Monday, December 30, 2013


Twenty-two years ago I stepped inside a classroom at a university that I hadn't had the intention of attending. Shy, insecure, and uncertain as to who I was or wanted to be, I was counting the days until I had enough cash saved to disappear back to South America. Experience had taught me that foreign languages and cultures served to bridge social gaps for me; they hid insecurities and squelched inhibitions that had plagued me since childhood. I had been more comfortable in South America than I ever had in the States, a comfort that was drawing me back there. Besides, I felt pre-destined to marry a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, something of which there was no shortage below the equator.

There I sat in class, mourning my latitude, when in walked a young blonde coed. She was happy, she was confident, and she was late; I hated her before her butt was hidden from my view. I was at once convinced that she had been sent by God to mock me. 

I didn't spend a lot of time in that class, but when I did attend she wasn't there. We passed each other a couple of times on campus, and each time she was too busy with being popular to pay me any attention, while I did my best to look straight ahead, indifferent to her cheerleader good looks and ill-deserved social status. I was angry at her without even knowing her name, because for me she represented everything wrong with high school, everything I was hoping to leave behind come the end of summer.

The school year ended, and I spent most of my waking hours working with my two younger brothers at a frozen yogurt stand down on the boardwalk. I hated the meat market atmosphere of the beach as much as my brothers did, and we entertained ourselves by poking fun at the customers, most of them ordering their yogurt with "wicked" harsh accents and no concept of tipping. The girls dressed, spoke, and acted like daytime hookers, while the boys wore long denim shorts and baseball caps twisted sideways, walking bare-chested in the streets with live snakes around their necks.

I carried a portable typewriter with me in those days, thinking that I might at any moment begin to peck out a short story or a novella worth the time and effort that it would take me to finish it. I worked the rainy days alone, since no one seemed to want to eat frozen yogurt under the grey summer skies of New Hampshire.

It wasn't raining that night, but I was alone anyway. I sat at the counter, ticking away on that portable typewriter, but it wasn't a story I was writing. It was a letter to a dark-haired, dark-eyed, beautiful Latin girl whose face I couldn't pry loose from my memory. I was promising to pay South America a visit at the end of summer, a visit that I hoped would turn into a residency.

"Hi!" The sound of her voice startled me, then rippled through every one of my senses.

I looked up to see that young blonde coed with cheerleader good looks and ill-deserved popularity standing on the customer side of the counter. She was wearing a red tee shirt that brought out the pink in her cheeks.

My mouth followed suit with my eyes, widening in surprise mixed with fear. It took me a moment to respond, and a conversation that I don't fully recall ensued. I don't recall what we talked about, other than the fact that it was a short, sweet, and light conversation. I do remember that as she spoke she smiled, and that I couldn't help but marvel at her kindness. She was not the least bit frightening.

A few nights later, however, I saw her with another man. A man wearing blue jeans, loafers, and a white belt. A white belt on a date. At the beach.

"Matthew, if she'll go out with him, she'll definitely go out with you!" My brothers encouraged.

She sauntered over to the yogurt stand in the middle of her date, leaving Mr. White Belt across the boardwalk at the Taco Hut, where I hoped he was ordering something spicy and disastrous. I held my breath and lost my cool as she walked over.

"Hey, how's your date going?" I asked in a blur of words, each one of them dipped in the hot salsa of mockery.

"Look, I had nothing else to do tonight," she said, and made to walk away.

I took a step back, feeling stupid, my future in South America looking that much more certain.

But she wasn't finished. She spun around and came halfway over the counter, her face as close to mine as the laws of space, time, matter, and physics would allow.

"Besides," she said in a loud voice, "no one else asked me!" Her face was alight with that disarming smile, and her normally pink cheeks flushed red.

Ever the numb and the void when it came to witty retorts to words spoken by pretty girls, I stood there and watched as she turned around and made her way back to Mr. White Belt.

"Matthew..." my brothers chimed together, their own mouths open in disbelief.

"You think?" I mewed, doubt backfilling the space she had left behind.

"Think? I know!" Jared almost shouted. (God bless that kid.)

It took some time, a lot of courage, and a little sister physically pushing me down the boardwalk to the little shop where the blonde with cheerleader good looks worked, but I did eventually ask Elizabeth out on a date.

We went to the aquarium in Boston. She drove her dad's minivan, keeping her right hand on the wheel and her left foot on the dash. The rip in her jeans let the soft skin of her knee show through.

Less than a year after I hated her, I married her. Forever.

Today makes twenty-one years. Blackjack. The house odds were stacked against us, and there were times when we both wanted to walk away, and time when we both wanted to run. But we didn't.

The rest is our history. It's rocky, sharp, and fevered, but also funny, romantic, passionate, and crazy. I'll write it all down one day when the kids are older and can understand what love is, and can forgive their parents for everything they did to each other. And then love them even more for sticking it out.

Maybe I'll use a portable typewriter.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hand Me Ups and Downs

Headline: "Severed hand kept alive on man's ankle"

While I am fascinated, impressed, and even frightened by this news story, I can't help but think of the everyday applications. Let's start with how much easier it would be to scratch your foot if your hand was already down there, and then we’ll move on to the obvious places that need discreet attention at inopportune moments throughout the day. I am pretty certain that if there were a hand growing out of your face, no one would notice should you pick your nose, because they would be distracted by the fact that there is a hand growing out of your face. This leads of course, to the butt; a strategically located hand would allow covert scratching at any time, say for example, in church, while receiving an award, standing in a wedding reception line, or being arrested on network television.

I could go there, and I will: an extra hand grafted to the groin. Think about it: men around the world would finally be able to slump on the couch and watch football without their wives telling them to pull their hand out of their pants. But honey, if you want my hand out of my pants, I’m going to have to take my pants off!

Additional areas of life that would change dramatically, where having extra hands grafted onto the body become an elective surgery (eventually covered by Obamacare, of course).

Sex! (I leave the rest of that one up to your own imagination/perversion, only because my thoughts are too many to insert here.)

Not only would this change the way we scratch and screw, but it would also affect the way we play sports. Goalkeepers would choose to have hands grafted onto their shoulders, waists, and thighs to increase their stopping ability. Wide receivers playing American football would attach hands to their hands, increasing their chances at catching and hanging on to the ball, while running backs would move their hands down to their groin area, preventing defensive players from stripping the ball away (because no one wants to be seen groping another man’s privates out on the gridiron). Fencing, with the addition of extra foils (and the potential for blood), would become the most watched sport during the Summer Olympics, while wrestling would be banned for the disturbing and non-consensual holds that would occur out on the mat.

The guy from Cheap Trick would finally be able to play that double-necked guitar he has been carrying around all these years.

The criminal system would spawn the stuff of Kafka stories, as judges would begin to sentence criminals to hand-relocation surgeries. Thieves would have their hands put high up on their shoulder blades, rendering them all but useless in the practice of their craft. Empty the cash register and stuff the money into my fanny-pack or I’ll shoot in your general direction! Those found guilty of assault would be sentenced to have their hands attached to the sides of their head, making the throwing of a decent punch impossible, and if stubborn or angry enough to try, they would only cause themselves serious neck injuries. Anyone found guilty of a sex crime would have their hands grafted to their buttocks, which would seem like a reward for a few minutes, until their hands fell asleep and the realization that they will be sitting on numb, sensory-deprived hands for the rest of their lives set in.

Bi-Polar parenting would enter a new phase, as crazy parents would begin to spank and hug their children at the same time. This may be offset, however, by the fact that parents would be able to document their children’s lives in HD while actually participating in them at the same time.

Political speeches would be outlawed as a safety precaution, after several Howard Dean “yaw!” like moments ended in concussion. Politicians would also find it easier to plunder taxpayers, however, not just because they would be able to shake constituents hands while simultaneously pick-pocketing them, but because they would be able to cross their extra fingers behind their backs while promising lower taxes and financial security if voted into office. Bill Clinton’s extra hand would wipe away a single tear that threatens to drop down to his bottom (and bitten) lip as he shakes his head and wonders at what it would have been like to serve as both full-time President and pervert at the same time, Barbara Bush would come home to the ranch after shopping and find George in the living room, waving an extra pair of “thumbs up” high into the air, a paper banner with the words “Mission Accomplished” scrawled across it in crayon hanging above him.

Clapping would have to be banned due to the high number of burst eardrums at concerts, theaters, and elementary school plays.

Clothing designers would enjoy an influx of business for the first several months of hand-grafting, due to the demand for extra-hand accommodating fashions, but in time the stress of constant work under such demanding conditions would send them spiraling into depression. Worldwide charitable donations would flood in, providing each designer with an extra hand that would pat them on the back and bolster their self-worth enough to get them designing again.

All in all, the world would be a better place with extra hands. There would be so many hands, enough to make light work of the world’s issues. Homelessness would end (more hands for building), hunger would become a distant memory (so many hands for planting crops), and confident high-tens would replace awkward, limp, clammy handshakes between world leaders, essentially ending war.

Of course, we will have to be careful. With extra hands will come extra responsibility; just because we can does not mean that we should play with our phones while driving But Officer, I had two hands on the wheel!

Until, of course, the day comes that science Apple develops the iGraft, giving us four eyes; two for driving and two for texting.

Monday, December 16, 2013

It Amazes Me

I saw an online article about John Denver's upcoming birthday (it would have been his 70th) and a dam burst somewhere inside of me, setting free a torrent of memories. This piece will be written without respect for continuity, because that's the way memories flow.

It amazes me.

My first memories of music are of John Denver’s “Back Home Again.” I was only four years old, but I remember. Mom would slide the album out of its sleeve, drop it on to the turntable, and slip the massive headphones over my ears as the music began. The rhythmic strumming of the title track would transport me to the cab of a big rig out on the open road, where I would ride alongside its driver, eager as he was to get back home to his wife, the light in her eyes, and supper on the stove. A montage of love and family would dance through my head as John sang of what it meant to return to the one you loved in the place you called home.

“Back Home Again” took me home, but “On The Road” drove me back out onto that lonesome highway, with my own father at the wheel of an old Mercury V8. It was just the two of us against the world, following the open road, searching for imagined love in the shape of a girl at a truck cafĂ©. In a family of nine there were few moments that I spent alone in the car with my father, so I had to rely on John to provide me the setting for what I believed would be the greatest road trip I’d never take.

“Grandma’s Feather Bed” was always a fun break from sentiment, with its silly suggestion that it took the feathers of forty ‘leven geese to make it, and that it would hold eight kids, four hound dogs, and a piggy stolen from the shed. The images of laughing cousins, dozing beside the fireplace, and waking up in a giant heavenly bed still linger with me today.

My name is Matthew, and so is one of my favorite John Denver songs. It never fails to evoke memories that I have never lived, paint my mind’s canvas with landscapes that must be experienced, and promise reward in a lifestyle full of challenges that few can fathom. To be like Matthew would be to live a life worthy of a standing-room-only funeral. My father quoted the song when speaking to an audience about me when I was about to leave home for the first time at the age of nineteen. About to serve a two year mission in Paraguay, I was unsure of myself, frightened by all the uncertainty that lay ahead. To hear my dad say that I was made of joy was a rare moment in my life; hearing him suggest that I was something he could be proud of is something I have not forgotten. Indeed, the thought of it carried me through some rough moments over the following two years as I served others, and I was able to find joy in some of my darkest hours in a foreign land.

But the memories don’t end with the songs from “Back Home Again.”

The album “Poems, Prayers, and Promises” can be credited in great part for my propensity to think deeply at a constant clip, more often than not to a fault. As a young boy I hadn’t yet experienced most of what John was singing about, and so my mind was forced to stretch itself in order to grasp how sweet it is to love someone, to the point that their tears belong to you. My maternal grandmother was a member of the Blackfoot tribe, and so dancing about the house to the wild, angry cries of “Wooden Indian” meant something more to me than I could possibly understand at the time, but listening to it I knew that some great injustice had been done to her people. The mournful tones of “Junk” suggested that my father was not so misguided in his passion for antiques, and while we never owned a parachute or a sleeping bag for two, the belief that memories lived within the pieces he collected was not lost to me.

For many years and over many circumstances I considered my three brothers to be prodigal sons of the family, but the words of “Gospel Changes” have since suggested to me that as a firm believer in a higher power I should have been a better example of unconditional love. I hate to think it, but I know that had I been, my little brother might not have taken his life.

We all have heroes, and one of mine was a man named Pete. He taught me how to fire a muzzleloader, the art of a great campfire story, and what it meant to be a good man in spite of shortcomings. We lived in Connecticut, but his heart had never left his family’s farm down in West Virginia. I remember his eyes filling with tears and light whenever he spoke of that little plot of heavenly land. In the cassette player of his Jeep was a tape with “Take Me Home, Country Roads” recorded over and over again on both sides. I don’t recall any other song ever playing through those speakers, and to hear it now dredges up miles of memories that make me smile. I had the chance to drive through West Virginia last year, and in Pete’s memory I played the obligatory song on a loop as I passed through towns where time runs backwards in a good way.

The playlist of songs and the memories and moments they evoke continues…

My father was never a seamstress; he preferred hammer and nails over needle and thread. But I still have the shirt that he gifted to me one Christmas when I was a young boy with dreams of being like John Denver. The shirt looked just like John’s from the cover of “Spirit.” Dad probably pricked his fingers to the point of severe blood loss while embroidering the sunshine onto the shoulder of that little blue button-down shirt. It wasn’t quite finished, but I didn’t care, in my eyes it was perfect. I wore it for our family photos the following summer, and again when I was John Denver for Halloween. It took Dad more than a decade to finish sewing on that sunshine, but when he finally did, he wrapped it and gave it to me for Christmas all over again. Sunshine on my shoulder does indeed make me happy, and then again sometimes it makes me cry.

You know, I’ve always wondered just what a Berkley Woman is, and whether or not there would be hunger in my stare should I see one…

My maternal grandmother may have been a Native American, but that didn’t stop her from marrying a cowboy. My grandfather was the first in my short list of heroes. He slept with a six-shooter under his pillow until he died, wore a cowboy hat with authority, and understood what it meant to be a man. When I take his shotgun up into the mountains behind our home I can’t help but think of him, and in those moments I want nothing more than to be a cowboy, to ride the range, see the high country, and lay down my sundown in some starry field. All of these thoughts play out in my mind accompanied by John’s music, and his lyrics make me believe that my dream is not so impossible after all. Hell, I already live in a rodeo town on the side of a mountain, so the stretch to becoming a cowboy is not that far.

Yes, I live in the mountains nowadays, having left most of yesterday behind me. Every breath at altitude brings the high that John knew and sang about so well. My hope is that my children will look back and remember with fondness the paradise that we moved to when they were young, the place where eagles lived in rocky cathedrals, where they were free to shoot at empty pop bottles with their pistols, and where the days are all filled with an easy country charm. One of the greatest advantages to living in the west is that you can almost always see where you are going, even if you don’t always know where you are headed. Here in the mountains I have enjoyed the blessing of listening to God’s casual reply to my many questions, and I can’t see myself living or dying anywhere else. John’s music means that much more to me now, because I can drive through our valley and see his lyrics living all around me.

I moved to this paradise with my very own Darcy Farrow, whose voice truly is as sweet as sugar candy (most of the time). We have been married almost 21 years, pushing through a share of troubles and strife that are ours alone to know. Not long after our courtship began, Elizabeth discovered that I loved and still listened to John Denver. She later confessed that this fact further solidified her belief that I was the one for her. It does not embarrass me to say that she is my personification of Annie’s Song, and that the barely audible, comfortable sigh of contentment heard after the first line is reminiscent of the way I feel when I think of spending forever with her. I fear that should she leave this life before I do, I will be buried with her on that terrible day, because life without her is something in which I have no interest. I don’t have to experience it to know that it’s a hard life living when you’re lonely.

I started listening to John when I was just two feet high, and today I listen to him standing six feet tall. When I was five, my parents took me to see him perform. Mom still says it was the longest I have ever sat totally still, and that she marveled at how fixated I was on John as he sang songs that I had only heard amid the crackle of my father’s turntable. John’s music truly does make pictures, and for me it will always tells stories. Not one of his songs fail to transport me back through time, to moments when life looked more like a long and comfortable drive down a familiar country road than a four-lane highway congested by the heartbreak, responsibilities, and trappings of adult life.

As a child I would listen to John’s rendition of “It Amazes Me” over and over again. As the song climbed higher, louder, and faster, I would drop to all fours and buck across the living room like a wild bronco, much to the delight of my family. I have never ridden a real bronco, but that hasn't kept me free from the occasional bucking. The music to which I live my life has at times built itself into crescendos of wild wondering and untamed circumstance, and I find that I’ve gotten lost on my way, shouting “where can I hide?”

In moments such as those, I sometimes think that maybe that little boy in the sunshine-shouldered shirt turned out to be a little like John Denver after all.

In “Around and Around,” John confessed to hoping that once he was gone, others would think of him in moments when they were happy and smiling, and that the thought of him would comfort them in moments when they were crying.

I do, and it does.

Thanks John.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Luckiest Evolution

“I look like I work out, don’t I?” I ask Elizabeth.

“Sure, when you have clothes on,” my wife answers with more honesty than my ego was expecting.

A self-absorbed frown looks back at me from the large bathroom mirror. I pinch at my middle, flex my biceps, and wonder if my head would shrink were I to lose weight.

A recent video-gone-viral demonstrated just how much makeup and photoshopping go into many of the images that make it into ads and puff-piece articles on women. They re-colored skin, stretched legs, widened eyes, cleared away natural blemishes, and augmented curves. The end result was astonishing; the model looked unnatural, and the thought that she looked like one of the Thundercats occurred to me. I expected her to purr and lick the back of her hand before dragging it over her face.

The unfortunate title of the video was “Body Evolution.”

After viewing “Body Evolution,” I suggested to my wife that women should no longer be falling into the trap of unrealistic expectations, because they should know by now that nothing in print on screen is always as it appears to be. A razor thin line pressed into the soles of my feet as I assured her that her natural beauty and softness was just what my matured sense of desire and good taste needed.

I can’t recall the details of her response, because I wasn’t really listening; I’d heard it all before. “Women and girls have unrealistic expectations of beauty and fitness forced upon them at every turn, blah, blah, blah…”

Insert that self-absorbed frown here…

In addition to already having heard the blah, blah, blah, my mind was too busy traveling back in time to pay her any attention.

Stripped to my underwear, I sat atop my doctor’s vinyl torture table with my legs dangling over the side, like a toddler on a park bench. My hands were tucked awkwardly beneath my knees, and I stared down at my socks, wondering if I should have removed them. The door swung open without a warning knock, and I startled in surprise. I barely had time to sit up straight, suck in my gut, and puff up my chest to flatten out my budding moobs before the doctor crowded into the tiny room. He swung the door shut without a hello and reached for the clipboard that held what I imagined to be his male-nearing-forty checklist. He stood and read in absolute silence for several moments before acknowledging my presence with a look over his glasses.

 “Ah yes, I see. You are a mesomorph,” he noted, and then dropped onto a wheeled stool and rolled up to invade the personal space between my bare knees.

“A what?” I asked with innocent ignorance.

“A mesomorph,” he replied, his tone supporting the ignorance in my voice, but not the innocence.

“Which means..?”

“Which means you could be either fat or thin,” he bothered to answer as he began to poke at my flesh and tick boxes on his checklist.

The thought occurred to me that the paper liner to which the moist backs of my knees were stuck cared more for my well-being than he did. As a form of protest I remained silent for the remainder of the examination, except to answer his terse questions with terse answers.

Hey Doc, does my mesomorphic ass make these 34-inch waist jeans look big?

Not long after that visit, I committed to completing a round of P90x, an intense workout and eating regimen that I am convinced was required training for Spartans. For the first week I could not touch my own face because the muscles in my arms would not allow it, and over the course of those 90 days I was at times reduced to tears by wishes for the hollow carbs of a piece of white and wonderful bread, and to mindless sobbing at the sensual fantasy of devouring a candy bar. The brutal workouts, sleepless muscle-pain nights, and absence of sugars were sure to pay off however, and by day 90 I would shake the earth as I walked, making it impossible for people to notice my physique.

A couple of months into the program, someone did at last notice.

“Um, Matt, are you okay? I just thought I’d ask, because you have been looking gaunt lately. You aren’t, you know, sick, are you?” a client asked, his hand on my arm and his voice hissing the question into a whisper, the way people do when talking about cancer.

I assured him that I was fine, thanked him for noticing my weight loss, and informed him that I was working out every day and eating right for the first time in my life. I left his office divided in my thoughts; while I was delighted to know that the changes were visible, I was less than thrilled to discover that I appeared to others as though I were descending into death. The pounds I had shed were barely into the double-digits, and people were starting whisper, but not in the way I had hoped they would.

The 90 day regimen ended and I looked down at my abs in search of the promised six pack. My stomach was flatter, my body leaner, and my budding moobs had returned to being little more than nipples, but I felt like I had the first time I unwrapped a McDonald’s cheeseburger; my body didn’t look like those in the commercial. I had spent 90 days living at the very edge of my breaking point, purging my body of the everyday toxins of a wasteful life, asking the unimaginable of muscles that I wasn’t previously aware I had, and consuming an ark-floating amount of water. Committed to sacrifice and hard labor in exchange for results, I had pushed through the most difficult physical challenge that I had ever faced (excepting my vasectomy, of course). My body had shed more weight (18 pounds) in that short period of time than it had picked up in the ten years leading up to it.

I was as ripped as I had ever been, but without the movie star six pack I still felt a little bit like a failure.
Just last week, almost five years after my failure to achieve six pack status, I ate an orange. Peeling it was an exercise in patience and good faith. The thick rind resisted my efforts to separate it from the (hopefully) juicy bits (they weren’t). The orange is to me a dichotomy, and eating one makes me feel ridiculous and wasteful, because the rind is the most nutritious part, and yet we cast it aside.

The serial killer in “The Silence of the Lambs” knows what I am talking about; I bet he carefully peeled his oranges and threw away the inside, knowing the greater value of the skin.

After flossing the sinews of that dry and bitter orange out of my teeth, I ate a candy bar. The wrapper peeled away with no effort at all, and I beheld the beautiful chocolate temptress in all of her naked glory resting in the palm of my hand. No need for photoshopping here. After a brief and sensual look, she melted in my mouth, leaving my emotions at odds; I was satisfied, yet still wanted more.

That night my children laughed and Elizabeth shook her head as I stood in our kitchen and ranted about the ease with which I could devour anything that was sure to eventually kill me, and my frustration at the work involved when it comes to consuming food that was sure to prolong my time on Earth.

I pointed at our new (and expensive) juicer. “Sure, it only takes two minutes to make juice, but you spend the rest of the day cleaning the damn thing,” I whined.

It didn’t help that I had read an online article written by an “expert” that vilified just about anything I am inclined to put in my mouth, and even went so far as to include some things that I’m not, namely salad, yogurt, and granola. Why are we as a race so obsessed with proving ourselves wrong in everything we do? From food consumption to carbon footprints to belief systems, we revel in discovering our own futility.

I will most likely die from a heart attack induced by the labor-intensive peeling of a piece of fruit.

Ryan Gosling plays the lead in one of my favorite movies. His character lives a simple life guided by a strict set of rules that not only protect him, but also preserve him. He says very little throughout the film, but his silence carries the weight of a tragic back-story that we aren’t ever told but think we have pieced together, and because of that we can forgive, envy, and eventually join in his detachment. He exudes cool with every movement, from the simple act of hoisting of a bag filled with groceries to that of donning his white satin jacket complete with golden scorpion embroidered on the back. His character is something I want to be but never will, and so after watching him drive away into the night, I turn off the television and return to my normal, average, wonder-what-the-next-day-holds (besides cleaning out the damn juicer) life.

In a high definition world where Ryan Gosling’s marble-cut chest exudes passion, Bradley Cooper’s piercing blue eyes beckon, and Brad Pitt’s king-of-the-jungle hair whispers invitations to fantasy on the wind, why do we assume that only women and girls suffer from body image issues?

In another life I should have been a comedian, but not because I believe myself to be a funny man, capable of standing in front of large crowds that are going to be angry if I don’t make them laugh. Comedians are rarely the epitome of perfect fitness and clear complexion, blessed with brooding eyes and keen fashion sense. Most comedians are ugly, pasty-skinned, balding introverts that take self-loathing and bad habits to Olympic levels. They incorporate their flaws, fat, and general apathy about being average into a running monologue that sparks both laughter and an internal stocktaking of life in their audience. They allow us a safe place to laugh at ourselves while nodding our heads in understanding agreement. I should have been a comedian because their self-abusing narcissistic existence is a goal within my reach. In fact, (like most of us) I am already there.

43-year-old white male standing at 6 feet and weighing 195 pounds (after a shower to wash away excess dirt, dead skin cells, and too much hair gel) seeks affirmation as an attractive member of the human race.

I can’t even grow a real beard, but I like my balls cancer-free, and so for No-Shave November I went without a haircut. This has not been easy for me, because I like to keep my thick and unruly hair high and tight. Haircuts have been like cheap therapy after a childhood of at-home haircuts from my father that often left me looking like the fifth Beatle (the bowl-style mop-top Beatles). I hated those haircuts, and it took leaving the country to live in a third-world corner of the world at the age of nineteen to get my hair cut professionally for the first time.

I have tried to grow my hair long before, but my patience wears thin as it starts to tickle my ears and cause the back of my neck to itch. In addition to the discomfort, when left to its own devices without gel, it looks like a wig made from roadkill. It is a true blessing, I know, the fact that I have retained so much hair when so many men my age are balding, but what good is an overabundance of hair when it won’t flutter in the wind and make women shiver as it sweeps across my soulful eyes?

The other night Elizabeth and I saw a movie that ended with an advice-dispensing voice over from the main character. He admonished us to live every day as if we had made the choice to live it a second time in order to enjoy the little things, people, and moments that made it unique, happy, and special. His advice was accompanied by a familiar song about being the luckiest, and a montage of blissful family moments.

As I listened to this man and watched his happy moments fade to black on the big screen, I began to believe that it was possible; I could live every day with my eyes open to the things that made it worth living again. My relationship with my kids could be a never ending exchange of thoughts, advice, experience, and love, and my time with Elizabeth could forever be fresh and new, with spontaneous outbursts of laughter, dancing, passion, and joy.

The following night I climbed out of bed at 11:30 in order to go and retrieve our daughter from another one of her many social activities. Elizabeth looked across the room at me as I donned my jeans.

“Kid, get a haircut; it doesn’t look cool,” she said to me in her direct but loving way.

“This from a woman whose bed head makes her look like the love child of Gene Wilder and Phyllis Diller,” should have been my witty comeback, but I was too busy nursing my bruised ego.

Oh well, tomorrow’s the same day.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Bon Vivant

"Man, this woman is going to be your wife forever!" Alex almost shouts, pointing at Elizabeth.

I grin, and look over at my forever-wife. Elizabeth is fanning her denimed butt over the flames of a gas fireplace. She shakes her head in dismissal of our conversation about love, life without passion, and NORAD. The mock dismissal is forgiven when she smiles wide at us.

Us: Alex Dezen, lead singer of The Damnwells, and me, author of "West of Independence," standing together on the back patio of a stranger's house.

"I'm singing in my sleep, driving across Texas with you..."

Surreal doesn't cut it, while epic is just stupid and exhausted.

Comfortable; that's what this is.

Ryan steps through the sliding glass door, a red cup of warmth in one hand, two pieces of pizza in the other. Nazi-hunting-war-corresponding-tour-managing-sidekicking buddy to Alex, Ryan is more than a character. This self professed "bon vivant" carries knowledge and experience on constant offer, and he underlines all of it with a humor-colored highlighter.

"What are we talking-whoa, drop it like it's hot!" Ryan interrupts his own question when he notices Elizabeth waving her tush over the fire.

"You look so good..."

My head feels light, but it isn't the altitude.

To say that this is a moment long in coming would be a lie. I had never bothered to imagine the chance to personally thank Alex for keeping me company on my drive across Texas in 2009, my little brother's ashes resting in the back seat.

Ryan is arguing with Elizabeth; he thinks she has long legs.

Alex has just played a private show for us. Every song had spread a new layer of goosebumps over the tiny crowd. Emotion arced across the room, interrupted only by the banter, praise, and laughter shared in between songs.

And then he sang "Texas."

A sleepy poem about love and distance, put to music made for counting highway mile markers, "Texas" is a song that sneaks up on me and puts a comfortable pressure on my chest. By its end I am miles from home, the one that I love most in the world sleeping in the passenger seat as we drive through the night across the flat, wide, thought-provoking expanse of the southwest.

"I could stay another day with you, stall the winter's pain 'til June..."

The song is as much a part of "West of Independence" as the paper (or pixels) upon which it is printed. It not only journeyed with me across Texas, but across page after page of the writing process as well. As Alex began to play it, I held my phone up to record the moment. A few lyrics in, and I couldn't hold the phone steady; my arm shook and my eyes clouded. As a lump filled my throat, I turned off the phone, choosing to live the moment rather than record it.

And to drive across Texas one more time.

Thanks Alex.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Missed Moment

“Two bobs left, two bobs right, then one left, one right, one left, and then it starts all over again, but from right to left,” Jared explained.

I watched, dizzied as my little brother bobbed his head from side to side in perfect rhythm.
“And you're always telling me that it's my turn to move, when I wonder what could make the needle jump the groove,” Amiee sang to the beat.

Jared’s head danced while I waited for the right moment to join in, like a little girl watching for her cue to leap between whirling double-dutch jump ropes.

My head bobbed left twice, right twice, and then back to the right for a single bob, just as Jared had instructed. I was feeling pretty good about my chances, and went left.

For two bobs…

Jared laughed as I tried to correct and catch up to his easy going movements. It was too late; my head frenzied back and forth in a seizure-like loop as Aimee sang on.

“Acting steady always ready to defend your fears, what's the matter with the truth, did I offend your ears?”

“Kid, it’s not that hard,” Jared said.

“Maybe for you it isn’t, but my head has a mind of its own,” I replied in jesting defense
“Just follow me,” my brother said, ignoring my protest. His head began to bob.

Aimee ignored us both. “Now I could talk to you till I'm blue in the face, But we still would arrive at the very same place, with you running around and me out of the race…”

I followed Jared’s example, and he nodded with encouragement as my head bobbed for one complete, correct, and rhythmic cycle.

“You got it!”

I grinned, and the multitasking center in my brain flickered under the sudden load. My head threatened calamity with a feint to the left, but just then a synapse fired, sending my head to the right, back in sync with Jared’s.

We spent the rest of the afternoon driving around Seattle to carpet-cleaning appointments, rewinding the tape and playing the song over and over again, our heads bobbing in unison to the rhythm of Aimee’s counsel.

“You're like a sleepwalking man, it's a danger to wake you, even when it is apparent where your actions will take you,” Aimee sang.

"That's just what you are..."


Happy Birthday, Jared. I hope you know that I am no longer a sleepwalking man; that's just not who I am...anymore.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Soldiers In The Water

I’d swim through shit for my kids, just like Joe.

My eyes are cloudy again. I don’t cry as much as I used to, especially in public. I miss it sometimes, the naked rush of desperate grief that sent me so many times to my knees in the cereal aisle at the store, in between the stacks at the library, in the darkness of a movie theater, even in church. Grief and I have at long last come to terms; she is allowed to take control in quiet moments when we are alone in my closet, my car, or the shower, while I maintain my composure (for the most part) in public places.

I sit in the rec center hot tub and watch my youngest march off the high dive. He mimes a moment of confusion as his long walk down the short blue pier comes to a sudden end. He windmills his arms and legs in imitation of a cartoon character before making a splash. I smile and raise a thumbs up salute as he climbs out of the pool and looks my way for validation.

He walks on the verge of running on his was over to the ladder. The lifeguard ignores him in favor of monitoring the three chubby teenagers wrestling in the shallow end.

I sit in the hot water and try not to think about Jadin, Joe, and Jared.

A few jumps off the high dive later Solomon makes his way over to the tub.

“Dad, come play with me in the river,” he pleads.

I look across to the shallow play pool. It isn’t crowded, but that doesn’t mean that someone’s three-year-old hasn’t pooped in it. I don’t want to play; I want to sit and stew in the hot salt water, allowing the emotion to melt out of my pores rather than my eyes.

“Dad, come on, you promised,” my son reminds me.

I put on a smile and climb out of the tub. Hot water drips from my body, and I shudder in the sudden cold. Solomon jumps into the playpool and swims for the river. For him the water is clear, clean, and warm, but all I can picture is dark sludge, diapers, and band-aids.

Jadin, Joe, and Jared.

My feet are at the edge now. Solomon looks back, expecting me to be there, right behind him. He wants to play soldiers-in-the-water, a game where we take turns dragging each other against the current, like a soldier pulling his wounded comrade through gunfire.

“Dad..,” he says, his tone full of playful warning.

I suck it up and slip into the sludge head-first in a low-profile dive. I spin onto my back and kick my way underwater, towards my son.

An arm wraps around my chest as I break the surface. “I’ve gotcha, man, just stay with me!” Solomon gasps, the effort of pulling my large frame against the current already punishing his lungs.

I lay on my back, with my legs and arms stretched out to drag through the water. The ceiling high above passes by slowly.

“You’re gonna be okay,” my son assures me.

 I close my eyes to picture Joe and his son Jadin, and their bittersweet reunion.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Taking A Little Off The Top

"I've felt so tired ever since I got my brain tumor that I just enjoy sitting in my big chair and watching the world pass by."

The hair stylist's words settle over my chest like the heavy lead apron at a dentist's office. I sit on the waiting bench and dig deep for some perspective, my eyes exploring the scuffed wooden floor of the local barber and beauty shop.

The biblical Samson and I are polar opposites. His aversion to barbers gave him a supernatural strength, while for me a trip to the chair never fails to provide the same. My week had been a rough one, full of defeat and desperation to the point of dark thoughts and anger. I need to hold my head up again and face the world, and since losing a few ounces up top always seems to tip the scales, here I was.

I look up from the floor to watch the stylist apply small strips of tin foil covered in what looks like paper mache to her client’s long dark hair. She smiles through her troubles, and somehow my hair doesn’t feel so heavy anymore.

I turn and watch the barber work on the thinning hair of a man who is clearly no stranger to hard work in the sun. His tanned head pokes up through the light-colored drape like a leather whack-a-mole.
The door swings open, drawing my attention. Behind the swing walks a man wearing a thick canvas jacket, work-worn blue jeans, and boots that have never seen the inside an office building.

“Well, looky here, it’s the rich and famous,” the whack-a-mole declares.

“Says the dumb and poor,” counters the man in the canvas jacket as he closes the door. He turns to the coat rack and shrugs out of his jacket. I spot a company logo bordered with the words “We Know Dirt” in dark embroidered lettering on the back.

“You too good to wave to me nowadays?” asks The Mole, a tease in his tone.

“Waddya mean?” Canvas says, sitting down in a chair by the door.

“I’ve driven past you a bunch of times, honking my horn and waving, but you don’t wave back, you just look at me like I’m a bastard calf!”

“So that’s you driving all over the valley in that great big, shiny new truck and honking like an idiot?”

“Yep, that’s me,” The Mole admits.

“Shit, why buy a new horse when the old one’s still riding? ‘Course, you wake up one morning and the old one’s dead on the ground, and you’ve got yourself a problem,” Canvas chuckles.

“Is that your truck I’ve been seeing parked all day up near the old church in Wanship?” asks The Mole.

“Might be,” Canvas says cautiously.

“You got a girlfriend up that way or something?”

“You’re looking pretty thin on top there, old timer,” Canvas says, evading the question and then laughing at his crafty retaliation.

“You going shootin’ today?” asks The Mole.

“Naw, not unless I buy some lead. The other day I had a mind to go, but discovered that I’m outta ammo,” Canvas replies casually.

From there the conversation moves on to hunting, high school sports, and men with names like Shorty and Tiny.

By the time my butt hits the barber chair my face aches from laughing and my troubles, though not gone, are forgotten.

Samson should have had his hair cut in Kamas.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The King's Vampire

One of my teachers in high school claimed to have been babysitter to a young Stephen King. He told us that even as a boy, the best-selling author of horror was a "weirdo." I wasn't completely convinced that his claim to have known Mr. King was true because he was drunk most days of the week, and therefore spent the better part of class time wandering between moods of nostalgia, indifference, and belligerence, and lecturing us accordingly.

I read a lot as a teenager, but I didn't read any of King’s books. The made-for-TV adaptations of his works were a series of cheesy disappointments that didn't send me running for the library to check out an armful of them to read. It wasn't until a vampire drove Elizabeth into my arms that I took an interest in the "weirdo's" macabre scribblings.

The first movie Elizabeth and I watched together as we were dating was Disney’s animated version of “The Jungle Book.” Not exactly a roll-around-on-the-couch-and-make-out flick, but more a sit-close-and-hold-her-hand-to-prove-that-you-would-make-a-kind-and-sensitive-husband-and-father movie. (It worked.)

The next movie that we watched together was suggested by Elizabeth herself, with the disclaimer that it had always frightened her to a thrill. I began to realize that she wasn't anything like the girls I had been running with, and looked forward to sitting beside her when she got scared.

“Salem’s Lot” is another of King’s TV adaptations, and although it is dripping with cheese, if you watch it in the dark after the sun goes down, it leaves a mark on your soul. (You’ll please excuse the pun; David Soul of Starsky and Hutch fame stars as the hero.) There are a few terrifying moments spent with the vampire, but the best is when he confronts the family’s priest, who has come to talk sense into the teenage son that believes that a vampire has come to their small town. Moments after the mother tells her son that “nightmares seem real,” the creature rises from the floor like a black curtain of death hoisted by Satan himself. The pale undead skin of the vampire’s face stretches tight over his ancient skull, his eyes glow bright yet lifeless, and his fangs appear as a work of disgusting, terrible, yellow beauty.

Elizabeth sought shelter in my puny arms, and I have loved that vampire ever since.

After watching “Salem’s Lot,” I read a lot of Stephen King’s books. I liked most of them, and learned a greater appreciation for him as a writer. Prolific, yes, terrifying, yes, twisted, most definitely; the drunken declarations of my High School teacher seemed very plausible. Stephen King was most certainly a weirdo, but he was a weirdo that I could admire.

Years later, Elizabeth began to tire of my own constant and vocal wishing to someday become a writer. The trouble was that I almost never wrote, and when I did it never amounted to more than a page of dreadful musings. Having no writing discipline, I had no claim to the title of writer.

That all changed in a moment, however, on the day that Elizabeth said to me, “Would you please either start writing, or shut up about becoming a writer!?”

Her words were not harsh in their honest delivery, but still I felt hurt and humiliated for a moment, before realizing that she was right. I didn't start writing, but I did take to thinking more about the actual writing process and promised myself that I would start writing very soon. I just needed more time.

But I wasn't allowed any more time. Elizabeth didn't stop with her demand that I pen up or shut up. She found a local writing group that met every month at the Wiggin Memorial Library in Stratham, New Hampshire.

And then she had the nerve to make me join it.

I wrote a story about "durt" and the group loved it, in spite of it being almost fifteen pages of terrible writing. They voiced their praise along with a few edits, and in one hit the writing group became a drug. I couldn't wait for the month to pass so that I could get my next fix. I started to write almost every day, even if it was just a few lines at a time.

Still, Elizabeth didn't stop there. She also bought me a book; a book about writing, written by Stephen King. More a memoir than an instructional text on how to become a writing legend, the book put my dream into perspective and inspired me to keep at it. I was encouraged to learn that Stephen King had not just fallen out of the black sky at midnight with an armful of pre-written best-sellers and a fat stack of cash in his backpack.

No, he didn't succeed out of nowhere; he labored at it. He wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And while he wrote he lived, and while he lived he worked, suffered, loved, laughed, cried, survived, and went a little crazy. But through it all, he wrote. Even after being hit by a car and suffering debilitating injuries that left many unsure as to his continued success as a best-selling powerhouse, he wrote.

So I kept on writing. And while I wrote, I lived, and while I lived, I suffered, loved, laughed-you get the idea.

Then Jared died.

So I wrote. And went a little crazy.

Crazy enough that it came time to move. We needed to find some happy in a new and unfamiliar place, a place where we could drive for miles without passing the dark forest where we had found Jared. But halfway through our move west, with houses nearly sold and bought, I started to panic at the thought of leaving a successful business, a beloved neighborhood, and a number of dear friends for a new life which promised no certainty other than challenge. Elizabeth's response over the phone while house-hunting 2,500 miles away left me with no doubt that we were doing the right thing.

“If we don’t go for it now, we never will,” she declared, adding, “I want you to come to Oakley and take a break. No job, no worries, just writing,” she said.

“But-“ I began to worry at once.

“No buts!” Elizabeth sliced my worry in half with a gentle shout. “We’ll make it work. I’ll find a couple of jobs if I have to. Enough already; you need to finish this book! If you don’t finish it now, you won’t ever finish it, and then you’ll always wonder if you could have done it, and so many people will never hear Jared's story,” she concluded.

So we moved to Oakley. I finished the book. It’s called “Westof Independence.” That’s it in the picture, sitting on a library shelf beside one of Stephen King's.

So I write, but not to have my book(s) beside Stephen King’s. I write because I love to, even when it’s hard to. I write because it gives so much back to me, even when the readers are few and the sales are slow. I write because my little brother Jared died of loneliness, and I feel terrible at how I treated him, believing that he would always come back to hug me and hang out with me in spite of my abuse, self-righteousness, and callous indifference to his suffering. I write because I want my kids to know that no matter how impossible your dream, you have to try, because if you don’t try you have already failed.

And I write because a vampire chased a beautiful woman into my arms.

Thank-you Mr. King.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Affirmation Repayment Plan

I do not belong here, and these are not my people. They don’t want to read my book, and they are too wrapped up in their own moments to share one with me. How did I let Elizabeth talk me into this?

These were just a few of my nervous thoughts as I sat behind my assigned table at the Affirmation conference for LBGT Mormons and their families this past Saturday. Tucked back into a corner, further away from the foot traffic than most ware peddlers would want to be, the seclusion of my location was quickly becoming a comfort. I watched as gays and lesbians passed by on their way to workshops and speakers that were surely far more informative and experienced than myself and what I had to offer. Most of them were well-dressed men with perfect hair and broad smiles, and all of them appeared to be content, even confident, as they walked gaily past my table without so much as a glance.

There were a few that stopped (perhaps out of pity) to look at the photos of Jared, the Tribune article, and the reviews that Elizabeth had printed out and slipped into brand new clear acrylic display frames. I sat with my Mac on my lap, ticking away at what I hope will be my next book, trying to look legitimate and qualified as an author while feeling crippled with inadequacy. Unlike my father, who could sell life insurance to the already dead, I am not a good salesman.

I got a bump around 10:00 am when Carol Lynn Pearson, who was speaking at the conference, came and met me. She has been reading “West of Independence,” and to have such a giant among writers and poets hug me and tell me that I was doing a good work was rewarding, a real dream come true.

But soon after Carol’s visit the morning was dragging on, and were it not for my two fellow table-bound peddlers David Moore from Safe and Sound and fellow author Jeff Laver and the deep discussion we shared about so many things including God, gays, and redemption, I would have lost all hope, gathered up my wares, and left for good.

At last Elizabeth returned from the “Out of the Darkness Walk,” which she had done in memory of Jared. With her she brought me some sustenance, and not just in the form of food. She has long been my buoy, keeping my pessimistic head above water when all I see about me are heavy seas and wind driven rains. We eventually sold all but two of the copies we had brought with us, and handed out several “West of Independence” information cards. Things are always better with Elizabeth beside me.

The evening events started with a social hour, and the large room quickly filled to capacity with happy, smiling, eating gays and lesbians, some with parents and siblings, others with partners and friends, and still others with their adopted children. Elizabeth and I sat amidst the cheerful banter and watched as people connected and reconnected all around us. I felt a bit like Mr. Scrooge looking through frosted windows at happy Christmas families, wishing to be a part of the celebration but somehow unable to knock on the glass and selfishly draw their attention.

The social hour ended, and a testimony meeting began. For those not acquainted with the LDS faith, this is a meeting that is typically held once a month within each congregation. It is a chance for those who feel so inclined and inspired to stand up and share what they know and feel and believe to be true.  In this particular testimony meeting, I sat and listened as people stood and wept, overcome with emotion in a moment that for many was the first time they had felt able to bear their testimony in years. (Many gays and lesbians have been dis-fellowshipped or even excommunicated from the church, while others fear isolation should they stand and share their true selves with fellow members.)

I wanted nothing more during that hour than to stand and share Jared’s story, and to ask them for his forgiveness by proxy. My back began to ache with the stress of it, and I stood in order to pace at the back of the room. As a young man from South Africa stood to share his personal convictions and hope for the future, I felt crash over me a powerful wave of embarrassment at the realization that I have many times taken for granted the opportunities I have to worship, to learn, to serve, and most of all, to fit in at church. Rather than take time away from those that had been given the rare opportunity to stand and share their feelings, I chose to pace at the back and wish away a past that I cannot change.

During the very moving testimony of a man from South Africa, I recalled a particular moment of my past that has haunted me for more than two decades, and felt a tear-filled compulsion to send a letter of apology to my older brother.

The moment went like this: My brother (I call him Harrison in the book) and I were arguing about something quite forgettable in the upstairs hallway of our home in Connecticut. I had recently discovered the fact that he had “decided” to be gay. Pride and anger dictated that I had to win the argument, and so I uttered with great disdain a word that I knew would cut him to the quick.


Cut him to the quick it did; I saw defeat and despair in my brother’s eyes. Over the next several years my behavior towards my two gay brothers followed suit.

Standing and pacing at the back of that testimony meeting, I realized that I had never truly apologized to Harrison for that moment. I left the meeting and made for my table of solitude.

The evening program was about to begin, and people began to once again pass by the peddler’s tables. A woman approached my display, and after a moment stated that she would like to buy a copy.

“Do you have change?” She asked, pulling a fifty from her bra.

“There’s something about a woman that keeps money in her bra,” I remarked.

“Can you trust such a woman?” She asked.

“I’d probably trust her more for it,” I replied while counting out her change, grateful for the light-hearted moment.

I carried the last copy of my book into the large conference room and sat beside Elizabeth. We began the meeting with a standing congregational hymn entitled “The Spirit of God.” It was loud, and it was proud! I began to feel a comfortable welcome creep into my veins.

A man wearing a Hawaiian lei stood at the pulpit and recited a blessing in his island tongue. He then spoke about his first Affirmation conference some thirty-plus years ago, and the immediate feeling of belonging that he had felt for the very first time as a gay Mormon. It was very moving, but he didn't stop there. He then remembered and spoke the names of some old friends that had since passed away, and invited anyone who wished to stand and speak the names of loved ones gone but not forgotten. Without so much as a hint of trepidation, I stood in turn and with what I hoped was enough conviction and power to mask the complete sadness I felt at having to do so said aloud, “I remember my little brother Jared.”

As many others stood to remember loved ones, it became clear to me that Jared was not alone; he was not the only one who had taken his life after suffering rejection, confusion, and depression because he was gay.

The feeling of comfortable welcome was more than creeping now, it was rushing.

The program continued, and a woman named Judy Finch spoke to us about her own trials and joys of being a mother and grandmother to gay boys and men. It was of some comfort to hear that her own initial reaction to such a challenge had been similar to mine, but the greater comfort came upon hearing that time, faith, experience, and love had eventually won the day. She is now a pillar among the people, a champion for the good cause, and a true example of loving motherhood. A remarkable woman indeed.

The evening continued, and Steve Young (yes, that Steve Young) spoke. Being a Cowboys fan, I can still respect all that the man has accomplished on the field, but I honestly had no idea that he was such a true champion off the field. He spoke candidly about his own fears, his own weaknesses, and his own trials, and how he has learned to turn them into strengths. He spoke of “throwing without knowing,” which was something he had to do many times because at 6 feet (and three quarters) he was much shorter than many other great quarterbacks, and was therefore unable to see his receivers. He confessed that one of his greatest moments was hearing a stadium filled with opposing fans settle into silence as he lay underneath hundreds of pounds of defensive players; the pass he had thrown in faith as he went down had been caught to win the game. He was humble, honest, and hilarious, and I admire him for the good work that he does.

And then Barb Young, Steve’s wife spoke. Beautiful does not describe her, inside or out; she stood up and glowed. Her love and spirit were tangible; they seemed to fill the room. I somewhat irreverently pictured her warmth piercing the hearts of everyone in attendance, like the lightning at the end of “Raider’s of the Lost Ark” but in a good and kindly way. She moved us all from laughter to tears and back again, sharing her deep feelings of love, admiration, and hope for her beloved LGBT family.  What a pinnacle moment, to hear her share her convictions and love with such energy and sincerity.

To conclude the meeting we stood and held hands while singing the children's song “Love One Another.” I held Elizabeth’s hand and felt her tremble when the tears came. I thought back to growing up beside my sweet little brother and how as we grew older I had not lived the words of the song, in spite of a constant self-assurance that in rejecting him I was in fact, loving him. I bowed my head under the weight of a familiar sadness, lost in grief for a moment.

And then I looked up and around the room. I saw hundreds of people holding hands and singing words of love with powerful yet gentle conviction. My eyes were suddenly wet with happy tears, and I felt sure that Jared knew my heart. I felt sure that I belonged there in that moment, singing words that had never before meant so much to me.

The meeting ended with a prayer of hope, and people began to mill about and chat before reluctantly saying goodbye. I watched a mob descend upon the Youngs. They were all smiles and hugs, posing for photos and chatting quite comfortably with everyone who approached them. Elizabeth and I sat there for a few minutes, wondering if we were going to do the same, when we saw a break in the wall of people that had rushed to greet and thank Judy Finch. We stood and made our way over, hoping to thank her for her words. I carried under my arm the last copy “West of Independence,” with the thought of possibly gifting it to Barb Young should I suddenly become courageous enough to approach her.

Judy Finch was an absolute doll. She took our hands and thanked us for being there, and we traded kind words and smiles before she asked what had brought us to the conference. I shared with her our story and told her about "West of Independence." She saw it under my arm, took it from me gently, and asked if she could buy it. I gifted it to her immediately. She asked for a way to contact me after she had finished reading it, to let me know what she thought. We said our thanks and goodbyes, but before leaving I had to share one more thought with her.

“I’m not gay,” I said, “but I have to say it; your hair is fabulous! You are a silver fox!” And she is.

We milled about the room some more, and I finally met John Gustav-Wrathall, who was a source of inspiration and comfort in the months following Jared’s death. His powerful testimony and endless service to others are benevolent forces to be reckoned with, and his words and faith blessed our lives in a time of great trial. I am sure that I was unable to communicate that effectively to him, but perhaps he will read this someday and know what he has meant to Elizabeth and to me.

Elizabeth then sent me over to meet a woman named Wendy Williams Montgomery while she stayed put in order to meet Barb Young. I walked shyly across the room and stood alone outside the circle of people that were hugging, laughing, and taking photos with a woman whose love for her gay Mormon son roars like a lion. After a few minutes I gathered up my courage and reached out to touch her shoulder.

“My wife sent me over here to meet you,” I said. “She says that you read my book after meeting her on Facebook.”

She had read it, and she loved it. I was in a weird way honored to hear her tell me that it moved her to tears. She pulled her husband Thomas over to meet me.

“Remember that book that I read, the one that made me bawl my eyes out? He wrote it,” she said by way of introduction to a man with whom I can relate in more ways than one, and hope to get to know better one day.

We chatted away like old friends, and I loved them both in an instant. Elizabeth made her way over for a hug and some happy conversation, and we took a photo together. They are special people; their courage as parents is infectious, and they will long serve as an example of unconditional love.

From there Elizabeth and I moved closer to Steve Young. The crowd around him was much smaller now, comprised of just a few men.

“How was Barb?” I asked, while waiting for a window.

“She was sweet, I am glad that I met her,” Elizabeth admitted.

“Screw it, I’m doing this,” I finally said, making my way over to shake Steve’s hand.

And to tell him that I am a Cowboys fan.

(Personal Note: when meeting a Super Bowl MVP and star quarterback, there is no need to inform him that you are not a fan…)

I recovered quickly by telling him that my Uncle Freddie “The Giant” had been a huge Forty-Niners fan.
And then I went in for the hug. Yes, I hugged Steve Young without warning.

“Hey look, six feet tall,” I then said like an idiot, waving my hand over both our heads.

I am pretty certain that Elizabeth made in that moment a conscious decision to keep me clear of heroes and celebrities.

But she did let me meet one more, and I am grateful. I walked over towards Barb Young with confidence, and then melted into a six foot tower of warm candle wax as I approached her. I felt like an idiot, out of place and naked. I stepped forward nonetheless, and was greeted by her dynamic, even explosive smile.

“I just wanted to thank you for your example,” I think I said.

She said something in reply, but my ears were burning with red-hot intensity as they often do when I am nervous, and so I can’t be sure of what she said.

I managed to tell her that I was like her friend, a former “sign-pounder.” In her talk, Barb had told the story of her Mormon friend from California that had pounded a “Yes on Prop 8” sign into her front yard. This sign pounder had subsequently learned a valuable lesson of love from her lesbian neighbors when she came to them literally on her knees and weeping to ask for their forgiveness when Prop 8 passed. They had held her close, forgiven her, and told her “all that matters is this moment.”

I told Barb about Jared’s suicide, my great shame, and my hope for redemption through “West of Independence.” Her reaction was unforgettable; she took my face in both her hands, her eyes conveying an empathy that I have not often seen in others.

Tears welled in my eyes as she said, “All that matters is this moment.”

We shared a hug, and I thanked her. I walked over to Elizabeth, and was at once welcomed into yet another happy conversation with friends that I hadn't yet met.

And then it struck me.

I had started out that morning feeling alone, unwanted, and afraid, surrounded by strangers that belonged with each other. I had watched them, envious at the comfortable way that they gathered together in a purpose that they loved and in which they believed. The isolation that I had experienced was but a fraction of what these same people often felt whenever they dared cross the threshold of their local Mormon churches in order to worship, learn, and grow.

I was lucky; it had only taken a few hours for me to be accepted, welcomed, loved, and taught by these wonderful people, while they have waited for years to enjoy the same from a church that they patiently love. And their wait goes on. I felt like a thief, having taken from them more than I think is possible to repay.

But I have to try, because all that matters is this moment.