, but I love it and I enjoy putting it on display.

I love that my husband finds me sexy, and I love that I find him sexy. He objectifies me and I objectify him, and it works because it's our choice and it's mutually consensual. Physical attraction doesn't distract from the emotional and intellectual aspects of our relationship; it complements and enriches them. Some people want to preserve that experience of objectification for their significant other, some don't want it all. I support their right and would fight to defend it. But I will also fight to defend the right of those, like Emma Watson, who choose to enjoy being the object of strangers' physical attraction. It's okay to be both Beauty and the Beast.

*Disclaimer: I'm not making any claims about my ex-wife's feelings on this particular issue; her essay doesn't address the issue and I haven't asked her, so I can't speak on her behalf.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Where Have All The Good Guys Gone?

You know what keeps me up at night? This. This song is what keeps me up at night, aching to do more, to be more.

Mika’s “Good Guys” is at once an homage to the queer creative geniuses of the past—Alfred Kinsey, Cole Porter, David Bowie—and a call to action for the queer creative geniuses of tomorrow. Mika looks to the bold flamboyance of Warhol, the peculiar wit of Wilde, the eloquent masculinity of Whitman, then looks to the heterocentric creative landscape around him today and asks, “Where have all the gay guys gone?”

The music video’s choreography emphasizes the debt Mika owes to his gay predecessors, as every step he takes is literally made possible by the supporting dancers lifting his feet. When Mika is shown in a prison cell, recalling the horrendous fate of Oscar Wilde, from whom Mika borrowed the chorus of the song, I can’t help but feel that debt myself; the privilege I enjoy, living my upper middle class life as an out gay man with a husband and five kids, is only possible because of the queer pioneers who went before me, many giving their lives for my freedom. A hundred, fifty, twenty, even ten years ago I could not have lived the life I live today. The weight of this realization overwhelms me.

This is where Mika’s call to action comes into play: How can I, a privileged gay man with means and talent, take this beautiful gift that has been given to me and not use my means and talent to pass that gift on to the next generation? How can I not answer Mika’s question by standing up and shouting, “Here I am! I will be one of the good guys!”

Living in super-conservative Utah Valley, I am all too aware of the lack of positive LGBT role models for queer youth around me. I do my best to be visible in my community as an out gay man, volunteering at my kids' schools. I need to do more. I need to take the talent and means I have and use those to create something that will inspire generations to come. We may all be in the gutters, as Wilde and Mika remind me, but I will be one of those looking up at the stars.